Sunday, June 21, 2015

The Matanuska Valley Colony

The Colony Inn, Palmer
The towns of Palmer and Wasilla are pleasant, interesting places to visit.  Both towns are modern but have preserved their pioneer history.  Located in the Matanuska and Susitna valley, the area is collectively referred to as the Mat-Su Valley vicinity.  Palmer was established about 1916 as a railway station on the Matanuska Branch.  In 1935 Palmer became the site of an unusual experiment in U.S. history.  Franklin Roosevelt in his first year of office planned an agricultural colony in Alaska to help farmers who had been hurt by the Great Depression and Dust Bowl.  Social workers picked 200 families, mostly from Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota to join the colony; many of their descendents still live in the Mat-Su valley area.  

Colony House Museum, Palmer
The Matanuska Colony Project provided not only farms, but schools, administration buildings, and homes.  A cooperative association was formed in 1939 to manage the farm processing and distribution programs.  The cooperative ran a complex that included a trading post, creamery, and warehouse in addition to other businesses.  
Colony House Museum
We had the pleasure of staying in the Colony Inn, which was the dormitory for the complex.  The historic Trading Post now serves as a Pub-Restaurant.  Many of the colony homes still stand, but unfortunately the creamery was destroyed.  A warehouse, also remaining, was used for feed, seed, and fertilizer while the basement was used for produce.  
Colony Trading Post, Palmer
It was here that vegetables were sorted, weighed, and packed for distribution.  Dairy products like milk and ice cream, which won national honors in the 1950’s, were given the Matanuska Maid label.  The cooperative eventually disbanded in 1985.  We also enjoyed the town of Wasilla and were surprised to see popular chain retail stores and restaurants along with new housing developments.  Thanks to the completion of the George Parks Highway, Wasilla has become a suburb of Anchorage, while still preserving its pioneer past.  
Wasilla 1917 Train Station
Wasilla began as a station on the Alaska Railroad about 1917 and became a supply center for gold mines near Hatcher Pass.  Many miners who came to the area for fortune ended up becoming homesteaders.  While in Wasilla, we visited the 1917 Train Station and the Dorothy Page Museum, a collection of eight preserved historical buildings, including a barn, blacksmith shop, store, and several cabins.  
Nels Larson Blacksmith Shop, Wasilla
Dorothy Page was instrumental in reviving dog sledding competitions and creating the famous Alaska Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race of today, a 1,049 mile trek across the State.  
Shorty Gustafson Historic Barn, Wasilla
She was asked to come up with an event to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the purchase of Alaska and the historic Iditarod Trail that passed through Wasilla and Knik seemed to be a perfect stage.  In the early days transportation, news, and supplies in the Alaskan Bush were had by dog sled teams.  
1917 One-Room School House & Bell
Races of an earlier time declined and sleds were replaced by snowmachines in the 1960’s.  Joe Redington, who did search and rescue for the U.S. air Force, had also been lobbying to make the Iditarod Trail a National Historic Trail.  Thanks to both Page and Redington, the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is the largest sled dog race in the World.

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