There Is A New Day And This Is It! The Matanuska Valley Colony Project


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In the depths of the depression many families found themselves marooned in urban areas without resources or employment.  These people were deemed “stranded populations,” completely reliant upon government relief programs.   President Roosevelt through his New Deal created an administration named the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA).  FERA led a resettlement program that moved these stranded populations into areas in which they could reside and support their families.  The goal of the Resettlement Administration was to give these families the tools and chance to get off of government relief and reclaim their independence.  It was thought that money would be saved through these projects by putting an end to the endless relief cycle as well as by providing jobs for other unemployed Americans by hiring them to help in constructing the colonies.

 The Matanuska Colony was one such project that moved 201 families from the cutover region of Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin to the Matanuska Valley in Alaska.  The cutover region was known for the devastation caused by lumber companies who totally cleared all the timber in the area.  Many families in this area were completely destitute.  When word of the project got out, thousands of families wrote to the White House pleading for the opportunity to go to Alaska.  When the Matanuska Valley Colony project was approved in March 1935, it was decided that only families from this cutover region would be selected, partially due to the similarity in climate conditions as well as farming styles to the Matanuska Valley.  Investigative case workers reviewed thousands of families and selected colonists on the “basis of vigor, self-reliance, familiarity with hardships and hard work, and their adaptability to climate conditions” (Williams Collection Letter from Harry Hopkins to John N. Garner, President of the Senate June 24, 1935). These families were also selected due to their pioneer-like spirit as well as their supposed interest in a new life.   In May 1935 two shipments of families headed to Alaska; the federal government paid for their transportation as well as 2000 pounds of their personal goods to be shipped to Palmer, Alaska.  Alongside the families the government sent transient workers from California to help build the colony alongside the colonists.  
By the time the first group of families reached the colony the transient workers had only been in the valley for four days before.  A tent city was created for the families to live in while the valley could be cleared of its thick woods. However, the short time period between the arrival of the workers and that of the families created issues.  Not even the tent cities were finished in time for the colonists’ arrival; thus, colonists were bunched into the few tents that were completed.  After the rest of the families arrived in the valley the men gathered and pulled for 40 acre lots throughout the valley.  Each family was to work to clear their land, build their home, and begin gardening as soon as possible.  Alongside this, they were required to help their neighbors in the same quest.  The work was hard, the living conditions were poor, and mosquitoes swarmed the valley. 
These conditions proved to be too harsh for some of the families that arrived in Palmer.  By July of the same year twenty-five families had returned to their homes.  Some claimed they were misled by the case workers, others said they were not well enough for the rough life they saw within the two short months they were in the colony.   Still others claimed the colony was not progressing at the promised rate that it was supposed to.   Other hardships were faced in a very short time period by the colonists.  Within weeks of their arrival a measles epidemic spread throughout the colony.  At that time there were no permanent houses, nor a hospital for the sick.  Although very few died, the event was disheartening to the new colonists.  Administrative confusion was also a cause for concern in the early days of the colony.  It was not well known which direction needed to be taken, supplies were arriving late, and no one knew who to report to; so by June the project was already three weeks behind schedule.  A three weeks delay was a very large issue; the permanent homes needed to be built before the short summer season was over. 
Eventually wells were dug, roads made, houses built, a school, a community center, creamery, cannery, garage, and electric plant were created. By late October all families were comfortably housed throughout the valley.  According to the contract each family made with the government, the loans helping to pay for their homes, land, tools, seeds, and stock were to be paid back after a five year leeway period at a 3% interest rate within 30 years. 
Even with their rocky start, the Matanuska Valley was eventually stable enough to provide dairying as well as truck farming to Anchorage of their various vegetables and grains.  Even though throughout its creation and development the Matanuska Valley Colonization Project received its fair share of bad press, the colony eventually was seen as a success to Alaskans, as well as people across the nation.  It did not provide for a great boom in population, but it did make Palmer a stable town and developed the Matanuska Valley as the main productive agricultural region within the state. 

When visiting the town of Palmer it is instantly noticeable the connection the residents have to their history.  "Pioneer" is used at every corner; the Pioneer Cafe, Pioneer Gas, etc.  Each year the town has a celebration called Pioneer Days where they honor the pioneers of the valley.  Today only three original colonists remain.  In the center of town is their historic district where they have a beautiful garden that showcases many flowers as well as their giant vegetables.  Their community center holds a museum of the colonists showing artifacts of the early colony.  Throughout the downtown area many original buildings still remain.  The school and dormitory as well as the post office and trading post have all been restored and reused in various ways.  The town's creamery is still in tact but in need of much love and attention.  The surrounding area around the small town of Palmer is mainly still farmland, and even though there are no more 40 acre plots that the colonists were used to, many families have made their homes in Palmer.  The Matanuska Valley Colony was only the beginning for those who have made a home in the valley, and today Palmer rests as the heart of the valley in displaying its rich history and a promise for its future.    
~Keagan Johnson
David Reichard Williams Collection
Miller, Orlando W. The Frontier In Alaska and the Matanuska Colony. London: Yale University, 1975. Print.

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