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  Matanuska Valley Colony


About the Project


By spring 1935, the Great Depression had struck with special force the timber and farming country of the upper Midwest.  Drought had caused many farmers to go under and wonder how they would feed their families. Franklin Delano Roosevelt's administration devised an unusual experiment - to resettle Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota residents in the nation's last great frontier, Alaska.  Those three states were chosen to be part of the project because it was felt those regions most closely resembled the climate in Alaska, and because they had an extremely high percentage of residents on social assistance programs. Local aid workers were given the responsibility of choosing people to be included in the project. The following guidelines were given:

"As far as possible, families should be selected first on their farming ability and secondly, those who may have secondary skills and who may adjust themselves to a diversified farming activity and can assist with carpentry on their homes and then those who may know something about machinery and blacksmithing and who have leadership qualities..."

The federal government paid for the cost of the colonists' transportation, shipping 2,000 pounds of household goods per family, and agreed to build them homes and barns.  The colonists, however, had to agree to live in Alaska for 30 years.  In May 1935, amidst great fanfare in the press, 202 poverty-stricken families from the depressed northern regions of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, arrived to carve a pioneer settlement out of the wilderness of Alaska.  In addition, one family from Oklahoma was in the group, making a total of 203 families.  Seven camps were formed and those families became part of the grand plan called the Matanuska Valley Colony.  A Federal board of nine men, known as the Alaska Rural Rehabilitation Corporation,* was responsible for providing land and houses for the colonists, and for governing the colony.

Before the New Deal and the Colony Project, the Matanuska region received little attention.  A handful of people  settled in the area prior to arrival of the Alaska Railroad in 1916. Within a year, however, there were enough farmers to form an agricultural co-operative, and over the next few years, about 400 homesteads were applied for.  The settler's  ' efforts were aided by taking occasional work in the coal mines at Chickaloon, or working the gold mines near Willow. Optimism of the farmers often didn't last long, and many of those original settlers left. By 1935, barely 100 families remained in the valley. 

The first of the Minnesota contingent arrived at Palmer on May 10, 1935. Families moved into a tent-city erected for them by workers of the Civilian Conservation Corps.  Things did not go smoothly for the first few months. There were shortages of many supplies, there was mud, there were complaints that the government store was charging too much for supplies.  Shoddy construction of homes resulted in them being torn down and rebuilt.  As the months dragged on, the issue of getting the homes built and families in them before winter set in became a serious one.  Huge errors were made in supply and freight shipments - perishable food supplies were shipped without refrigeration and rotted, school desks arrived before the lumber to build a school, grindstones came before axes, electrical appliances before there was any electricity.   Summertime mosquitoes, larger than those they'd left at home, was nearly the final straw for some colonists.  Slowly though, the colony did come together.

Five styles of homes, of log or frame construction, were built for the colonists.  Four of the plans were for 1-1/2 story houses, with bedrooms in the half story.  Four plans had a combined living room and kitchen; none had a separate dining room. The houses had side-gable roofs and were either L-shaped or had some other element, such as a vestibule, projecting from the main part of the dwelling. Owners could make minor variations.  They colonists could choose their style of home, but all the barns were one design - 32-foot, square gambrel-roofed structures, constructed with logs on the lower portion and frame above. 

Each family was granted 40 acres of land, with the agricultural products to be sold through a farmers' cooperative association.  On May 23, 1935, the drawing was made for the colonists' tracts of 40 acres each.  Arthur Hack drew the first piece of paper out of the box, and it took 3 hours to draw all the rest.  The colonists paid for the tracts of land at $5 an acre, then purchased or leased the necessary farm equipment and livestock.  To finance their farms, each family was given a $3,000 credit loan, home supplies and equipment which was charged against each householder.  All goods were furnished at the colony commissary in Palmer.  Colonists were expected to begin paying on these loans about five years after their arrival - once their first good crop came in.

A small but vital agricultural region, the lower Matanuska Valley is wide and flat, the soil rich and the weather moderate. Farmers raised cold-weather crops of vegetables, grains, and potatoes.  The summer growing season - generally 90 frost-free days, with more than 20 hours of daylight - produced potatoes and cabbages of such enormity they earned the area nationwide fame. The valley proved to be equally good for dairy cattle.  The colonists trapped, hunted, pickled fish, and subsisted on less than $100 of cash a year. In those early years of the colony, there were no stable markets for produce and life was not easy.

Few of the original colonists were farmers and life had proved too rugged in the valley for nearly a third of the families. A gradual elimination of those families that didn't prove suitable were replaced by others from many states  - north and south.  Eventually problems were solved and the economy of the area stabilized.

About 31 percent of the original settlers and 43 percent of the replacements still lived in the colony in 1948.  Those that did stay found a ready market for their produce with the advent of World War II and the military construction boom in Anchorage in the 1940s.   The colony cooperative disbanded in the 1980s, but farms are still present today - with horses grazing in the pastures, 90-pound cabbages, 30-pound turnips, and 35-pound heads of broccoli growing in the fields.  In addition, one also finds malls and homes for residents who commute by freeway to Anchorage.

* Established on April 12, 1935, under the Federal Emergency Relief Administration's program of organizing Rural Rehabilitation Organizations in the United States.



See a list of the 203 Matanuska Valley Colony families here.

Return to the Matanuska Valley Project index page here.