What was it like to be an Alaskan scientist back in the 1940s? This site, on the south side of Palmer’s downtown, near Gulkana and E. Fireweed streets, will give you a pretty good idea. Back then, this two-story cement building, the eight simple cottages, and the arboretum were built by the University of Fairbanks and used by researchers studying how to increase productivity in cold-weather crops.
This was an essential undertaking. In the 1940s and ’50s, Alaska’s growing population required cheaper and fresher food. The discoveries made here kept Alaskans fed. And, as communication became more global, the scientists were able to share results with researchers in other sub-polar regions like Scandinavia and Siberia.
Today, the buildings are either closed or privately owned, but you can still wander among them and imagine what it was like to live on the continent’s edge, looking for new ways to grow crops under the midnight sun. Longtime locals recall seeing Dr. Babb’s light on in the research station in the middle of the night in the 1940s and ’50. When inspiration hit, he’d walk across the street to his lab to conduct experiments or study the musty tomes in the basement library.
Not everything has changed. Agricultural research still goes on at the UAF station on Trunk Road (5 miles west of Palmer), though it has become more specialized—and more commercial. Modern projects are likely to revolve around creating cold-tolerant golf-course grasses or developing biofuel markets using fast-growing willows. Another current hot topic: finding new markets for peonies. The flower is popular for use in weddings, but in parts of the continental U.S., it fades by early June. Alaskan peonies bloom later, between June and early August, and fetch as much as $5 per stem. So, while today’s research may not mean the difference between life and death, it still fulfills needs, and keeps science moving forward.