Palmer may look like it grew organically, like any other town. But it was actually designed by the government as a planned agricultural community. In fact, Palmer was part of FDR’s New Deal Resettlement Projects during the Great Depression: More than 200 families volunteered to move to Alaska to try farming in the Last Frontier!
“The Colony Project,” as it was known, transported families from their farms in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan to the fertile soils of the Mat-Su valley. First, hundreds of Civilian Conservation Corps workers came to cut roads, dig wells, and construct buildings in what is present-day Palmer. Then, in May 1935, the families arrived by rail and ship. They lived in tents and spent the summer clearing land to plant crops in rich soil that had been deposited by glaciers and stretched an amazing 12 to 14 feet below the surface.
It was quite an endeavor, and the town grew quickly. Nurses, teachers, and administrators joined the community and lived in a dormitory that is now the Colony Inn. (You can also recognize the other Colony buildings: single story structures featuring shiplap siding and located within two blocks of the government office.)
The husbands drew straws for their homesteads, which were either 40 or 80 acres, and got to work immediately, clearing forests, building homes, and digging wells. Mosquitoes drove cows, horses, and humans crazy, making the work that much harder. But come the winter holidays of 1935, every colony family was settled in a home.
And it was quite a risk for the families, since this was no free ride. Before leaving the Midwest, they signed $3,000 loans for their land, to be paid over 30 years at 3% interest. To put that in perspective, today it would be a $500,000 loan!
The government pulled out in 1939. Today, families still work the Colony farms, though few of the original operations are left. Havemeister Farm off Bogard Road, for example, is the only original dairy still going.
But the produce that’s grown in the valley today is just as spectacular as it was back then. Check it out at Palmer’s Friday Fling markets and at the state fair, held here every August. And don’t miss the museum’s excellent display on the Colony project.