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Palmer, Alaska

Palmer Alaska looking from the Valley Hotel to the south.

Location / Coordinates:  Northeast of Anchorage about 35 miles on the Glenn Highway, Palmer is nestled in heart of the Matanuska Valley.

Coordinates: Latitude 61.60 & Longitude 149.11.

Population / Elevation: Palmer’s population is growing rapidly—it’s a short commute to Anchorage and quite a bit cheaper to live than Anchorage.  Currently, Palmer is “home” to about 6,000 people, with several thousand more living outside the city limits. Only about 240 feet above sea level, Palmer appears to be much higher with the surrounding mountains looming above it.

Description:  Palmer, Alaska is named for a trader, George Palmer. It is a small town—one flashing light in the heart of downtown, and all the amenities, a nice library, grocery stores, three quilting shops, a post office, and assorted other businesses.  A new medical center has recently opened just down the Parks Highway.

Large swaths of land were cleared of birch trees to make way for dairy cows and hay fields during the colony project that brought Palmer to life. These fields offer some amazing views of the surrounding mountains—Pioneer Peak, Hatcher Pass, the Talkeetna Mountains, and the Chugach Mountains. The growing season in Palmer averages about 100 days a year coupled with long hours of sunshine (nearly 20 hours a day around the spring solstice). Many of these fields have become small subdivisions and home sites as the original farms are being sold to make way for people willing to commute to Anchorage.  Valley farms produce fresh peas, rhubarb, cheeses, and other favorites. Roadside stands pop up at all the major intersections in and around Palmer during the summer season to sell to passing motorists.

What to do there: Palmer hosts one of three Alaska State Fairs in August. Some of the world’s largest vegetables are grown here—100+ pound pumpkins, 10-pound radishes and cabbages that require a special crane to lift them onto the scales.  It’s a “big” thing.

Downtown Palmer is best explored on foot. The visitor’s center in the log cabin in downtown Palmer is a good place to start your Palmer adventure—if you’re visiting Palmer in the summer season, make sure to check out the Matanuska Valley Agricultural Showcase gardens to see some exotic flowers and giant vegetables. The Palmer Visitor’s Center also has brochures and other literature about places to visit and things to do in and around Palmer. Stroll down the sidewalk and pop into the many small shops along the way—books, arts and crafts, antiques, and quilt shops (there are three in Palmer).

The summer season in Palmer is always a good experience—everything is green and the sun is shining most of the day. Surrounded by towering the mountains of the Talkeetna Range, the Chugach Range and Hatcher’s Pass, Palmer is very scenic. The Knik Glacier, Matanuska Peak, Pioneer Peak, and (45 miles away) the Matanuska Glacier, offer both adventure and great photo opportunities. For an up close and personal look at some of Alaska, trek on a glacier, take a flight-seeing trip, or an airboat ride. Hike one of the many trails, paddle on a white-water raft, ride a horse or an ATV or get in your car and drive—keep an eye out for those moose on the side of the road!

Hatcher Pass is a short twenty minutes from Palmer. The road up and over Hatcher’s Pass is a great afternoon outing.  It is not suitable for all RVs (depending on their length and the driver’s ability to navigate narrow winding dirt roads). On the way to the top is Independence Mine, a former gold mine with a nice interpretive center.  Bring your camera and a picnic lunch!  In late summer, this is a great place to pick blue berries.

For those who want to stay a little closer to Palmer, spend an afternoon at the National Ocianic & Atmaspheric Administration’s (NOAA) north Pacific Tsunami Warning Center. Just west of the intersection of the Palmer Wasilla Highway and the Glenn Highway.

Palmer is the place to be for the annual “Running of the Bulls.”  The bulls are Musk-oxen, and the runners are running for charity.  It’s quite a sight.  When the “bulls” aren’t running races for charity, they can be seen at their farm just east of Palmer on the Glenn Highway at Milepost 50.1.  The Musk-ox Farm of Palmer claims to be the only place in the world where Musk-ox are raised domestically. Nearly extinct  in Alaska due to hunting, this exotic animal was reintroduced to Alaska in Palmer in the 1930s.  The animals and the farm can be viewed during the summer season.

The reindeer farm is a not-to-miss attraction in Palmer during the summer season. These aren’t just common reindeer either—they are famous reindeer. Some of them have modeled for advertisements in Vogue Magazine, (they were accompanied by a human model on a glacier); they’ve acted in movies, and they have competed in The World Championship Reindeer Sled Races during the Fur Rendezvous in Anchorage, and of course a chosen few have pulled Santa in his sled on occasion.  Should you decide that you can’t live without a reindeer, you may purchase one—they’ are a bit pricey, about two grand for a bull and a bit more for a cow.  But a good pet is worth every penny, and if the “pet” doesn’t work out, reindeer sausage makes a tasty breakfast.

The Palmer Golf Course offers some of the best scenery in the Matanuska Valley. Eighteen holes, (par 72, USGA rated), rental carts, and clubs, a driving range, pro shop, practice green and a snack bar.  During the summer season you can play all day—literally.

The Matanuska Glacier is about 60 miles east of Palmer on the Glenn Highway. This magnificent glacier is one of the few you can drive to and explore on foot. Take Milepost A102 to the Glacier Park entrance to the foot of the glacier.  To photograph the glacier, drive to milepost A101 to the Matanuska Glacier State Recreation Site and one of its several overlooks.

History: Palmer is the result of an experiment sponsored by President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal relief agency. The Great Depression and the infamous dust bowl left many families destitute all across the nation. In 1935 The Matanuska Valley Colony was established as one of several “colonies” within the United States (the others were established in Florida, Arkansas, and Georgia).

President Roosevelt offered 203 families from the hardest-hit areas of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan a chance to start over in Alaska.  These states were chosen for the project because it was felt they most closely resembled the climate in Alaska, and they had some of the highest percentages of people on assistance programs.  The problem, as far as the Alaskan territorial legislature and the Alaska Chamber of Commerce were concerned, was that should this colony project fail, Alaska would not be able to take care of these new indigent residents. As it turned out, only a handful of colonists actually stayed, the rest went back to the Lower 48.

To be selected for this little adventure in Palmer, Alaska, the guidelines weren’t very specific. “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 the homes and then those who may know something about machinery and blacksmithing and who have leadership qualities.” Most of those chosen were younger couples with children, and of Scandinavian ancestry. 

This project moved very quickly through government channels. The Matanuska Valley was deemed feasible to be used for the colony project in June 1934. The Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) and the Department of the Interior agreed to undertake the project in mid-January, 1935.  By mid-February of the same year, 80,000 acres of land in the Matanuska Valley was withdrawn from homestead entry, and another 180,000 acres were set aside the following month. The end of April saw the first construction workers and freight arriving in Palmer, Alaska.  Days later the first colonists left Minnesota for their new life in Palmer, Alaska.  

Before the Matanuska Valley Colony ws established in 1935, the Alaska Railroad had arrived in the Matanuska Valley in 1916. Its arrival brought enough farmers to form an agricultural co-operative. Within a few years, nearly 400 homesteads were applied for. Occasional work in the coal mines at Chickaloon, or the gold mines near Willow brought in extra money for the new farmers, but more often than not, it wasn’t enough to keep the farm going. In 1935 only about 100 families remained.  The abandoned homesteads were included in the 260,000 acres set aside for the new Colony project in Palmer.

Palmer was established as the new base of operations for the Colony project. Prior to this, Palmer was just a stop on the Alaska Railroad’s branch line to the Chickaloon coal mines. Not much development had been made.  The colony project soon changed the face of Palmer.  A tent city was erected, buildings constructed and life got busier. Several of these structures still stand—the Central School, the Alaska Railroad Depot, and both the Lutheran and United Protestant churches.

Life wasn’t easy in this bustling new colony. The first colonists arrived May 10th, 1935 to find mud everywhere, supplies were in short supply or not supplied at all. Logistics were a nightmare—perishables were shipped without refrigeration, furnishings arrived ahead of building supplies. Eventually things straightened themselves out and life became a little easier in Palmer.

The biggest event of this experiment was held on May 23, 1935—the drawing for the colonists’ tracts of 40 acres in and around Palmer.  The first to draw his 40 acres, was Arthur Hack. The last tract to be drawn was three hours later. There were grumblings of disappointment. Some men had drawn 40 acres of poor parcels of land—usually too wet to be of any use. They were given an additional 40 acres adjacent to their original tracts. A few parcels were traded.

The next step was to build houses and barns.  A government architect designed five different house plans for the new residents to choose from. “Four of the plans were for one-and-a-half story houses, with bedrooms in the half story; four of them had a combined living room and kitchen; and none had a separate dining room. The houses had side-gabled roofs and were either L-shaped or had some other element, such as a vestibule, projecting from the mass of the building. Owners could make minor variations. The barn designs were standard, a 32-foot-square gambrel—roofed structure (a typical barn roof), often constructed with logs on the lower portion and frame above.”

Getting these structures built was often a challenge, but the Palmer colonists soon learned to build them and life got underway. Many of these structures remain in and around Palmer today.  There is an on-going project to restore many of them.

The problems faced these new farmers were many. Short growing seasons leave little room for error or bad luck. High freight costs, high labor costs, and distant markets. Within five years, over half of the colonists left the valley to return to their homes in the Lower 48. By 1965, only twenty of the original families were still farming in the Matanuska Valley. There are even fewer today.

How to get there:  Palmer is on the new Glenn Highway about five miles north from the junction with the Parks Highway north of Anchorage.

Facilities:  The Palmer Municipal Airport hosts at 6,000 foot paved airstrip and full service. There are several motels in town, and quite a few Bed & Breakfasts just outside of Palmer city limits—check the Palmer Visitor’s Center for complete listings.  There are B&B’s that do take pets. Eating out in Palmer is just plain good--home-style cooking, big Colony-style breakfasts complete with reindeer sausage and huge cinnamon rolls.

RV info: Palmer has several RV parks, complete with full hook-ups, dump stations, and laundries.  Good Sam Club and AAA members welcome. It’s always a good idea to make reservations ahead of time.  Palmer is a popular RV spot in the summer season.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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