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History of Palmer

Published On: Aug 17 2013 07:20:00 PM AKDT

The city of Palmer is known for its agriculture.  More than 200 families made the journey to Palmer during the Great Depression as part of the "New Deal".  By Reporter Samantha Angaiak and Photojournalist Shawn Wilson. (KTUU-TV)


Just under an hour drive away from Anchorage, you’ll find Palmer in the Mat-Su Valley, which has a history steeped in farming.

In 1935, during the Great Depression, the historic town site of Palmer was designed and took its namesake from an entrepreneur named George Palmer and started with a motto of “Alaska at its best.”

Palmer opened a trading post in Old Knik back in the late 1800s and at that point was one of the first communities in the Matanuska Valley.

The Midwestern-inspired area attracted adventurers, agriculture workers and folks looking for new start.

"A relief worker came to my parents’ home and said ‘well, would you like to go to Alaska,’ and they had about three weeks notice and my mother said no and my dad came home and said yes," Gayle Rowland recalled.

Her family left Minnesota in 1935 when she was just three years old.

More than 200 families enrolled in the government’s "New Deal" relocation program to move farmers to more profitable lands after the Great Depression. Families from Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin departed their homes to live in what we now know as "Palmer."

"Going through the Rockies was really exciting and then everybody had a party for us every place they stopped," Rowland said.

Many families took advantage of the rich soil in the area by farming.

Barbara Thomas' family originally owned the farm that later became the Musk Ox farm.

"After the earthquake the water levels changed and that was a dairy farm," Thomas said. "There wasn't enough water to support dairy cows and they require a lot of water to make that work so they did hay for awhile and then they sold the farm."

While some colonists sold their farms, others continued to work the land in a place that posed both unique challenges and rewards that come along with those long summer days.

Mat-Su Borough Mayor Larry Devilbiss says his family has operated his farm since 1955.

Devilbiss is the second generation to run the farm and there are two more behind him.

"This farm was one of the last of the Federal Homestead Act claims in the valley here," Devilbiss said.

Devilbiss says farming has evolved into a theme of buying products grown in Alaska since his dad began farming.

"Today the market is open to broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, carrots and people actually prefer them because the long days in the summer time produce plants that have more sugar content in them," Devilbiss said.

While he wears dual hats, Devilbiss says he wouldn't have it any other way.

"You've got the combination of the rural and the urban, you've got the social balance of cows and crowds," Devilbiss said.

The idea of vegetables grown in Alaska has expanded into a theme that has tied in with events like the Alaska State Fair.

Pat Lawton says she worked as a ticket seller at what was then called "The Matanuska Valley Fair" and located at the borough building downtown.

"[Back] then, tickets cost one dollar, so it was really easy, cheap change you know and if my window took in one thousand dollars, we thought that was a lot of money," Lawton said.

Lawton says the giant vegetables that are a top attraction today were also a fair favorite years ago.

"They got bigger and bigger," Lawton said. "We used to think a sixty-pound cabbage was enormous and now I guess they're up to one hundred twenty, thirty pounds."

The Matanuska Valley Fair began in 1935 and the giant cabbage contest began in 1941. It's now evolved into an attraction that farmers look forward to each year.

"It gives an opportunity to really show what people are doing every year and getting a little bigger and a little bit better," said Palmer mayor DeLena Johnson.

The community’s farming roots, which started nearly eight decades, will be on full display with the Alaska State Fair taking place for two weeks in August and ending on Labor Day.

Contact: Samantha Angaiak