The New Deal Settlement for Alaska

Our country increasingly, after the beginning of the 20th century, moved away from subsistence farming. People moved closer to towns, traded there, and became more interdependent upon each other for groceries, skilled trades, nicer clothes and furniture, among other things.

The Great Depression wiped out many Americans’ wealth and businesses. The loss of investors and business owners eliminated paying jobs for our newly prosperous citizens and ruined markets for almost any other domestic producers. Subsistence farming became not just attractive but utterly necessary.

Our country’s 32nd president, Franklin D Roosevelt, quickly instituted the New Deal and within two years created the Alaska Rural Rehabilitation Corporation (ARRC) to manage relocation of 203 destitute Midwestern farm families to the Matanuska Valley.

The farmer signed a 30-year $3,000 note from the government in exchange for transportation, 40 acres with a house, a barn, a well, and outbuilding. Although only 1/3 of the original recruited families stayed, replacement colonists replaced them. Some colonist families still live here.

This is probably the fourteenth visitor center for us in the past six weeks, and we still love them. No two have been alike inside. This one is great-looking on the outside and is cozy and inviting with nice stuff inside.

We watched a really interesting movie about the Matanuska Valley colonists, receiving an in-depth explanation of the program’s implementation and pitfalls. We also browsed the exhibits and enjoyed the free coffee and hot chocolate.

The Colony House is a restored 1935 house built for, and used by, one of the colonists. The house has the very furnishings typical of these colonists’ houses. Debbie remarked on how much window glass the house has — we think the Washington D.C. architects might not have understood heat loss and the Alaskan climate too well in 1934-35.

The fellow talking to us inside was one of the eleven children of the Bouwens, one of the families featured in the movie we watched. He added a lot of his personal recollections so we understand better the history.

We also visited the small farmers’ market across the street from the Visitor Center and walked all about Palmer. A fellow we met at the famers’ market came to Anchorage 21 years ago with his wife for her job. The employer guaranteed all moving costs from Florida to Alaska as well as all return moving costs.

They never went back to Florida. The couple moved 20 years ago from Anchorage to Palmer, after one year in Anchorage. He told me, “Why live in the city with no views when we can live in God’s great country out here?” It looks pretty great to us.

This great experiment of The New Deal wasn’t for everyone. But it had a lasting impact on the Matanuska Valley and brought a bunch of great people here.

Jim and Debbie
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2 responses to “The New Deal Settlement for Alaska

  1. I revised to add a sentence to the paragraph about the visitor center and to re-align the last picture to left-margin. small details . . .

  2. Very interesting piece of history and the New Deal role in Alaskan development. I like the looks of the 1935 house. If I lived there with abundant wood sourced heat, I also might have opted to put the priority on windows for the great views rather than efficiency.

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