Reading Palmer’s History
Whether you’re visiting someplace new or curious about the place you call home, digging into the local literature is a great way to gain a deeper sense of place and history.
What’s a good book about Palmer’s history? I’m so glad you asked. How deep would you like to dig?
If you visit Fireside Books and ask a bookseller (hi, that’s me), I’ll probably start by recommending two titles. First is the best-known book to come out of Palmer: international bestseller The Snow Child, by local author Eowyn Ivey. While the plot is based on a fairy tale and the placenames are fictionalized, the details of this novel are grounded in the realities of homesteading in the Matanuska Valley in the 1920s. My other top title is actually a documentary movie: Alaska Far Away: The New Deal Pioneers of the Matanuska Colony, a moving and well-researched story of Palmer’s unusual establishment as an experimental farming community during the Great Depression. (You may have seen it on PBS!)
Both of the above titles have the great advantage of being readable or watchable from nearly anywhere in the world. So much of our local history is out of print or hard to find, and used copies don’t turn up at the store as often as I’d like. Fortunately, even many of the out-of-print sources are still around if you know where to look, including the state library system, the Palmer Museum and Colony House Museum, and online. (These books are just the tip of the iceberg. Check back here soon for a more detailed list of local history resources and where to find them.)
Ahtna & Dena’ina History & Culture
major source on Native history in our region is Shem Pete’s Alaska: The Territory of the Upper Cook Inlet Dena’ina, a treasure trove of placenames and stories. We live at the eastern edge of Dena’ina country, overlapping with the Ahtna from further up the Matanuska. Chickaloon Wild is a novelized history of an Ahtna family in the 1940s, partially set in Palmer. Chickaloon Spirit is the life story of Ahtna elder Katie Wade.
General Settler History, including pre-Colony
best bet for a general overview of local history is Matanuska Valley Memoir, a slender but meticulous booklet which covers the settlement of the Valley: mining, homesteading, trails, railroads, and the Colony, with an emphasis on agriculture. It was published in 1955 by the Alaska Experiment Station – a research farm operating near Palmer since 1917, today known as UAF Matanuska Experiment Farm and Extension Center – and the book is available as a PDF via the university. Knik, Matanuska, Susitna: A Visual History of the Valleys surveys historical buildings around the Mat-Su Borough, with good context and plenty of photos. It’s out of print but available through the library. Palmer, Alaska Businesses and Buildings 1897-1970 is the single best reference specifically about the town of Palmer – a visual directory of downtown and narrative of the town and its people, from George Palmer’s store on the Matanuska up through our first decades as a small city. Alas, it was a small print run that sold out fast. Check it out from the Palmer library, or consider yourself lucky if you find one used.
The Matanuska Colony & WWII
The 1935 Matanuska Colony Project was Palmer’s moment of national attention and by far the best-documented chapter of local history. Besides the aforementioned Alaska Far Away and Matanuska Valley Memoir, there’s The Frontier in Alaska and the Matanuska Colony (still in print and available), the definitive scholarly history of the project, while We Shall Be Remembered (out of print but usually available locally) is an engaging popular history. Alaska’s Matanuska Colony is a pictorial history published in 2020 by the National Park Service – and if historical photos are your jam, dive into the Palmer Museum’s Matanuska Historical Photo Project, or rummage through the Alaska Digital Archives.
The ongoing pandemic has me wishing Frontier Physician were still in print: the story of diligent, dedicated Dr. Albrecht who arrived at the Matanuska Colony in the midst of a disease outbreak in 1935, established Palmer’s hospital, and went on to battle tuberculosis as Alaska’s territorial commissioner of health.
One lesser-known book which merits special mention is Growing Down by Sarah Kavasharov, an autobiographical novel about a half-Aleut daughter of pre-Colony homesteaders in North Palmer. Kavasharov provides an unusually vivid window into Palmer in the 1930s and ‘40s, including frank depictions of prejudice and abuse, the changes brought to the Valley by WWII, and a valuable settler/Native perspective on the Colonists.
The best portrait I know of Palmer in the 1950s and ‘60s is Cures & Chaos, an engaging biography of Palmer’s brilliant and troubled Doc Hume. Life and Times of Matanuska Valley Pioneers is a compilation of early 21st-century interviews with local old-timers, and includes reminiscences from pre-Colony to recent times, including Statehood and the ’64 earthquake.
Close with a newer book about an era which doesn’t quite feel like history yet. Cabin 135, published by University of Alaska Press in 2020, is a combination of nature writing, essay, and memoir centered on the author’s time living in an old Matanuska Colony farmhouse from the early 1980s to 2011. Making a home there meant her life became intertwined with the history of the house, its earlier inhabitants, and the consequences of their improvisations – which is true for all of us, even if we don’t live between old log walls. Even just passing through on modern highways, we end up following the old trails of those who passed this way before.
About the author: Ruth Hulbert was born and raised in Palmer, Alaska, and currently works at Fireside Books, the local bookstore. She graduated in 2008 with a BA in biology and painting from Western Washington University. Ruth completed a certificate in natural science illustration through the University of Washington in Seattle in 2013.