For its first 20 years, Palmer (pop. 8,000) was little more than a railway depot for Alaska Railroad’s Matanuska branch. Then in May 1935, during the height of both the Depression and a severe drought in the Midwest, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal selected 200 farming families from the relief rolls of northern Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin and shipped them here to colonize the Matanuska Valley.
Starting out in tent cabins, the colonists cleared the dense virgin forest, built houses and barns, and planted crops pioneered at the University of Alaska’s Agricultural Experimental Station. These hardy transplanted farmers endured the inevitable first-year hardships, including disease, homesickness, mismanagement, floods, and just plain bad luck.
But by the fall of 1936 the misfits had been weeded out, 120 babies had been born in the colony, fertile fields and long summer days were filling barns with crops, and the colonists celebrated with a three-day harvest festival, the forerunner of the big state fair. In a few more years, Palmer had become not only a flourishing town but also the center of a bucolic and beautiful agricultural valley that was and still remains unique in Alaska.
Driving into Palmer from Wasilla along the Palmer-Wasilla Highway is a lot like driving into Wasilla from the bush on the Parks Highway time warp. The contrast between Palmer, an old farming community, and Wasilla, with its spontaneous combustion of helter-skelter development, is startling. Suffice it to say that Palmer is more conducive to sightseeing.
I actually know people whose homes are in Wasilla but who keep a post office box in Palmer for their businesses to avoid the stigma of being labeled as from Wasilla!
Today, downtown Palmer is a blend of the old and new, with Klondike Mike’s Dance Hall & Saloon just up the street from Turkey Red, a fine Tuscany-inspired bistro. Palmer is also home to the National Outdoor Leadership School’s Alaska campus (907/745-4047, www.nols.edu). From this base, NOLS offers a range of courses that involve backpacking, sea kayaking, and mountaineering in remote parts of Alaska.
Getting to Palmer
Mat-Su Community Transit, better known as MASCOT (907/376-5000, www.matsutransit.com), has weekday service throughout the valley ($2.50) and commuter runs to Anchorage ($3). This is half of what you’d pay for gas to drive the same distance.
© Don Pitcher from Moon Alaska, 10th Edition