PALMER — Colony Days is in full swing, pulling in hundreds of people from the Valley and beyond as the city of Palmer celebrates its colonial roots.
What started as an agricultural experiment in 1935 has grown into a thriving community that has managed to stay small with a perennial, small town state of mind in 2019.
“They all came together for the sake of this town,” Palmer Museum of History & Art Executive Director Sam Dinges said.
Dinges is leading historical tours through downtown Palmer, each day of the event at 1 p.m. Using a portable mic and speaker, he went over the toils of the original colonist.
One of the stops on the tour was a glance at the Colony Museum, a quaint, yellow house near the Matanuska Susitna Borough building. It’s an original colonial house that’s been restored and is filled with relics of the past, standing in the center of town like a postcard from the past.
“There’s a lot of history in the town, certainly more than I could cover in an hour,” Dinges said.
Dinges led the group past the borough building, discussing how it was the originally the town’s schoolhouse and one of the centers of the community. It was built to accommodate the large population of colony kids, sprawled across the Valley. Dinges said that the only other options were one room school houses in Butte and Wasilla.
“They needed more than one room for all these kids,” Dinges said.
The big, white building that governs the modern Valley used to be a 28-room school. It was the first of its kind in the Valley, offering resources like a chemistry lab, music room, and baseball fields.
“It provided a lot of opportunities that hadn’t really been here before. I mean, nobody had a music room for the Matanuska Valley before, or a chemistry lab,” Dinges said.
The school’s gymnasium wasn’t just for sports. It was a hub for numerous social functions throughout the year. It was where people went to dance and it was the only place to see a movie, which was a rare treat for the hardworking colony kids balancing school and the family farm.
One of the best things that the school provided for the kids, one of the things Dinges said that he’s about the most, is that the school provided them hot lunches every day.
“And that was pretty important because a lot of these honest to God farmers they brought up to start up here were perhaps not farmers? They were hungry people. Now some of them had farming experience and a lot of them grew up helping dad on the farm, helping mom on the farm. But, it’s quite a big leap when you’re in your early 20s to go from ‘I help on the farm’ to ‘I’m gonna’ start one from scratch in the middle of nowhere,’” Dinges said.
Walking past the Palmer water tower, Dinges told the group that Palmer the only town in Alaska with a water tower bearing the town’s name. The water tower has turned into an icon over the years, symbolizing the community itself to many.
“So, we draw a curious amount of pride from that. But it’s a very Midwestern feature to have,” Dinges said.
The tower has stood the test of time, even standing through the infamous 1964 earthquake other large quakes that followed. Dinges said that it provided water for the city until the 60s. He said it was originally fed by wooden pipes that are still found today, during construction projects especially in the industrial district.
“It was assembled by a four man crew. They shipped it up from Seattle and they built it into the ground and it’s still there,” Dinges said.
Many would say that Palmer’s agricultural roots are alive and well today. It’s easy to see why as one walks around the Friday Fling, with fresh produce grown by local farmers. The weekly street market is another town tradition and helped kick off the three days of Colony Days.
The Bushes Bunches produce stand has been around a long time, not quite as long as the original colony but it does go all the way back to 1956. The stand started as two kids selling family crops and lemonade and is a thriving produce shop off the Old Glenn Highway, near Lazy Mountain.
Bushes Bunches sells organic produce and other locally sourced items most of the year and has been participating of Friday Fling and Colony Days for years but this is Crystal Kumpula’s first time running the booth at Colony Days. She said that she’s been working at the stand, “off and on” since 2015. She said that she felt like Palmer’s agricultural roots are on full display, feeling that same colonial spirit in the air.
“You just see how people take pride in their stuff… You can tell, especially with how it’s presented and the way they give it to you. It’s beautiful. It’s fresh and thriving,” Kumpula said.
Contact Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman reporter Jacob Mann at email@example.com