Selecting Families

A free book excerpt from Northern Light Media

An excerpt from The 1935 Matanuska Colony Project

In 1935 the U.S. Government transported 200 families from the Great Depression-stricken midwest to a valley of unparalleled beauty in Alaska, where they were given the chance to begin new lives as part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal for America, a federally-funded social experiment. Nearly one hundred new communities were designed and developed by Roosevelt’s planners, but the largest, most expensive, and most audacious of them all was to build a government-sponsored farming community in Alaska’s Matanuska Valley.

The 1935 Matanuska Colony Project, by Helen Hegener, was published in July, 2014. It was completely revised and republished in 2016 with a new title: “A Mighty Nice Place,” The History of the 1935 Matanuska Colony Project (published by Northern Light Media, 276 pages, 120 photos, 6″ x 9″ b/w format. $24.95 plus $5.00 for first class shipping).

“The valley looks great. It looks fine, fine. You got a mighty nice place here.”     ~American humorist Will Rogers, Palmer, Alaska, August, 1935

Excerpts from Chapter Six: Selecting Families

Evangeline Atwood wrote several books on Alaska politics and history, and was very active in Anchorage and Alaskan civic affairs. Her 1966 book, We Shall Be Remembered, is one of the handful of books which reliably chronicled the Colony Project, and Evangeline Atwood’s experience as a social worker in the very decade which spawned the Project gave her valuable insight and empathy. She wrote:

“It was no easy task for the social workers to say no to this family, and yes to another, when so many had come to the end of their rope and could see nothing in the future for themselves and their children. The workers did not realize at the beginning that there would be such an urge to go to faraway, rugged Alaska. But also they had not realized how hopeless and desperate life had become to so many who were still struggling to stay off the relief rolls.

“The idea of starting a new life in a distant place like Alaska was so appealing to the disheartened that the workers found it difficult to determine which ones really were equipped to make the drastic move and which ones were simply motivated by wishful thinking. They reminded themselves of the bases for selection as laid down in the planning sessions in Washington: “Couples must be physically strong and mentally ambitious and be possessed of a rugged, pioneering spirit. No particular attention should be paid to a group of related families, or racial or religious factors, excepting that the group should be basically of the Nordic type and fitted by living habits to adjust to the Alaska environment. The entire group must be selected on a basis to cooperate in a commercial enterprise.”

The Matanuska Colony Project was never intended to produce a community of self-sufficient farmers. An excess of farm production, spurred by the developments of motorized farm machinery, electrification, and mass production methods, had contributed to the perfect storm which became the Great Depression.

The ARRC forms and records of the Matanuska Colony Project, maintained in the National Archives, tell the stories of the families who were selected in stark black and white, and show the extent to which the potential families were grilled and scrutinized by the caseworkers:

DATE OF HOME VISIT: April 6, 1935

Contacted all three members of this family: Man, Wife, and Daughter (child of W by first marriage). All members were immediately neat, clean, and dressed in good taste. M was dressed in sports clothes consisting of breeches, high boots, and sweater. He has a splendid carriage, is most congenial, has a good face and could even be called good looking. His complexion is ruddy and he is the perfect picture of health. One would call him the typical out-door man. He uses very good English and speaks with confidence. One is immediately impressed with the idea that he is a fairly well read person. He has travelled considerably and is able to discuss places, climates, and peoples with ease. W greeted visitor most courteously and appeared to be well versed in hospitality. She is not as rugged looking as her husband, but nevertheless is in good health, enjoys out-door life and seems to be an agreeable person. M and W treated each other with the utmost respect. D, age 12, is a sweet, self conscious school girl with a nice smile and polite manners. Only child of W by her first marriage, was born in Manitowoc, Wis. in 1922. She is now in the 6th grade being an only average student. She is very fond of out door sports, is in excellent health and has only had chicken pox to mar her health record.

This small farm is worked on shares and is really on the edge of (city name). M’s sister owns this place and she has asked him to vacate as soon as possible so that she can move in. House has seven rooms all furnished but this family own only part of the furniture. In fact, they only own one stove which is small but in good shape and has an oven as part of the chimney arrangement. This makes a good heater as well as an excellent cooker and baker. Six dining chairs, one leather rocker, one wooden rocker, small kitchen cabinet, some dishes, one copper boiler, tubs, kitchen utensils, few books and about 300 lbs. of tools. House looked neat and clean and liveable in all respects.

All in excellent health, no drunkards as far as can be determined. No insanity and no TB. M’s eyes seem to be in good condition but he has a droopy right eye lid.

The form continued through their religion (not members of any church), recreation (Chess is their favorite game and they manage to spend many a quiet evening around the board), employment histories (happiest when working on farms. He does not care to ever return to any city and both he and his wife long for the wide open spaces), finances (Very few debts: $4.50 to Atwood Shaeffer Battery and Tire Shop for a battery, $3.24 to Northern Service Auto Co. for transmission work on car, $5.50 to Dr. Parsons for dental work, $10 to Jerome Cole for rent of cow for one year, sold his Dodge Commercial Truck in February for $60 to take care of some pressing debts), social problems (Family seems to be happy, optimistic and cheerful over their reverses, but are most eager to make this real change for they feel there is much to gain and nothing to lose), and the interviewer’s recommendation (I recommend that this family be given serious consideration…).

Another example:

A. Description of Members of Family, Home, Property

1. Individuals: The family consists of the husband, wife, and one child. The type of clothing worn by the family is comfortable and warm. They seem to get along very well.

2. Home: They live in a four-room cottage that is clean and very well kept. There are ample sleeping quarters with plenty of bedding. The cottage is lighted by kerosene lamps. The wife seems to be a very capable housekeeper. Did not notice any reading material.

3. Property: The property belongs to (name and address). This man is retained as care taker with no salary. However, he receives the increase from the cows and has ample acreage for raising his own vegetables and a place for a garden. At the present time there are no milk checks.

B. Residence: (Name) came from Chicago in 1932. Before coming here he worked for different factories, the last one being the Louis Hansen Co.. He has always worked as a common laborer. In the years of 1930 and 1931 his weekly wages averaged $20.00. (Name) left Chicago because he could not find further employment.

C. War History: None.

D. Religion: None.

E. Race and Nationality: The client was born in Germany. He is now a citizen of the U.S. He received his first papers in 1927, his second in 1934. Client claims he is not interested in what is going on in Germany. He is happy he came to America, and has adopted our customs and manner of living.

F. Relatives: There seem to be no relatives on either side of the family, except those remaining in Germany.

G. Health: The health of the entire family is very good.

H. Employment – Other than relief: (Name) has always worked as a common laborer on construction jobs.

I. Education: (Names) completed the 9th grade in school.

J. Recreation: The family live beside the Menoninee River where there is boating, swimming and fishing in the summer season.

K. Delinquency: None.

L. Marital Relations: The family get along well together.

M. Debts: None.

Newspapers of the day found heart-wrenching human interest stories for their readers, such as this report in the Ironwood Daily Globe, in Ironwood, Michigan, headlined ‘Families Pack Up for Alaska,’ dated May 6, 1935, and sent over the wires of the Associated Press:

“Rhinelander, May 6–(AP)–Fired with the zeal of early American colonists, some with adventure, others with independence as their goal, 67 families from the wastelands of Wisconsin today were packing for their journey to the fertile fields of Alaska’s Matanuska Valley. The 317 men, women, and children of the Badger branch of the government’s new FERA colony will leave from here, Superior, Green Bay and St. Paul by train this weekend for Seattle where they will embark on the sea leg of the trip.

“Grimly, they have prepared for the hardships that were predicted. The Alaskan picture was not painted too bright, lest some fancy a new paradise after harrowing years here. Those who have felt the sting of Wisconsin’s bitter blizzards or the blaze of the summer sun on parched scrublands wonder if Alaska with all its rough climate and unsettled frontiers can make earning a livlihood more difficult than it has been here.

“The Martin Soyks of Minoqua, for instance. The demands of a paradise are small after their years here.

“‘We’re going to Alaska,’ said Mrs. Soyk with an inflection of thrilled awe in her voice. Typical of the women of the group is this mere strip of a girl whose countenance worry has marked with the lines that to most others come with age.

“‘We’re going through with it, all the way, we’re enthusiastic about it. I think I’ll have a better opportunity to make a living. Here our place isn’t big enough.’

“The ‘place’ was a shack that Soyk had piled together after one of the misfortunes in a long series befell them. It stood on the clearing Soyk bought after their marriage.

“Once it had a fine long cottage, built by Soyk, a natural born carpenter. There the young mother cared for her first born, Sonny. When the second lad, Jimmie, was born not long after Sonny, the mother grew seriously ill. Sonny became ill and died.

“One day the three were out in the surrounding section and saw smoke from what they believed was a haystack near their home. They returned to find their log cottage and all their belongings in ashes.

“‘All we had left,’ Mrs. Soyk said, ‘was the clothes on our backs. This place here is just a shack that Martin threw together so we’d have something.’

“Living in Alaska, she said, is ‘going to be hard work,’ but she said she felt cheered by the knowledge that some of their neighbors envy them.

“With slight variations, Mrs. Soyk’s story tells that of most others of the group. Some ask only adventure, but the Soyks and others will take thrills as garnish for the fruits of toil they found unproductive here.”

THE COLONISTS' ARRIVAL AT PALMER 5:20 PM, May 10th, 1935. Mrs. Elvi Kerttula with daughter Esther disembarking from train on arrival. [Willis T. Geisman ASL-P270-124 Mary Nan Gamble Collection, Alaska State Library]

More about the 1935 Matanuska Colony Project from Alaskan History Magazine.

This has been an excerpt from “A Mighty Nice Place,” The History of the 1935 Matanuska Colony Project (published by Northern Light Media, 276 pages, 120 photos, 6″ x 9″ b/w format. $24.95 plus $5.00 for first class shipping).

Another free book excerpt from Northern Light Media. Free book excerpts are posted to the newsletter site and emailed to both free and paid subscribers almost every week. Titles online now includeA Dog Puncher on the Yukon, A Woman Who Went to AlaskaLong Hard Trails and Sled Dog TalesThe Tanana Valley RailroadThe History of Seward, and The Land of Tomorrow. If you missed one they’re all still free to read at the newsletter site.