Wisconsin journalist documented 1935 Colony settlement in Palmer
The Matanuska Colony resettlement in Palmer in 1935 was well-documented by a reporter from the Milwaukee Journal.
Arville Schaleben took hundreds of photos that captured life in the Last Frontier for 204 families from the Midwest. The families colonized the area as part of President Roosevelt's New Deal.
“Think how history would have been enriched if we had a reporter on the Mayflower. We’ve got to go with our people and live with them,” Matt Blessing read from Schaleben’s documents of the trip.
Blessing, an archivist with the Wisconsin Historical Society, is writing an article about Schaleben’s expedition.
“In the opening weeks his stories centered on timeless pioneer topics: The challenge of setting up housekeeping, organizing worship services, having babies, dealing with illness, finding creative ways to earn money and getting accustomed to a new environment,” Blessing said.
On Monday night, he met with locals at the Palmer Train Depot to show off some of Schaleben’s photograph collection and share stories from the past.
Blessing told the tale of Leroy and Gretchen Hamann, who drew the farthest lot out of town.
“Gretchen made high-caloric lemon pies to sustain the hard physical work. She worried constantly that her pies might attract brown bears. But the young couple made good progress,” Blessing said.
Dennis Hamann is their grandson. He said there’s still a road with his family name and his grandparents original cabin on the homestead land.
“I still have my grandfather’s original Farmall Model A tractor that he bought brand new from the Mat-Maid co-op and I drive it every year to Colony Days,” Hamann said.
Gerry Keeling’s parents, Oscar and Saima Kindgren, moved to Alaska with their 11-year-old daughter Jean in 1935. Keeling, now 83, was born that November.
She said her parents initially drew lot 83 out on Trunk Road, near the Havemeister Dairy, which is also a colony homestead.
“I’m proud of my parents and all those parents who came in 1935 and stayed and worked and well, all those who made it through the depression,” Keeling said.
Blessing wants to make sure each family’s history is accurately documented. He met with people like Keeling who helped put a name to some of the unknown faces in the photos.
“It was terrific, the historical memory, synapses were flying in here and people identifying that people that there was no way that tucked away in Madison, Wisconsin we would ever be able to identify these photographs,” Blessing said.
They’re creating a better record of the pioneers who founded Palmer which will help the next generation know where they came from.
The Wisconsin Historical Society has an extensive photo collection online and is in the process of digitizing 600 negatives Schaleben took during his time in Alaska.
Anyone who can help identify any of the unknown individuals is asked to email Blessing.
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