Today, a shopping mall and a field within the Business Blvd. loop bear names that commemorate pioneer residents Walter and Melva Pippel.
The Pippels were among the Minnesota residents who signed up to take part in the Matanuska Colony in 1935. The government project was designed to give people from the drought-stricken Midwest an opportunity to relocate on land they were to farm in Alaska. Walter Pippel was one of the most experienced farmers among them—and one of the most outspoken.
It was not long before Pippel fell out of favor with the Colony project managers. Created under the Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration, the Depression-era project was to be operated as a cooperative. Pippel’s complaint primarily was that as an experienced farmer, he produced more marketable goods than most of the others, but all received the same share in return from the cooperative. That, he felt, was unfair and he went so far as to call it a “Communist” operation. After but a few seasons, he packed up Melva and the children and headed back to Minnesota.
The Pippels did not remain long in the land they had left in search of a better life. They were back in Alaska in 1941, settling first in the Sand Lake area and then moving to Spenard, growing potatoes for sale to the military at Ft. Richardson, Lucky’s Market and other stores. In 1948 they moved onto an Eagle River homestead they purchased from Lars Nyberg, moving into the home he built alongside the Palmer Highway at what now is Eagle River Loop Road on the site now occupied by the Tesoro station. Their oldest son, Robert, obtained an 80-acre homestead adjacent to theirs.
In no time the Pippels had 90 acres under cultivation, with potatoes their major crop but also producing several other vegetables in demand by residents.
The entire family joined in the work, including washing the produce from water drawn from a small creek running alongside their home. The yellow frame Pippel house originally built by Nyberg, by the way, is still in use after being moved onto an Old Glenn Highway lot closer to Fire Lake.
The Pippel farm paralleled the highway, occupying the entire area between the Business Park intersections. A large metal building was located in the center of the field, housing equipment and serving as storage for items awaiting delivery to the stores. The silver-colored building once was an attractive target for a trigger-happy cowboy flying a military jet in the late 1950s. Fortunately, no one was injured although the building was air-conditioned by means of a long string of 50-caliber holes.
Walter Pippel suffered a stroke and passed away in 1969 after being incapacitated for a long period. Melva was to remain in their home for several years thereafter, tending to her flower garden. The farming operation was cut back but for some years Pippel Field was used to grow hay.
In the mid-Seventies, the northern end was used as a landing site for hang-gliders taking off from Mt. Baldy and soaring for several minutes above the community.
The original homestead had been subdivided and a portion sold as business and residential lots. Melva held the remaining property, including the homesite, until she could find a reliable buyer to develop the valuable property. She once told this writer she was not going to “let some local yokel put a little down and pay it off after I’m in the ground.” A corporation formed by Anchorage businessmen developed the property that now hosts the Carr-Gottstein shopping center, the building with Garcia’s Cantina & Café and the one housing the Chugiak-Eagle River Library and the Alaska Club.
The Matanuska Valley project was part of a Franklin D. Roosevelt New Deal package aimed at relocating people from areas affected by the Great Depression of the 1930s. It was among some 100 such projects that involved many states. The one established at Palmer is about the only one still active as an agricultural center, celebrating its founding in an annual Colony Days celebration.
The Colony Museum in downtown Palmer is set up and maintained by volunteers in one of the original homes, that of Oscar and Irene Beylund. It contains furnishings and utensils from the time of the colonists. A colony barn was moved to the Palmer Fairgrounds and is used today as a showplace. It came from the farm of Earl and Rebecca Wineck who were not among the group from Outside but were second-generation Alaskans who moved to Palmer and took over an abandoned tract.
Cost of the Matanuska project was reported at about $5 million in 1935 dollars. Gold at that time was valued at $35 an ounce, about twice the price it brought during the Gold Rush three decades earlier and a small fraction of the current price of more than $1,200.
To entice families to leave the most depressed parts of the country and come to Alaska, the government offered free transportation, 40 acres of land, and a house and barn. Hundreds of carpenters from the Civilian Conservation Corps were brought in to complete the homes, but many were still unfinished when the settlers arrived. Only a few homes were ready when the first boatload arrived in Seward May 4, 1935, on the SS North Star.
Much attention had been given to the project, with hometown newspapers following the trips of people from their state. Their arrival was heralded by the Anchorage Daily Times and a crowd met the train when it arrived from Seward. Passengers were welcomed by city officials and entertained before boarding a special train to take them to Palmer. A second boatload of colonists came on the Army transport USS Mihiel, arriving in Seward on May 22. A tent city housed the new arrivals until a drawing was held to assign land parcels to the settlers.
A drawing was held May 23 to determine which family was to be given a particular tract. Arthur Hack drew the first slip of paper bearing a tract number while the crowd waited anxiously over a period of three hours until all parcels had been assigned.
Pippel was not the only colonist who complained.
There were arguments over who got the best land. The only store was the one operated by the project cooperative, prices were high and supplies were short. Material for construction was limited and arrived in incorrect order, causing delays. There was anxiety over whether the houses could be finished before winter set in.
Many of the colonists gave up and the number of farmers quickly diminished. Those who remained were able to grow more produce than the market would sustain and operating expenses were very high. Within five years the country was recovering from the bad economic times and half of the colonists had left Alaska. By 1965, only 20 original families remained.
Some descendants of the Pippels are among colonists who remain in Palmer. Eagle River resident Joe Anne Vanover was a small child when her family drew the slip with their parcel number in 1935.
Debate continues as to whether the Matanuska Valley Colony was a success. It may not have lived up to expectations of government officials as well as many of the 204 colony families who ventured north. But it brought about the establishment of the Valley as an area that still produces tasty potatoes, excellent carrots, and world-record cabbages.
Still, the endurance and know-how of the Pippels and others who remained to make Alaska a good place to live is to be admired.
Lee Jordan has been an Alaskan since 1949, moved to Chugiak in 1962 and in 2016 moved back to Anchorage. An Alaska history buff, he enjoys writing about the place where he did not want to be sent, but came to love. He has written four books on Alaska history and has a blog at www.byleejordan.com.