Tuesday, March 15, 2016

First house built in Alaska's Matanuska Colony still stands today




The Puhl house as it looked in about 1990. The houses and the barn behind it were built in 1935

The log cabin shown in the drawing is the house where my wife, Betsy, grew up. Located at the corner of Scott Road and the Glenn Highway just north of Palmer, it dates back to the Matanuska Colony, a Depression-era “New Deal” resettlement project. 

The colony, along with other resettlement projects across the United States, was an effort by the federal government to move families off government relief rolls during the Great Depression. In 1935 it brought 202 families from northern Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan to Alaska to start afresh as farmers.

Not all the settlers were destitute, and many didn’t have extensive farming experience. Some applicants, with limited agricultural experience but other valuable skills such as carpentry or teaching, were accepted into the project.

One of the families to trek north was that of Joe and Blanche Puhl and their two children, from Rice Lake, Wisconsin. In a lottery to select colonists’ land tracts, Joe Puhl drew a 40-acre tract just outside Palmer.

The standard practice in the colony was for construction crews composed of temporary workers with the Works Progress Administration (WPA) to build homes for the farmers, while the colonists themselves cleared land for cultivation. However, building progress was slow. Puhl, tiring of the wait, organized a crew of neighborly colonists to build his house.

He and his neighbors constructed the cabin shown in the drawing, which is built of full-round logs. In contrast, houses erected by the WPA were either wood-frame or constructed using logs sawn flat on three sides. 

According to National Register of Historic Places documents, Puhl’s house was 25 feet by 35 feet with a steeply pitched gable roof covered with rolled roofing. The log courses flare out on a diagonal from the top of the walls. Windows were double-hung and mutli-pane, the front door made of tongue-and-groove planks with an inset window. (The house still has its original windows and doors.) 

At some time after the cabin was completed a small arctic entry, with log-work matching the rest of the structure, was added to the west end of the cabin. Because of his initiative, Puhl’s house was the first completed in the colony.

The Puhls left the colony in 1942, and in 1946 another colony couple, Neil and Margaret Miller, bought the Puhl farm. The Millers had “emigrated” from Blair, Wisconsin, with their three daughters, Mardie, Janell and Priscilla; and added a son, Tim, after they arrived.

Neil’s original farm tract was along what is now called Palmer-Fishhook Road. However, in addition to farming, Neil also taught school. (Many colonists depended on secondary employment to support their farms.) The daily commute was burdensome and in 1941 they relinquished their farm and moved into Palmer. When the Puhl farm became available they bought it.

The Millers lived on the property until 1955 when they moved to Idaho. Their daughter, Priscilla, who by that time was raising a family with her husband, Dexter Bacon, bought the house and the five acres surrounding it. With four children (including my wife) tucked into the small cabin, Dexter cribbed up the cabin in the late 1950s and put a full basement under it. Aside from the basement, there have been few changes to the cabin.

At some point, the interior side of the log walls was sheathed over and insulated with sawdust. My wife remembers as a child listening to voles scurrying through tunnels they had bored through the sawdust-filled walls.

Dex and Priscilla lived in the cabin until moving into the Palmer Pioneer Home. We owned the cabin for a period after that, but being absentee landlords became too much for us and we finally sold our little piece of history. The cabin, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, still stands, well-maintained and picturesque, for all to see as they drive down the Glenn Highway into Palmer.

Sources: 


  •  “A Creek, A Hill, and Forty: The first year of the Matanuska Colony.” Margaret Miller and Ray Bonnell. unpublished manuscript

  • Conversations with Betsy Bonnell, who grew up in the house

  •  The Colorful Matanuska Valley. Don Irwin.” no publisher. 1968

  •  The Frontier in Alaska and the Matanuska Colony. Orlando W. Miller. Yale University. 1975

  •  “The Puhl House,” National Register of Historic Places registration form. Fran Seager-Boss & Lawrence E. Roberts. National Park Service. 1990

  •  The 1935 Matanuska Colony Project. Helen Hegener. Northern Light Media. 2014


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