Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Education one of first priorities of fledgling town of Wasilla




Old Wasilla schoolhouse as it looks today.

Before the Federal government began construction of the Alaska Railroad in 1914, there were only scattered homesteads in the Matanuska and Susitna valleys. However, even before the Alaska Engineering Commission (AEC), the federal agency tasked with building the railroad, had cleared a right-of-way (R-O-W) through the area, settlers began staking homesteads along the proposed route.

Evangeline Atwood, in her book, We Shall be Remembered, relates that 400 people had filed for homesteads in the Susitna and Matanuska valleys by 1916. Less than half that number proved up on their homesteads, but that still left a good number of residents to support the nascent communities that would develop.

The railroad R-O-W reached Mile 15 of the Carle Wagon road between Knik and Hatcher Pass in 1916, and the AEC built Wasilla construction camp (named for the nearby lake and creek) there. On May 2, 1917 tracks reached the site, and on June 20th, the AEC held a land auction at which 50 townsite lots were sold.

Wasilla residents eagerly began building up the new community. One of their first actions was petitioning the Territory to establish a school district. National Register of Historic Places documents state that a school board election was held on August 2nd.

By October the school board had developed plans for a school building, and requested construction funds from the Territory. After receiving $3,100.00, the school board hired O.J. Meehan to build a schoolhouse near the corner of East Herning Avenue and North Knik Street (the site of the current city hall).

Building materials were purchased in Anchorage, and by the first week of November the school building was “under cover.” A community dance was held in the new building on November 16th to celebrate its completion. The first class was held on November 26, 1917, roughly four months after the Wasilla school district was organized.

The school quickly became the town’s community center, a function it fulfilled until the Wasilla Community Hall was constructed in 1931. The town’s first church held services there on Sundays while the school held classes during the week.

In 1934 a larger school was built adjacent to the original school building. The new school was ready just in time for the 1935 arrival of 202 families from northern Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan as part of the Matanuska Colony, a New Deal agricultural resettlement project.

The Matanuska Colony was based in Palmer, 13 miles to the east. However, until a new school facility could be built in Palmer, some of the project children attended school at Wasilla. Students also attended school at Matanuska (a town at the junction of the Alaska Railroad’s main line and its Matanuska line north to the Chickaloon coal mines), or were home-schooled.

My wife’s grandparents came to Alaska with the colony, and her grandfather, Neil Miller, taught school at Wasilla until completion of the Palmer school. He also drove the school bus between Palmer and Wasilla. After a summer of constant use ferrying colonists and workers, the bus was recalcitrant. Neil often spent as much time under the bus as in it, and his wife, Margaret, referred to herself as a “bus widow.”

With students from both Wasilla and Palmer, Wasilla’s new school building quickly exceeded capacity and the old school was pressed into service as an additional classroom. After the new school building was enlarged, the original school building became a church and later used for storage.

In the 1970s, the building was moved three blocks to the Wasilla Historical Park on East Swanson Avenue.  The school is a one room 22’ x 36’ wood frame building with ship-lap siding and a gabled roof. It is thought the original roof was covered with rolled roofing, but it now has corrugated metal roofing.

The schoolhouse originally had a bell atop the roof. The bell was later moved to the second school building and eventually put in storage. It has now been returned to the first schoolhouse, but since the building’s roof will no longer support it, the bell sits beside the schoolhouse.


Sources:

  • A Creek, a Hill, and a Forty: the first year of the Matanuska Colony. Margaret Miller and Ray Bonnell. Unpublished manuscript.
  •  Conversation with Bethany Buckingham Follett, curator of Wasilla Museum
  •  “The Birth of Wasilla.” Coleen Mielke. from Mielke’s website, “Matanuska-Susitna Valley, researching our South Central Alaska roots.” 2014
  •  “Wasilla Elementary School, National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form.” Dorothy G. Page. National Park Service. 1979
  •  We Shall be Remembered. Evangeline Atwood. Alaska Methodist University Press. 1966
 


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