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1936 barn is State Fair's 'reunion place' for Alaska old-timers

  • Author: Mike Dunham
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published September 1, 2015

PALMER -- The first building visitors to the Alaska State Fair see when they enter at the Red Gate is also one of the oldest on the fairgrounds. The Wineck Barn was built in 1936. Palmer was just getting started as an experimental agriculture commune set up by the federal government, a way to bring relief to Midwest farmers who'd gone bust in the Great Depression.

"In those days farming (in the Valley) was a cooperative effort by the people," said Earl Wineck, the son of the barn's builder. "We had neighbors who had seven kids and a lot of boys. They helped us and we helped them doing the plowing and planting and getting the grain out."

Until 1939, when they got their first tractor, the family used horses to work the fields. "In the fall when we took in the grain, the ARRC (Alaska Rural Rehabilitation Corporation) had a threshing crew that came around with the cooperative machinery," Wineck said.

The family also had cows, chickens and turkeys. "They had to be fed and shoveled," Wineck recalled. "And that was my job. I became an expert in handles -- shovel handles, pitchfork handles, water pump handles. I used to work in that barn a lot."

Today, the Wineck Barn houses displays from the Palmer Historical Society's Colony House Museum and screens documentaries about the town's past -- "Alaska Far Away" and "Where the River Matanuska Flows."

On the fair's opening day, the 79-year-old building was the spot where longtime Valley residents and descendants of pioneers stopped by to greet one another and swap memories.

The barn sees such scenes throughout the State Fair, said Joan Juster, who co-produced the documentaries. She called it "the reunion place."

Wineck recounted how his grandfather, a Finn named Aldrich Wiinikka, first came to Alaska during the Klondike and Nome gold rushes. One of his sons, Edward, Earl's father, made his first visit to the territory in 1919. He worked in the fishing industry in Bristol Bay and cut wood for paddle-wheel steamships before relocating permanently in the 1930s.

He was pounding points -- hammering pipes into frozen ground to thaw it for gold mining -- in Fairbanks when he heard about the Matanuska agricultural colony slated to start in 1935. He took the train to the fledgling settlement with his brother and found work constructing public buildings for the project.

As winter came on, some of the colonists decided to abandon their homesteads and go back to the states. Edward Wineck picked up a vacated parcel near Bodenburg Butte and sent for his family.

"We left Seattle on February 22, 1936," Earl Wineck said, recalling the date was George Washington's Birthday. "We arrived in Seward on the S.S. Northwestern, got on the train and met him in Anchorage. We stayed a day or two then took the train to Palmer. There was no road at the time."

The property had not been cleared and contained nothing except a house that the original homesteader had built but never lived in. Earl attended a two-room school near the tract.

"In the summer of 1936, the property was cleared by the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) boys and others, called transients," Wineck said. Edward Wineck, an accomplished carpenter, put up several barns that summer, including his own.

"A lot of the settlers didn't know much about building," Earl Wineck said and added with a chuckle, "A lot of 'em didn't know too much about farming, either." That included his dad.

"My father was not a farmer. He left and went to work in Kodiak to build the Navy base there in 1939 and in the summer of 1940 came back to work on Fort Richardson," Earl Wineck said.

The farm work fell to young Earl, his mother and a younger brother. It wasn't easy. Earl Wineck eventually went into electrical work and moved to Anchorage in 1948. He worked on White Alice and DEW line projects among other jobs. "It was something I liked better than farming," he said. "I was happy to finally get away from the farm."

His parents also relocated and rented out the property. But in the 1970s, the elder Wineck noticed the barn needed a new roof. His son had read that the State Fair manager was looking for period buildings to anchor a "Colony Village" portion of the fairgrounds.

"He called the guy up and made the arrangements and donated the barn," Earl Wineck said. But that wasn't the end of the story. The truss bridges on the original Glenn Highway didn't allow enough room to accommodate the big building. Moving had to wait until the new Glenn was constructed across the hayflats. It had beam bridges unencumbered by any overhead structures. Even then, the barn had to be cut into pieces for transport and reassembled at the fairgrounds. Edward Wineck supervised the dismantling of the building he'd erected 40 years before.

Reconstruction required a few new pieces, notably the wood floor. But it is essentially the same place Earl Wineck shoveled out as a kid. The windows that surround the space are original and somewhat unusual. Barns in the Lower 48 typically don't have much in the way of glass. In the dark winters of Alaska, however, it was important to use all the natural light possible.

For some years the barn was the site of the fair's annual antique market. It began to transition into a history facility in 2011, showing Juster's films. Last year the Palmer Historical Society got involved, sharing the space to put on a display about the history of the fair.

This year's exhibit focuses on the colony's early years, with photos, artifacts and detailed dioramas. Among the items on display are household products of the era, like Fels-Naptha soap, and tools ranging from a foot-operated potato planting implement to a gas-powered iron and a dangerous-looking pressure canner.

It makes sense to use the barn as a history center, Juster said. Outside of the fair season she regularly has elementary school classes come by for tours. "For the most part, the kids don't know about farming, what it took, how it was done," she said. "Few of us do."

"Alaska Far Away," which has been seen by millions of viewers on public television, is shown daily during the fair along with the other documentary. The footage includes newsreel clips and interviews with Palmer old-timers, many of which were conducted right there in the Wineck Barn. The movie screenings are free with fair admission.

The barn is also the site of various fair events like the Senior Joke and Storytelling Day on Wednesday, Sept. 2. Earl Wineck said he expected to be there, but wasn't sure that he'd participate.

Juster suspected he would. "He was here on opening day, chatting with folks and sharing his stories," she said.

"Earl's got stories that would go on forever," said his wife, Rebecca.

But most visitors appeared to be entering the barn for the first time, curiously looking at the old boards and the items on display and reading the signs that recount the history of the colony.

"The story is old," said Palmer Historical Society president Sheri Hamming. "But the interest is always new."

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