PALMER — The big wooden barns of the historic Matanuska Colony are dwindling in the face of development and decay.
More than 80 years ago, government agents seeking farmland for 200 Depression-stricken families from Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin plotted the Colony on some of the Matanuska Valley's most fertile land. After they started arriving in 1935, the colonists built classic Midwest barns.
But over the years, subdivisions replaced many of the original farms. Gravel beneath the soil became the Valley's most lucrative crop.
Now, only about a quarter of the barns remain and many are dilapidated. One of them is the sagging brown-gray structure on Tracy and Kathy Moffitt's farm. It has survived, though with a drunken lean to the north.
As cows grazed on green fields last week, barn restorer Michael Stitt crouched in the hayloft and, with a winch, hand-tightened a chain and cable wrapped around the beams of the barn's upper wall.
Jacks held up the roof. Decades of pigeon manure spattered the floor. Below, the rotting logs waited among bigger problems.
The wall moved as Stitt cranked the winch.
"We had to start up here first — with the best part of this building — and get it under control," he said.
Redemption on the frontier
Nearly 1,000 new Alaskans arrived in 1935 to the mud and mosquitoes of a sprawling tent camp that became tidy homes — chosen from five models — on farms of 40 acres or more. They intended to reverse their fortunes and help Alaska grow its own food instead of importing $6 million worth every year, according to a 1985 Matanuska-Susitna Borough publication called "Knik, Matanuska, Susitna: A Visual History of the Valleys."
The new settlers came bearing the burden of $3,000 federal loans, cleared 7,500 acres of farmland, and built identical, still unmistakable barns: 32 feet by 32 feet square with two-sided, two-sloped gambrel roofs.
Today, only about 60 barns are left, in varying condition, according to a count by Helen Hegener, author of "The Matanuska Colony Barns." Many barns collapsed or disappeared with the farms that gave way to high-density developments.
[Photos: Portraits of people and their Matanuska Colony barns]
Homes sprouting from the soil
The land selected for the Matanuska Colony was the best farmland in Alaska, according to Arthur Keyes, who owns a farm on the Springer Loop system along the Glenn Highway in Palmer and serves as director of the Alaska Division of Agriculture.
Today, farmland is "low-hanging fruit" for developers who go into bidding wars with deeper pockets than farmers, Keyes said. But back in the Colony days, federal agents selected that same land for new settlers who used horses, not tractors.
"They identified the best agricultural land for this project because they had the very best chance of making it," he said. "And that's literally what's being converted into subdivisions."
Keyes owns a Colony barn he and his wife decided to buy for $10,000. The barn was also on Springer Loop, but not on their farm.
The purchase price was the cheapest part of the deal, he said.
"It was in pretty bad shape. The one wall was rotten. The roof was leaking. The floor was rotten. In hindsight, if I knew what I know now, I probably wouldn't have bought it."
Along with all the work needed, his contractor made his own rough-cut lumber.
"And mine is by no means done," Keyes said. "If you drive by, it's square now. It would have fallen over if someone hadn't done something with it. It was headed to the history of a former Colony barn."
Some of the remaining barns are swaybacked shells of their original tidy lines. Others that have been moved from their original farms sit restored at public spots like the Alaska State Fairgrounds or Wasilla Museum of Transportation and Industry.
Mark Loomis now lives in one. Loomis grew up on Outer Springer Loop playing in the Colony barn across the street. Gradually, it fell into disrepair. The property owner talked about getting the fire department to burn it down.
Loomis convinced her to sell it to him instead for $250. He didn't really need a barn.
"I just wanted to save this one," he said.
Loomis and his wife, Nickie Jordan, decided to turn the barn into a house and moved it to his property. He also got the bug for Colony barns: At one point, working with a partner, Loomis had five.
"I just grew up around them and they're just kind of, to me, they represent what Palmer was," he said. "I just hated to see anything happen to them."
Time and the elements
Originally, the barns were built on piles driven into the ground but without solid foundations. Most of the barns that remain sit on retrofitted foundations or were moved to foundations already in place.
Barns without maintained roofs also suffer.
Stitt, who lives in Willow, hopes to finish the Moffitt project by October. He's restored several other Colony barns already, and shows photos of the finished ones with bright red tops and fresh log bottoms.
Despite the originally identical blueprints, the remaining barns vary, Stitt said.
"They take on the accent of the man that's farming the farm."