Born at the height of the Great Depression as a component of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal relief program, the Southcentral Alaska town of Palmer is the result of one of the country’s greatest social experiments.
Today, the city of Palmer is a bedroom community to Anchorage, 40 miles to the south. But at the time of its establishment, the mission was to transplant 200 struggling farming families from the Midwest to Alaska where they would cultivate a new agricultural economy. In 1935, the down-on-their-luck families stepped off the Alaska Railroad in the Matanuska and Susitna valleys, deemed suitable by the government for farming. The soil was rich by Alaska standards but the growing season was just long enough for cool-weather grains and certain vegetables and there was little margin for error.
The farmers’ perseverance paid off, however, and today the Mat-Su Valley is Alaska’s breadbasket, producing 75 percent of the state’s total agricultural output. Palmer is famed for its 90-pound cabbages, seven-pound turnips and other monster root vegetables, the result of the midnight sun that shines up to 20 hours a day during the summer.
Things to do
Palmer is striking because its appearance is a blend of Midwestern farming community and alpine paradise: old red barns and fields of hay are bordered by knife-edged mountain peaks. This downtown area exudes a 1930s ambience, as much of it has been preserved right down to the antique furniture and wood floors. The Palmer Visitor Center is a rustic log cabin next door to the Matanuska Valley Agricultural Showcase, a garden of flowers and the area's famous oversized vegetables. The Colony House Museum was an original farmhouse from the 1930s and is decorated with original furnishings.
History isn’t the only thing the town has to offer, though. Palmer is a full-service community and central to several day trip possibilities. To the north, Hatcher Pass Road leads to scenic Hatcher Pass and Independence Mine State Historical Park. The Hatcher Pass area is a stunning recreational area filled with panoramas of the Talkeetna Mountains, foot trails and gold mine artifacts including the 16 remaining buildings of Independence Mine. To the south is Knik Glacier, which is best experienced on an airboat ride up the Knik River.
Many visitors like to cruise Palmer's back roads past original colony farms. Begin by heading nine miles northeast on the Glenn Highway and then hop on Farm Loop Road and, if it’s mid- to late summer, keep an eye out for roadside vegetable stands. Palmer’s most popular agricultural attraction is the annual Alaska State Fair, a rollicking 12-day event that ends on Labor Day. There’s live music, a rodeo, a carnival, the Great Alaskan Husband Holler contest, greased pig races and, of course, the giant cabbage weigh-off to see who grew the biggest one in Alaska.