Two New Deal agencies crossed paths in Palmer, Alaska, in 1942: the Farm Security Administration (FSA), with a program to give struggling families, usually farmers, a new start in a new place, and the Rural Electrification Administration (REA), whose mission was to provide low-cost financing for building power lines.
Field men from the FSA had been in Palmer (45 miles northeast of Anchorage) since 1935, fast-tracking the establishment of a 13,000-acre colony populated by 203 families from economically depressed areas of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan in a fertile valley with the melodic name of Matanuska. (The FSA was known as the Resettlement Administration from 1935 to 1937).
The Minnesotans arrived in Seward, Alaska, by ship on May 5 and continued to Palmer by train. The others followed about two weeks later, crowding into tents provided by the FSA.
A drawing was conducted for 40-acre tracts, after which the farmers began clearing their land and building homes and barns. A government architect had drawn up plans for five different homes and one barn. Most of the buildings called for a combination of log and wood-frame construction.
There were already about 117 families in the Matanuska Valley when the colonists arrived, including 55 recruited by the Alaska Railroad to boost agricultural freight between 1929 and 1934, according to the University of Alaska.
In 1937, C. Earle Albrecht, the Matanuska colony’s doctor, wrote to the REA in Washington, D.C., about organizing an electric co-op and building power lines. The Matanuska Valley Farmers Cooperating Association followed two years later. In response, REA asked for “an accurate report and survey showing that adequate and constant power can be made available.”
So an “Electric Ball” was held one Saturday night in the Palmer community hall to raise money. A hand-drawn ad in The Valley Settler newspaper invited locals to “Dance your way to electric lights.”
The dance raised $150, enough for the colony’s chief surveyor to write an 18-page report that satisfied REA.
Early in 1940, REA sent a telegram giving the farm group the green light to organize a co-op utility, and about a year later, REA approved a $140,000 loan.
Doc Albrecht was one of five
Matanuska Electric Association (MEA) incorporators, two of whom were colonists. He was also the first valley resident to have a generator in his home.
In October 1941, Matanuska Electric Association arranged to buy wholesale power from Anchorage Power & Light Company for 2 cents a kilowatt-hour, and on January 20, 1942, electricity flowed to 127 consumers living along 93 miles of line. The co-op built 194 more miles of line over the next 18 months, and by the end of 1943, all 242 co-op members had lights.
Local historian Jim Fox, the grandson of colonists, told MEA that the Resettlement Administration’s plan for the Matanuska Colony included a power plant to provide electricity for a hospital, a school, a creamery, a hatchery, and a few other common buildings, but no provision was made to serve outlying farms.
The dairymen badly needed electricity to keep their milk fresh for market. The Alaska Territory Department of Health and Sanitation was putting pressure on them to either modernize or find another way to make a living.
MEA quotes a department official, E.E. Clements, in its 2015 annual report: “The people who formed the electrical co-op created something that ensured the success of the colony and made for a real livelihood [dairying] for the colonists. … It was a huge investment of optimism.”
Like the Alaska Territory itself, MEA grew rapidly after World War II and today serves some 51,00 consumers north and east of Anchorage.