Among the earliest residents of the region were two groups of Athabascan natives: the Dena’ina, who came from the west, across the Alaska Range and settled the lower valley near Cook Inlet’s Knik Arms and the Ahtna, who migrated down the Matanuska River’s upper valley from the Copper River region to the east. In small groups, the enterprising Athabascans moved extensively throughout the area, developing a highly successful culture of subsistence and trade with other regions.
Evidence suggests that Russian hunters and traders were in the area prior to Captain James Cook’s exploratory voyage that gave the inlet its name in 1778. They traded with seafaring natives for pelts of sea otters and other marine mammals, and with inland peoples for upland furs, copper, fish and other goods. A Russian trading post operated for a time near the confluence of the Knik and Matanuska Rivers several miles southwest of present-day Palmer. While the Russians established settlements in the lower Cook Inlet, there is no evidence they attempted to do so in the Matanuska Valley.
With the collapse of sea otter populations and the lucrative trade in their fur coinciding with expensive wars and political strife at home, the Russians sold off their claim to Alaska in 1867. The United States paid two cents per acre for that claim to 586,400 square miles of mostly unexplored land.
Interest in fur trading continued after the U.S. took control. The Russian American Trading Company operations were taken over by the Alaska Commercial Company and other small trading companies established themselves over the years around Cook Inlet. Trappers and prospectors were drawn to the area, encouraged by the abundance of game and tantalizing gold flakes in local streams. A network of trails developed throughout the valley, improving and expanding upon those created by the Natives long before.
Significant gold deposits were discovered in 1897 on Willow Creek in the Talkeetna Mountains of the valley’s northern rim. The small town of Knik on the northwest shore of Knik Arm became the supply center for mines that developed from that strike and other gold discoveries further north. At the turn of the century, with a population approaching 500, Knik was the commercial and social center of the valley, where traders provided goods from “outside” in exchange for furs and gold, and Natives prospered by trading and guiding prospectors and explorers.
One of the prominent valley traders was George W. Palmer who arrived in the area in 1893 and took over operation of the existing Alaska Commercial Company trading post at Knik. He would subsequently open his own store there, become the postmaster and enter into numerous other commercial ventures in the area. Palmer observed that the Matanuska River to the east of Knik was an important travel route used by Ahtna Natives. So, not far from where a town would one day develop and adopt his name, he established an unmanned post on the bank of that river, stocked it with goods, provided a price list and left it to the honesty of his clientele to conduct trade. Apparently, it was a success for many years.
Prospectors found coal as well as gold in the area. The U.S. Navy became interested in the high quality coal deposits of the Matanuska River valley to fuel their pacific Fleet. As railroad construction passed through the valley in 1914-1915 on its way from Seward to Fairbanks, a branch line was constructed up the Matanuska River to access that coal. The community “Matanuska” developed at the branch line junction.
A section house and siding were built on the line about five miles north of Matanuska junction and central to numerous homesteads. Soon, a fledgling community began to form around a small depot, a store, and in 1917, a post office. Establishment of the post office triggered a need for an official name. Initially called “Warton” it would later adopt the name “Palmer” in honor of the prominent valley trader.
Encouraged by the success of garden vegetables and hay crops produced by early homesteaders and others, the U.S. Department of Agriculture established an experimental station near Matanuska in 1917 to explore the potential for greater agricultural development in the valley. The railroad encouraged settlers to take up homesteads in the valley. Between 1929 and 1934, railroad representatives recruited some 55 farm families from “the States” to move here.
As the Great Depression forced destitute farm families onto government relief rolls, the Roosevelt administration began a resettlement program as part of their “New Deal.” In 1935, the largest of these resettlement projects moved approximately 203 young families from rural Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin to the Matanuska Valley. Because of railroad access, available land, good soil and encouraging history of agriculture in the area, the little town of Palmer was chosen to the cultural and economic center of this new agricultural colony.
While the government’s “colony” was short lived, the community grew. The roads, power distribution, telephone system, schools and other social and economic development evidenced today in the Palmer rea largely began with that government program.
The once-great glacier that scoured out a magnificent valley at the head of Alaska’s Cook Inlet has long since melted away to the remnant “Knik” and “Matanuska" glaciers which now feed their melt water rivers flowing through that valley. The city of Palmer nestles at the eastern end of it, along the Matanuska River which gives the valley its name. The valley is surrounded by two distinct mountain ranges: the Talkeetna Range, to the north of town, and the Chugach Range, which skirts along the south and east edges of Palmer. This dynamic landscape offers an amazing outdoor playground with numerous trails and an abundance of diverse wildlife waiting to be explored.
Palmer is located just 42 miles (68 km) northeast of Anchorage on the Glenn Highway. The city itself has a total area of 3.8 square miles (9.7 square kilometers). Although it does have its own airport, visitors to the area must travel on commercial flights that land in Anchorage where they then must rent a vehicle or hire a shuttle to transport them to Palmer.
Why the giant vegetables?
You might have heard of Alaska's giant vegetables, especially the famous massive cabbages. What you may not know is that members of the Matanuska Valley's dedicated farming community hold multiple world records for giant cabbages, turnips, carrots, broccoli and other vegetables. Every year, people bring their oversized crops to the Alaska State Fair in Palmer to be weighed, judged and displayed, to the continual amazement of the public. Residents of the area are often asked the question, "why do vegetables grow so large in Alaska?" The answer is simple: The Matanuska-Susitna Valley, also considered the bread basket of Alaska, was carved out by a glacier. Remnants of that glacier still exists today in the soil which is a combination of both soil and glacier silt. In addition, the Valley has ideal growing conditions in the summer that include average temperatures of 61 degrees Fahrenheit and up to 19 hours of daylight which extends the growing time for local produce. These two factors when combined, provide the ideal growing conditions that are capable of creating some big masterpieces.
As mentioned earlier, Palmer rests in a valley. The city itself lies on the far east end with the remaining portion of the valley extending west as far as the city of Talkeetna located 84.5 miles (136 km) away. Palmer is a part of the Matanuska-Susitna (Mat-Su) Valley, which spans over 23,000 square miles of land, three mountain ranges, four state game refugees, six recreational rivers, multiple glaciers, and thousands of lakes, ponds, and streams. Because there is so much wilderness to hike in, the Mat-Su Valley boasts over 1,000 miles of documented trails.
According to the 2010 census, there were 5,937 people, 1,508 households, and 1,058 families residing the city. However, Palmer is a rapidly growing town; the estimated population has been estimated to have risen to 6,515 in 2014.
In 2010, the racial makeup of Palmer was 79.1% white, 1.8% African American, 9.2% Native Alaskan and Native American, 1.1% Asian, .4% Pacific Islander, 4.6% Hispanic or Latino, and 7.6% from two or more races.
According to the most recent data the population in Palmer is diverse in age, with 33.7% under the age of 19, 8.3% from 20 to 24, 27.5% 25 to 44, 20.8% from 45 to 64, and 9.6% were over 65 years of age or older. The median age was 29 years old, and for every 100 females there were 98.1 males.
The median income for a household in the Palmer city limits in 2010 was $45,571, and the median income for a family is $53,164. The median income for males in the city was $44,716 versus $25,221 for females. The per capita income for the city was $17,203.
Palmer has a mild coastal climate (that is, if any part of Alaska can be considered mild!). The average monthly temperature for December and January is 13 degrees Fahrenheit, while for July and August it is 58 degrees Fahrenheit. The coastal climate of the area results in smaller amounts of snow than other areas of Alaska. The highest average monthly snowfall is 9.3 inches. Because Palmer rests at the mouths of two valleys, however, the town routinely experiences very high winds which can remove most of the accumulated snow.
Because Alaska is close to the north pole, daylight varies greatly between the summer and winter. In June, Palmer gets an average of 19 hours of light per day, while there is an average of only 5 hours of light in December. It is difficult to say exactly how many hours of light occur near the winter and summer solstices, because the low angle of the sun results in very long periods of dusk and dawn.
Many individuals have trouble adjusting to the unusually long and short days, which can result in tiredness and depression in the winter and sleeplessness in the summer. Plenty of folks, however, consider the unusual quality of the light and the fantastic sunrises and sunsets to be worth the extra darkness. In addition, enthusiastic outdoorspeople make up a significant portion of the population, and they often welcome the extra daylight hours to hunt, fish and hike in the summer, prefering to sleep a little less in order to enjoy the short warm season more fully.
U.S. Census FactFinder Website
Matanuska-Sustina Borough Fast Facts