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The Matanuska Valley Colony - Mary Nan Gamble's Report

In 1934, Mary Nan Gamble, an administrative assistant with the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, helped with the planning and criteria for selecting 200 families to participate in the Matanuska Colony project.  Ms. Gamble was one of three people who accompanied the contingent to Alaska and lived with them in tents until roads and cabins were built.  The following memo is an example of her extensively documented observations.


From “A Sampler from the Gamble Papers and Photographs”

Alaska Historical Collections, Alaska State Library

Mary Nan Gamble, Album and papers of administrative work for the Matanuska Colony Project, 1935-1945, PCA 270, MS 94


June 12, 1935




TO:                  Colonel Westbrook


FROM:            Mary Nan Gamble


SUBJECT:       Report--Matanuska Valley Project

1.      FAMILIES 

The selection of families is very good. They are a strong and wholesome group of people, and broke all ties with no visible signs of regret. In the majority of cases they are prepared to face a few trying years with a wonderful spirit, and look forward to making a permanent settle in Alaska.


The exceptional cases are already beginning to cause some trouble and will need careful management, so that they too may fit into the group. There are a few families who have had no farming experience and background who were led to believe by some poor case worker that their avocations rather than farming would consume their time; they will be problems until some definite settlement is made. At Mr. Irwin’s suggestion I talked to the members of those families.


This angle, in addition to a decided lack of equalization in the distribution of equipment, plus the fact that these people’s every move has been guided for a long while by welfare workers, is a factor that requires definite action. The act of dropping them immediately is not advisable apparently and their mental reaction to the project within the next few months will be of infinite value. Although realizing this, Mr. Irwin is not in favor of continuing this type of treatment, but Miss Forrest, representative from the Juneau office has “in mind a person for the place.” Miss de Foras, Red Cross nurse and general utility person, might have been able to work as nurse and counselor had the camps been together, but since the camps vary in distance from three to fifteen miles from the central community and because she is absolutely dependent upon the kindness of truck and school bus drivers for transportation, it will not be possible for her to follow up families, budgetary and general needs at the needed time.


The question of hold-over medical cases, returning of maladjustments to the United States and the procedures to be followed in such cases, continued care etc., are problems that will yet be of individual and financial interest to the states concerned, if immediate contacts are made. If much time intervenes I question the possibility of linking these problems between the state and the Alaska Rural Rehabilitation Corporation.


None of the food as approved in the budgets made by Miss Mason and Mrs. Marie Dresden Lane has been received. Only a few staples and no perishables have arrived at Palmer. No bills of lading or manifests were available for checking until they were found in Mr. Troast’s possession on May 29.


Practically all food and immediate household necessaries now available in the small commissary have been purchased by Mr. Walters, Commissary Clerk, on emergency orders at Anchorage. Prices are exorbitant and seldom are they listed on the duplicate slips furnished for colonists. Already many of the Minnesota families have run up bills far beyond the anticipated budget for a month.


No accounting procedure has been adopted and no check of supplies issued from the commissary has been kept. Mr. Atwood has worked diligently on forms, etc., but installation of a system has not become effective.


The widely scattered camps vary in size, the smallest having about eight tents; the question of passable roads, water and food supplies, enter into the proof of the wisdom of certain site selections. Delay in determining camp sites accounts for lack of housing accommodations for colonists on arrival.


Wells are being dug with inadequate equipment—deep water wells.


Allowing individual colonists to leave the camps to settle on their own forty acres may be practicable from certain standpoints, but will not build toward the group spirit desired. There is a definite plan among the colonists for each family to start a cabin on their own tracts until a home can be built. Unless this idea is killed, time and effort will be expended unnecessarily.


The colonists resent the waste of time, lack of organization, trying to follow contradictory orders and the loss of sight of a definite goal and unless a person with administrative ability organizes the staff and the colonists to work with the already organized transient labor group, the communistic feeling that is being felt even now, will become open.


The people are well, willing and anxious to work, and if kept employed will be content with the progress of their labor. All have a profound respect for Mr. Irwin, faith in his promises, but to retain this, he must have organized cooperation in driving this work toward an immediate showing.


Apparently he is overcome with the enormity of the problems involved and must have a strong person to relieve him of much of the responsibility. He is torn between local, territorial and Federal authorities and is apparently unable to cope with the situation.


The Juneau office has had a representative on the set-up since its beginning. Miss Forrest, Deputy Administrator of Relief in Alaska and confidential secretary to the Governor, has been on the ground all the time. She is capable, a far-sighted person, and has been of infinite value to Mr. Irwin, and is appreciated by him. There is no question of her being a driving factor in the project so far. She directs all group movement, all administrative help, approves personnel placements, etc. She selected Mr. Walters, Commissary Clerk, who has proved very unpopular with the colonists. Mr. Walters was on relief in Juneau. She plans to make other personnel assignments, Mr. Irwin concurring. Her work is accepted as final by the colonists. Although not popular, she is able and her supervision is appreciated. Mr. Irwin is absolutely acquiescent to her wishes.


Unless authority and work is delegate [sic], the matter of equipment, budgets and family care will be given no further consideration. These people probably do not need a highly trained social welfare worker but they do need an understanding, practical individual who can check upon their needs and work with Mr. Irwin in curtailing unnecessary expense.


The scattered camps will lead to a clique feeling and petty jealousies. Two of the camps are very poorly selected and one has been definitely condemned by the transient doctor as being absolutely unfit. I visited this camp and found that unless I walked on boards the water came well up above my ankles. The stumps of small trees are about fifteen inches above the ground, and should a child fall on these serious injury would result.


The question of division of cattle for the milk supply has been one of considerable discussion. There was no more provision for the care of the stock than there was for the colonists.


The household equipment that was supposed to have been stored until fall, when the houses are ready for occupancy, is now standing in the open, in some cases covered with tarpaulin. The Matanuska warehouse is entirely too small to take care of the enormous amount of freight. The railroad authorities told me that as soon as the frost was out of the ground even this small warehouse would fall under the amount of freight already stored there.


Until the day I left no steps has been made toward the building of a warehouse. The present commissary is about fifteen by thirty feet and is full to overflowing without even the necessary amount of staple groceries, much less those approved and ordered by this office.


Mr. Irwin said that within the next few days that the town site would be definitely decided upon and the commissary, warehouse, community house and other necessary buildings would be begun. A small temporary community house is being built by the colonists under the direction of Mr. Dingle, local pastor.


If groups are properly organized, with the number of people available for work and the long hours of light, there should be no question of their being able to prepare for the winter. However, if immediate organization is not brought about, a great many of the people are going to become discontented enough to ask help from their friends for their return to the States.

Mr. Irwin is tremendously interested and earnest in his desire that the project be a success, and I feel he will be more than grateful for some person of authority from this office to work with him for the next few weeks as recommended by Mr. Carleton.

Gallery of Images
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Transients disembarking from passenger cars
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Site of camp No. 1 before construction
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Men working on tent frames; box cars in background
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Temporary kitchen for Construction Division
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Camp completed, 22 tents.
Click here for all 7 photos in this gallery.

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