The Trading Post
A Historic Building Remains a Testament to the Success of the Colony Project
By Cecil Sanders
The Trading Post – If these walls could talk, they would have endless stories to tell. They would tell of love, friendship, struggles and overcoming long winters, and all those unique tales from the early days of Palmer and the Colony Project.
Built in 1935, the Trading Post was designed with the assistance of notable Texas architect, David R. Williams, who worked with Harry K. Wolfe and Leo Jacobs. The Trading Post was to serve as the commissary and grocery store for the new colony, within Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. The project resettled many Midwestern families, hit especially hard by the Great Depression, to the fertile Matanuska Valley, in an attempt to help families start a new life in the Territory of Alaska. These families labored to clear and cultivate their land in order to eventually sell to markets in the Valley and Anchorage.
The Trading Post, as it was known from 1935 to the beginning of WWII, bustled with activity when the commissary/grocery store opened in 1936. In that first year only, instead of U.S. dollars the government issued scrip, called bingles, monthly to the new colonists. The amount distributed was based on the size of their family.
By late 1938 and into 1939, the colonists began selling their produce in the government run Co-op. In 1939, the government turned over the operation of the Co-op and it moved to the other side of Dahlia Street to the Creamery Warehouse Building. During this time some farmers, such as Walter Pippel, were discontented about the prices being offered for their produce. Pippel took care to clean, prune, grade and package his produce. He felt it was unfair to receive the same price for his produce as someone who just took their dirty, unkempt, unpacked, ungraded produce to the Co-op.
After WWII the Trading Post became known as the Co-op Recreational Hall. From there it changed hands, names and uses many times. From 1935 to 1970, the Co-op Recreation Hall was home to two non-profit organizations, four eateries, seven doctor’s offices, one religious denomination, three governmental offices, the Palmer Library, one department store, ten beauty/barber shops (some with public showers), two retail stores, one realty office, two shoe repair businesses, a bus depot, a credit union, recreation-related businesses, and various clubs such as an amateur radio club and a sportsmen’s club with a shooting gallery in the basement.
In the early nineties, the building became vacant, soon dilapidated and condemned. Former Palmer Mayor Delena Johnson, at the time a private business woman, purchased the building in hopes of restoring it. She wanted to see one of Palmer’s treasured pieces of history returned to its former glory. With much planning and timely help, a complete overhaul began, and soon the building came back to life.
Currently, the Palmer City Alehouse resides in the original Trading Post building. They partner with local vendors to purchase a large amount of its products from Valley vendors—fulfilling a purpose much like that of the old Trading Post.
Some say the Colony Project was a failure, some a success. A failure could be the many families who promptly left because of deplorable conditions and inadequate management of the project from the federal level. A success could be that a population remained—hearty souls who left poverty and a bleak future to set sail on their dreams and ideas, and thrived in one of the most spectacular settings in the world. Regardless, we are left with jewels from that era of resolve and determination and what they produced is invaluable to us today.
While the name has changed, the spirit of the Trading Post lives on. On a warm sunny day outside, with musicians on stage playing, people relax at tables or lie in the grass while some stand by chatting and playing yard games on the lawn. Quickly you are taken back to the purpose of the Trading Post, a place where the community gathers.
Article originally appeared in the May/June 2016 issue of Last Frontier Magazine.