Matanuska-Susitna Borough

Matanuska Colony documentary lands support

Mat-Su | Patty Sullivan | Thursday, January 05, 2006

PALMER—An unfinished, historically accurate film that documents the founding of the Matanuska Colony recently won two sizable grants. In December, the Rasmuson Foundation awarded $95,000, and the USDA Rural Development Alaska Office awarded up to $50,000 for the completion of the film, "Alaska Far Away," now in its 11th year of production. Seeing the documentary as long overdue, the MAT-SU Borough applied for the grants on behalf of the Palmer Historical Society. The Borough also contributed $20,000."History books cannot convey the feelings, anxieties and hope, families experienced as they left their known world for a promise of a better life far outside their geographical realm," wrote Cultural Resource Specialist Fran Seager-Boss with the Borough. The comprehensive documentary shows both the hardship and the opportunity for 204 families that ventured north as part of a $4 million federal experiment to farm Alaska. It was 1935, during the throes of the Great Depression, when America's jobs had dried up and banks, failed. The states where nearly all these recruits came from -- Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin -- were some of the most poverty-stricken areas in the U.S. Set far away in the territory of Alaska, the Matanuska Colony was one of more than 100 other projects that President Franklin D. Roosevelt created in an attempt to end nationwide unemployment. The film captured the memories of several colonists who have since died. Only 8 original colonists are still living, all women. "Their memories form an extraordinary archive of the Great Depression, the New Deal, and an important time in the development of Alaska and the United States," wrote the producers Paul Hill and Joan Juster of Juster Hill Productions in California. As a child of a colonist, Wayne Bouwens saw firsthand the financial boon to South Central Alaska that was brought about by the sudden influx of 1,000 people to the Matanuska Valley. Bouwens said that first summer brought merchants from Anchorage and Valdez. Up went a drugstore, grocery store, clothing and sporting stores in Palmer, where previously there had been wilderness. Bouwens is vice president of the Palmer Historical Society. For more than a year he helped raise $48,000 locally to get the film finished. The Colony put Alaska on the map, Bouwens said, just 68 years after it was bought from Russia. He expects "Alaska Far Away" to be viewed nationwide on PBS. "They've done an exceptional job," Bouwens said. "I've shown it to a couple of filmmakers that looked at that and said that's a million-dollar film, even the rough-cut that it was. "All raw footage, some 120 hours, will belong to the Palmer Historical Society when the film is completed. The documentary's projected final cost: $402,729. To date, some $217,000 has been spent, much of it on historical research, camera crews and travel for interviews in far-flung parts of the country. The generous Rasmuson grant will, among other benefits, hire an editor to review 72 hours of interviews and 3 hours of archival footage and pay for copyrights on 200 photos. The USDA Rural Development agency is a descendant of the government arm that originally brought the colonists here, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. "The colonists' triumph over adversity is what our agency is about. We are very proud of this documentary project, and pleased that we are able to facilitate its completion," said Jean Kornmuller, budget analyst with Alaska Rural Development. The local community has rallied around the project. Seventeen private donations support it as well as $10,000 from Palmer City, $2,500 from the MAT-SU Borough School District, $2,500 from Matanuska Valley Federal Credit Union, and $2,500 from the phone cooperative MTA, among several others. Local donations will help pay for original music composition and film narration in addition to other costs. # For more information contact: Cultural Resource Specialist Fran Seager-Boss 745-9859