Christmas in America: Palmer, Alaska

Palmer, Alaska

Matanuska Valley farm

A farm near Palmer in the Matanuska Valley. There are worse places to settle.

Today I’m checking out another small town out of the way of most people: Palmer, Alaska, in the gorgeous Matanuska-Susitna Valley. This place was basically wilderness until 1935, when FDR’s Federal Emergency Relief Administration chose 200 families out of the Great Lakes region to colonise it. (These were folks used to the cold.) They arrived, laid out their tents, and began clearing forest for farms. You can imagine what that first winter was like when I tell you that 120 babies were born there in the following year. The land turned out also to be fertile, and there was a three-day harvest festival — now an annual summertime tradition.

Smoosh Racing?

Palmer, AK: the railway station still seems to be an important gathering place.

Palmer, AK: the railway station still seems to be an important gathering place.

The holiday tradition at Palmer is known as the Colony Christmas Celebration. It is the main wintertime event and perhaps the only event at which you’ll witness the townspeople engaged in the coldweather sport of smoosh racing. Smoosh racers appear to travel along the main street (indeed, maybe the only street) in teams of four, feet strapped to a couple of shared 2x4s. There are videos if you want to know what happens next. Gosh, it really is a frontier, still.

When the first colonists arrived in Palmer, they found themselves hopeful and homeless in a town with a train depot, a water tower, and not much else. The depot is little more than a collection of roofed rooms, but it has meaning about it and remains an important gathering spot. The train pulls through just outside the windows of a long chamber. For Colony Christmas, people bundled up in coats crowd round arts and crafts stalls, sing carols, visit Santa, and take sleigh rides. (Yes, one-horse open sleigh rides!)

Location: the Palmer train depot
Schedule: second Friday and Saturday in December

Here’s a film of some of the early settlers arriving at the Palmer train depot. How such footage even exists, I don’t know. They sure went all-out in the 1930s.

Travelling to America? Start here.

There’s no better place than the 2AD Memorial Library to find American travel guides. We have books on all fifty states, often several for each state, as well as guides for major U.S. cities. Our collection of oversized photography books is a great place to start planning.

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