Palmer Colony Days rebranded as Braided River Festival in historic name change
PALMER, Alaska (KTUU) - Greater Palmer Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Ailis Vann announced this week that the summer celebration started by the Matanuska Colony’s original residents in 1936 has been rebranded, and will instead adopt the moniker “Braided River Festival” starting this year from June 10-12.
Vann said in a Thursday press release that the chamber had received input about the name of two of the town’s festivals — Colony Days and the winter Colony Christmas event — and opted to rebrand. The winter celebration will now be named “Hometown Holidays,” Vann said in an interview. She said the chamber had been approached about the name for over a year and wanted to more fully represent all aspects of the history of Palmer.
“The concern was that all of the history of Palmer was not being represented,” Vann said. “We’re looking at it from a place, instead of just one aspect of the place.”
Since the press release was issued Thursday, Vann said the chamber has received over 200 phone calls and emails — both in support of and in opposition to the rebranding. Discussion also ramped up online about the decision. Vann said the most common fear she had heard is that the festival will be canceled, which she said is false.
“The only thing that’s changing is the name,” Vann said. “My hope after reading all of these comments and all of this passion behind all of this is that people will attend our special events committee meetings and be part of the festival moving forward because we want more highlights on the colony aspect of it.”
The Matanuska Colony began when 203 families were relocated as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal along with other agricultural colonies created in Georgia, Florida and Arkansas. According to Palmer Museum Executive Director Sam Dinges, the residents of the agricultural Matanuska Colony wanted to celebrate surviving the winter in 1936 and did so with a festival. The early-summer festival soon took on the name “grotto lunker festival,” Dinges said.
Vann said that records of the festival are sparse between the original iteration in 1936 and when Palmer was incorporated in 1951, but the chamber has been running the event for at least three decades, drawing thousands of visitors to Palmer for bed races, carnival rides, face painting, a 5-kilometer fun run, a farmers market and the culmination of the entire weekend — the parade down South Colony Way.
The festival has taken place every year since 1936 except for when it was canceled in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Dinges said that many of the visible landmarks in Palmer, including the historic water tower and Matanuska Maid block, are remnants of the original residents of the agricultural Matanuska Colony.
“The colony is a big, big story in Palmer, but it’s not the only story in Palmer,” Dinges said. “The Valley has been continuously inhabited, as near as we can tell, for almost 8,000 years. In this area the Ahtna and Dena’ina people are still here, the miners and homesteaders who came in who weren’t part of the colony project came here, the people who have come since who work in the oil industry or are part of the Anchorage workforce — they are all here and we’ve just got a whole bunch of stories going on in Palmer.”
During 2021 while many Southcentral Alaska communities still had restrictions on large events, the Matanuska-Susitna Borough did not have any borough-wide mask mandates or event restrictions. The state basketball tournaments were held in the Mat-Su, and the Colony Days festival weekend returned after a one-year hiatus to near-record attendance, according to Palmer Mayor Steve Carrington.
“Last year actually was a really good year for us in the whole realm of sales taxes,” Carrington said. “I think that’s because we were trying to carefully, methodically do events, you know, and still take into account difficulties with COVID, etc., and we were doing those events and we had a lot of people come out and it showed. In our bottom line in our sales tax ... we broke our budgeted amount that we thought we’d hit last year.”
Carrington said that at the Tuesday council meeting, he awarded a Golden Heart Lifetime Achievement award to Jack Snodgrass, whose family began a farm in what would become Palmer before the Matanuska agricultural colony was established in 1935.
“I’ve always been one to try to remind people of other parts of history, but the colony was a big deal,” Carrington said. “That’s when we kind of had our population boom and Palmer got kind of formatted into a recognizable town, more so than many other towns.”
The Palmer chamber issued a follow-up statement on its Facebook page on Friday in response to the discussion that generated around the rebranding, saying that the decision to change the name was approved by the chamber’s board of directors.
“I would just hope that the chamber might reconsider that keeping colony into the name of Colony Days, might be something they’d want to consider,” Carrington said. “Just from my personal viewpoint, it would be very appropriate to kind of have that connection to the past as well.”
The chamber website shows that the Braided River Festival already has over a dozen sponsors, and is accepting applications for this summer’s event. Vann said she is still looking forward to one of her favorite events of the year, even under a new name.
“I feel pretty confident that it will be amazing,” Vann said. “We’re looking forward to, like I said, hopefully, good weather and people coming out and being a part of it and being a part of the planning process — because it’s a small group of people that pull this off every year — so we welcome people to join us and help pull it off and make it bigger and better than ever.”
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