Colony Days 2023 kicks off this weekend in Palmer

Colony Days 2023 kicks off this weekend in Palmer
Published: Jun. 9, 2023 at 7:47 PM AKDT
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PALMER, Alaska (KTUU) - An annual celebration that bridges the agricultural roots of Palmer with modern-day enterprise kicks off this weekend in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. Colony Days is a three-day event that transforms downtown Palmer to feature vendors, games, contests, and activities all while celebrating the original colonists that made the town into what it is today.

Ailis Vann, the executive director of the Greater Palmer Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber has been running the event for at least 30 years, but it’s unclear if Colony Days has been celebrated since its inception in the 1930s.

“With any sort of history, I feel like especially in Alaska because we’re a young state, there’s some gaps,” Vann said. “We can’t find documents on what the themes were and stuff like that — so it’s a little fuzzy. But I’m sure there’s people around that if they want to come tell us what it was in 1982 or 1979, we would love that.”

The city of Palmer that exists today is, in part, because of the 203 colony families that relocated from the Midwest during the height of the Great Depression in 1935. The move was part of a program initiated by then-president Theodore Roosevelt to take destitute farmers onto more profitable lands.

“The colony families — we’re up to fourth and fifth generation now because, you know, that was 87 years ago when they came,” said Barbara Thomas, a second-generation colony kid and docent coordinator for the Colony House Museum. “My parents were original colonists from Wisconsin. So they came up in 1935 and the colony farm that they had — and that I grew up on — is now the Musk Ox Farm here in Palmer.”

As part of Colony Days, the Colony House Museum is running an open house to the public as well as a tent city market that features vintage items for purchase. According to Thomas, Palmer was known as a tent city during the first years of the relocation project, as many cabins, barns, and outbuildings had yet to be constructed, leaving families to live in tents.

After the colonists made it through the first winter, they held a celebration in 1936 to commemorate their survival.

“Then they just continued to do that every year,” Thomas said. “I remember when I was a kid in the 50s going to Colony Days and they’d have a barbecue — big barbecues, like open-pit with a cow or pigs or whatever — and yeah, a lot of games for kids and some of what we still do.”

A lot has changed since the original celebration over eight decades ago, but the weekend schedule is packed with activities that hold traditional values, such as tractor pulls, wagon rides, and the famous Colony Days parade that happens downtown starting at 11 a.m. Saturday.

Some of the more modern-day events feature a kids’ carnival, a kite demonstration, and even a rhubarb cooking contest that runs from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. on Sunday.

Colony Days began Friday and will run through Sunday. The event as well as parking are free to the public.