Historic Alaska dairy building destroyed by fire

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — A fire on Tuesday destroyed Palmer’s historic Matanuska Maid Dairy warehouse building, which was built in the 1930s when colonists arrived from the Midwest to try their hand at farming in Alaska.

Jon Owen, the city’s public safety director, said a call came in from the Valley Hotel at 3:33 a.m. from someone who saw the vacant building across town on fire. By the time fire crews arrived, flames could be seen coming out from under the eaves all the way around the building. In the next minute or two, the entire roof was in flames, Owen said.

Firefighters worked quickly to contain the blaze. More than two dozen pieces of firefighting equipment were brought to the scene, including some that were placed between the warehouse building and a petroleum distribution company next door, Owen said.

About 5,000 gallons of water a minute was poured on the fire. It took about three hours to knock the fire down, but the building was destroyed, he said.

The warehouse building, one of the oldest in Palmer, had been vacant for years and was boarded up, Palmer City Clerk Janette Bower told The Associated Press.

“It is very, very sad,” Bower said.

The building was constructed in 1935, predating statehood by more than 20 years.

“That is really old for Alaska standards,” Bower said.

The city was negotiating to purchase the property, along with at least a half-dozen others that once were part of the Matanuska Maid Dairy operation. Voters in 2009 approved a $3 million bond to buy the properties, Bower said. But the negotiations were ongoing. Palmer does not own the properties, Bower said.

While the city hadn’t settled on a plan for the Mat Maid properties, some ideas had been bounced around, she said, including turning the properties into a new city hall complex, or using them for a museum or theater arts building.

Bower said the colonists settled in the Palmer area under the New Deal to spur economic development during the Great Depression. The idea was to see if there were agricultural opportunities to be had in Alaska, Bower said.

More than 200 families, mostly from Wisconsin and Minnesota, were brought to Alaska under the Matanuska Colony project. Bower said the warehouse building was one of the first structures to be built.

The Mat Maid dairy started at that time as a dairy cooperative. It was taken over by the state in the mid-1980s after its private owner went bankrupt. The money-losing operation was subsidized by the state and shut down for good in December 2007.

It appeared for a time that the valley’s tradition of dairy farming also would be lost but it was revived in 2008 under a private operation called the Matanuska Creamery, which is successfully filling a niche market for fresh milk and cheese produced entirely by Alaska farmers.

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