A show-and-tell of the colony lifestyle
October 1, 2022 | View PDF
The third grade students looked at me like they did the other two docents – old ladies who were telling them what life was like back in the good old days of 1935. The way I talked made one student ask if grew up in the house. I couldn't blame him, but I wasn't even born for another 20 years. Why could I identify so easily with children living in Palmer in 1935?
Barbara Thomas, head docent for Colony House Museum, had asked me to help with the Knik Elementary School tours that October 2016 morning. Three of us worked together with two busloads of students from 10 a.m. until 12:45 p.m. One busload went to the Palmer Museum and Visitors Center, while the other came to us – around 20 students with a teacher and several parents. The groups switched halfway through the morning.
Barbara had the children sit on the living room floor facing her and the radio and gave a general overview about life in a colony house, emphasizing kid's stuff, such as how they "watched" the radio programs, using their imaginations. Life without television, cell phones, or other "screens". Since there was no electricity the first five years, the radio was powered by vehicle battery.
At the end of her remarks, Barbara introduced herself and her two helpers. She grew up in a colony family on what is now the Musk Ox Farm. Gayle Rowland was also a "colony kid", but since she came to Palmer as a 3-year-old child with her family on the ship, the St. Mihiel, she was known as a "boat kid".
I am not a colony kid, but my parents came to Alaska in the 1940s and 1950s and I love history.
The teacher split the group into thirds and we each took a small group for a tour around the house. I started on the back porch, then went on to the parents' bedroom, the "bathroom" (which could have been a sewing room or a baby nursery until electricity arrived) and the children's bedroom. Then, after I took the students upstairs to another bedroom (which is the museum office and curating room), we visited my favorite room, the kitchen. We three docents each started in a different area of the house and then exchanged places approximately every ten minutes.
Standing on the back porch, my group and I discussed numerous items and then I opened the back door so they could see the outhouse. I asked how many had used an outhouse – sometimes no one had, and other times, the whole group of six or seven kids raised their hands – and then told them that this outhouse has two holes. When I asked why that might be, one student suggested one hole was for #1 and the other for #2, causing much laughter.
While standing near the "bathroom", I talked about fetching water, heating it and filling a large tub placed in front of the kitchen stove for once-a-week baths. Who was going to get into the water first, the dirtiest or the cleanest?
In the kitchen, I first asked what was missing. (The sink has no faucet.) I talked about the slop bucket under the sink, a water bucket on the counter next to the sink, the butter churn, and how the food containers in the cupboards are made of paper or metal. No plastic. I pretend to be the mother cooking a breakfast of scrambled eggs and toast and have them imagine my children bringing me wood to heat the stove, water from the pump house, and eggs from the chicken house. Barbara had talked about all the chores the children did. I emphasize "toast", but when I asked what they thought the toaster was, no one got it correct that day. Most suggested it was a cheese grater and that the popcorn maker was a French fry fryer. All too soon our time was up. They thanked us and walked out the front door, so the next batch of students waiting on the front lawn could enter.
Later that night in my modern 2016 home, I was still thinking about some of the reactions of the students during the morning tours. I wondered why I was so familiar with those items and that way of life as a child, having been born in 1955, when my mother who was born in 1927, did not experience them until an adult. I decided the key must be location. She was born in the "civilized" state of New York and I was born in territorial Alaska. Growing up, she watched movies in a theater on a weekly basis, while I finally saw my first movies as a teenager in the Glennallen school gym.
At various times, both as a child and as an adult, I've lived in situations without electricity, had a wood stove for cooking, used non-electric toasters, a homemade crank butter churn, a drinking water bucket with dipper, slop pails, once- or twice-weekly sponge or tub baths with hauled water, honey buckets, outhouses, more than one wringer washing machine, and watched a television connected to a vehicle battery.
No wonder I can identify with the 1935 colony house lifestyle. But it's good to interact with third grade students at the Colony House Museum every so often, to renew my appreciation for my present convenient lifestyle in a fully modern house.
For information on the Colony House Museum, visit http://www.palmerhistoricalsociety.org/colony-house-museum/.
Maraley McMichael is a lifelong Alaskan currently residing in Palmer. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.