Gardening in the Cabbage Patch
in
Fairbanks, Alaska
by
Pat Babcock

INTRODUCTION

The best way to meet any Alaskan challenge is to seek growth in knowledge about your varied interests. I have tried to involve myself in my life-long interest in gardening in Fairbanks. There has never been any boredom in seeking out gardening knowledge from experienced local gardeners, the University of Alaska Cooperative Extension gardening pamphlets, Cooperative Extension Master Gardener Program and Potting Bench gardening information compiled by horticulturist for the Cooperative Extension, Wayne Vandre. It is always good to keep challenging yourself to learn. When writing about vegetables and flowers, it gives me a closeness to the nature I love most.

My great grandparents were challenged in the 1890's, setting up a store along the Yukon River at Circle City prior to the Klondike gold rush. My grandparents were challenged coming into Fairbanks in 1904 as a businessman and one of Fairbanks first city councilman. My parents were challenged in their gold mining efforts on Independence and Deadwood Creeks in the Circle Mining District and in starting a dry cleaning business, College Cleaners, in Fairbanks. It is always good to keep challenging yourself to broaden any hidden interests you might have.

Gardening got off to an early start in Alaska when the revenue cutters sailed north to the Bering Sea in the Spring. Sailors would go ashore to some favorite spot and sow turnip and other seeds. On return of the voyage in the Fall the non-attended gardens were revisited. Fresh vegetables, a rare treat, were harvested.

In the Alaska Yukon Magazine of December, 1907, there is an article which describes the "Sisters at Holy Cross Mission, 1888," which tells about early Alaskan gardening. It was amidst the birch, spruce and cottonwood along the Yukon river at Holy Cross Catholic Mission in 1888, when the Sisters decided to garden. They didn't have any gardening implements, so they used their bare hands to clear a 22 square foot garden. They used wood ashes, bear dung and decayed humus and roots for fertilizer for their lettuce, radish, turnip and flower garden. They were amazed at the prodigious growth, In the years to come their garden expanded to 10 acres! The vegetables produced in the garden were a welcome relief from a diet of shipped in canned goods.

There were many early gardening efforts around Alaska after the United States made its purchase from Russia. Gardening was done on Kodiak Island during the Russian occupation. In the Tanana Valley mining and farming got off to a pretty even start. According to George W. Gasser, early Alaskan horticulturist, in his article, "Agriculture blossomed in the Tanana Valley as early as 1907; roof was used" in the Fairbanks Daily News Miner on July 22, 1932, many of the early pioneers of my grandparents vintage did both gardening and prospecting for gold and other minerals. The cabin roof, which sheltered the miner during the long sub-Arctic winters, also served as a garden patch, producing radishes and lettuce. Generally, a small garden plot was also cleared near the cabin with what available tools were on hand. However, the sod roof was far above the hungry snowshoe hares and field mice, critters who love to nibble at gardens. Throughout the summer months the gardens received no further attention until fall when the mining prospector-gardener returned to his little cabin after a summer in the "Stick." The awaiting turnips, carrots, lettuce and cabbage tasted good, along with the moose, Dall sheep, caribou, and harvested blueberries, red currants, cranberries and raspberries from the berry patch.

These garden patches served to demonstrate that several sorts of succulent vegetables grow amazingly well in the broad Tanana Valley around Fairbanks, Alaska. So, the belief grew among a few would be farmers that it might be easier to grow a grubstake rather than to dig one with a pick and shovel gold mining. By 1905, three years after Felix Pedro made his famous gold discovery that would lead to the founding of Fairbanks, there were 82 homesteads recorded in Fairbanks. By 1907 several homesteaders had sizable areas cleared and in crops. Two local men made $30,000 on their potato crop along! Hay was worth $60.00 to $100.00 per ton. Since Summer rainfall was insufficient to grow a good garden, Mr. Weurich, a local gardening enthusiast, constructed a water wheel to deliver 50,000 to 100,000 gallons of water from the Tanana River to his many acre garden, near the confluence of the Chena and Tanana Rivers.

The establishment of an Agricultural Experiment Station near Fairbanks by the United States Department of Agriculture marked a forward step to future agricultural and gardening history in the Tanana Valley. The land, 1400 acres, was reserved for the Experiment Station purposes by an executive order in March of 1906. The University of Alaska was established on this reserve nine years later. At the newly established Station rapid progress was made in clearing the land and then making field tests of various crops, particularly cereals and potatoes. By 1916, 1200 pounds of barley and oats were available as seed for local farmers.

Proof that excellent wheat could be raised in the Tanana Valley was given in 1915. John Adelman, living in the Hamilton Acres area of Fairbanks, grew some fine wheat, which won a silver cup at the Northwest Land Show in St. Paul, Minnesota.

The continued success with grain crops stimulated land clearing so by 1919 there were several farms, located along Farmers Loop Road, each with 100 or more cleared acres. Wheat was a favorite crop. Some farmers were getting 23 tons of potatoes per acre!

To further encourage wheat production, the Fairbanks Experiment Station milled 6,155 pounds of graham flour from local wheat. A flour mill, which produced 25 barrels of flour per day was operated for several years in the 1920's. Unfortunately, the mill was destroyed by fire and thus ended a good local enterprise.

Needless to say, agriculture and gardening have advanced as the years have marched along. The gold in the ground of the surrounding hills adjoining Fairbanks and the Tanana Valley might not exceed the value of the grains or gardening efforts. Some people have said mining is exhaustive and farming is accumulative. There is one thing I know for sure after looking into various gardening in Fairbanks over the 50 years I have lived here, gardening has a definite important place in the lives of Fairbanksans.

In the last 80 years gardening and farming have advanced from the small garden patch on sod-roofed cabins to the field stage, such as the Delta Barley project of the 70's and Gordon Herreid's strawberry farm. During this transition, the mattock, the horse-drawn plow, the horse and the hand sickle have been replaced by tractors, rototillers, shredders, binding machines and farm vehicles.

I hope you will find something of interest to you in the next chapters about "Gardening in the Cabbage Patch in Fairbanks, Alaska."


4/28/95 - gardener@polarnet.com
Copyright © 1995 Pat Babcock