In 1901, the ACC closed its
stores in Knik, Susitna, Kenai, Kasilof and Seldovia.
This left a huge part of south central Alaska without access
to merchandise. Palmer recognized the opportunity and ordered
an entire seasons worth of groceries, clothing, hardware, etc. and "set
up shop" in the old ACC building at Knik. His timing was good.
The discovery of gold in the Interior
made Palmer's Knik store a critical re-supply stop for hundreds of prospectors
traveling overland from Seward to the Willow Creek, Yentna, Chulitna,
Gold Creek, McKinley and Iditarod gold strike areas. Prospectors arrived
on foot, by dog team and pack horse; he sold them dried salmon for their
dogs and locally harvested wild hay for their horses. He sold perishables
like butter, lard, bacon, berries, fish and moose meat and hard goods
like shovels, axes, cookware, guns, ammunition, boots, cold weather clothes,
stoves and beach coal. He also sold a few "luxuries" like tobacco, medicines
and sail cloth. Palmer set up an unofficial
post office in his store and hired Dena'ina "runners" to retrieve mail
from the nearest post office at Tyonek. On October 29, 1904, he became
the first official U.S. Postmaster at Knik.
Palmer was the first person, in the Matanuska Valley, to sell fresh vegetables
commercially. The USDA established an Agricultural Experimental
Station in Sitka in 1898, with Dr. Charles C. Georgeson in charge.
Georgeson was interested in finding out what crops could
be grown in Alaska, so he sent vegetable seeds to a variety of
settlements and roadhouses throughout south central and asked
the recipients to report back to him about their successes and failures.
Palmer decided to participate in the program and hired Dena'ina friends to prepare and plant a garden plot next to his store. As requested, he reported back to Georgeson from 1900 to 1903, in a series of letters, which were published in the USDA Alaska Annual Report. Palmer wrote, that in spite of his inexperience and lack of fertilizer, he was able to grow an abundance of potatoes, lettuce, rutabagas, kale, radishes, cabbage, carrots, parsnips, and turnips. The project turned out to be quite profitable for Palmer because he was able to sell the vegetables to the vitamin starved prospectors in the Willow Creek Mining District. In addition, he asked Georgeson to send extra seeds for the Natives of Knik so they could supplement their diet of wild game.
In 1900, freight destined for
south central Alaska was brought in by large ships that anchored
offshore at Knik Harbor (later called Knik Anchorage).
Once anchored, local scows transferred the freight to remote locations
for a fee. If the scheduling was off and the scows did not connect with
the larger boats, freight was routinely left at the Seldovia, Tyonek
or Sunrise docks. This required long and dangerous sailing voyages for
people trying to find and retrieve their merchandise. Sometimes
freight would sit on the dock for days before it was located by its rightful
owner (or waylaid by someone). To alleviate this problem,
Palmer built the first commercial warehouse just north of Ship
Creek in 1901. From this warehouse, he lightered freight (by the pound) to
its rightful owner.
Palmer’s first schooner,
the two masted "C. T. Hill", was towed into Knik, by the
"Traveler" on 6/8/1913. Leaving his store in the hands of
a clerk, Palmer and crew sailed the schooner to San Francisco
two or three times a summer to buy merchandise for his store.
These buying trips generally took place in May, July and October.
In the spring of 1915, Palmer
bought a schooner named "Lucy" which arrived at Goose Bay with a $2,000
printing press for the (proposed) "Cook Inlet Pioneer" newspaper, funded
by Frank Cannon, George Palmer, Dr. Haus, Leopold David, Orville
Herning and Mr. Needham.
Hauling merchandise TO Alaska was
not the only time Palmer made money with his schooner; he hauled merchandise
OUT of Alaska as well. In August of 1916, a San Francisco newspaper article
reported: "First of seasons salmon catch from Alaska waters arrived in
San Francisco on the schooner "Lucy", owned by G.W. Palmer. On the voyage
from Knik, Alaska, the schooner was buffeted in a heavy southeast gale
and her sails were torn and several of the crew were hurt. The schooner
was also carrying furs and empty oil drums". Alcohol was another thing that
Palmer hauled. In 1917, Palmer's schooner was delayed on a return trip (from
San Francisco) for 3+ weeks. When questioned, Palmer said that "officers
held her up on account of booze".
Palmer sailed with a full crew on
his schooners, but he was also known as a fearless boatman himself. He often
ferried Dena'ina passengers from Knik to Tyonek, Sunrise, Hope and Seldovia
in his small gas launch. The following photo was taken on 4/16/1907 as he
and 8 Dena'ina passengers were leaving Knik, headed for Seldovia.
Palmer's gas launch, heading out to Seldovia 1907
Photo by O.G. Herning
Palmer's store was very well
stocked. A receipt, dated 1901, gives an example of his prices: tin ware
60¢, a blanket 75¢, 52 pounds of moose meat $5.20, a stove $8,
a leather shirt $3.50, 10 pounds of salmon 25¢, 15 gallons of cranberries
$1.10, 80 pounds of potatoes $2.40, horse medicine 25¢, smoke tanned
gloves 50¢ and 85 pounds of turnips for $2.55.
Life changed for Palmer in 1906,
when he built a saloon and started drinking heavily. He got into physical
altercations with people and even tried to hire someone to sabotage a competitors
scow. Worst of all, he ignored his store. By 1908, Palmer's drinking
problem was so bad that his store was temporarily closed due to a lack
By 1912, Palmer had serious competition
in Knik. There were 4 general stores, 3 hotels, a pool hall, 2 saloons,
a church, a school, 2 cafe's, a candy shop, a barbershop, a doctor, a blacksmith,
a tin shop, a boat shop, an assay office, dog kennels, a laundry and
a jail, but the boom didn't last long.
In 1916, the railroad built a construction
camp at mile 15 of the Carle Wagon Road; they called it Wasilla. It quickly
replaced Knik, as "business central", because the railroad brought people
and freight 15 miles closer to the Willow Creek Mining District. Knik buildings
were dismantled and moved to Wasilla or Anchorage, turning Knik into a ghost
town within one season. George Palmer was one of the few people that remained
in Knik. Two years later, on 5/15/1918, his general store and warehouses
burned down. He told reporters that he had plans to rebuild the store with
insurance money, but he never did.
Shortly after the fire, Elmer
Hemrich, a Washington businessman, convinced Palmer to be his partner
in building the first major clam cannery in Cook Inlet. In the fall
of 1919, they acquired financing from the Bank of Alaska and began construction
at Snug Harbor on Chisik Island. The cannery hired Native men from Tyonek,
Iliamna, Seldovia, Kodiak, Ninilchik and Kenai to harvest clams from the
beach at Polly Creek and paid them $1.25 for each 5 gallon box. The business
venture was fraught with problems from the start and was not the financial
success that Palmer hoped for. In 1921, he sold his half interest in
the project to G.P.Halferty. Without Palmer's financial backing, Hemrich
lost the cannery to foreclosure that same year.
Palmer’s third wife was
an 18 year old Dena’ina woman from Knik named Mary (Palmer was 55). There
is no record of them having children together and I don't know
what happened to her.
4th wife was a Dena'ina woman named Nestashia, although she went by the nickname
"Kit". In Palmer's will, he described her as "mentally child like and unable
to care for herself". According to her death certificate, she was born on
3/7/1894 at Knik and was a diminutive 4' 3" tall when she died on 11/5/1943
at the age of 49.
In 1921, Palmer and William N. Dawson opened
the "Dawson and Palmer General Store" in Kenai. Dawson
died one year later and Palmer spent the next five years in
Probate Court trying to get full ownership of the business
which he finally received in 1927.
*** Please respect the amount of research it
took to write this article.
Do not re-post or publish without my permission***
George W. Palmer 1920
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