Bell jostles memories of ship that brought settlers to Alaska

Trip was part of efforts to settle last frontier

Posted: Friday, May 26, 2000

PALMER -- Locked in a storage shed in downtown Palmer is a 300-pound secret from the state's past that by all measures should never have been uncovered.

It is a glistening bronze bell from the St. Mihiel, one of two ships that ferried 203 Midwestern families to new lives in Alaska 65 years ago. The trip was part of a Depression-era project to settle the Last Frontier and offer a second chance to down-on-their-luck butchers, bakers and farmers stricken by drought and unemployment.

They were the Matanuska colonists, who built the foundation of today's Palmer.

The St. Mihiel participated in the occupation of Attu during World War II, but its place in Alaska history was secured during a few days in May 1935, when it carried hundreds of destitute couples and their children to a new life in Palmer and the Matanuska Valley.

But on the approach of the annual Colony Days celebration, it's not the history that has people talking. It's the story of the ship's bell.

No one had even thought to look for it, said Gerry Keeling, president of the Palmer Historical Society. The St. Mihiel was decommissioned in 1958 and sold for scrap.

John Hoogakker, a plant facilities manager at the University of Richmond in Virginia, wasn't looking for the bell either.

Hoogakker, 50, had never been in Alaska or heard about the colonists. But he'd made his own important discoveries: that he was adopted and that he had three nieces in Alaska. He wanted to know more about their home state, so last June he picked up a copy of James Michener's ``Alaska.''

He was sitting comfortably in a chair in his den when he came across a description of the Matanuska Valley colony. Michener's rendering of the St. Mihiel was not flattering - ``ugly'' and ``slab-sided'' - but the name of the ship sounded familiar.

``I remember sitting up straight and thinking: `Could it be?'''

The previous fall, his crews had installed an old bell in a clock tower on campus. He had gotten the bell to use as a clock chime after hearing about it from an antique dealer in Richmond.

He reached over for his sketchbook to check his drawing of the bell, including the engraved initials ``U.S.A.T.,'' which stood for United States Army Transport, and ``St. Mihiel 1920.''

He fired off an e-mail to his newfound niece in Alaska, Kathy Wells. Wells, in Wasilla, called Keeling, whose parents came to Alaska as colonists.

She was ecstatic. ``I was thrilled to pieces,'' Keeling said. It boggles my mind.''

Keeling and Hoogakker find the chain of coincidences nearly unbelievable.

Hoogakker said his first choice for a clock chime had been a 10-foot section of water pipe that had sounded great in the shop. It didn't sound so great in the tower.

The second try was an old train locomotive bell. But on its inaugural ringing, the bell split from top to bottom.

All the time, Hoogakker knew there was an old ship's bell in a salvage yard in Richmond. He'd held out because of the cost, about $2,000. Now it looked like the right choice.

It has a wonderful high-pitched tone clearly intended to carry across the water, Hoogakker said. ``You look at this big bell and expect a big dong sound, and instead it gives this nice reverberant ding,'' he said.

The bell, now in Palmer, will be formally dedicated during the 65th colonist reunion next month. Hoogakker plans to be there. The bell is a powerful symbol and magnet for attention, he said.

``I know every artifact has a story to tell,'' he said. ``Maybe the magic here is that this bell has a voice.''

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