While touring the Pioneer Cemetery in Palmer Alaska, I came across the grave of Donald Campbell. What caught my eye was that even though he died in 1935, there was a fresh set of bright yellow flowers adorning his headstone. In a small town in Alaska, nearly 80 years after his death, someone had left little Donald Campbell flowers and I wanted to know why.
After countless times searching into the history of Donald Campbell and his family, I don’t know that I will ever find out why someone chose to leave him such a beautiful bunch of flowers at that time, almost 80 years later. But I did come across something very interesting about Donald Campbell: he wasn’t the only child named “Donald” to die in Palmer in 1935.
In fact, the first three children to die in the new colony of Palmer, Alaska, were named Donald.
In 1935 families who wanted to break free of their current situation and try life out in a new place, surrounded by people as eager to start anew as them, got their chance. President Roosevelt’s New Deal plan, to help move the United States out of the Great Depression, gave them just that opportunity. The plan was to colonize an area of land in the Territory of Alaska, called the Matanuska Valley. Families from Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan were offered a 40 acre plot of land to farm on a 30-year payment plan. In some cases this offer included a house, barn, and shipment of goods to Alaska.
In all, 203 families took the trip, ready for adventure and the promise of a new life. But the excitement would be short lived. Among other problems plaguing the colony, a few weeks after they arrived in Alaska a measles epidemic spread throughout the colony, taking the lives of at least three colony children.
The Three Donalds
8/15/1930 – 6/21/1935
Donald Henry Koenen was the son of Bernice and Henry Koenen, who moved to the Matanuska Colony with Donald and their other son Harold. At the age of 4, Donald died of heart trouble following a case of the measles. According to some, this wasn’t the first tragedy for the Koenen family, they had lost another young boy in Wisconsin only a year earlier.
Donald was buried in a homemade wooden casket, following an impressive funeral procession that brought most of the colonists out to pay their last respects.
4/8/1934 – 7/6/1935
Lost second, and the recipient of the beautiful bouquet of yellow flowers that inspired this post, was Donald Irwin Campbell, the 14 month old son of George and Onabelle Campbell. He died on July 6, 1935 of Pneumonia brought on by an “especially serious case” of the Measles.
After the death of Donald Campbell, the colonists let out a plea for more medical facilities. Their only doctor, Dr. E.E. Ostrom, was carrying the entire burden of the colony.
1933 – 7/9/1935
Just three days after saying goodbye to Donald Campbell, the Matanuska Colonists lost another child to disease.
Donald Olson was the son of Hilmer and Gwendolyn Olson of Duluth, Minnesota. While some sources say he died of chickenpox, others say he died of a spinal infection as the result of having the measles.
I guess it is not strange for 3 children to die of complications of the measles within a month of each other in an undeveloped area in the 1930’s. But it does seem unusual for each child to have the same first name. I wonder what the other families, especially those with children named “Donald” were thinking around this time? Did they wonder if it was a curse? A message from some higher being? I don’t know, but I do know that if I had a son back then, I would not have named him Donald.