Just off the Glenn Highway north of Palmer, stocky, shaggy musk oxen amble across fields that border a classic gambrel-roofed barn. A November grand opening celebrated the renovation of this 1930s structure, which houses an educational center showcasing the Arctic animals and their role in Alaska's culture.
Staffers care for about 80 calves and fully grown oxen here at the 75-acre Musk Ox Farm. By maintaining a domesticated herd and fostering the production of qiviut, an ultra-fine fiber made from the underwool of musk oxen, the nonprofit aims to promote sustainable agriculture and income opportunities for Alaska Native communities. Softer than cashmere and eight times warmer than wool, qiviut yarn is used to make hats, scarves, mittens and other knitted garments.
The Musk Ox Farm in November held a grand opening for its educational center, which showcases the Arctic animals and their role in Alaska's culture.
The updated Palmer-area facility will serve as a starting point for year-round tours that were previously concentrated in the summer season. Musk Ox Farm executive director Mark Austin and his team are also outfitting a new museum space with interactive exhibits that explore the story of the farm, its animals and the surrounding Matanuska Valley.
"The building itself was a colony barn," Austin says. "In 1935, a Franklin Delano Roosevelt New Deal program brought Midwest farmers to Alaska to establish an agricultural hub in this fertile river valley. That became known as the colony project, and it's a big part of this area's heritage."
In addition to spotlighting the agricultural and architectural history associated with the colony barns, the new museum exhibits will recognize the region's Alaska Native cultures.
"We want to bring in an element of the people who were here before us. This place was a crossroads where individuals came to trade and travel throughout Alaska," says Austin. "We want to acknowledge that as well, in this new space."
To update the barn for guest use, crews pulled off the roof and squared, reinforced, expanded and insulated the structure. The Musk Ox Farm's visitor reception area, museum and gift shop, stocked with qiviut yarn and locally made products, now occupy 3,000 square feet of main-level space.
An attached silo with a rustic iron oxide patina provides Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) elevator access to the second-floor hayloft.
"The building still maintains its iconic look on the outside. But inside, when you go up into that space, you're taking a step back 85 years as you view the old-growth, vertical-grain Douglas fir. The hayloft has really been the crown jewel of this whole project," Austin says.
That renovated loft houses a new studio that will accommodate visiting tour groups, workshop guests and school classes. Austin calls the year-round workshop space "an absolute game changer."
"We can now create professional programming that is suitable for curious octogenarians who are into fiber arts, or kids who are into fuzzy animals, or farmers who want to talk about alternative and sustainable agriculture. We've had the ability to provide an incredible range of programming, and now we really have the space to do it," he says.
By offering an expanded menu of public events and workshops, Austin hopes to give visitors a comprehensive experience that goes beyond the opportunity to photograph a unique Alaska animal.
"When someone leaves the farm, I hope they're walking away with a profound sense of respect for the animals, an appreciation for the work we do, and an understanding of the importance that it plays in the agricultural community in Alaska, in the fiber community in Alaska, and for a diverse population of people throughout Alaska," he says.
Musk Ox Farm admission is $11 for adults, $9 for seniors ages 65 and up, and $5 for children ages 5 to 17. Daily tours are available in the summer season; travelers should call ahead to confirm winter tour times and opening hours.
Special rates are available for groups of 15 or more. The farm has a pull-through parking area that accommodates commercial buses and recreational vehicles.