The first people to live in the Matanuska Valley, where Palmer is located, were the Dena'ina and Ahtna Athabaskans. They moved throughout the area, living a subsistence lifestyle and trading with other native groups. Their trade routes were along the Matanuska River. Russians came to Alaska in 1741 and brought the Russian Orthodox religious tradition to the indigenous peoples of the region. In the early 1890s, an entrepreneur named George W. Palmer built a trading post on the Matanuska River, near present-day Palmer. The town was later named after Palmer.
In the late 19th century, the U.S. government began to take interest in the Matanuska coal fields located north of Palmer. This interest sparked financiers to consider constructing the Alaska Central Railroad in 1904. The advent of World War I created a need for high quality coal to fuel U.S. battleships, and by 1917 the US Navy had constructed rail from the port of Seward to the Chickaloon coal deposits. At the end of World War I, the U.S. Navy distributed land in the coal fields to war veterans and additional land was opened to homesteading. Farmers, miners and homesteaders began to populate the area. The Palmer Post Office was opened July 6, 1917 under the name of Warton. With railroad accessibility, new markets for agriculture began to open up for farmers in the Matanuska Valley.
In one year, Palmer transformed from a mere whistle stop rail siding to a planned community with modern utilities and community services. Eleven million dollars from Federal Emergency Relief Administration was spent to create the town of Palmer and relocate 203 families from the hard hit Iron Range region of Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin. Families traveled by train and ship to Palmer, arriving in May 1935. Upon their arrival they were housed in a tent city during their first Alaskan summer. Each family drew lots for 40-acre (160,000 m2) tracts and their farming adventure began in earnest. The failure rate was high, but many of their descendants still live in the area and there are still many operating farms in the Palmer area, including the Vanderwheele and Wolverine farms. In 1971, the National Outdoor Leadership School started operating wilderness education courses in the nearby Talkeetna and Chugach mountain ranges from a local historic farmhouse, the Berry House, which is currently listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
In addition to an agrarian heritage, the colony families brought with them Midwest America's small-town values, institutional structures, and a well-planned city center reminiscent of their old hometowns in Minnesota. Many of the structures built are now in a nationally recognized historic district. Construction of the statewide road system and the rapid development of Anchorage has fueled growth around Palmer. Many Palmer residents commute 45 minutes to work in Anchorage.
There is an honorary consulate of the Republic of Latvia at Palmer.
Palmer is located at 61°36′7″N 149°7′2″W / 61.60194°N 149.11722°W / 61.60194; -149.11722 (61.601879, −149.117351).
Palmer is 42 miles (68 km) northeast of Anchorage on the Glenn Highway. It lies on the north shore of the Matanuska River, not far above tidewater, in a wide valley between the Talkeetna Mountains to the north and the Chugach Mountains to the south and east. Pioneer Peak rises over 6,000 feet (1,800 m) above the town, just a few miles south. East of Palmer is Lazy Mountain, and standing behind that is Matanuska Peak. Lazy Mountain, Matanuska Peak, and Pioneer Peak are all a part of the Chugach Range. North of Palmer are the Talkeetna Mountains. Hatcher Pass, a local favorite for hiking, is located in this mountain range about 22 mi (35 km) from Palmer.
According to the United States Census Bureau, the city has a total area of 3.8 square miles (9.8 km2), all of it land. Palmer and Wasilla are the two major old-town cores of the Matanuska-Susitna Valley. Population of the area has grown dramatically in the past decade; Borough officials estimate the local population at 8,000.
Palmer has a climate similar to that of Anchorage, although with low temperatures that are on average 1.4 °F (0.8 °C) cooler and highs 0.8 °F (0.4 °C) warmer. August is the wettest month both by total precipitation and number of days with precipitation, and likewise, April is the driest. On average, over the course of a year, there are 28–29 days of sub-0 °F (−18 °C) lows, 22–23 days of 70 °F (21 °C)+ highs, and 0.8 days of 80 °F (27 °C)+ highs. The town straddles the border between USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 4b and 5a, indicating the coldest temperature of the year is typically around −20 °F (−29 °C). Palmer is flanked by two glaciers, the Matanuska Glacier and the Knik Glacier. Wind blows off of these glaciers and funnels into the town with terrible consistency. If there is a substantial snowfall, it will often sit for several days before most of it is blown away.
As of the 2010 United States Census, there were 5,937 people, 1,472 households, and 1,058 families residing in the city. The population density was 1,206.3 people per square mile (465.5/km²). There were 1,555 housing units at an average density of 413.8 per square mile (159.7/km²). The racial makeup of the city was 80.94% White, 2.05% Black or African American, 8.18% Native American, 1.06% Asian, 0.33% Pacific Islander, 1.15% from other races, and 6.29% from two or more races. 3.51% of the population were Hispanic or Latino of any race. 14.9% were of German, 10.5% United States or American, 8.9% Irish and 8.7% English ancestry according to Census 2000.
There were 1,472 households out of which 47.4% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 50.3% were married couples living together, 16.6% had a female householder with no husband present, and 28.1% were non-families. 23.0% of all households were made up of individuals and 7.5% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.81 and the average family size was 3.29.
In the city, the age distribution of the population shows 33.6% under the age of 18, 11.8% from 18 to 24, 28.7% from 25 to 44, 16.8% from 45 to 64, and 9.1% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 29 years. For every 100 females there were 98.1 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 93.6 males.
The median income for a household in the city was $45,571, and the median income for a family was $53,164. Males had a median income of $44,716 versus $25,221 for females. The per capita income for the city was $17,203. About 6.0% of families and 12.7% of the population were below the poverty line, including 12.6% of those under age 18 and 4.2% of those age 65 or over.
Palmer is most noted in Alaska as the location of the annual Alaska State Fair, where Palmer's agricultural spirit lives on. The Alaska State Fair holds contests for largest vegetable in several categories, and many national and even world records have been recorded at the fair, with the cabbage, radish, spinach and lettuce categories usually dominating local interest. In 2008, Scott Robb of Palmer won 1st place and a $2,000 prize for his 79.1 lb (35.9 kg) cabbage.
Each summer, the visitor center employs a full-time gardener to maintain the 2 acres (8,100 m2) of public gardens that showcase more than 600 locally grown plant varieties.
A couple of blocks away from the Visitor Information Center is the United Protestant Church (aka The Church of a Thousand Trees), a Presbyterian church. It was built in 1936-37 and is one of the 17 structures that contribute to the National Register's Matanuska Colony Historic District.
Twelve miles north of Palmer is Hatcher Pass, a scenic mountainous pass that's been established as a state park and is home of the Independence Mine. It serves as a local back-country area for skiers, snowboarders, snowmachiners, and hikers as well as a tourist attraction in the summer months.
The Mat-Su Miners, a franchise in the Alaska Baseball League, a high-level summer collegiate baseball league, play their games at Hermon Brothers Field on the State Fairgrounds. With Division I collegiate players from all over the United States, the Miners have twice captured the coveted National Baseball Congress championship, in 1987 and 1997. Alaska Raceway Park is a nearby dragstrip. The Valley Steelers a semi pro football team within the Alaska football league play their home games at Palmer high school
Primary and secondary education in Palmer is a part of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District. Within city limits, there are two elementary schools (Swanson and Sherrod Elementarys), one middle school (Palmer Jr. Middle School) and one high school (Palmer High School). Palmer High is of a modest size with about 900 students and approximately 60 staff members. In 1999, Palmer High became the first school in Alaska to offer the International Baccalaureate program. About ten minutes from Palmer are "cross-town" rivals, Colony Middle and High Schools.
Palmer is also home to Alaska Bible College, Alaska's only accredited school of theology and ministry, and Matanuska-Susitna College, an extended college of the University of Alaska Anchorage.
There is also the Palmer Alaska Job Corps, 800 E. Lynn Martin Drive, across from the Hageland airfield.
The Ya Ne Dah Ah School (YNDA School), operated by the Athabascan Nation Chickaloon Village, uses Alaska Native methods to teach children. It was established in 1992. It is funded with grant money. In 2012 the school did not receive an annual grant which would allow it to fund Athna language and cultural programs, and it failed to receive Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) funds since the BIA had a 1995 rule preventing it from funding Alaska Native programs.
Palmer is home to world record vegetable harvests. The Mat-Su Valley, and Palmer in particular, are known as the farming center for the state of Alaska. Growing conditions here are ideal. Vegetables adapted to cool temperatures thrive, the glacial soils provide organic matter to keep nutrients in the root zone, many insect pests, diseases, and weeds that are common in the lower 48 are not common in Alaska, and there is plenty of sunlight in the summer to help plants grow. In June, Palmer gets 19 hours of daylight every day, so crops can keep growing until midnight. The sunlight also makes crops sweeter. Carrots spend 75 percent of their time making sugar, and 25 percent turning that sugar into starch. Species in the Brassica family grow very well in Palmer; this includes plants like cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, brussel sprouts, kale, collards, various mustards, radishes, rutabagas, and turnips. Potatoes, beets, carrots, spinach, and lettuce also grow very well here. The Vanderweele farm is the biggest commercial vegetable farm in Palmer.
Palmer holds the world records for kale, kohlrabi, rutabaga, romanesco broccoli, turnip, and the green and purple cabbage. The record for the cabbage was set in 2012 at the Alaska State Fair with a weight of 138.25 pounds. The State Fair is the best place to see the giant vegetables. The primary reason they are able to grow so large is because of the near constant sunlight during the summer months.