You have contributed more than any other man to the development of Agriculture in Alaska. Many of the acknowledgments which should have come to you earlier are only now starting to appear.
- University of Alaska President Ernest N. Patty
to George W. Gasser, December 4, 1955
George W. Gasser was a 32-year-old bachelor when he left Kansas to accept a job in Sitka with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He had been recruited by another Kansas man, Dr. Charles Christian Georgeson, special agent in charge of the department's agricultural experimental stations in Alaska. There were stations at Sitka, Kodiak, Kenai, Copper Center, Fairbanks, and Rampart, with the headquarters at Sitka. Gasser was a graduate of the Kansas State College of Agriculture and Applied Science in Manhattan. Dr. Georgeson had taught there from 1890 to 1897.
Under Dr. Georgeson, the people manning the Alaska stations had visions of making Alaska an agricultural power. Georgeson claimed the District had 345 million acres of land, of which an estimated 64 million were suitable for farming and grazing. By the mid-20th century, his figures would be challenged at too high, with the qualifier, " . . . they served an important purpose in dispelling the old popular misconception that Alaska is a forbidding land of ice and snow." That 1947 task force instead estimated that not more than about one million acres was suitable for farming.
Born on December 10, 1875, in Youngstown, Ohio, Gasser spent much of his youth in Missouri and Kansas. In 1905 he graduated from the college in Manhattan with a Bachelor of Science degree in agronomy. His ties with the school remained strong throughout his life, and he corresponded regularly with the Alumni Association. After graduation and a stint in California, he arrived at Sitka in 1907.
Georgeson assigned him at once to the station at Rampart, where he would replace Frederick E. Rader at the farthest north experimental station. Rader had worked there on the banks of the Yukon River, at the 65th parallel, since the station's founding in 1900. He had cleared some of the rugged land and put up a couple of buildings, but after seven years of fighting mosquitoes and nursing his experimental grains through winter temperatures that sometimes dropped to -70° F, Rader was ready for a transfer.
In terms of population and river traffic, the former boomtown of Rampart was past its prime by 1907. Nonetheless, Gasser was eager to begin experiments with grains imported from Siberia and Scandinavia. He would spend the next 14 years at Rampart with few trips Outside.
In 1909, Gasser traveled to Fairbanks to marry Beatrice M. Peck. That year The Alaska-Yukon Magazine published an article titled "Where Farmers May Find Homes." In it, author E.S. Harrison wrote: "As vegetables and farm produce commanded an extraordinarily high price in Fairbanks, owing to the great cost of transportation, a few thrifty persons realized that a farm, successfully managed, would pay as well as a gold mine." Harrison boasted that there were 30,000 acres of homesteaded land in the vicinity, with lush flower and vegetable gardens "in the part of Alaska so recently described as unfit for habitation."
The newlyweds returned to Rampart, where Gasser was experimenting on alfalfa, wheat, oats, barley, Kentucky bluegrass, and a score of other grains and grasses. More land had been cleared around the simple wood frame dwelling with the small attached greenhouse. Gasser developed a hardy hybrid barley and found it best suited for cultivation in the Interior. He dubbed his strain "Trapmar" -- for Rampart spelled backward -- but most agriculturalists stuck to the number-letter designation 19-B. The variety was successfully grown in the Interior for years.
Life in Rampart was richer for the Gassers' friendships with Lawyer and Cora Rivenburg, whose photographs record fun times together hiking, playing cards, and picnicking. Gasser was a poet, and his verse appeared in newspapers and magazines from Nome to Kansas. He also enjoyed reading and teaching the Athabascan boys to shoot at targets. The Gasser household included several beloved pets, among them a big Lab mix named Ted, who would, at Mrs. Gasser's bidding, carry an empty five-gallon bucket to Mr. Gasser.
After 14 years on the Yukon, the Gassers were transferred in 1921 to the Fairbanks Experimental Station at College, just outside of Fairbanks. There the fledgling Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines was set to open in September 1922, the brainchild of experimental station employees. A 1961 Fairbanks station report explained: "Professional workers residing at this station conceived the idea of an agricultural land-grant college for the Territory. They helped justify additional land grants that -- together with the adjoining farm reservation -- now comprise the university campus." Some of Gasser's most productive years were to be in the Tanana Valley in association with the school, which is now the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
The Tanana Valley was then considered the most extensive agricultural area of Alaska. On some of those 7,000 square miles, farmers grew vegetable, wheat, oats, barley, even strawberries. Like the Yukon River Valley, the Tanana Valley was blessed with a generous amount of sunlight each summer, resulting in huge garden vegetables and shoulder-high grain crops. In 1924, Gasser and other farm leaders founded the Tanana Valley Fair Association. That began an annual fair tradition that remains alive today, and Gasser would serve as president of the association for 16 years.
In 1928, Dr. Georgeson retired, only months after Gasser had resigned as superintendent of the Fairbanks Experimental Station. Gasser had accepted a position as Professor of Agriculture and volunteered to direct the Glee Club. At 54, he was involved in more professional and civic activities than many men half his age. Even so, he remained a reserved person. "He didn't have much to say unless you asked him something," a friend said years later.
In 1930, another of Gasser's pioneering works was inaugurated in the college's Extension Service with Dr. Charles Bunnell and Lydia Fohn-Hansen. Gasser carried on this new service in addition to his other duties, traveling, teaching short courses, and generally promoting rural development. But by that year the decline of many of the smaller gold camps was having an effect on agriculture, and because of budget cuts and the agricultural decline in the territory, several of the experimental stations were closed. By 1931, only two were still in operation: the one at College and another in the Matanuska Valley. These two were turned over by the federal government to the Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines. Gasser was named director of both stations, in addition to his teaching and Extension Service work.
Gasser's talents and knowledge were vitally needed when plans were underway for establishing a colony of farmers from the States in the Matanuska Valley. The main details of founding the colony were left to others, but when an agricultural problem arose, George Gasser was the man called upon for advice. He also wrote a number of magazine articles offering hints for the prospective homesteader and packed with information ranging from climate conditions to homesteading laws. The Matanuska Colony was founded in 1935; two years later, Gasser ended his official capacity with both the Matanuska and the Fairbanks experimental stations.
In December 1938, Gasser was named chairman of the Farm and Colonization Committee of the Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce, and he recommended that a soil survey be conducted for the valley. But Alaska farming had about reached its peak, which came the following year when there were 623 farms in the Territory. A slow decline followed and did not stop until it bottomed out in 1978, when there were 290 farms.
During the early 1940s, Gasser became a regular on radio station KFAR in Fairbanks with a weekly program called "Airways to Agriculture." Both the radio topics and the extension courses he taught proved valuable during the years of World War II when "victory gardens" grew widely.
Just before the war ended, the Alaska Territorial Legislature in 1945 created an Alaska Department of Agriculture, and Gov. Ernest Gruening named George Gasser Alaska's first Commissioner of Agriculture. His appointment was readily confirmed by the legislature, praised by Alaska newspapers, and widely welcomed by Alaskans. In accepting the appointment, "Doc" Gasser resigned his position on the University of Alaska faculty, a position he'd held since 1928.
Gasser was 74 on January 1, 1950, when he announced his retirement. He had spent 42 years in federal and territorial service, as well as many years as chairman of the Tanana Valley Fair Association, from which he also resigned. Asked by a reporter what he planned to do in retirement, he replied, "Well, Mrs. Gasser has made several suggestions about fixing up the house, gardening and planting shrubs. However, by next summer, I hope to complete and publish a circular on native edible plants of Alaska."
The next summer he instead embarked in a new direction. The year 1950 was an election year. The Fourth Division, surrounding Fairbanks, had five seats in the territorial House, and in February, George Gasser was one of 10 Republicans who filed for the April primary election. He squeaked through the primary, but in October was elected to the House. It proved to be a rough-and-tumble session that year, taxing the strength of the 75-year-old Gasser, and he did not file for a second term.
Returning to Fairbanks, the Gassers settled back into their comfortable home, a cabin near the base of College Hill and the University. They had purchased the homestead that had once belonged to John Sexton Schanley, the first graduate of the school. To the delight of many visitors, Mrs. Gasser had set up a "museum" of Alaska artifacts in a side room. The array of flowers and shrubs surrounding their home was, of course, carefully groomed. Years later, the little cabin would be torn down and replaced with a bank, and even that would be torn down before the end of the century. But there, during his retirement years, George W. Gasser would be working on an Alaska herbarium and updating his color photographic record of flowering plants.
On December 4, 1955, the president of the University of Alaska, Ernest N. Patty, wrote to congratulate Gasser upon an honor recently bestowed upon him. A new hybrid wheat variety selected from the plants he had so painstakingly worked with decades earlier in Rampart was named Gasser Wheat. Patty wrote: "You have contributed more than any other man to the development of Agriculture in Alaska. Many of the acknowledgments which should have come to you earlier are only now starting to appear." An honorary doctorate from the University that year legitimized a nickname; he had been called "Doc" Gasser for years.
In January 1962, three years after statehood, George W. Gasser died. Beatrice survived him for three years and died at the Alaska Pioneers' Home in Sitka. They had no children of their own but had helped to raise a grandnephew.