For the past fifty years, scholars have written about the “Mormon village”—the archetypical Mormon pioneer frontier community. As a result, we know about its ideals (unity, cooperation, equality, and religious striving). We know about its physical layout (rectangular streets often laid off at the cardinal points of the compass) and its pattern of settlement (homes and gardens on village lots with agricultural fields and livestock nurtured several miles away). We even know that the Mormon village left a distinctive mark on the landscape (unkept outbuildings, pervasive water ditches, and poplar trees providing shade and a sense of order).But what was daily life in the Mormon village like?
Fortunately, we can begin to answer that question, too. During the 1930s, the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) collected autobiographies, sketches, and questionnaire responses from Utah’s surviving pioneers. Later, the state-controlled Utah Writers’ Project continued the process. Because of these two successively running government projects, from 1935 to 1943 over nine hundred pioneers left personal accounts of life in a Mormon village. Through them much can be learned of village life.
Most respondents were Mormons. Forty percent were women, an unusually high proportion for a nineteenth-century data cohort (population group). The majority had been children during the pioneer era: about 30 percent were born before 1850, another 30 percent in the 1850s, and still another 30 percent in the 1860s. Still more important, most WPA respondents were drawn from the rank and file and lived their lives in Utah’s new or outlying pioneer settlements. Their stories describe the fabric of everyday frontier life.
Like many old-timers before and since, the respondents had firm opinions. Syria Allen, a long-time citizen of Huntington, Emery County, thought that “the old days was pretty hard picken.”Circleville’s Thadius Fullmer agreed. Utah was “a hell of a country,” he said. It was a “dry and arid” place “fit [only] for the Indians.” James Ivie, descended from a family of Indian fighters, was equally terse about the early days: “Can’t forget them—wouldn’t like to relive [them].”
Yet, despite fully acknowledging the difficulties of pioneering, the WPA respondents were remarkably upbeat about their past. Ellen Lee Woodard, an Iron County resident, remembered “happy days,”and Elvira Lance, comparing pioneer conditions with succeeding times, believed that frontier life was “happier and more contended.” Julia Hills Johnson concurred: “There is more conveniences to day,” she acknowledged, “but the olden days were by far the best.”
Were these appraisals simply “golden memories”—a case of passing years and nostalgia softening reality—or had pioneer life offered something special? When explaining themselves, many of the pioneers spoke of human relationships. “Early days were hard to get along but pleasant to live because all were so kind and friendly to one another,” said Manti resident Dorothea Jorgensen.Amy Carline Phillips also spoke of congeniality: in early days people “helped one and another” and lived like “one happy family.” In turn, James Munroe Redd believed that the old-timers were “really more happy and contented” because they were “more social and co-operatively inclined.”
This refrain appears in anecdote after anecdote as the old pioneers mentioned the sharing, neighborliness, and cooperation that once bound them together.
When the Saints arrived in Utah, friends, relatives, or even self-appointed greeters might meet them at Emigration Square (or later at a local railroad depot).Mary Ann Richards remembered her father frequently welcomed emigrants and invited them to his home for dinner. Eliza Burgess Briggs recalled such kindness firsthand. When she and her mother arrived in Ogden, they received a basket of food and an invitation to stay in the home of a couple they had met earlier while traveling to Utah. To ease what must have been a crowded condition, Eliza and her mother soon found other accommodations by trading domestic work for housing and food.
Other immigrants told of receiving produce, large cans of milk, or even sections of beef on arriving in Utah.The Swiss immigrants of 1861 were given more extended aid. Counseled to settle in southern Utah but without the means to do so, the Swiss were transported in relay fashion by each community on the road. Adelaide Jackson Slack told another story. After her father baptized relatives in England and convinced them to emigrate, he welcomed them into his Toquerville home. “We had twenty two at the table all one winter,” said Adelaide, counting family members and recently arrived converts. “We were glad to have them.”
Charles Twelves and his family—survivors of the ill-fated Martin handcart party of 1856—were first lodged at the Salt Lake City tithing office. Then local settlers escorted the family to Provo, where they were given a small log house. The next spring Twelves’s father, hoping to improve the family’s circumstance, built an eight-by-ten-foot dugout that burrowed four feet in the ground. The dwelling was “comfortable,” Twelves reported, although sleep was at first difficult because of disturbing night visits by wolves.
Townspeople tried to see after the newcomers’ needs. The people at Kanab welcomed new settlers with a party.If the new arrivals came too late in the season to grow their own crops, the established pioneers shared their own harvest. The Biblical precedent of “gleaning the fields” was sometimes followed. Or the immigrant poor might be aided by giving them the less-desirable parts of a slaughtered animal—the paunch, head, feet, or liver.
William John Hill appreciated the help of Ogden leader James Brown (“a kind neighbor and friend”), who brought the Hill family food and wood after they arrived in Utah in the early 1850s.In another example of assistance in Ogden, Joseph Perry lodged the nine-member Hadley family in a surplus adobe house. Unfortunately, the Hadleys did not stay put. They moved into a cabin owned by Pat Jackson, promising Jackson one of their sons would do live-in work to help with the rent. But Jackson reportedly fed the boy “soap grease scraps” and eventually forced the Hadleys to leave. If the Hadleys’ version of events is accurate, not all established settlers were “Saints.”
Many newcomers were greenhorns who needed help with basic frontier routines. After settling in Panguitch, stonemason and English convert Henry Excell had one misadventure after another. During his first attempt to handle a team of oxen, he drove too close to a kiln, dislodged several bricks, and spooked his oxen into running home. “This was my first and last experience driving an ox team,” he recalled. Henry’s subsequent attempt as a fieldhand initially went no better. He was unable to channel irrigation water until a local settler showed him how.
Sometimes Church leaders would ask a local family to help feed a recently arrived widow and her children. It was an assignment that could severely tax resources. “My heart swells with pride,” Martha Cragun Cox wrote of her mother’s treatment of one widow family, “when I remember that the wheat cake[s] for the Atkin’s children was just as large as ours, and the half pint of milk each morning and evening was never stinted in favor of her own little ones.”One time the Cragun and Atkins’ flour supply was reduced to one small baking. James Cragun left for the fields without breakfast, and his wife, Eleanor, went to gather “greens”—the wild bulbs and grasses that many pioneers used when no other alternative seemed possible. Still the Cragun family shared with the Atkins. Soon, however, the family flour sack was mysteriously replenished. Apparently, becoming aware of the situation, neighbors anonymously contributed in the families’ behalf.
The Cragun experience was not unusual. According to Ernest Munk, a central Utah settler, “People were liberal [with their means] and would divide what they had.”Further, the practice of dividing out commodities made economic sense. Without stores to sell goods or much money to buy what might be available, this practice was a means of market distribution, especially if something “extra good or unusual” were available. The custom equalized society: “In sharing with each other every one was the same,” remembered Henry O. Jensen of Scipio.
Whatever the reasons, sharing was so common that it became a routine of life. Sometimes the articles traded were as simple as a start of yeast or coals taken from one hearth to another.Or they might be planting seed, farm equipment, or edibles like milk, butter, and cheese. Meat was a commonly shared commodity, perhaps because there was no alternative. Without refrigeration a recently slaughtered animal could spoil before it was eaten. Besides, the people may have been further motivated by knowing that any item given would likely bring something in return.
Sometimes the shared item was so unusual that pioneers remembered it years later. When Owen Clark found a bear lodged in the cliffs near Cannonville, he killed it and offered the meat to all comers.Elizabeth Yates of Scipio secured an extravagantly expensive pound of sugar from St. Louis—a rare pioneer delicacy—and doled it out for six months: “If there was anyone sick in town she made it a point to send a taste of sugar.” After Apostle George Q. Cannon sent a box of apples to the mother of Ann Elizabeth Melville in Fillmore, each of the Melville’s neighbors received one. Ann Elizabeth kept her apple on the mantle shelf, taking only an occasional bite.
The pioneers sometimes spoke of sharing items that the current Latter-day Saint interpretation of the Word of Wisdom proscribes. To get a fresh supply of tobacco, Rensselaer Kirk traveled one hundred miles to Cortez, Colorado, only to learn that the store had just a dollar’s worth in its inventory. Worse, as Kirk returned home, many of his friends on the trail wanted a share. Upon completing his 200-mile journey, Kirk had no more tobacco than when he began.
Another incident involved tea. After Mrs. Henderson of Cannonville provided milk to visiting miners, the men appreciatively gave her a half a package of tea. Rather than hoarding the difficult-to-obtain commodity, Henderson divided it with the other five families in the village, reserving an equal portion for herself. Her sacrifice, she said, gave her “as much pleasure” as “anything [she] had ever done.”
During the hard times of 1854–55, when the territory seemed close to famine, the Colvin farm of Payson was one of the few not ravaged by grasshoppers. The Colvins were therefore in a position to give their neighbors a daily ration of cornmeal.At Wellsville another grasshopper infestation (they were common in pioneer times) prompted similar charity. The Leatham family, remembering that they “nearly starved” during the natural disaster that had once afflicted them, for many years maintained a large bin of flour with an open invitation to any needy family.
In St. George, Church leader David Cannon regularly traded food to needy men in exchange for their work, even when his family could do the tasks themselves.Mr. Greenwell of West Weber had the reputation of never turning away a request for meat, and at Christmas he traditionally slaughtered three or four “good beef cattle” and then asked the local LDS bishops to make a distribution to the needy regardless of their religion or race. In southern Utah, a settler approached Mr. Shumway, a local rancher, with a confession. He had been hungry and had killed one of Shumway’s range cattle. “If you get hungry again, kill another cow,” said Shumway.
Sarah Chaffin told a story of her family’s charity while her father served a Church mission. Before leaving Utah, her father gave a neighbor five dollars, with the instruction to use it to help the Chaffin family through any hard times. When those times arrived, the neighbor arranged for the Chaffins to pick up twenty-five pounds of flour, and the Chaffin boy was dispatched to get it. As he made his way home, hard-pressed neighbors asked for a share, and the boy complied. An old man even followed him to the door. “If I had a pint of gold, I would give it to you for a pint of flour,” he pleaded. Again, the request was met, which brought criticism from the local “block teachers.” If the family went hungry, they thought, it would be their own fault. In fact, the Chaffins were forced to pick serviceberries to get through the season.
The pioneers’ generosity, usually personal and spontaneous, was reinforced by the teachings and practices of the LDS Church. Provo settler George Thomas Peay remembered that Church leaders made sharing a standing “order.”Another pioneer recalled that during worship services, members of the congregation regularly discussed community needs and acted on them. One local Mormon leader regularized charity by passing a “community basket” through his ward; members of his congregation either placed commodities in the basket or removed them, whatever their circumstance. A more common practice was for a bishop to receive in-kind tithes and “fast-offerings” and then dispense these commodities to the poor. And in times of special need, some local bishops levied quotas on surplus grain, which then was distributed to those in want.
Nursing Each Other
Illness and disease required a special kind of giving. Because most frontier communities had neither doctors nor hospitals, women provided the nurturing—and some had remarkable records of service. The southern Utah village Tonaquint depended on Sophronia Carter, who on one occasion visited the cabin of a bedridden woman. Sophronia found the nearby Santa Clara River was rapidly rising. In order to save her friend’s life, Sophronia carried the woman through waist-deep, raging water. During her career as a pioneer nurse, Sophronia helped “hundreds of needy people in sickness and suffering.”
When typhoid fever struck a family near Sarah Joy Surrage’s home in Weber County, she worked tirelessly. First the neighbor’s seven-year-old boy died, and Sarah prepared the body for burial. Then the disease claimed the life of the mother. When Sarah’s own family became infected, she struggled to save both families but lost one of her daughters. “I went without sleep so long that I finally got so I hardly needed sleep,” she remembered. After the epidemic ran its course, Sarah was asked to raise her neighbor’s family and did so.
These nurturing women were remarkable. The Sanpete nurse-midwife Artemesia Draper Anderson reported that in one eight-month period, she traveled 1,033 miles by horse and another 347 miles by “other conveyances.” During her career, Artemesia delivered more than two thousand babies—her last being twins, whom she midwifed when eighty years old.Annie Hermin Cardon Shaw, yet another nurse-midwife, practiced in Weber County. Once while traveling to deliver a child, Annie fell and injured her head. She nevertheless bound up her injury, delivered the baby, and returned home; later a silver plate was placed in her skull to fuse the bones. On another occasion, Annie was summoned to deliver a child shortly after having given birth herself. Friends put Annie on a featherbed and took her by covered wagon to fill the appointment.
Another measure of the pioneers’ group spirit was their work and social routines. These were topics that the WPA old-timers spoke about repeatedly and with great enthusiasm, because to them, pioneering meant working and playing together. Livy Olsen remembered that when the people settled Spring City they joined to root out brush and to plant crops—everyone did the tasks for which they were “best adapted.” The cleared land was then divided into five- to ten-acre parcels and given to individual families. The method allowed the land to be settled quickly “for the common good.”
A Fairview settler told of a community work project that became a part of local lore, perhaps because it so aptly characterized the people and their times. Every able-bodied man and boy agreed to work on the “City Ditch” canal “till it would carry water.” Spring crops apparently could not be planted until a reliable water source was established. However, as the men dug their ditch, they encountered an unyielding hardpan. Orville Cox, who from the outset of the project had been more of an observer than a worker, finally walked away from the work gang. His apparent desertion made the men furious. “We didn’t swear,” remembered one of the crew, only “because the bishop was there.”
The next morning, however, Cox was back on the job with several teams of oxen and a strange-looking contraption that was part plow and part battering ram. Working through the night, he had taken a fourteen-foot log and attached a thumblike appendage that carried a crowbar. Next, along its sides, he inserted oak sticks designed for holding and positioning. With the oxen pulling the device and the men steering it, Cox’s machine easily carved through the hardpan: four passes and the hardpan was gone. Later Cox explained why he had left the crew without giving an explanation. He was not the bishop, he said, and besides, the men would only have laughed at his idea. His way was best. “Just shut up and do, and when a bunch of men see a thing working they’ll believe.”
Mads Anderson Jr., an early Mt. Pleasant citizen, remembered the community work that he and his father completed as part of the prevailing social contract. Father and son worked on roads connecting the various Sanpete County communities and still other roads extending into the canyons. Although not owning any livestock and therefore not gaining any direct advantage, the Anderson family also built fences, including the five-mile Lane Fence, which was designed to contain the community’s cow herd. These projects were done “without compensation” and “for public benefit.”
Another joint project was the construction of a community fort, often the first structure of a new village. These multiuse buildings protected the new settlers from Native Americans while at the same time providing a temporary school, meetinghouse, and home. Fort living could be difficult. Quarters were cramped and infested with mice, bedbugs, and the neighbors’ dogs. Yet settlers found compensation for these trials. “While living in the fort we were just one large family,” Mary Henrie Cooper recalled. Mary liked the sense of equality such a life brought.
During the second stage of village pioneering, settlers moved from the fort to village lots. This was the time for cabin building and for the construction of a community center that would serve as a church and school. At Circleville, the community center began with each family delivering three hewed logs to the building site and then working to raise the building. To furnish the interior and hire a teacher, the Circleville citizens levied a 2 percent property tax, which according to the chairman of the building committee brought no outward complaint. “The settlers were a common class of people, and it was easy to get their cooperation in anything for the betterment of the community,” he reported.
Pioneering also meant other kinds of cooperation. To provide livestock with winter feed, the boys and men of the village joined to clear snow from the range. In summertime they helped each other in their respective fields. And there were cabin and barn raisings. These festive occasions, which drew neighborhoods and perhaps the entire village together, typically began in the late afternoon and continued until the work was done. “What if there were a few of the gossipy items of the day considered,” said one of the old-timers defensively. “No harm was intended. [Besides,] a wonderful lot of work [was] done.” An evening dinner and dance generally concluded these labors.
Another joint activity was militia duty. Every man fourteen years or older was formally enrolled, but women were also involved. In 1866, the villagers of Virgin reacted quickly when Navajo raiders took more than fifty head of cattle. Old men and boys shelled corn for horse feed; the young men corralled horses, prepared saddles, and cleaned guns; and women and girls prepared provisions. By midnight the militiamen left the town and, joining the “minute men” of another community, reclaimed some of their stock. Usually, the clever Navajo marauders were not so easily thwarted.
Age often determined the kind of militia duty that was performed. Boys carried dispatches, performed guard duty, and patrolled streets and corrals; elderly men maintained outposts and scouted; and older teens and young men fought.Whatever their roles, militiamen were made to understand that militia duty was an important civic responsibility. When Thomas Hull of Franklin, Idaho, refused a militia call in order to remain with his wife, who had recently delivered a child, Church leaders found Hull’s behavior unacceptable. Ensuing angry words led to his excommunication.
Militia drills sometimes combined pleasure with duty when wives and children camped near the drilling grounds. After the men completed their military work, the citizens might dance, enjoy horse races and footraces, and hold other sporting activities. One “Military Day” in Provo lasted three days.At Kanarra a militia drill continued for a week. Still another at Harmony drew three thousand people, who enjoyed a “big parade,” band music, horse racing, and a speech delivered by Elder Lorenzo Snow, who was dressed in military regalia.
The village women also worked together—and enjoyed themselves in the process. Catherine Larsen remembered picking wild currants on the upper Sevier River with some of her neighbors. A noon picnic briefly relieved the tedium of work, but the most happy part of the day was the wagon ride home when the berry pickers’ “merry songs filled the clear evening air.” Such singing made “life worth while” and turned something that was “a necessity” into “leisure time fun.”
Women’s work often meant making cloth. Hannah McFarland Bingham remembered picking wool from her neighborhood’s wire fences and washing it. Hannah then invited friends to her home to card the fabric. The evening concluded with refreshments—Johnny cake or a molasses cookie served with milk or water. These occasions were “very happy time[s].”
Next the wool had to be spun. This task called for another round of parties, restricted in size because few homes could hold more than five spinning wheels.If a larger group was desired, the local schoolhouse or the hostess’s yard might be used. Wherever the location, games, songs, and, most importantly, friendly competition lightened the activity: Who could spin the most skeins? At noon the women stopped for “dinner” and in the evening for “supper,” when the men arrived. A dance normally ended the day. “Those were sure good times,” Danish convert Eliza Othilda Christensen Jorgensen recalled.
If the ladies were not carding and spinning together, they were weaving, sewing, grating vegetables, braiding rugs, or quilting together—the latter being a pioneer favorite pastime. The eight women who gathered in Pernilla Anderson’s single-room dugout in Santaquin finished a quilt in a day.At Nephi some of the women periodically quilted together for several weeks. Then, the “great number” of completed quilts were distributed on the basis of productivity with the fastest worker receiving the most. One youngster never forgot the expectation of a coming work party. “We will have a real good dinner today with cookies and cake, too,” she remembered telling her younger brother.
The young men and women did the harder work, like husking corn.Husking parties often began at twilight, when six or eight lanterns were hung around the large piles of accumulated corn. “Then the crowd would gather and begin the work, or fun, for it was fun,” insisted one participant. A competition might be held to determine who could do the most work. Or perhaps the color of the corn might be made into a game. If a girl found a rare red ear, it was evidence that she would be the first of the girls to marry. If a boy found one, it meant he was about to lose his girlfriend. There were variations. Occasionally the special red ear gave a boy the right to kiss a girl—a “simple past time [that] afforded a great deal of pleasure for the hard working people.”
Another popular work-pastime was fruit drying. Rachel Brown’s father purchased apples and then required Rachel and her friends to peel and cut them for drying.Eliza Burdett Horsepool remembered that participants at her parties processed more than a dozen bushels of peaches in a single evening. While the girls cut the fruit, the boys managed the pans and placed the sliced peaches on roof sheds to dry. Again, a hint of romance was often in the air. Some parties allowed a boy and a girl to leave the well-lit cabin to spread the fruit in the dark. This was a “real treat,” remembered one pioneer, because it gave a couple a rare chance at privacy. On such nocturnal adventures, “lots of sparking [romantic flirting] was done by all.”
Sometimes a single incident united villagers and encouraged them to work together. Rebecca Wilson told of a young man who was suddenly called on a preaching mission but had no suit to wear. “That [became] a busy week,” she recalled. “One Sunday the wool was on the sheep’s back. By the next Sunday it had been clipped, cleansed, corded, spun, woven, and made into a splendid suit and was on the back of the missionary as he delivered his farewell address in the little church house, [and] then [he] left on his religious pilgrimage to the ‘nations of the earth’ to carry the Gospel Light to those who sat in darkness.”
The settlers at Mayfield, Sanpete County joined to defeat an incursion of cattlemen. Although the local Anderson family had already “taken up” the strategic land at the mouth of a local canyon, they had not “proved” their homestead rights by building a cabin on the site and living there. Hoping to exploit this oversight, the cattlemen began to construct a cabin and warned the villagers that the uplands were no longer available for use. Within a day, the local settlers began and finished a cabin, and a Mormon family slept in it that night. The Andersons retained the land because the “town gave their support.”
Courting and Visiting
Even courting was done in groups. Young men and women “didn’t go in couples but everybody went together, and they had lots of fun, singing and laughing,” remembered Martha Horspool Hellewell.The important thing was to be a part of a crowd—a group of like-minded friends who readily associated with each other.
Laura Smith Hadfield recalled her crowd’s activity in the small southern Idaho town of Elba. The young people assembled at a moment’s notice.
We would go outside and look over the country and see whose house had a light in it (we burned coal oil lamps in those days), and then we would ride over there and spend the evening. If the house was dark we knew the folks were not home. . . . It was nothing for nearly all of us to arrive at the same place in an evening without any previous arrangements. It took nearly the whole community to make a good crowd. Sometimes we would have to stay all night on account of the blizzards. I have known them to stay for two or three days.
Social visiting was a part of the pioneer way.On Sundays and during the winter season when fieldwork eased, parents might load their families into a wagon, drive to a neighbor’s home, and spend the day. During such visits, the women “brought their knitting,” for outfitting a family with clothes required constant effort.
“Visiting” also allowed neighbors to catch up on the news, which sometimes meant group reading of national newspapers and magazines.Henrietta Wilson recalled the big brush fires built near her home that furnished reading light during the Civil War. In fact, some neighborhoods organized reading clubs that shared the cost of Pony Express “war extras.” While she was reading to such a group, Martha Cragun Cox remembered that neighbor John Dalton questioned her pronunciation of the word “Chicago.” “That word is ‘She-car-ger,’ little girl,” Dalton said, tapping his cane on the floor. But Martha, unable to see Dalton’s pronunciation in the word, continued with her own way.
The celebrations of the pioneers also manifested a community spirit. Even a person’s birthday might be observed “like one big family,” said Olive Cheney Aldous. Olive’s mother shaped molasses dough into figurines, fried them in lard, and apparently distributed them to villagers.One birthday that was widely observed was Brigham Young’s. This celebration was remembered as “very important” and “commonly” commemorated, perhaps with an extended family picnic to a local canyon.
President Young’s scheduled tours of the territory were another cause for community celebration. “Everyone looked forward” to them, insisted several of the pioneers, with “long hours” spent in preparation.In southern Utah, the women wove material for new dresses and then searched the countryside for roots from which to extract suitable dyes. Their “desire had been fulfilled” if they marched in their new clothes, perhaps shoeless, in a local parade honoring the visiting Church dignitary.
An impressive ten buggies might constitute President Young’s entourage, the Church leader himself riding in a “white top” drawn by a span of splendid horses. As the procession entered a village, children sometimes scattered welcoming flowers. Handshakes followed. “I will never forget how soft and nice his hand was,” said Diantha Olsen Newton, obviously expecting a palm hardened by pioneer toil.And during his tours, Brigham Young offered advice down to the slightest detail. In Sanpete County, the President told settlers not to root out the sagebrush that lined the road: apparently he believed that these plants possessed some kind of salubrious quality. At Huntsville he encouraged the Saints by promising their crops and fruit would prosper despite a short growing season. The tours usually included community singing, speeches, and hearty meals.
Some pioneers celebrated May Day by erecting a traditional maypole and decorating it with red, blue, and white stripes made from discarded garments.As the pioneering era drew to a close, Thanksgiving was also observed. However, pioneer holidays were generally restricted to four: Christmas, New Year’s Day, Independence Day, and Pioneer Day.
The pioneers infrequently spoke of Christmas trees and Christmas caroling. Rather, they recalled putting up stockings, exchanging a simple gift, or eating an apple, a molasses cookie, or a plain-tasting cake.Many Christmas customs involved neighbors. A serenading fife-and-drum band might tour the neighborhood in an ox-drawn wagon. Or village children might pass from house to house chanting “Christmas gift, Christmas gift”—usually enough to win them a small reward. On one such occasion, a woman dispensed a yard of calico, which an enterprising girl could make into an apron.
The most important social Christmas activity was an evening dance. Sometimes these parties continued without interruption until dawn. Sometimes they recessed for several hours in the late evening so that supper parties could be held in nearby homes. One woman served as many as fifty couples during one of these intermissions.Whatever the arrangement, the Christmas evening dance began the winter social season, which then continued at least until New Year, when another major dance was held. During these final days of December, there might be a flurry of dancing, candy pulls, singing, and amateur dramatics.
The Mormons’ two summer holidays, Independence Day (July 4) and the much more actively celebrated Pioneer Day (July 24), were closely bunched together and therefore observed in much the same manner. For many women and children, July was a time for new clothes. Pernilla Anderson received a new summer dress each year.Jane Sprunt Warner Garner sewed special suits for her three boys and then colored them with a “greenish-yellow” dye extracted from rabbit brush. Diantha Olsen Newton’s mother prepared calico dresses for her girls, with straw hats and blue-ribbon streamers serving as assessories.
Preparations might also include a new speakers’ platform for the meetinghouse or new log benches. Martha Canfield remembered the scrubbing: “Everything was made clean and tidy.”For the upcoming events, some villages erected outdoor “boweries,” shaded areas made by placing cottonwood branches, with their green leaves still intact, over a raised network of poles. Other holiday preparations included the selection of men to serve on the planning committee and, most importantly, a community “marshall.” An Independence Day or Pioneer Day marshall was a man of local distinction, often voluble and good-humored, who directed the hour-by-hour program of events.
The holiday was often announced by the local fife-and-drum band, which began its serenading at daybreak and continued until midmorning. A pioneer band was important to villagers—“the life of all entertainments”—explained one pioneer, attracting people from miles around to hear them play.But if a band were unavailable, the day might be heralded by gunfire, which continued during the summer holidays until dusk. There were other expedients. In 1852, after some of the Provo boys bragged about having the honor of waking the populace, a rival group hid the cannon and woke the village by banging on an anvil.
Following the early morning noise, communities celebrated Independence Day with a flag raising around a liberty pole, followed by patriotic speeches. Pioneer Day had its own speeches. But instead of extolling national values, Pioneer Day orators praised the Mormon pioneers, who were also commemorated with parading wagons, handcarts, and sometimes mounted Native Americans. The children of the village usually joined the march, which generated among them great excitement. Olive Cheney Aldous, a native of Uintah in Weber Country, remembered her anticipation:
My sister and I were to march in the parade and we went barefooted because we didn’t have shoes. Mother had made me a sunbonnet out of an old summer coat of father’s and it was all starched so nice. I felt so dressed up. [As we traveled to the village], I said, “Now Pa, make the oxen trot like horses.” He replied, “Oxen were not made to trot like horses but just to draw.” I was so afraid that we would be late for the parade. The martial band led and we marched all around town.
In addition to speeches and parades, the WPA old-timers remembered footraces, horse races, greased pig chases, greased pole climbing, baseball, skits, and parodies. Several decades after the event, Hannah Hanson Huntsman still recalled Charles Lambert’s satire of the song “Love among the Roses,” which Lambert renamed “Love among Big Noses.” Said Huntsman’s interviewer, “Judging from the excessive laughter which she indulged in while telling it,” the parody “must have been an extravaganza of an outstanding nature.”
Another frequent activity was a sham battle between the pioneers and Native Americans, which generally concluded on a happy note when the two groups of actors made peace. (In reality, the original settlers and natives fought few pitched battles and still fewer that deserved commemoration.) One such pioneer-and-native pageant proved tragic. Rehearsing an Independence Day program in Provo in 1879, Albert Park was killed when a fellow actor shot him with a supposedly harmless wad of tissue.
A Pioneer Day celebration in Ogden narrowly avoided a much greater tragedy. Organizers invited two thousand children to watch a cannon firing and, hoping for the loudest possible noise, put wet grass and sand into the gun’s barrel instead of the usual blank charge. When the cannon exploded, it showered debris over the area, including a twenty-five-pound piece that crashed through the roof of a nearby tailor’s shop. But neither there nor among the densely packed children were there injuries. “It was sure a miracle but not one of those children were hurt,” said a local citizen.
Independence Day and Pioneer Day celebrations also featured afternoon dinners, sometimes served on long tables under the temporary boweries.During the later pioneer period, a favorite menu was barbecued lamb followed by molasses cake. Sometimes a jug of beer or a barrel of wine was present “for those who cared to indulge.” Intoxicants may have been responsible for the killing of a Native American during a celebration staged by the Panguitch citizens. Purportedly wishing to “scare” the Indian by shooting through the Indian’s hat, a settler fired “too low.” The man was sent to prison for the shooting.
Independence Day and Pioneer Day usually ended with a dance—no doubt the single most important social activity of the pioneers. Perhaps the reason that they so universally enjoyed dancing was because it reflected their ideals. “There was no class distinction,” recalled one pioneer. “Everyone had an equal good time and part.”Indeed, dancing allowed all members of the society to join together, whatever their status or age. Most communities even accepted infants at their dances, and by the time children reached the age of four or five, they were seasoned performers.
In the winter season, dances might start after a lecture or dramatic production at the local schoolhouse, which perhaps led some settlers to give dancing the unusual name of “spelling school.”On the other hand, large summer dances were usually held outside on a piece of flat ground, perhaps under a bowery. To prepare for a dance, the soil was packed and then swept. Smaller dances, summer or winter, were held in any home large enough to accommodate a single quadrille of four dancers.
In most rural areas, admission to a dance was paid with commodities. Wheat, corn, squash, potatoes, or even chickens might do.Nancy Higgins, a southern Utah settler, remembered that a barefoot suitor called at her home with a pumpkin under one arm (“he looked quite differently from what the young men of today do”). The lack of shoes added to the rustic atmosphere; at some rural dances, nine out of ten dancers went barefoot.
The dances included reels, quadrilles, schottisches, polkas, mazurkas, and an occasional waltz. Other dances were identified as the “Trolli-Hopsie” and the “Danish Slide-off.”Round dances in which couples paired off were restricted, especially in Utah’s early times. For music, most communities depended on either the fiddle or accordion, but variations included the guitar, flute, and small organ, any of which might be played with an accompanying fiddle. Some communities boasted a small orchestra, like Sanpete County’s “Westenshow Orchestra,” which had two violins, two bass fiddles, and a second bass. However, smaller dancing parties were sometimes required to “make do.” On these occasions, settlers used a comb covered with paper or they whistled, sang, or clapped. Sometimes they provided rhythm with a device called the “bones”—a percussion instrument formed from pairs of thin strips of bone or wood held between the fingers. Musicians and the “floorwalker” (also known as the “caller” or “prompter”) were paid from the commodities gathered at the door or perhaps with a load of wood.
Clearly, dancing was an important activity that the pioneers took seriously. Many community dances gave prizes to the best dancers on the floor, and despite pioneer scarcity, some settlers used their hard-earned means to attend a dancing school. “Every one wanted to be a good dancer,” explained Edwin R. Lamb.And later, when the old-timers looked back on their early days, dancing brought pleasant memories. “In the candle light we would dance and swing, making the light flicker in the breeze caused from the swishing of our skirts,” reminisced one former enthusiast. Indeed, dancing was one of the reasons that the pioneers, without the “means of [modern] luxuries,” nevertheless had “a good time and enjoyed [them]selves more than most folks seem to do today.” That, at least, was the judgment of Weber County resident Mary Ann Geertsen.
How unique were the Mormon social and group values? Many of the activities the Mormons relished—their charities, work and party bees, neighborly visits, community holidays, and their unrelenting round of dances—had counterparts throughout America, especially in rural and frontier areas. Perhaps the characteristics that set Mormon communities apart were the degree to which these acts were practiced and the religious content that filled the Mormons’ daily frontier life. The Mormon village system was designed to facilitate group life, while Mormonism itself, as a new religious movement, infused its converts with a sense of mission that made pioneering virtually a sacrament. These two factors made what happened in the LDS Intermountain West unusual, if not unique.
We should not be surprised, therefore, if the old-timers looked back on their experiences with satisfaction. Pioneering had been a struggle, but Mormon group life gave their lives meaning and warmth. This is doubtless the reason why so many of the pioneers were emphatic about having had good times despite hard times. They believed that they had helped each other, borne each other’s burdens, and lived a life that was broader than individual wants and material accumulation. Indeed, their recollections speak of a society full of social bonds that our own troubled generation can look back on with gratitude and envy.