More Dogs on Main
June 15, 2012
Earlier in the week, I had one of those quick vacations. The options were to stay home and watch the hay wither in the dry fields, or join some friends on a bike trip through Central Utah where I could watch somebody else’s hay wither on a larger scale. The choice was clear.
The trip was more or less along Highway 89 through Sanpete and Sevier counties, from Fairview on the north to Monroe on the south. The National Park Service has designated this area a "National Heritage Area." The trip was put together to experiment with some marketing ideas.
The Park Service saw something I had not seen because it was too obvious to a native. The US 89 corridor is a wonderfully preserved model of the Mormon colonization of Utah. The pattern of development was distinct. The people lived in towns so there was enough population to support schools, churches, and other community amenities. The farms were out of town, and the farmers were commuters. They lived in town on lots that had room for a food plot, a milk cow, and a barn for the draft horses.
The towns were placed about an hour’s ride apart by horseback. That was close enough for commerce, but far enough apart that each town developed its own identity. Most of the towns have a lot of their pioneer-era buildings still in place. Many of the homes were huge and built with stone. Each little town has several that rival anything the mining millionaires built on South Temple in Salt Lake. In other words, a generation after the log-cabin days, these little towns were wealthy. And then, after about 1915, not another nail was pounded.
What happened was sheep. Once the railroad extended into that area in the 1880s, it was possible to raise sheep in Sanpete County and sell the wool on a world market. The sheep population in Utah went from a cottage industry to something close to 5 million sheep.
That was happening in surrounding states, too. They were ultimately destroying the market by producing too much wool, and simultaneously destroying the range by overgrazing. It kept going through WWI, when there was no wool production in Europe but a big demand for blankets and uniforms.
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Then it all went bust. The Depression finished the job. The whole history from stealing it from the Indians to building functioning towns, through boom and bust and modest resurgence is all just sitting there in plain sight.
We visited the Hansen Brothers Tractor Museum in Elsinore. They are a couple of retired sheep ranchers who spend their days hanging out in a well-equipped but disheveled workshop where it doesn’t appear that much actual work gets done. Their museum had 65-to-70 tractors wedged into a building so tightly that it was hard to walk between them. They had an interesting mix of old tractors, but probably 55 of the total were Ford 8N’s.
The Ford N series was very popular, with about 900,000 made between 1939 and 1952. It really changed farming. But 55 of them seemed ample. One of the Hansen brothers explained that they were different from one another. The early ones had a metal gearshift knob cast as part of the shifter lever itself, while later they had a larger rubber gearshift knob. Well, when you put it that way, put me down for a dozen of each.
My mother’s birthplace, in Ephraim, is on the National Register of Historic Places. The listing blathers on about its adobe brick and Greek Revival architecture, but the bottom line is that it was typical of the kind of cramped little house that the fourth polygamist wife would get. It was in the family for generations. The home was perfectly preserved because a widowed aunt of my mother inherited it and never had the means to do anything to it.
Spring City is slightly off the US 89 route. There are some great houses, and the old school is beautiful. After riding around for just a few minutes, it became clear that there is an uncomfortable mix of people. It was obvious which families depended on the tough local economy and which families made pottery and raised heritage breeds of chickens while waiting for the next dividend check to arrive. A woman explained that her vegetable garden was laid out in the manner of the 16th century monastery gardens in Spain, complete with a fountain in the middle. The freestanding canning kitchen looked like a $15,000 structure. Those are some expensive beans. The neighbor did not appear to give a big rat’s tail about classic monastery gardens, and probably bought frozen beans when they were on sale at the Walmart in Ephraim. The tension was obvious.
Apparently Summit County is not the only place with some cultural differences between the natives and the newcomers.
Tom Clyde practiced law in Park City for many years. He lives on a working ranch in Woodland and has been writing this column for 25 years.