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Wandering the West

Highway 89 running north-south through central-western Utah is a favorite drive I’ve already written about. It’s a place time has pretty much forgotten, with one Mormon pioneer town after another filled with quaint houses, funky craft stores and not much sign of progress.

So if that’s Highway 89, what about the towns that were bypassed by 89’s highway builders long ago? They’re the really forgotten settlements. Take Spring City in Sanpete County as the single best example. The highway passes a mile to the west so you have to intentionally detour off the main road to get there. When you do, you’re in for a unique experience. Whether by good luck or careful planning, Spring City residents have preserved not just houses, but the entire town. The whole town is a National Historic District. ForbesLife describes it as "One of America’s 20 Prettiest Towns."

I can’t disagree.

Around 1850, Brigham Young sent settlers to this region of central Utah to colonize. They set up a typical Mormon rural town. Blocks were five acres square. Four families shared the block, building their house, barn and other outbuildings on their one and a quarter acres. Then each was allotted farmland outside of town. Farmers kept their livestock and equipment at home and commuted with them out to their fields to work. As a Midwesterner, it always struck me odd that Utah farmers lived in town and drove their tractors out to their fields, which were empty of farmhouses and barns. Mormon leaders organized their towns to keep church members together to strengthen their authority and be able to defend themselves against occasional Indian raids.

Not many in Spring City farm anymore. They create art instead. Some time through the years, artists discovered an intact Mormon pioneer town in a spectacular setting that was untouched by modernity. It inspired them and they restored homes and set up studios, commuting down on the weekends from their day jobs along the Wasatch Front.

Memorial Day weekend offers a once a year chance to peek into their homes, inspect their art and be inspired by what inspires them. Painters, potters, blacksmiths, furniture makers, silversmiths and more open their homes and studios for Heritage Day.

For $10 on Saturday, May 29 you can inspect dozens of painstakingly restored pioneer homes dating from the 1860’s to the World War One era. There are art and antique sales, food booths and home tours. The Wasatch Plateau serves as the backdrop and two creeks tumble through town. A few newer homes, modular homes and commercial structures break the ambience a little, but you’ll not find a town quite so authentic anywhere else in Mormon Country.

Original Sanpete County residents are of Scandinavian descent. The Mormon converts were encouraged to stick together, and even today the common names include "Larsen," "Petersen," "Sorensen," and other "sen" endings. You might even recognize a slight accent. Those with a good ear and sense of Utah can recognize a "Sanpeter" when they open their mouth. (Nooo Margie, it’s not nearly as distinct as those Northern Minnesotans in the movie "Fargo!")

If time permits, loop back to Highway 89 and check out Ephraim and Manti a little further south. Like Spring City, both are chock full of the same kinds of pioneer homes. The whole upper Sanpete Valley is dominated by the Manti LDS Temple, high on a hill as you enter town. Both houses and the temple are built of the same yellowish sandstone as the homes of Spring City.

Spring City is an easy day trip from Park City, with some nice scenery along the way, including Provo Canyon and Bridal Veil Falls as you leave the Heber Valley.

Larry Warren is a writer and filmmaker who has made the west his beat the past 35 years. He is general manager of Park City’s KPCW-FM.

THE VITALS:

Park City to Spring City 106 miles

Websites: http://www.historicspringcity.org , http://www.springcityarts.com .

Insider tip: Any trip south this construction season involving travel on I-15 could be challenging as UDOT rebuilds the freeway. Check http://www.commuterlink.com for details on delays and construction scheduling.


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