Tom Clyde: Lightning strikes twice with revelations of Woodland’s history
I’m not much for birthday celebrations, and one passed this week with little notice. That’s not to say that the day isn’t special, or at least different. It’s just that it falls at a time of year when things are in full chaos at the ranch, with ditching, fencing, irrigation system repairs and general cleanup all needing to be done at exactly the same time. That window between the ground drying up enough to work, and the cows returning from their winter home on the desert, is never long enough. It ends because it ends, not because the work is actually done.
So when a friend called and wanted to go to dinner in Salt Lake for my birthday, I said I’d take a rain check. If I can stay awake through Rachel Maddow, it’s about enough. Going out for dinner will have to wait.
Last year on my birthday, I was struck by lightning. If it imbued me with any super powers, they haven’t manifested themselves yet. It did leave both hands numb for a few days. Other than that, there have been no lasting effects. Well, I used to be able to locate buried water pipes with a couple of pieces of copper wire, and that doesn’t seem to be working like it used to, but I haven’t really needed to find a water main to test it out.
But after that, really anything that happens would be sort of “so what.” I mean, after you’ve been struck by lightning and walked away from it, there’s not a lot left.
This birthday had a lightning strike of a different kind. For years, I’ve been digging around in the historical records, such as they are, about the first generation of homesteaders here. They arrived late, in about 1880, worked their hearts and souls to exhaustion, then sold to a family that consolidated the ranch into something big enough that it almost worked, and vanished. They are names in the title abstract, unexplained foundations in the fields, and otherwise unknown.
One of the things I had stumbled across was a collection of histories left by the brothers who homesteaded about half of the ranch. They are spectacular stories of full, hard, adventurous lives. They hand dug the canal that irrigates most of the ranch over two winters, surveying it with a carpenter’s level. It’s three miles long, cut into a cliff. They cleared cobble rock and sagebrush off 300 acres, built houses and barns, and then said to hell with it, and went to the Alaska gold rush. They spent several months in Alaska, and ended up walking 400 miles to Fairbanks because they couldn’t afford the fare on a boat to carry them downriver. When they came home, they mostly ended up in Park City, working in the mines. One of them moved back to Woodland and managed the ranch he had just sold for the new owners. Then he built the Kamas telephone company. Like he knew anything about telephone companies.
There was an email link to the person who had posted the histories, and I dropped the woman a note. We corresponded sporadically over a year, and then on my birthday (just coincidence) she emailed that she was in Park City, and wondered if she could come out and take a look around.
It only took me a second to abandon the fencing to my hired crew, and without benefit of a shower, I drove her all over. Her ancestors had started out in Bench Creek, the Wasatch County half of Woodland, then moved to downtown Woodland. They quarreled with the Bishop about building a dance hall. Nobody seems to know exactly where downtown Woodland was. But there was a downtown Woodland in 1890, when it was a thriving sawmill town. By 1930, there was barely a Woodland at all. It’s still not half the 1890 population, which is fine by me. They built the dance hall. The Bishop subsequently married a local girl 30 years younger, and absconded to Mexico with the tithing money. His first wife said, “Adios,” and stayed here running a boarding house at the sawmill. Church officials evading the Feds hid out there, taking fishing vacations.
My surprise guest had a photograph of the house that had once stood on a foundation that I’ve wondered about my whole life. My father insisted it was just a pile of rocks. But it was clearly arranged rocks, in a nice square, with a room to the side, and a strange curve facing the road. Her photo shows the curve as a bay window on a pretty substantial house. It vanished along with downtown Woodland. In my life, and the memories of people older than me (who are suddenly few and far between) there was no house there.
Anyway, compared to being struck by lightning, it was a most satisfying birthday.
Tom Clyde practiced law in Park City for many years. He lives on a working ranch in Woodland and has been writing this column since 1986.
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