Land of the Utes — and Mormons

Posted March 5th, 2010 at 12:12 pm (UTC-4)
1 comment

Writing, as I did last posting, about Utah — an American state named after the Ute Indians, the “People of the Mountains” who once controlled that territory west of the main spine of the Rockies —brings back a vivid memory.

Carol and I were interviewing and photographing at the Grand Canyon in Arizona, the state just below Utah. We knew that our next day’s schedule would put us in Ephraim, smack in the middle of Utah. In that town of 4,500, pronounced “EE-frum,” we had reservations at a bed-and-breakfast inn whose identity I will disguise slightly.

Let’s call it the Antebellum Inn.

As things sometimes go in beautiful places that are hard to leave, we lingered far into the afternoon at the magnificent canyon. By most reckonings, Ephraim was a seven-hour drive away — a “fur piece,” as we liked to say, after a long day’s work. We knew we’d be pulling in late in the best of cases, so I called the B&B’s proprietor and told her not to wait up. She should leave the key and directions to our room under the doormat or a flower pot. We’d tiptoe in, “hit the hay” — another of our unoriginal sayings — and meet our hostess in the morning.

The sun set not long after we pulled out, and we soon realized something that should have been evident: there is no direct route from the south rim of the great canyon up into Utah, unless you can get your car to fly. You must skirt the Grand Canyon by driving east quite a while, then north into Utah, then west and north again. By this time, the roads were narrow and, by the time we reached them, darker than dark. If there was much of a moon, towering evergreens blotted it out.

Worse, every deer west of Colorado peered out of those trees — their eyes glowing like red-hot coals in our headlights. Enervated but suddenly on adrenaline deer alert, our eyes the size of egg yolks, we crept onward at half the posted speed limit, certain that an amorous buck would come bounding out of the brush and into our grille. Aside from that gruesome collision, we could think only of what seemed like a mirage: the large, cozy bed with fluffy pillows and soothing comforter that beckoned at the end of the ordeal.

It was 3:32 a.m. when we pulled into the little inn’s driveway, drained but delighted that the embrace of Morpheus would soon be at hand.

We trod lightly up to the door and began pawing around, below, and behind every object and crevice, searching for our room key. Finding none and resigned to waking the poor innkeeper, I reached forward to knock quietly.

Literally before my hand reached the door, it flew open! “Welcome to the Antebellum Inn,” a belle in full costume — petticoats, bustle and all, right out of a Gone With the Wind casting call — announced in a dripping, faux- southern accent. I could swear she curtsied slightly and fanned herself as well.

She insisted upon helping us with our considerable luggage, and — despite our cordial protestations that we had not meant to delay her bedtime — began a room-by-room guided tour, down to the smallest knickknack. So much for the fluffy-pillow mirage!

It was, I remind you, now 3:45 in the morning and would be 4:27 before she turned us loose. I know, because I was sneaking looks at my watch the whole time.

This was a Mormon woman — a factoid that’s irrelevant to that story but not to the next one.

When, over breakfast the next morning, I told her that we were history buffs, eager to learn about little Ephraim, she professed to know little about her hometown beyond what was in a tourist brochure. She then hauled out five or six fat scrapbooks, filled with clippings, letters, and photographs.

They told plenty of history — of her own family: who married whom, who begot whom, and who had crossed the country with whom in the Mormons’ 19th-century migration west. They had fled persecution and come to the valley of Utah’s Great Salt Lake, where their leader, Brigham Young, would proclaim, “This is the place.”

Mormons’ interest in genealogy should not have surprised me. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints — the proper name of the Mormon church — has carefully accumulated billions of family records on paper and online. And not just of LDS Church members.

I recently told our VOA audience about hard-to-find traces of African-American slave family records, first gathered by the national Freedman’s Bank after the U.S. Civil War. Utah prison workers under Mormon direction had meticulously transcribed these records onto microfilm, then, more recently, indexed and transferred them to a single compact disc.

I am completely unqualified to explain the many unusual tenets and customs of the LDS Church, though I would heartily encourage you to study the complex Christian sect that, even to other Christians, seems full of eccentricities.

Mormon children are taught that “families are forever.” As LDS Church President Gordon Hinkley pronounced in 1995, “The divine plan of happiness enables family relationships to be perpetuated beyond the grave. Sacred ordinances and covenants available in holy temples make it possible for individuals to return to the presence of God and for families to be united eternally.”

Even distant relationships of living family members are held in the utmost regard, and Mormons are taught to learn all they can about earlier generations whom, in the afterlife, they will one day encounter.

Diversity Rising

By the way, if you are curious, the percentage of LDS Church members in Utah — once almost entirely Mormon after the Indians were driven out — has been steadily declining. It’s now about 60 percent. But Mormon influence is still strong. You don’t see many — I don’t recall any —billboards for beer or cigarettes, and non-alcoholic clubs are common and popular.


The rest of our stay in Ephraim was no less interesting. It centered on a single small building: the Zion’s Cooperative Mercantile Institution, or ZCMI.

The idea of cooperatives, or “co-ops,” is as old as America. It used to be a sort of group barter system. Say you carved furniture, and I grew wheat. We both would take our products to a central collection point, where other people’s goods of all kinds were also stored and displayed. Then we helped ourselves to what we needed. If I were running low on cloth to make dresses, I took some home from the co-op. If you needed firewood, it was yours for the taking.

Others, in turn, were free to haul home your furniture and my wheat.

The co-op idea was strong among early Mormons, who colonized not only Utah but also parts of adjacent, rugged western states. They considered the merchants who sold goods in towns and mining camps to be profiteers and tried to avoid doing business with them. So, beginning in 1869, they set up a system of retail cooperatives that soon spread throughout Mormon settlements as far north as Canada.

To these Zion’s — or Heaven’s — Cooperatives they added a twist: They stipulated that those who could not provide their fair share of goods could work off the difference in various jobs around town.

One of the hundreds of Mormon ZCMIs was set up in a modest, two-story limestone building in the little alfalfa, hay, and sheep-raising town of Ephraim in Utah’s beautiful Sanpete Valley. Above the doorway was a semi-circular sign, reading, “Holiness to the Lord,” and containing a large drawing of a beehive. You see this symbol on buildings all over Utah. It stands for hard work. Indeed, Utah’s nickname is “the Beehive State.” The hive appears on the state flag and seal as well, and the honeybee is the state insect. These people are busy as bees!

The ZCMIs did not last long. The railroad brought in goods from California and the East that even the pious Mormons could not resist: beautiful cloth, exotic foodstuffs, decorations that made the hard frontier life a little brighter. The co-ops lost customers, and — human nature being what it is — those who stuck it out took more from the ZCMI than they put in.

By the turn of the 20th Century, Ephraim’s co-op building had become a school. Later it was an auto-repair shop, then a roller mill where grain is crushed. It was packed into the old building until it bulged and cracked, and when the mill operation shut down in the 1950s, no one else wanted the place. The old co-op sat empty for more than 30 years, but people who loved the building kept up the mortgage payments, and no one had the heart to tear the ZCMI down.

Finally, in 1989, a city council member who had some experience raising public funds got a grant to pay for a complete overhaul. Three years and more than $650,000 later, little Ephraim had its historic structure back — as a crafts store — complete with the beehive sign over the door.

There’s a big difference from the old days, though. The folks in the store don’t want your wheat or furniture, and you have to pay for the stuff you buy.

Heavy Lifting

One other quick Utah story, also involving a building:

Some densely populated areas that have endured strong earthquakes have come up with ingenious ways to reinforce buildings — “earthquake-proof” them, up to a point.

To be clear, only relatively affluent places have been able to do this. Haitian cities, and towns in the Chilean hills that sustained catastrophic damage in recent quakes, had no money for earthquake stabilization.

But engineers have learned how to dig cavities all around the basements of tall buildings, erect webs of reinforcing steel beams inside the holes, then fill them with concrete that connects the steel to the building’s masonry.

They’ve done this in Salt lake City, Utah’s sprawling capital. To some people’s surprise, it lies close to a fault line in the earth’s crust and has felt plenty of tremors. University of Utah geophysicist James Pechmann puts the odds that Salt Lake City will suffer a devastating quake at 1-in-3 over the next 50 years.

Obviously it’s easier to strengthen structures while they’re being erected than years after they’re built. But in Salt Lake City, I found an astonishing example of earthquake-proofing that goes far beyond digging trenches and filling them with concrete.

The project involved the ornate City & County Building — the seat of local government since 1894. With its clock tower and statues, this massive, gray-sandstone beauty looks like it belongs in London or Cologne. All big buildings are heavy, of course, but this one appears positively ponderous. I’ve seen good-size houses lifted off their foundations and moved down a street, but I cannot imagine raising this monster so much as a centimeter.

But that’s exactly what seismic engineers did over a period of years in the 1980s. They completely lifted the City & County Building so that a system of steel and rubber springs and girders — something akin to shock absorbers — could be fitted underneath. This was all part of what’s called “base isolation” that separates the above-ground structure from a substructure that shakes like mad in an earthquake. The idea is that the building will sway but not tumble.

Of course if the BIG ONE hits, well . . . .

(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I’ll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of “Ted’s Wild Words” in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there’s another word in today’s blog that you’d like me to explain, just ask!)

Antebellum.   Before a war, particularly the period before the U.S. Civil War of the 1860s.

Beget.  To produce children. Biblical references such as “Abraham begot Isaac” are examples.

Bustle.  As a verb, this word is familiar; it refers to moving quickly, really hustling. The noun form is more obscure. A bustle is a frame, or sometimes a pillow, worn underneath the backside of a woman’s fancy dress. It supports the heavy, drapery-like material and keeps it from dragging on the ground. You’ll see such gowns in Victorian or Civil War movies.

Embrace of Morpheus.  Sleep. Morpheus was the Greek god of sleep, and those longing for some shuteye are said to be seeking his embrace.

Enervated.  Depleted. Exhausted. Soil that has been planted with the same crops year after year, for instance, is often said to be enervated.

One response to “Land of the Utes — and Mormons”

  1. Joaquin says:

    Hey after I have read posts like this, I have come to realize that I need improve my game. Good job with the post. Love the Music.

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Ted Landphair


This is a far-ranging exploration of American life by a veteran Voice of America “Americana” reporter and essayist.

Ted writes about the thousands of places he has visited and written about as a broadcaster and book author. Ted Landphair’s America often showcases the work of his wife and traveling companion, renowned American photographer Carol M. Highsmith.

Ted welcomes feedback, questions, and ideas. View Ted’s profile. Watch a video about Ted and Carol by VOA’s Nico Colombant.

Photos by Carol M. Highsmith


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