Salt Lake City: The Wasatch Mountains seen from the freeway. I mean to say, just look at the one on the right. People brought WAGONS through these. Photo:© Annette Laing, 2021.
Hello from Salt Lake City!
So, a quick recap on what's happening. I am driving from Madison, Wisconsin to Sacramento, California with He Who Shall Not Be Named On the Internets (HWSNBNOTI, pronounced Hoosen Benoti). Hoosen's a native Californian, and I lived in the Golden State fourteen years, so this is a homecoming.
During the drive, I'm blogging daily at Non-Boring History about some of the history, connections to subjects I’ve written about, and other interesting stuff we stumble upon.
Don't Know Much About (Mormon) History
If you don't know much about Mormon history, I wouldn't be surprised (unless, of course, you live in Utah). Neither do I.
To be fair, my doctorate in early American history didn’t cover the 19th century. And you have an even better excuse, which is that teachers are often nervous about discussing religion in American history, and no wonder: so many people have a hard time distinguishing between studying religion as a scholarly pursuit, and teaching it with a view to gaining converts. In Georgia, I have sometimes heard of the line being crossed. Imagine that.
The history of the early Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and Mormons in general remains a bit taboo. Polygamy isn't a subject that teachers want to discuss with teenagers, although, trust me, teenagers are fascinated.
That said, I think it's a huge mistake to ignore Mormon history, which isn't just the official story of the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, but of all who identified as Mormon. The biggest reason to take an interest: Utopian religions (those aiming to create perfect societies that are totally at odds with the mainstream culture in which they live) are as American as apple pie.
Think of the Puritans. And 19th century America was home to all sorts of Utopian religious communities that poked a stick in the eye of proper Victorian family values, ranging from the Oneida Community of upstate New York, which practiced free love, to the Shakers, who had no sex at all, which does help explain why you don't hear much about the Shakers these days.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which rejected polygamy long ago (although fundamentalist Mormon splinter groups continue to practice it) is a rare survivor of that period. The Oneida folks, by the way, turned to making silverware: Entertain your grandma at Thanksgiving by pointing out that her cutlery was made by a former free love group. Grandmas today are getting harder to shock.
The other reason to learn a bit about Mormon history? It's so interesting.
As someone who, at age 9 or 10, had a massive crush on Donny Osmond, it seemed self-evident to me that Mormons sang, had straight sparkly white teeth, loved their good-looking families, and were somehow more glamorous than the rest of us.
My sole personal link to the LDS Church is that my retired factory worker great-granny in Scotland was a Mormon for about a week, until her son, my grandad, who was paying his mother's rent, learned that she was tithing 10% to her new church. She stopped being a Mormon.
Apart from that, two clean-cut identically-dressed young men often appeared on my family's doorstep in the UK. As a teenager, hoping to chase them away, I once told them that I worshipped Satan, but they were still talking when I closed the door.
But meeting Harvard historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, feminist, mother of five, and devout member of the LDS church, not to mention getting to know LDS members closer to home, complicated my understanding. For example: Liberal and feminist Mormons exist. Not all Mormons have perfect teeth. This was news to me.
So here I am in Salt Lake City. It's now majority non-LDS, and is home to a large LGBT community. The streets today are positively aflutter with rainbow flags for Pride month, and liberalism (which was always here) is now dominant.
Meanwhile, like the rest of America, Utah continues to be divided by identity and politics as well as religion, and religious conservatives continue to move out of Salt Lake City.
What does Mormon history have to say to liberal modern Utahns, much less the rest of us?
Let's start with the role of Mormons in the West, and, as one example the Gold Rush. The first discoverers of gold, men working on Sutter's Mill in 1848, included demobilized members of the Mormon Battalion who fought in the Mexican-American war of 1846-8. They signed on with Sutter to make a little money to take back to Salt Lake City, and ended up returning with $17, 000 (1848 dollars!) Sam Brannan, the newspaperman who publicized the gold discovery (for his own purposes, including making a lot of money from land speculation in what then became Sacramento) was also a Mormon.
But more important than the sheer presence of Mormons in American history is the active role they played, and its relevance today. As we once again consider the state of American infrastructure, note that much of the infrastructure of the early West was put in place by Mormons. Mormon Battalion veterans blazed the Carson Pass trail that a lot of Gold Rush migrants used to get through the Sierras. Many of the ferries and bridges Gold Rush migrants used as they crossed America were built and operated by Mormons, raising money for their brand new home between the Wasatch Mountains and the Great Salt Lake. The I-80 freeway that brought Hoosen and me to town began as a Mormon toll road. There’s a reason the state symbol is a beehive.
Complicating Mormon History
This is The Place painting (1917) at This is The Place Heritage Park. Brigham Young declares that he’s found a safe place for Mormons. The painting doesn’t show the first Mormon to actually see the Salt Lake Basin: Green Flake, a Black wagon driver. It's an old painting, I get that, but an explanatory sign would work wonders. Photo:© Annette Laing, 2021.
Indeed. The first Mormon to emerge from the Wasatch Mountains and see the Great Salt Lake Basin wasn't Brigham Young, who famously proclaimed “This is the place!’”.
The first Mormon to see the Salt Lake Basin was actually Brigham Young’s driver.
Green Flake, an enslaved man on loan to Young from the Mormon Southerner who owned him, simultaneously became the first Black person in Utah, which would have still made him unusual even today. Let me repeat this for the skeptical: Green Flake was a Mormon, and he remained one when he became free, for the rest of his life.
Museums of Mormon History
This Is The Place Heritage Park is the large outdoor museum in Salt Lake City, operated by the State of Utah, and (you will probably not be surprised to learn) reflects a conservative interpretation of Mormon history.
The LDS Church doesn’t run this one, but it does own and operate museums around the country, and you can't fault their production values, which are very flashy and attractive. However, aspects of Mormon history that the Church prefers not to celebrate, like the long history of discrimination against Mormon people of color, tend to get glossed over.
The LDS museums are worth a visit all the same. In 2018, I dragged Hoosen to an LDS Museum in Council Bluffs, Iowa, the place where 19th century Mormon emigrants gathered and overwintered before heading west for Salt Lake City. I did admit to Hoosen that evangelization would likely be attempted, and it was, but Elder and Sister Smith, our guides, could not have been sweeter, and the attempted conversion was very gentle. I came away with a free copy of the Book of Mormon for my library. So no harm done.
What we learned from the museum wasn't wrong, it was just… incomplete. But it got me interested (in Mormon history, not in joining the Church), and that's something. It's certainly not a subject I had considered before.
This Is The Place Heritage Park is very glossy, with big statues and enormous visuals, but not especially informative. Indians who were displaced from their lands are represented by a tepee on the margins that many visitors may miss. Black Mormons are missing (although they were there when Salt Lake City was founded). There is a good effort to feature women as wives, mothers, and businesspeople, to my relief, but it was definitely more about the guys. Again, not surprised. Bring on the Mormon feminists!
This Is The Place Memorial. Photo:© Annette Laing, 2021.
I was disappointed that the orientation film, while beautiful, was extremely brief, that the gift shop was long on knickknacks, and very short on books. The one guidebook was more photo than text, even by the standards of the average guidebook. Fortunately, the museum information panels that accompany each house, while amply decorated in bird poo, were useful, and helped me write this next section.
Little Houses on the Prairie
Riter Cabin, built 1847, used briefly for shelter for the Riter family. Photo:© Annette Laing, 2021.
Riter Cabin interior. It’s an environmentally savvy tiny house with a chimney built entirely inside to conserve heat. But unlike a tiny house, it’s not an experiment in sustainable living. Sorry to go on about sustainability: Louis Bromfield really got to me. Photo:© Annette Laing, 2021.
At This is the Place, I headed first to the row of cabins representing the early years of settlement. Most were moved from elsewhere, but one was original to Salt Lake City.
What is easy to miss about this kind of pioneer cabin is that it wasn't meant to be a sustainable tiny house (even though one had a chimney that was entirely inside the cabin to trap heat, as you see in the photo above).
No, these were simple shelters against the elements for people to live in while they built (or saved for) the McMansions of their dreams. It might take them six months or twelve years, or longer, to get there, but the fancy house was the goal. This wasn't particular to the Mormons: except for indigenous people, most settlers in American history built simple dwellings only for the short term. Plenty and profit were the watchwords, not sustainability and contentment.
I chatted with a very pleasant interpreter at This Is The Place. She was a Mormon mother, and a native. She said Utah has now had a severe drought for several years, and the Lake itself has shrunk about a third. And this is happening as more and more people move in. It's scary, she said.
This was never an easy place to live: A desert home for an oppressed religious minority, a community made possible by the water that pours from the breathtakingly high Wasatch Mountains. The water isn't coming down the mountains like it used to. The kind of resourceful ingenuity that characterized the first Mormon settlers, creators of infrastructure in the American West, is needed more than ever.
Brits and Handcarts
Mormon handcart at This is The Place Heritage Park, Salt Lake City. Photo:© Annette Laing, 2021.
Having a British accent is a definite advantage in Salt Lake City! I open my mouth, and people swoon. Many LDS folk are descended from desperately poor Victorian English factory workers who were converted to the faith by American missionaries, and agreed to migrate to Salt Lake City, between 1856 and 1860.
Because they had no money, the Church brought them to New York or Boston on chartered ships from Liverpool, near the main factory region, and from there by train to Council Bluffs. They were allowed only 17 pounds of luggage each, which may have inspired airline hand baggage rules. Organized into companies, they walked across the West, with five people taking turns to push each handcart, loaded with 250 lbs of essential supplies and luggage, all the way to Salt Lake City.
Wait, walked? Don't be surprised. Whether they were headed to California, Oregon, or Salt Lake, most wagon migrants to the West walked.
Wagons were U-Hauls for all your crap, not RVs (Margaret and Ledyard Frink, whom I write about, really were exceptional). And anyway, I can testify that riding in a wagon really isn't comfortable.
Ruth, The Anti-Mormon
Ruth Evans, Utah restaurateur, trainer of killer chihuahuas, sweary chain smoker, supplier of beer to underaged frat boys, lived 1895-1989, because women like Ruth live to be 94, that’s why. Photo:© Annette Laing, 2021.
I do love a restaurant with a great origin story, and Ruth's Diner in Salt Lake City has one of the best.
If you drive a few short miles from downtown Salt Lake City up Emigration Canyon, where the first Mormon settlers came through the Wasatch Mountains, you'll come to a small roadside restaurant. Ruth's Diner, serving beer and burgers, was started downtown in 1930 by the eponymous Ruth Evans, whose customers included sex workers from the brothel across the street. When she lost her lease, she bought an old railroad diner car, and had it moved to beautiful Emigration Canyon, where it became her new burger joint.
Ruth’s Diner, Emigration Canyon, 2021. Photo:© Annette Laing, 2021.
Ruth’s Diner, the original diner car. Photo:© Annette Laing, 2021.
Ruth built an apartment onto the dining car, and she and her Chihuahuas lived there for forty years.
Ruth, who didn’t care about alcohol laws, didn't ask for ID when serving beer, which made her very popular with local students. The Chihuahuas provided security, biting any customer they didn't like the look of. Told by the county health department that she had to provide a non-smoking section, Ruth granted that status to a single bar stool.
A waitress who came to visit Ruth on her 91st birthday sat on Ruth's sofa, and felt something uncomfortable. She pulled out a gun from between the cushions. She pointed out that it was loaded. Ruth’s reply? “If it wasn't, it wouldn't do me any damn good.”
Ruth has been dead for more than thirty years, but her spirit lives on at the diner, even though the new owners and staff are very nice and not at all terrifying. That’s because her pictures are everywhere.
The diner still uses Ruth’s fantastic mile-high biscuit recipe (I found an excellent version online and do recommend it)
While I have no idea if Ruth gave a rats patootie about local food, and she was of that generation who (with the exception of Louis Bromfield) didn't think about it, the diner does serve made-from-scratch food of great delight.
Ruth was a rebel. Born into a Mormon family in 1895, she was, like many people who are the heirs to Utopian communities, unimpressed.
I found myself today imagining Ruth standing at the door of her diner, in her house dress, Chihuahua clutched to her bosom, a ciggie hanging from her lips, watching a parade of her ancestors, 19th century British Mormons with wagons and handcarts, pass through Emigration Canyon. They might have found Ruth a bit disconcerting. But they knew what it was like to be different, to go your own way, to shock society. So I like to think there would be looks of understanding and mutual respect between them.
Or maybe Ruth would just think I'm full of it. That too. Anyone who was in the American West forty years ago knew a Ruth or two. I certainly did. I miss them.
My delicious omelette at Ruth’s. stuffed with crab and avocado (neither local, obviously) was among the evidence that Hoosen and I are now back in the West, the others being See’s Candy stores, Dole Whip at the museum cafe, and the searing heat that goes right though us: When you have lived in Sacramento in August, you know how to become one with the sun. Salt Lake City. This is where the West really starts.
I’m putting together a gift pack of fun stuff collected on this trip, and I'll be holding a drawing among my paid subscribers! A nice perk for supporters of Non-Boring History. And yes, you qualify if you sign up for a monthly or annual subscription during the trip! 😃