This Is The Place

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Brigham City is also the gateway to the Cache Valley, a fertile agricultural basin and the cheese-making center of Utah. Early farm communities like Newton, Tremonton, and Clarkston, with the wide streets and huge blocks of typical Mormon towns, are spread through the valley. (Martin Harris, one of the so-called Three Witnesses who actually saw the golden plates from which Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon, is buried in the Clarkston Cemetery.)

From Logan I headed east, up through Logan Canyon and the Cache National Forest. At the Bear Lake overlook there is a spectacular view of the twenty-mile-long lake. Brigham Young ordered this area colonized in 1863 as a buffer zone around his domain. When asked if Bear Lake was in Utah Territory, he answered imperiously: “I don’t know, and I don’t care… We calculate to be the kings of these mountains. Now let us go ahead and occupy them.”

 
Temple Square is the historical as well as the spiritual center of the faith. Young marked the spot a few days after his arrival.

I followed the road north along the lake into Idaho. I had intended to stay in Utah, but experts on Mormon history and architecture convinced me I would have to cross borders. After all, the state of Deseret (from the Book of Mormon, meaning “honey-bee”) claimed by Brigham Young extended from the crest of the Rockies to the crest of the Sierra Nevada and even included a stretch of coastal California. My sources took the same broad view of Zion; if I was interested in Mormon architecture, they said, I could not miss the tabernacle in Paris, Idaho.

So there I was headed for Paris, a town founded in 1863 and named, in a memorable misspelling, for the man who surveyed it, Frederick Perris.

Once there, there was no missing the tabernacle, for the red sandstone building with an eighty-foot tower dominated the tiny town like a cathedral. At the door I met Brother Ward, a gnarled old rancher dressed in the missionary’s black suit. Brother Ward’s interests were on the technical side. As he took me through the building, he pointed out the intricate lapping on the wood ceiling, the graining on the pews and doors, and, on the exterior, pieces of iron protruding from the sandstone exterior that had puzzled him until he figured out that they were there to hold scaffolding.

When we finished touring the tabernacle, we talked a bit about the church. After I said no thanks to his question about a home visit from a missionary, Brother Ward volunteered to show me around town. As we drove slowly through the quiet streets, he pointed out the older homes, including five adobe houses that the town’s founder, Charles C. Rich, had built for his five wives and fifty-one children.

Now that I was outside Utah, I kept going, veering east into Wyoming to Fort Bridger, a trading post established by the trapper Jim Bridger in 1842 and so well located, Bernard De Voto wrote, that “the history of the West through the next fifteen years could be written along radii that center here.” The pioneers of 1847 stopped there—and took over the fort in 1853—but today the only reminder of their presence at the restoration is a preserved cobblestone wall.

From there the road led back into Utah and on to Vernal in the north-eastern corner of the state. As a large sculpture on the main street indicates, Vernal has been known for dinosaurs ever since the bones of an apatosaurus were found east of town in 1909. The Daughters of the Utah Pioneers have an excellent small museum located in a former Mormon tithing office, where the Saints took their produce to fulfill their obligations to donate 10 percent of their income to the church. Still, the Mormon presence is overshadowed by the nearby Dinosaur National Monument and the lure of outdoor activities. It wasn’t until I arrived in southeastern Utah, the better part of a day’s drive away, that I once again was seized by the spirit, to use an evangelical term, of Mormon history.

Gene Foushee stood on the hill overlooking the town of Bluff, pointed at a grave, and complained about the way the local Mormons kept up the pioneer cemetery. They were much too diligent, he said. By weeding out beautiful native plants such as groundsel, desert bottle, sand verbena, and Mormon tea, they were unwittingly letting the tumbleweed take over. But to the Mormons, he explained, a grave “stripped clean” was “prima facie evidence that they have respect for the dead.”

Foushee is a preservationist, a guide, a student of the history and archeology of southeastern Utah, a former motel owner, and the person to whom the Utah travel office often refers people interested in local history. I had met a few Utahans who raved against the Mormons or made fun of them, but I had never heard them criticize them the way Foushee did—calmly and without malice.