The Juanita Brooks Lecture Series
The 22nd Annual Lecture
Folklore of Dixie: Past and Present
by William A. (Bert) Wilson, Emeritus Professor, BYU
St. George Tabernacle
March 2, 2005
Co-sponsored by Val Browning Library, Dixie State College
St. George, Utah
and the Obert C. Tanner Foundation
About Juanita Brooks
Juanita Brooks was a professor at [then] Dixie College for many years and became a well-known author.
She is recognized, by scholarly consent, to be one of Utah’s and Mormondom’s most eminent historians. Her total honesty, unwavering courage, and perceptive interpretation of fact set more stringent standards of scholarship for her fellow historians to emulate. Dr. Obert C. and Grace Tanner had been life-long friends of Mrs. Brooks and it was their wish to perpetuate her name through this lecture series. Dixie State College and the Brooks family express their thanks to the Tanner Family.
About the author
Abridged from “On Being Human: The Legacy of William A. Wilson,” by George Schoemaker56
“Bert” (as he is affectionately known to everyone) was born in Tremonton, Utah, in 1933 but grew up in a railroad family in Downey, Idaho. His father and most of his uncles and brothers worked for the Union Pacific Railroad in some capacity. It is not surprising, then, that the morning after his high-school graduation, Bert caught a train for Utah and joined his father working on the railroad. Wilson reminisced (all quotations are drawn from the May 2003 interview), “in some ways I never went back… of course I went back, but there was a separation that took place, in my mind at least, that night, that cut me loose from those strings that held me in Downey.”
In 1953, after completing a couple of years of college at Brigham Young University (BYU) in Provo, Utah, Wilson traveled to Finland as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormon Church). He is very much at home in Finland and has come to admire the Finns and their language and culture, partly due to his wife of many years, the former Hannele Blomqvist, whom he met while serving his mission.
Wilson had decided to major in English; his goal was to obtain a teaching certificate and eventually teach high school, but once he completed his bachelor’s degree, he decided to go on and obtain a master’s from BYU while teaching English at Bountiful High School. Once he finished his master's degree in 1962, his colleague Robert Blair, a professor of linguistics and also a former missionary in Finland, encouraged Wilson to go to Indiana University (ill) because it had a first-rate Uralic Studies and Folklore Program. Wilson wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about studying folklore, but he thought that it would help him better understand The Kalevala and Finnish literature, and that ill would provide him with the best programs in both disciplines.
The impact of Wilson’s contributions to the development of folkloristics in Utah is still being felt. He has been a tireless crusader in making people in Utah see folklore as a legitimate discipline and field of study, not only in the academy but also in his presentations and discussions with ordinary people. In doing so, Wilson has helped the people of Utah become aware of their living state treasures, the numerous folk artists and performers living in their own backyards. He has been a program builder at both BYU and USU, with the consistent goal of creating programs that would outlast him.
The importance of Wilson’s scholarship and leadership in the development of Mormon folklore studies in the United States, and his contributions to European and Finnish Studies both in the United States and Finland, have been recognized with over thirty fellowships and honors, including the Arrington Award; the Paredes Prize; the Charles Redd Award from the Utah Academy of Sciences, Arts, and Letters; the Aimo Turunen Medal from the Kalevala Society of Finland; and the Utah Governor’s Award in the Arts. In 2003, the folklore archive at BYU was renamed the William A. Wilson Folklore Archive.
Despite these honors, despite his eighty-seven publications and hundreds of public lectures and presentations, he says that he still thinks that his most significant contribution is in his efforts to recognize the fundamental worth of the individual: “I believe in the worth of every human being, not just in the elite, not just in the well-educated, but every living person is as worthwhile as any other living person—and folklore brought me into that.”
The Folklore of Dixie: Past and Present
by William A. (Bert) Wilson, Emeritus Professor, BYU
It is quite a frightening experience to stand at this pulpit where most of the presidents of the LDS Church have spoken. I get the feeling that if I say anything I shouldn’t, one of them will materialize out of this pulpit and strike me down. Frightening experience though it may be, it is nonetheless a privilege to stand here and deliver a lecture in honor of that great historian and great human being, Juanita Brooks. One evening toward the end of Juanita’s career I was putting around my Provo neighborhood on my Honda 90 motorcycle. An automobile pulled next to me and the driver asked directions to a particular address. I looked at the occupants of the vehicle and immediately recognized one of them as Juanita—she was on her way to speak to a small gathering at an evening fireside. Because my face was obscured by the dark and by my motorcycle helmet, Juanita had no idea who I was. I said, “Follow me and I’ll take you there,” and I putted off down the road to the home they were seeking. They all thanked me, and I replied, “Just one of your friendly Nephites guiding you to your destination,” and then turned and putted off into the night. I knew Juanita would immediately recognize my reference to the Three Nephites, those ancient American disciples of Christ who had been allowed to “tarry in the flesh” until the Savior’s return to testify of Christ and to help people in distress. I knew she would also recognize that in many stories circulating about appearances of the Three Nephites one of the old disciples frequently guided lost people to their destination, just as I had guided Juanita and her friends to their destination that evening. That was the last time I ever saw her.
I had met Juanita Brooks the first time many years earlier at a folk culture conference held at Utah State University in July of 1968 and in the following years had gotten to know her quite well. At the conference, she gave a paper entitled “Mariah Huntsman Leavitt: Midwife of the Desert Frontier,” and spoke of midwives practicing in remote southern Utah settlements and in the lower Virgin Valley in Nevada. As she talked of tending newborn babies in her own home, she recounted some of the folk beliefs she had learned from her English and Swiss grandmothers and from neighbors: “Do not tickle a baby or make him laugh too much. This will cause him to stutter. Do not let him look into the mirror before he is one year old. It will make his teething harder, and is just bad luck all around. Do not toss him about or hold him with his head down. You will turn over his liver so that it cannot function. Do not feed the mother rabbit meat while she is nursing the child, or he will be prone to run away, and perhaps later to even leave home.”1
As Juanita recited these beliefs, some of the sophisticates in the audience snickered at the thought of people naive enough to practice such foolishness. Juanita did not laugh. In fact, as she read further into her paper, she struggled to keep back the tears as she returned in memory to her own youth and to the time in the remote Dixie settlements when travel was by horse and wagon over rough roads, when most babies were delivered by neighborhood midwives, and when in times of medical need of any kind the settlers had to rely on their own devices, on traditional remedies passed down from generation to generation by their forebears. As I listened to Juanita’s quavering voice and perceived the depth of her feelings as she remembered the trials of her Dixie ancestors, I recognized what I had always known but had never so fully comprehended—that items of folklore are not just pleasant bits of local color useful primarily to while away our idle moments but are instead human responses to our deeply felt human needs crucial to our understanding of our fellow beings.
Folk medicinal practices were certainly not the only forms of folklore employed by the Dixie settlers. Unfortunately there were no folklorists around during Dixie’s pioneer years, so most of its lore remained uncollected and has to be abstracted from diaries like that of Charles Lowell Walker, from personal memoirs like Juanita Brooks’ Quicksand and Cactus: A Memoir of the Southern Utah Mormon Frontier, from collections assembled by the U.S. Work Progress Administration Federal Writers’ Project and Historical Records Survey, and from literary works like Maureen Whipple's monumental The Giant Joshua, which incorporates into the novel’s plot a rich store of Dixie traditions.
These traditions, like traditions elsewhere, fall into three broad categories: first, verbal lore, things people make with words (from rhymes like the one recited by St. George children—“Oh, Lord of love, come down from above, and pity us poor scholars; We hired a fool to teach our school, and paid him forty dollars”2—to songs and stories of courageous grandparents struggling to establish themselves among the harsh red hills of Dixie, to contemporary accounts of God’s providential hand guiding “the affairs of the saints,” to humorous tales that caricature Mormon foibles and ease the pressures of “being in the world but not of it”); second, material lore, things people make with their hands (from traditional objects like Mormon hay derricks, horse hair hackamores, and rip-gut fences to home-made “quiet books” designed to keep small children constructively occupied in church, to home preserves and special holiday foods, to decorative scrap books, to temple quilts given young couples on their marriages); and, third, customary lore, things people make with their actions (from pioneer dances to “creative dating” practices of contemporary youth, from quilting bees to special family celebrations of birth and baptismal dates, to family genealogical meetings, to church and community celebrations of traditional holidays such as Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Pioneer Day).
To understand any group of people, from Dixie or anywhere else, we neglect their folklore at our peril. All people tell stories about events that interest them most, create objects that serve useful functions or appeal to their sense of beauty, and participate in customary practices that are most important to them. Before illustrating this thesis with examples of Dixie folklore, experience tells me I must make a few comments about the nature of folklore in general.
First, folklore does not equal falsehood. The stories that circulate among us can be absolutely true or absolutely false or somewhere in between. You have probably all heard the statement, “Oh, that story is just folklore,” suggesting that it is not true. From the huge body of different forms of folklore, such a statement relates only to what we call a legend—that is, to a story that is believed by the teller and many of his or her listeners to be true. No one ever talks about a joke, or a quilt, or a traditional way of conducting family prayer as true or false. But a legend is a different creature. Consider the following legend recounted by Juanita Brooks when she was talking about church meetings in her Bunkerville ward:
There was one time when a weary brother had slept through all the first talk, and in the lull before the second, was nudged by a youngster who whispered, “Bishop just called on you to dismiss!” With a snort he stood up, pulled down his vest to collect his wits, walked up the aisle, called upon the audience to arise, and closed the meeting in the middle. The Bishop, a broad grin on his face, made no move to interrupt, and the surprised boys whooped as they jumped in flying leaps from the top step.3
Then consider this story:
A man came to church in one of the wards in Cedar City, and the bishop asked him if he would say the closing prayer. During the course of the meeting (which was fast and testimony meeting), the man fell asleep and began to snore. His friend, who was sitting by him, gave him a nudge so he would wake up. He assumed he had been nudged because it was time for the closing prayer, so he walked up and said the prayer. The meeting was very short that day.4
Did the tellers of these stories lie? Of course not. What we are dealing with is a migratory legend that travels from place to place throughout the church, is attached to different wards, and is adapted to fit local circumstances. Could it be true? Of course. Many legends spring from historical circumstances before they begin their journey through time and space. In the rural ward where I grew up, we had an abundance of church sleepers and an adequate supply of young wags who might very well have come up with such a scheme. It could have happened, then, but certainly not in all the places where it has been reported. We call such stories folklore because they are passed from person to person and place to place by the spoken word rather than by the written page or formal instruction.
The same is true of material objects and customary practices, which we learn by observation and imitation. A young girl watches her mother piece a quilt and eventually under the mother’s tutelage creates her own quilt, or a young boy watches older boys on the school grounds play marbles and soon learns to play his own game. As soon as people lose interest in a story or in making a certain object or in participating in a customary practice, these will cease to exist. Thus, folklore serves as an excellent barometer of what is important to a particular group at a particular time and can help us gauge shifting attitudes and values.
Second, folklore is not something that belongs to someone else. It belongs to all of us. If you want to know who the folk are (the people who transmit the lore), go home and look in the mirror. Most of us are storytellers. We talk about our jobs, our hobbies, our successes and failures, our courtships and marriages, our children and our religious beliefs and experiences. We do so because in order to communicate effectively to others what is in our hearts and minds, we must make the abstract concrete—we must transform experience and belief into narrative. Similarly, from the time we get up in the morning until we go to bed at night, most of us participate in many of our activities in customary ways.
Third, folklore is not disappearing. During the first part of the twentieth century, folklorists believed that folklore consisted primarily of relics from an earlier stage of cultural development surviving to the present among the simpler and mostly uneducated country folk. As those keeping the lore alive gained more education, so it was believed, they would give up their childish practices and beliefs, and folklore would disappear. Thus the author of a WPA survey of Dixie folklore concluded his study by stating: “Folklore has not yet died out of Dixie, but it is rapidly and very properly giving way to the more accurate, more sophisticated learning to be found in books.”5
Folklore has not disappeared. There is as much lore around as there ever was. We understand today that folklore continues to come into being the way it always has—by individuals responding creatively to the circumstances of their lives and by generating in the process a body of lore that reflects their view of the world and helps them cope with that world. As circumstances change, some lore will disappear, but new lore will take its place. Among Mormons, folklore certainly is not diminishing. So long as we continue to believe that God is a personal God who takes a personal interest in our affairs, we will continue telling stories, based on our experiences or those around us, that testify to the validity of that belief.
Once again, the study of these stories and other forms of folklore is a crucially important pursuit leading to a better understanding of what is going on in our culture at any given time and of forces within the culture that move us to action. The force that moved the first Dixie settlers to action was the call to leave their homes in the Salt Lake Valley and establish the Dixie Mission. Such a call was more dreaded than hoped for and stands in stark contrast to reasons for migrating to Dixie in recent years. Families began moving to communities in Washington County in the mid-1850s and into St. George in 1861. After struggling to establish themselves in the Salt Lake Valley after their arrival there, the pioneers did not willingly pull up stakes and head south. After receiving his call, Charles Walker wrote in his diary: “Well, here I have worked for the last 7 years thro heat and cold, hunger and adverse circumstances, and at last have got me a home, a Lot with fruit trees just beginning to bear and look pretty. Well, I must leave it and go and do the will of My Father in Heaven.”6 Of the day he left Salt Lake, he wrote: “This was the hardest trial I ever had and had it not been for the gospel and those that were placed over me I should [have] never moved a foot to go on such a trip.”7 Twenty-six days later, on his arrival in St. George on December 9, 1862, he wrote: “St. George is a barren looking place... [The land] is dry, parched, barren waste with here and there a green spot on the margin of the streams. Very windy, dusty, blowing nearly all the time. The water is not good and far from being palatable. And this is the country we have to live in and make blossom as the Rose.”8
Such sentiments were captured in a song, “Once I lived in Cottonwood,” composed by George Hicks and sung still today:
Once I lived in Cottonwood and owned a little farm.
When I was called to Dixie it did me much alarm.
To hoe the cane and cotton I right away must go.
The reason why they called on me, I’m sure I do not know.
I yoked up Jim and Bally, all for to make a start;
To leave my house and garden, it almost broke my heart,
To leave my house and garden and all my friends behind,
For the rocks and sand of Dixie kept rolling through my mind.
When I reached the Black Ridge my wagon it broke down,
I could get no one to mend it, for I was twenty miles from town.
I cut a clumsy cedar and made an awkward slide.
My wagon was so heavy that Betsy couldn’t ride.
So while Betsy was a-walking I told her to take care;
When all upon a sudden she struck a prickly pear,
Which made her whoop and holler as loud as she could bawl,
Saying “If I was back on Cottonwood, I wouldn’t come at all.”
When we got to Washington thought I’d rest awhile
To see if April showers would make the verdure smile.
But oh, was mistaken and so I went away,
For the red hills of November were just the same in May.
Oh I am so sick and weary I think I’m almost dead;
’Tis seven weeks next Sunday since I have tasted bread.
Of carrot tops and lucerne greens we’ve had enough to eat,
But I’d rather change my diet now to buckwheat cake and meat.
The hot winds blow around me and take away my breath;
I’ve had the chills and fever till I’m nearly shook to death.
They’ll hand out prophetic sermons and prove them by “the Book,”
But I’d rather have some roasting ears to stay at home and cook.
My wagon went for sorghum seed to make a little bread.
Poor old Jim and Bally have long ago been dead
Now there’s no one but me and Betsy left to hoe the cotton tree.
And may heaven protect the Dixie-ites wherever they may be.9
The same feelings are also caught in some of the legends, as in the following story:
A bishop was on his way back to Salt Lake... He was camped somewhere near Provo or Springville. During the night his animals got loose and got into the garden of a good brother in the Springville area, and the good brother was really incensed the next morning—irate that better care hadn’t been taken of securing these animals. And he let the good bishop know in no uncertain terms of his displeasure. Well, the good bishop listened patiently, and when it was over, identified himself and said, “I’m Bishop so-and-so from Dixie, and I’m on my way to Salt Lake to take care of some business and I’m going to request of Brigham [Young] some reinforcements, and I’m going to ask him to have you called to come to Dixie.” The man said, “Please, don’t do that. I’m sorry I lost my temper. Here, have a couple of bushels of vegetables, your animals are... welcome to stay. Please stop on your way home, but please don’t ask that I be sent to Dixie.”10
For many decades, the Dixie Mission retained much of its frontier character. But in time its inhabitants, toughened by the harshness of their environment, grew to love the land and their gritty brothers and sisters who lived on it. Not many years after he mourned changing his more comfortable Salt Lake home for one in the red hills of St. George, that indefatigable diarist, Charles Walker, penned the lines of a much acclaimed song that has persisted in oral tradition to the present, “St. George and the Drag-on”:
Oh what a desert place was this
When first the Mormons found it.
They said no white men here could live
And Indians prowl’d around it.
T’was said the land it was no good.
And the water was no gooder,
And the bare idea of living here
Was enough to make one shudder.
Mesquite, soap root,
Prickly pears, and briars.
St. George ere long will be a place
That everyone admires.
Now green lucerne in verdant spots,
Bedecks our thriving City.
Whilst vines and fruit trees grace our lots
And floweretts sweet and pretty,
Where once the gross in single blades
Grew a mile apart in distance.
And it kept the crickets on the go
To pick up their subsistence.
The Sun it is so scorching hot
It makes the water siz, sir
And the reason why it is so hot,
’Tis just because it is, sir.
The wind like fury here does blow
That when we plant or sow, sir,
We place one foot upon the seed
And hold it till it grows, sir.
Perhaps the best metaphor for the Dixie-ites’ accommodation with land is the story of the Sego Lily, perhaps the best known story in Washington County, still told in church meetings, seminary, and family gatherings, and turned to rhymed couplets by Mabel Jarvis:
So sunbaked, barren bleak, and full of tears
The country seemed. So endless stretched the years:
One Pioneer woman, weeping, said that not
One single sign of art, one lovely spot,
One evidence of beauty could she see.
And when her husband begged to disagree,
She bade him bring one gift of loveliness,
One tiny flower to pin upon her dress,
And she would praise his country in her song,
Cease weeping, and be glad the whole day long.
Day after day, as from his toil returning,
With shouldered shovel, he was searching, yearning
For that small floral gift that should bring peace
Into his home, and bitter tears would cease.
At length his patient seeking found reward,
No lovelier diadem can earth afford
Than those sweet Sego Lilies which he brought,
Whose brown eyes in their lavender chalice sought
The face of her who said no art was found
In all these many, many miles around.
She clasped them to her heart and blest the hand
Of him with whom she came to Dixieland.12
Though the tough and resilient settlers of Dixie, like the young girl in “The Legend of the Sego Lilies,” came eventually to love their new homes, life was still difficult. On his visits to the Dixie Mission, Brigham Young “urged the Mothers of Israel to teach their daughters to wash, starch, iron, bake, cook, and to make their own adornments and to teach them industry and economy, and qualify them for future usefulness.”13 Isolated from any close-by population centers and living in remote villages, the settlers had few other choices—they had to rely on their own devices, on their material and customary lore in order to survive. They had to make their own soap, their own houses and furniture; they had to learn to card, to spin, to dye yarn, to weave, to knit, to make rag carpets, to make hats for both men and women from straw, to make clothing and prepare food. In a wonderful description of how she learned to spin and to knit, Eleanor Cannon Woodbury Jarvis also demonstrated the folklore process, the process by which folklore is passed from one generation to the next. She said:
After arriving at our destination, we encamped on the “Old Camp Ground” where the people lived while waiting for the city of St. George to be surveyed. Mother got her spinning wheel out, telling me she wanted me to learn to spin. I was only seven and not tall enough to reach the wheel, so she fixed a box or board as a small platform for me to walk on, and would give me a few rolls, perhaps half a dozen, to spin every day, and then I could play. She also taught me to knit, and I knit myself some garters, and after I had learned to fashion a stocking, I took delight in knitting stockings for my doll in my spare time.14
Time will not allow a description of the many pioneer skills employed in the early days of Dixie. A description of candle making will have to stand for all the rest:
Candles had to be made to supply light, as coal oil was not then known, at least in the frontier settlements. Every family considered it a part of household equipment to have a set of candle-molds... The candlewick was cut in the required lengths and after being doubled and twisted slightly, it was dropped through the mold, which tapered to a small hole at the bottom. A round stick was slipped through the row of loops at the top, and the other ends drawn tight at the small hole, then tied in a knot. After the mold was filled with wicks, melted tallow was poured in the top until it was full. After cooling, the knots at the bottom were cut off, and the candles drawn out by means of the loops over the sticks.
After the work was completed, the candle maker would store the candles “away with a feeling of satisfaction that her source of light for the next few months was secure.”15 In the summer the tallow candles would often melt because of the intense heat, “so a bit of rag tied around a button in a dish of grease was used for lighting.”16
But life was not all drudgery. The Dixie pioneers knew how to turn work into play. They would gather in homes and hold peach cuttings, carpet-rag bees, wool-picking bees, quilting bees, and spinning contests. At the end of those home gatherings, said Mrs. Jarvis, “refreshments were served and games were played. Molasses candy pullings were also frequently enjoyed.”17
Describing peach cuttings, an author in the WPA Federal Writers Project, wrote:
[For a peach cutting,] men made scaffolds for drying the peaches at certain propitious places about the town. One night a crowd of young people gathered at one of the scaffolds to set out peaches, until an entire crop of peaches had been pitted and set out to dry. Various races were run to see who could cut and set out the most peaches in a given time, and, as often as not, the winner of such a race was permitted to kiss all the young ladies present.18
For both young and old, the favorite recreation seems to have been dancing and 4th and 24th of July celebrations, which always ended in a dance. But occasions for dancing occurred throughout the year. Just a few days after arriving in St. George in December of 1861, the first company of settlers held a Christmas dance and social, the older folks dancing inside the tent and the younger people outside in space cleared around the tent.19 The first homes of the settlers were often just dugouts and willow structures plastered with mud. Their first meeting place was a bowery, and that was also their first dancing place. As the settlers constructed more substantial buildings, dances were held in church buildings, schools, the social hall, and private homes. There seems to have been an ample supply of fiddlers in the company playing traditional tunes to which the Dixie-ites danced the polka, the schottische, the quadrille, the Virginia Reel, Six Nations, the two-step, the snap waltz, the spat waltz, and the polygamy waltz, this last waltz designed for those men with more than one wife.20 On the 12th of January 1877, Charles Walker married Sarah Smith, his second wife. On the 27th of that same month, he wrote in his diary, “At night took my wives to the dance. Enjoyed myself well.”21
These dances, which sometimes lasted until well after midnight, must have been joyous occasions, a respite from the toil of everyday life. Describing a 24th of July celebration he attended in Pine Valley, Walker wrote, “We enjoyed ourselves the best kind in having 3 of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles preach to us besides singing, dancing, jumping, [and] romping.”22 Remembering these times, Jennie B. Miles recalled, “At the dances some were barefoot, some had cow-hide boots, or heavy shoes. A piece of tallow on the shelf was used to minister to stubbed toes or bruised feet so they could go on with the dance.”23 Those who had shoes would lend them temporarily to those who were barefoot. Sometimes during a dance, a pair of shoes would pass from one pair of feet to another so many times that at the end of the dance the owner of the shoes could not find them. He would have to wait until the next day when he would find them in the window of the tithing office.24
Perhaps no forms of customary lore were more widely spread than the folk remedies with which the Dixie-ites treated their injuries and illnesses. Here are just a few: a poultice of pitch from a pine tree for blood poison, cold water packs for croup and pneumonia, snake oil for rheumatism, a gargle made from rough elm bark for black canker, the brains of a freshly killed rabbit rubbed on the gums for a teething child, catnip for colic, a teaspoon of mare’s milk three times a day for whooping cough, bacon fat wrapped around the neck for a sore throat, slices of overripe cucumbers on each eye for sore eyes, flour and turpentine mixed together and spread on a wound for bleeding, salve made from molasses and sulphur for the itch.25
It is easy to laugh at such medicinal practices, as did some members of the audience at Juanita Brooks’ USU lecture on midwives. But then if our children get infection, we can take them to the doctor for a shot of penicillin, after first getting a strep test, if they have sore throats; we can get them stitched up when they cut themselves or get their limbs mended when they fall and injure themselves; we can get them inoculated against whooping cough and other communicable diseases. The people living on the Dixie frontier had no such recourse. When we think of loving mothers and fathers struggling to keep themselves and their children alive and turning desperately to traditional remedies for help, our smiles turn to tears.
They did, of course, have access to a better source than folk remedies. They could, and did, turn to their Heavenly Father through prayer and through priesthood blessings, and the lore of the Dixie pioneers is full of stories of miraculous healings and of the Lord coming to the aid of individuals in distress. Some of the most interesting of these are stories of the Three Nephites helping people in trouble or in need. Probably the best known Nephite story in Washington County is the narrative of an old white-bearded man appearing to an individual who had discovered a rich source of gold near Enterprise. The unexpected visitor said, “The mine is an evil thing, and any attempt to develop it foreshadows only ruin for you and your boys.” Shortly thereafter the old man disappeared. Following this visit from the individual, whom he considered a Nephite, the prospector could no longer find the mine, though some have continued to look for it almost to the present day, and concluded that its loss was a good thing for him and his family.26
This story clearly supports Brigham Young’s notion that his people should avoid mining and the evils associated with it. But it differs from the bulk of the Dixie stories in which the helpful and kind Nephite visitors guide a man traveling from Pine Valley to St. George safely through a snow storm,27 heal the sick son of a woman in Rockville,28 answer questions a Pine Valley rancher had about the Book of Mormon,29 prepare Native Americans to hear the gospel,30 save the lives of people on the way to the St. George Temple by leading them to water,31 revive a farm boy injured in an accident,32 and help a farm girl herd her cows safely home from the rising waters of the Virgin River.33 One extended example will have to suffice:
[This] concerns a rancher in southern Utah or northern Arizona. This rancher one winter was out looking for some cattle that had strayed. And as he was out looking, why he was caught in a very severe blizzard. And he wanted to give up the search for the cattle and try to find his home if he could, because the snow was becoming so bad. He was lost and was wandering about off of his horse when he said suddenly he came upon a man who was standing out in the blizzard. He walked up to the man, and the man said to follow him, he’d show him how to go to safety. So this rancher followed the man for a time, and finally they came to an overhanging cliff or a cave-like sort of a thing, and it provided shelter from the storm. And when they got there, why the man saw that the cattle he was looking for were actually hiding underneath that cliff and they were safe. And the man said that it is safe for you to stay here for the storm. So he walked under the cliff, and when he got under he turned around to talk to the man, and he had disappeared.34
In telling stories of the Three Nephites the Dixie pioneers found comfort in the knowledge that help was available if they would only live righteously. More important, the stories helped persuade the people that God was aware of them, that he knew of their hardships and trials, and that he would not abandon the Dixie Mission.
With no telephones, no radios, no television sets to distract them and no automobiles to carry them away, the settlers and their families gathered around the fireplace to tell and listen to a wide variety of stories. Just as we tell stories today of our pioneer ancestors to strengthen our faith and bolster our resolve to face our own difficulties courageously, the Dixie-ites told stories of events in the church preceding the Saints’ arrival in Salt Lake to shore up their faith and encourage them to meet the difficult challenges they faced every day. In a description of a 24th of July celebration, Charles Walker wrote in his diary: “Brother [Erastus] Snow gave us an interesting narrative of the journeyings of the saints from Nauvoo to Winter Quarters and from there to G[reat] S[alt] L[ake].”35 At such gatherings, they heard again the stirring tales of Clay County, of Haun’s Mill, of Nauvoo, of Winter Quarters, and of the trek west.
They also told stories of local events. For example, they talked about the building of the St. George Temple, how no one had been killed during its construction, how one young worker had fallen over thirty feet and had been able to return to work a few days later, how the workers had built a small steeple that Brigham Young hadn’t liked but had let them keep anyway and that the steeple had been shattered by lightning shortly after President Young’s death. The steeple was reconstructed to its present size. The workers believed that the lightning strike and the rebuilding had been orchestrated by Brigham Young from the other side of the veil, so that once again he could have his way.36
They talked about dealings with the Indians, about the rowdy life of the gentiles at Silver Reef, about violence and robberies along the road as men freighted goods to and from Nevada. The following story is typical:
A man from Pine Valley, returning from Caliente, was attacked by two men shortly after he started home. One of the men with a pistol in his hands, ordered everything thrown out of the wagon. This done, the robber came near the wagon and stooped over to pick up the money that had been thrown out. In a flash the man in the wagon picked up his rifle and covered the two men. It was bitter cold, but the robbers were compelled to take off their coats, drop their pistols, and hold up their hands. The outlaws were told to beat it back to Caliente, and were told they could get their coats and belongings the next day at the police station in Panaca. No one ever called for the belongings.37
One of the best ways to capture the social context in which many of these stories occurred is to read Maurine Whipple’s The Giant Joshua. She not only puts legends into the mouths of her characters; the actions these characters perform are themselves frequently based on legends. For example, Abijah’s administering to an ox, the Indian battles, Clory’s hiding an Indian youngster in her skirts, Tutsegabett’s putting his fat wife into the Virgin River Canal to stop a water leak, Abijah’s missionary stories, the Devil’s appearing at the dedication of the St. George Temple, a first wife’s breaking a window pane over the head of her husband in bed with his second wife all have counterparts in oral tradition.38
One of the saving graces of the pioneers was their sense of humor:
The story is told that a group of early citizens of Pine Valley were coming down to winter conference. When they arrived at Santa Clara, one old fellow drove his wagon onto the too-thin ice and went down, wagon and all, into the icy water. After a stunned silence, one of his companions called out, “Brother, be ye cold?” “Well, I ain’t a damned bit sweaty,” was the reply.39
My favorite story is “The Roll Away Saloon,” as told by Rowland Rider, who spent his youth as a cowboy on the Arizona Strip. Many of his fellow cowboys had trouble with the Word of Wisdom, which much dismayed their wives. The cowboys built a saloon right on the Utah/Arizona border, four miles south of Kanab and four miles north of Fredonia. Instead of putting the building on a foundation, they placed it on log rollers that went clear under the joist. Now, in Rider’s words,
One day when the women in the Relief Society up to Kanab got together sewing and having a quilting bee, they decided among themselves that too many of their men were going down imbibing at this Roll Away Saloon. So they organized a posse to go and burn the thing down. And their plans were all kept a secret from their husbands, of course. So when the men all went out on the range or out in the fields,...the women saddled up their horses, a lot of them rode, and some of them took their white-tops, and they headed for this saloon.
Just fortunately for the saloon keeper, there’s a little raise of land to the north about a quarter mile from the saloon, and on the south side there’s also a little incline up to a little ridge there, what we call Halfway Hill. And sure enough, this saloon keeper saw the dust coming from these women on horseback and these four or five white-tops as they came over the rise. And he got the crowbar and rolled the saloon into Arizona. The women got down there and were all ready to light their torches; they had their bundles all ready, when the saloon keeper said, ‘You can’t touch this business; it’s in Arizona. We don’t belong to Utah at all. There’s the line”... So they had a little confab, then said to the saloon keeper, “Well, if you sell our men any more liquor, we’ll get you next time.” So they went back home all disgusted that they couldn’t go over into Arizona and wreck that place, and went back to their quilting.
You guessed it. Soon the good Mormon ladies quilting in Fredonia became upset over their men’s carousing, and they rode off to destroy the saloon, but the saloon keeper saw them coming and rolled the saloon back into Utah. Said Rider: “And this went on for years.” To testify to the veracity of his story, Rider insisted that one could still see “a few of those old rollers rotting over there.”40
The rollers are probably gone by now, if they ever existed, and so is the way of life that I have been depicting here. Up to the middle of the twentieth century, the people who settled Dixie were a pretty cohesive social group, the kind in which folklore thrives. The population of Washington County in 1960 was 10,271, most of them descendants of the original pioneers. Now, according to the governor’s office of Demographic and Economic Analysis the population in 2004 was estimated at 117,316. From 1990 to 2000, the population of St. George grew by 21,161 people, a 74.2 percentage increase. Hurricane’s population during the same ten-year period increased by 110.7 percent and Washington’s by 95 percent. The large families of eight to fifteen children who with their parents once gathered around the fireplace to mend clothing and equipment, play games, sing songs, and tell stories have been replaced by families with an average size of 2.97 people.
In these changed circumstances, what does it mean to be a Dixie-ite today? Some of the old lore hangs on mostly among descendants of the original settlers. Some time ago, I collected the following story from the man who sold me a car and whose great grandfather was one of those settlers:
[My great grandfather who freighted gold and ore] tells the story that he left Pioche, Nevada, one time with a load of gold bullion, and he got as far as the state line somewhere in the area of Modena, Utah. His wife who could ride horses just like no one’s business—she heard in the saloon that they were going to be robbed somewhere in that area. So she overtook him and had him pull off the road in the thick cedars and bury the gold. And then they took sagebrush and brushed their tracks out and came back onto the road. And when they got down the road a little further they were held up and robbed, but they didn’t have any gold. So they went on into Modena and then went back after the robbers had left and everything was quiet, and they couldn’t find the gold. They had buried it so good they couldn’t find it themselves. To this day, from what my father tells me, they never did find it. Other [members of the family] looked for it later. In fact, I have a brother—he wants to get a rig together and go out—he thinks he knows really quite—he’s got it pinpointed real good. But it’s never been found to this day.41
Other stories and practices still persist but are adapted now to the modem world. One of the Three Nephites who earlier helped stranded drivers of ox carts and horses and wagons, now stops his own car to assist a woman driving to St. George whose vehicle has broken down. He takes her into town to get a tow truck and then disappears.42 Some people still employ water witches, or dowsers, to find underground water, but they also use scientific methods. Some medicinal practices are still followed. A BYU student from this area told her roommates to mix powdered cinnamon with water, then put this mix on a cut to speed up the healing process, stop bleeding, and heal the wound without a scar.43 And a young man from Hurricane said he learned from his science and biology teacher how to heal a cold. He said, “To cure the common cold, you must remove the viruses through the pores of your skin. Therefore, go down to the hot springs near the Virgin River. First get into the steaming hot water for at least twenty minutes, then jump into the freezing cold river. Stay in there as long as you can stand it and repeat several times. Your cold will be gone when you wake up the next morning.”44
These items bridge past and present. But what we must do if we want to understand the lore of St. George today—and more important, to understand the people who possess the lore and the use they make of it—is to ask ourselves what kinds of cohesive groups have formed in this rapidly growing modern county. Who are you people who have moved here and where have you come from? What traditions have you brought with you? What do you think of the original Dixieites who still live here? What do they think of you? You are probably formed into groups by the churches you attend. The church is awash with stories. We talk constantly of missions, of conversions, of God’s interventions in individual lives, of admiration for and sometimes frustrations with church authorities, of acts of sacrifice and kindness performed by charitable church members, of the perils of living along the Santa Clara and Virgin Rivers, of the day-to-day delights and sorrows of church membership. As soon as these stories become patterned and begin functioning in significant ways in the lives of those who tell and listen to them, they become folklore. What other smaller groups, like quilters or golfers, have you formed? What are the occupational groups that have replaced a once-dominant farming and ranching culture? What traditions have you developed within these groups? Over five percent of your population is Hispanic. What are their traditions? I would like to inspire some of you to use your leisure time to answer these questions by talking to your friends and neighbors and tape recording their stories and photographing their customary practices and material lore.
The best place to start always is with your own families. What are the Thanksgiving and Christmas traditions followed in your families? What are the arts and crafts practiced in your homes? Who are your ancestors and what stories do you want your children and grandchildren to know about them? Some years ago, one of my students, Marjorie Bundy, for her folklore-collecting project, gathered stories told by family members at their annual reunion at Mt. Trumbull on the Arizona Strip. She submitted forty stories to our archive but wasn’t satisfied with what she had achieved, so she took another class from me and collected forty-seven more. What warm, delightful stories these are, what a treasure for her family—stories sometimes funny, sometimes spiritual, sometimes frightening. In the paper’s introduction, Marjorie wrote:
The 4th of July is my favorite holiday because of the Bundy Reunion. It is great to get together with my cousins, not only my first but also down to my fourth cousins. The best time of all is when all the activities are done for the day, and the close relatives gather around our campfire to roast marshmallows and tell stories about life on the Arizona “Strip.” These stories help me to better understand my family and myself.
This paper is very important to me because these stories are part of me. The lives my grandparents, uncles, and aunts lived helped to make them the hardworking, fun-loving people they are today. The good qualities they have gained from their hard life on the Arizona ‘Strip’ have inspired me and have helped to mold my character.45
Another student, Carla Stucki, focused on the Easter egg traditions of her Swiss family from Santa Clara. In a wonderful series of slides, Carla documented how three generations of the family worked together gathering plants and flowers and used them to decorate and color their eggs. When they were all through, they then took these beautiful eggs and had a contest mashing them together to see who could break whose eggs.46 This custom carries echoes from the past. In her memoir, Juanita Brooks explained how on a school picnic: “The boys had a game with their eggs, cracking them together,...‘Playing Bust’ they called it.”47
If you have not recorded traditions like these from your own family, now is the time to start. Then you can move beyond your families and begin working on the questions I asked above. I want to end now with an example of lore that ties both Dixie’s past and present together—the lore of floods on the Virgin and Santa Clara Rivers, which from the beginning plagued the Dixie-ites. On September 3, 1885, Charles Walker wrote in his journal: “Since I last wrote we have had some very heavy showers, causing floods to do much damage to our Dams, ditches, crops, etc.” Stories like the following were far too numerous:48
Mary Jolley of Washington tells of their home near the dam and canal on the Virgin River. One night as a flood came down the river, she helped her father pile sand bags against the dam in an effort to save the home. The home, except the large rock chimney, was swept away, and the family spent the night, wrapped in quilts, leaning against a rock, listening to the loud roar of the flood all night.49
One of the pioneers’ ways of dealing with such tragedy was through humor. One of the characters in The Giant Joshua said to Erastus Snow after a punishing storm: “I vum, Brother Snow, when you was askin’ the Lord for rain, why didn’t you tell him how much.”50 In 1982, I heard church historian Leonard Arrington give an excellent talk in which he described conditions in arid southern Utah, where the little rain that does fall often comes down in cloud bursting torrents that wash away crops, irrigation systems, and homes. To illustrate his point he told of a young lady from Dixie who offered a public prayer for rain. In her prayer, she implored the Lord not to send “a slip-slashing, gulley-washing” storm but to bless them instead with “a nice, gentle, drizzle-drazzle, ground-soaking” rain. This story has a counterpart in Sanpete County where an old Danish convert not only prayed but bargained with the Lord in this manner:
Now, Lord, we do vant you to send us rain. But ve vant it to be a yentle rain—a long, yentle rain. Ve do not vant a cloudburst dat vil bring a flood out of de canyon to put mud and boulders in our gardens and fields. And, Lord, ve do not vant a big hail storm like de vun you sent last year dat knocked all the heads off de hveat yost ven it was ripening. Ve want a nice, yentle rain. And, Lord, ve know dat if you vil tink of it, you vil see the reasonableness of vat ve ask, and how it vil be an advantage to bote us and to you. Because if we do not get the yentle rain dat vil safe de crops, neither vil you get your tithing.51
To appreciate this humor, we have to think our way out of our nice, comfortable twenty-first century surroundings, back to the days when there were no government or church welfare systems, no insurance; where the people had no one to depend upon but themselves and their neighbors; and where the possibility of starvation through loss of crops lurked always in the shadows. How did they bear up under such circumstances? They laughed so they wouldn’t cry. Through the wonderful gift of humor they were able to mitigate the harshness of their reality and get up each day and rebuild their homes, their farms, and their lives.
I mentioned depending on their neighbors. Consider this story from Dixie’s early days:
John Schmutz and family lived right in the mouth of the Beaver Wash. We knew they would be washed away unless they were warned. I got out a horse and rode as fast as I could, told them to hurry and get out of bed as there was a big flood coming down the wash. I helped them get bedding, clothes, and what we could out onto the bank and we were none too soon as the water came before we were ready, but there was no lives lost, but they were fast asleep when I got there and gave the alarm. The water was so high I couldn’t get back home until next day. We all were out in the rain all night with no shelter.52
These people were saved because of caring friends or neighbors who put their own well-being, and sometimes their lives, at risk to save others. This is what ties the early Dixie-ites to you people here today. I have read through some of the stories of the recent flood collected by volunteers and published as Portraits of Loss, Stories of Hope and find them captivating.
These stories of today will become the folklore of tomorrow. As a folklorist, I am intrigued by the narrative patterns I see emerging and by the themes that run through most of the stories. There is in these stories adequate material for a number of serious studies. The themes are fascinating: the destructive ferocity of the rivers, the dangers involved in fighting them, miracles, the use of four-wheelers and cell phones, the ready organizational structures of church and city, but, above all else, the love of the people toward each other and the unquestioning willingness to sacrifice time and body to help others. This is the gospel in action. For me the actions of the Dixie people in helping each other come closer to the pure love of Christ than almost anything I have encountered for some time. The stories are far more faith promoting to me than ten hundred accounts of visits of the Three Nephites. Listen to some of these people speak:
- It makes us appreciate each other and to be aware of those around us.
- There had to be at one time during the day at least a thousand people who helped out.
- One of the positive things is the friendships developed. People that haven’t been too friendly in the neighborhood came out and were helping and it was amazing how they became immediate friends.
- The volunteers from that first day just came out of everywhere. They came first out of the neighborhoods and ward—whether they were LDS or not, people just started coming and asking what they could do to help. That was the amazing thing, the people—they just came out of nowhere.
- We had teenagers from twelve to twenty that were the backbone—literally—that bore the weight of this.
- People found out we were making sandwiches and we decided to do it here in our kitchen. Food just started arriving on my doorstep. I don’t even know where most of it came from. Bread—I call it the miracles of the loaves and tuna fish—because it was mostly bread and tuna fish and peanut butter because that’s what people had in their pantry.
- I was so proud of our community. Over the years I’ve heard talk about the Spirit of Dixie, but I don’t think I’d ever taken the time to try and figure out exactly what it meant. Now I know.
- The feelings and emotions that Gunlockers have, one for another, seeded in the silt caused by the high waters of the flood, will never be forgotten.
- Well, we were grateful for all the help we had the night before and for all the wonderful people who came to help us... It was a wonderful experience, in that we found out about humanity.
- I remember this black truck full of big burly college boys. I said, “Where are you from?” And they said, “We’re from Dixie College and we’re here to help.” It was at that time when we had been working since 8:00 doing whatever we could and we were all exhausted at that point and it was drizzly and it wasn’t all that comfortable and these guys came all fresh and excited and it made all the difference.
- It was very humbling to see the thousands of people step up to help those in need. Neighbors helping neighbors, strangers helping victims, in sometimes hectic, but a very organized and caring manner.53
There was one other circumstance that has always helped the gritty Dixie-ites persevere: faith, well exemplified by the following story about the Hurricane canal.
It is said that one day George Brimhall, then president of BYU, was visiting Hurricane to see the canal. He was amazed that the thing had been built. He asked James Jepson, “How did your people do this thing?” James Jepson replied, “You remember how Brigham Young called a group of people to settle Utah’s Dixie country and only half responded?” “Yes,” was the reply. “Do you remember how that of the half who came, only half of those stayed?” “Yes,” he answered. “Well, the men and women who built the canal were descendants of those who stayed!” Then President Brimhall asked, “And what do you do when the canal breaks?” “We fix it,” was the answer. Then President Brimhall asked, “And what if you can’t fix it?” James Jepson said, “We can fix it. We have to fix it. God helped us to build it and by heaven he will help us fix it.”54
For the 24th of July celebration in 1867, Charles Walker composed another song, part of which goes like this:
We’ve battled with the mineral, we’ve battled with our foes.
We’ve battled with the Virgin, that everybody knows;
Our desert homes are pretty and blossom like the rose,
Since we came marching to Dixie.
Hurrah! Hurrah! The thorns we have cut down.
Hurrah! Hurrah! We’re building quite a town.
St. George is growing greater, and gaining great renown,
Since we came marching to Dixie.55
I hope that those who have come marching to Dixie in recent years will prove as tough and resilient and gutsy and faithful as those who preceded them. The response of Dixie’s residents to the recent floods convinces me that they will. I hope also that if in some future generation another folklorist is invited here to lecture on the folklore of Dixie, he or she will find that task made easy by an archive full of stories, songs, beliefs, material objects, and customary practices put there by people like yourselves who have been proud enough of this land to make it their own.
1. Juanita Brooks, “Mariah Huntsman Leavett: Midwife of the Desert Frontier,” in Forms upon the Frontier: Folklife and Folk Arts in the United States, eds. Austin and Alta Fife and Henry Glassie (Logan: Utah State University Press, 1969), 120.
2. A.K. Hafen, Dixie Folklore and Pioneer Memoirs (St. George: privately printed, 1961), 14.
3. Juanita Brooks, Quicksand and Cactus: A Memoir of the Southern Mormon Frontier (Salt Lake City and Chicago: Howe Brothers Publishers, 1982), 141.
4. Collected by Colleen Thorley, 1978, Brigham Young University Folklore Archives [hereafter referred to as BYUFA], No.126.96.36.199.4.2.
5. “Folklore in Dixie,” Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, WPA Federal Writers’ Project Collection, 9.
6. Diary of Charles Lowell Walker, eds. A. Karl Larson and, Katharine Miles Larson (Logan: Utah State University Press, 1980), 1:239.
7. Ibid., 1:240. 8. Ibid, 1:241.
9. “Once I Lived in Cottonwood,” in Ballads and Songs from Utah, col. and ed. Lester A. Hubbard (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1961), 429-30.
10. Kevin Briggs, Folklore of the St. George Area, 1980, BYUFA, Collection No. 482, 1.
11. Walker, 1:369-70.
12. Mabel Jarvis, in Austin and Alta Fife, Saints of Sage and Saddle: Folklore of the Mormons (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1956), 78-79.
13. Cited in Walker, 1:423.
14. Eleanor Cannon Woodbury Jarvis, “The Home as Manufactory,” Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, WPA Writers’ Project Collection, 1.
15. Ibid., 3.
16. Zaidee Walker Miles, “Pioneer Women of Dixie,” Library of Congress Manuscript Division, WPA Writers’ Project Collection, 2.
17. Eleanor Woodbury Jarvis, 4.
18. “Folklore in Dixie,” 4.
19. “Dancing in the Settlements,” St. George Temple Visitors’ Center Web Page, www.stgeorgetemplevisitorscenter.org/tab/Dancing.html, 1.
20. “Folklore in Dixie,” 3.
21. Walker, 1:444.
22. Ibid., 1:248.
23. In Hafen, 32.
24. “Folklore in Dixie,” 2.
25. Hafen, 12; “Folklore in Dixie,” 2-3.
26. Three Nephites Collection, in the possession of William A. Wilson, Provo, Utah, No. 1132.
27. Ibid., No. 1019.
28. Ibid., No. 496.
29. Ibid., No. 81.
30. Ibid., No. 861.
31. Ibid., No. 1
32. Ibid. No. 657.
33. Ibid. No. 783.
34. Ibid. No. 199.
35. Walker, 1:264.
36. Briggs, 13.
37. Collected by Don Bryner, 1970, BYUFA No. 188.8.131.52.1.
38. See William A. Wilson, “Folklore in the Giant Joshua,” Proceedings of the Symposia of the Association for Mormon Letters, 1978-79, ed. Steven Sondrup (privately printed), 61.
39. “Folklore in Dixie,” 9.
40. Rowland Rider, “The Roll Away Saloon,” in Sixshooters and Sagebrush: Cowboy Stories of the Southwest, ed. Deirdre Paulsen (Provo: Brigham Young University Press, 1979), 3-4.
41. Collected by William A. Wilson, 15 May 1979, tape in Wilson’s possession in Provo, Utah.
42. Three Nephites Collection, No. 42.
43. Kathleen Parrish, Natural Health and Beauty Remedies, 1999, BYUFA, Collection No. 2115, 19.
44. Collected by Kerry D. Edwards, 1989, BYUFA, No.184.108.40.206.2
45. Marjorie Bundy, Stories Told Around the Campfire at the Bundy Reunion, 1984, BYUFA, Collection No. 15, iii, iv.
46. Slides in the possession of William A. Wilson, Provo, Utah.
47. Brooks, Quicksand and Cactus, 8.
48. Walker, 1:655.
49. Hafen, 36.
50. See Wilson, "Folklore in The Giant Joshua, 62.
51. Collected by William A. Wilson from Woodruff Thompson, who grew up in Sanpete County, n.d., tape in possession of Wilson in Provo, Utah.
52. “Brief History of Isaac H. Burgess, St. George, Utah, September 16, 1935,” Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, WPA Federal Writers’ Project Collection, 1.
53. These flood narratives will be on file at the Dixie State College Archive.
54. Chris Edwards, Folklore of the Hurricane Canal, 1989, BYUFA, Collection No. 813, 8.
55. Walker, 1:283.
56. George Schoemaker, “On Being Human: The Legacy of William A. Wilson.” Web page: http://people.westminstercollege.edu/faculty/dstanley/folklore/Edited Final Draft/fiullschoemaker.htm, downloaded Feb. 20, 2005.