The Saints in Bear Lake Valley


Bear Lake Valley begins for travelers from the south when they top the summit from Logan Canyon and look down on a lake of brilliant turquoise flanked by hills of dark blue and violet. Then there is a sprinkling of towns, like beads on the string of the highway: Laketown, Garden City, Fish Haven, Bloomington, St. Charles, Paris, Ovid, Montpelier, Georgetown. They’re little towns—Montpelier, the largest, has 2,604 inhabitants; Paris, the county seat, has around 600; Ovid is unincorporated.

And they’re Mormon towns—Rich County (on the south end of the lake) and St. Charles were named for Charles C. Rich, the pioneer-colonizer President Brigham Young sent to settle the Bear Lake Mission in the fall of 1863. Paris, site of a beautiful and distinctive tabernacle, was named for his friend, Thomas E. Perris, who surveyed the town. Brigham Young named Ovid, Montpelier, and Bennington for cities in his native Vermont. Georgetown was named after George Q. Cannon.

These towns lie on the “Mormon Corridor,” a strip of land stretching up from the Wasatch Front communities into the northern empire of the pioneer Church. Many members of this year’s high school graduating class are fifth-generation Mormons—and fifth-generation descendants of the original settlers.

Bear Lake Valley has been an almost-forgotten corner of Idaho. The Logan Canyon road, the most direct route to Salt Lake City, is notoriously treacherous during the winter—and winter is usually firmly fastened onto the valley before Thanksgiving, unrelenting until March. Inhabitants say that it has been known to freeze every month of the year, but they defend their valley: “The winters aren’t harder here than they are anywhere else. They just last longer.”

Map of the Bear River Valley

The stakes in Bear Lake Valley clip corners off three states.

The sense of isolation was increased about 30 years ago when the railroad to Montpelier was closed, and again when a new interstate highway angled away from Ogden to Pocatello. But now there are uneasy stirrings the length of the whole valley. A concrete and condominium development on the south end of the lake has reportedly purchased most of the lakefront property for incredible sums of money and sent land prices sky-rocketing throughout the valley. The phosphate mines and plants in the north end of the valley near Soda Springs are also experiencing a minor boom that has brought outsiders into the valley in droves.

This economic revival arouses almost equal enthusiasm and uneasiness. For the first time in generations, the Bear Lake people may be able to stop exporting their most valued commodity—their children. There are now jobs available for most, and those who are willing to sell their land can realize a tidy profit. But those within who are trying to buy land find themselves unable to compete with the abundance of outside money. And it seems certain that in this generation, the “world” will come to these Mormon communities—Church members face that challenge, not anxiously, but alertly.

One of the people who expect good from it is 80-year-old Parley P. Kunz, whose grandfather, John Kunz II, came from Switzerland with his eight sons and two daughters to settle the tiny foothill community of Bern and begin making cheese. John was the presiding elder of Bern before it was a ward: his son, John Kunz III, followed him as bishop for 23 years. With only one non-Kunz bishop between them, Parley followed his father for ten years of service, and other Kunz bishops have been DelMar, Dean T., Montain, and Leland D.—all of them cousins or nephews. In the century of Bern’s existence, only two bishops were not named Kunz.

Brother Kunz welcomes the idea of change and is pleased with the seven new families who moved into the community in the last year (1973–74). “We like to have good people move in and you couldn’t have handpicked them any better than these.”

He and his wife, Hilda, a convert from nearby Soda Springs, have 13 children, five of whom are still in the valley. “More would have liked to stay,” he said, “but there was the problem of work.”

Georgetown has particularly benefited from the growth, since it is within easy commuting distance of the Soda Springs plants, but has been able to maintain its invincibly rural character. Former bishop Lloyd M. Smith was a counselor in the bishopric for nine years, then served as bishop for an additional ten years. He still lives on the ranch that his great-grandfather homesteaded, and the original log cabins still stand at the end of the lane, an introduction to his modern home, barn, and machine shed. As bishop until last year, he was in the enviable position of having a waiting list for available positions in his 550-member ward and felt that the new families moving in added a lot of energy. But, at the same time, he praises the willingness of his ward members to make sacrifices. They paid off the chapel in three years instead of the allotted four through bimonthly budget suppers, each sponsored by an auxiliary or quorum in turn. The suppers were so popular that they became an institution—the main social event in Georgetown, where even the dozen or so nonmember families join in and accept Mormon standards. They even hold their funerals in the chapel.

The main frustration resulting from the economic change is the skyrocketing price of land. William Rich, great-grandson of colonizer Charles C. Rich, initially stayed in the valley because he liked the hunting and fishing opportunities and later stayed because he wanted to rear his children there. His lifelong dream has been to buy a small ranch, a dream shared by his youngest son who left a master’s program in education to come back to the valley and find a job. Twenty years ago Brother Rich took what work was available so he could stay—a mechanic’s job that necessitated driving 100 miles a day. “But I’m not sorry.”

Dennis Kunz, a 1974 high school graduate who won a Brigham Young University scholarship in chemical engineering, wants to come back to the valley and buy a farm. He prizes the independence, hunting, fishing, and wide-open spaces, but feels a potential threat to his dream now. “All the land has become recreational and the prices show it. I don’t like it at all. It’s someone else deciding the future of my land.” Then he grinned. “I guess I feel possessive about the whole valley.”

To a generation of Mormons who have grown up in cities and away from a family of aunts and cousins, a description of life in Bear Lake Valley has all the nostalgia of a nation’s collective past and the charm of the unfamiliar. To Dennis Kunz, fifth-generation descendent of Swiss John Kunz II, it’s home—a half-recognized combination of country, cousins, and Church.

He is passionately devoted to the area and speaks almost tenderly of a tiny valley tucked away at the end of the road, jeep trails, and footpaths where he goes to hunt—and just because it’s “a really pretty valley.”

Family and friends are almost the same thing. Four of the dozen wrestlers on his high school team were named Kunz. None of them were brothers. “And I think we’re better friends because we’re cousins,” he said. He feels a special attachment to Bern, although he’s never lived there, “because it’s family.”

With 139 students in his high school graduating class, he found it friendly and tight-knit, but not clannish. The biggest division was not between Latter-day Saints and nonmembers, but between Montpelier and Paris, who, for the first year or so after the school districts were consolidated, tried to maintain traditional rivalry. But it dissolved under the pressure of steadily increasing common interests.

He found a high degree of integration between the Latter-day Saints and the nonmember kids. “It’s understood that everybody’s invited to everything. Seminary dances are a big deal and nearly everybody comes.”

“If we didn’t have the Church, the school probably wouldn’t be as friendly,” he speculates. “This way we all have something in common. It was good for me to grow up in a Mormon town. I was taught to set goals early, so I’m probably a lot more decided now than I would be otherwise. Then, too, nearly everybody around here sets a good example.” Maybe because he looks up to his bishop and home teaching companion, he served as secretary in the priests quorum during that last school year.

Janet Jewell, a 1975 graduate, corroborates the friendly feeling. Her visiting cousin from the city made friends so fast that she still keeps in touch and “is more interested in what’s going on here than in telling me what she’s doing there.” The friendliness may be a deep-rooted tradition—Janet’s mother, Joyce, moved to the valley as a senior in high school and was elected class secretary-treasurer the same year.

Janet and her best friend, Kris Hart, don’t notice a separation between Latter-day Saints and nonmembers. “Lots of nonmember girls play on our baseball team, and their ideas are about the same as ours. They don’t smoke because their friends don’t.”

If there is a dividing line in the valley between brotherhood in the gospel and sheer neighborliness, it is vague. People care about each other and show that concern promptly and concretely in times of need.

Gary Thompson of Georgetown recalls taking time out at haying season to help bale and stack hay for an inactive member who was in the hospital. Another time, when a member in another part of the valley was dying of cancer, the elders quorum and seventies planted his crop, kept it weeded, and saw it through harvest. When someone’s cousin was drowned in the lake, people who had boats and airplanes came without being asked during the search that lasted almost a week. When one sister was bedfast for two or three months, the Relief Society members took meals over for that full length of time, and others dropped in as well to clean the house and do the yardwork.

One year when David Jensen’s father needed to go to general conference, he had to leave his grain unthreshed. When he came back, his nonmember neighbors had done it for him. A brother in Cokeville began investigating the Church and joined it because he’d been so impressed by the local bishop who had come with his sons to help him on an emergency roundup.

The real blessings of living in these quiet, happy communities cannot be analyzed, but they show in the lives of the families—in trust, in testimony, in unity. What ties them together is heritage.

Wayne J. Matthews, his wife, Anne, and their three teenagers are continuing the sheep business begun by Wayne’s grandfather. (His great-grandfather settled Liberty, the cluster of houses that used to be a ward but was never a town.) The work is hard: JoAnn and Jean are up every morning at five A.M. during one season to pick raspberries. Kevin, now 16, has been in charge of the milking ever since he was seven or eight, although seven-year-old Mark now assists with feeding lambs and calves. During haying season, Wayne is often up baling between one and three A.M. Yet despite the busy schedule, “We always seem to have time to take half a day off with our family or go play ball with the ward.”

Both Wayne and Anne find the source of their spiritual strength in their own homes. Wayne confesses that he “slid along” through high school, just “knowing” the Church was true. But when his mission call came, he said simply, “I decided to put it to the test. And I found out.” Both of them have held numerous stake and ward positions and Anne summarizes, “The Church just gets more important every day.”

Eric Mattson and his wife, Marcia, of Paris are raising a fifth-generation family in the valley. Eric, who teaches school and works for the Forest Service, finds that teaching in the same community he grew up in can be very rewarding. “I like teaching Latter-day Saints. They’re well-behaved and well-motivated and the parents are concerned.”

Heritage is important to them. Their daughter Christina is named after both great-grandmothers, their son Swen after his fourth great-grandfather. (The oldest, Cory, strikes a modern note by being named for the writer, Corey Ford.) Marcia finds that a special feeling for the pioneers develops when you identify a house that your grandfather built, a fence that your great-grandfather put up. Eric sees the stumps of trees in the forest lands axed by the first settlers. “It’s not really that long ago,” he says.

One tradition that he’s particularly aware of as elders quorum president is that Thursday night used to be reserved for ward teaching under the old program. “It still has a bit of an effect,” he smiles. He also sees that the dividing line between brotherhood and neighborliness is very thin. “I have some very faithful home teachers who go to their families as regularly as clockwork and are right there when those families need anything, and realize this is a very important program in the Church.”

Ruth and Gary Thompson are dairy farmers and dryfarmers in Georgetown. Their roots in the valley extend into the next generation with the marriage of their daughter Jan to a valley boy. “I’m glad I was raised here with all the chores,” she says. “My friends never had anything to do. Sixty cows to keep track of without Dad’s help during haying season keeps the family hopping.”

Ruth’s grandfather and his brother helped build the Paris Tabernacle with its fine woodwork and square nails, and she still feels a special fondness for the building. Her Tueller family reunions, a tradition ever since she can remember, are three-day extravaganzas with three or four hundred children underfoot from the original 12 brothers.

Ruth thinks that she “was blessed with something. I really believed what my parents said,” and she shared one story of answered prayers that is dear to her. Returning home one afternoon, when her children were small, she was chilled to learn that the babysitter had lost track of Jolene.

“I hunted and hunted. Gary’s mother hadn’t seen her. I was so scared I went in the house to pray, then started out to get Gary. As I did, I heard, almost like a voice, saying, ‘Go up in the corner of the field.’ It’s a long way and there’s a deep ditch in that corner, but I turned and started to walk. I kept thinking, ‘I’m wasting time. Why should she be there?’ But there she was, sound asleep with two fistfuls of grass she’d pulled for the horse. And the horse was just standing there, eating around her.”

Gary, a stake missionary, finds that hearing the testimony of others and participating in healings of the sick are two of the strongest witnesses he has to the truthfulness of the gospel. “You hear someone with an eighth-grade education quoting scriptures and explaining them and you really understand what the wisdom of God is.”

Lewis Munk, now retired from teaching English and Spanish at Montpelier High School for 25 years, describes teaching as an “unmitigated pleasure. I looked forward to each class.” During the years of his service, he remembers the unusually high count of nearly 20 National Merit Scholars being named from that small school. His method? “Just give them plenty of worthwhile things to do.”

Formerly a member of the Montpelier Stake presidency, he calls interest in history “a mark of maturity,” and explains, “You begin to examine the experience of others and get interested in others.” He started his own oral history program by interviewing his father, who came to the valley at age seven.

Sister Hazel L. Peterson of Ovid, a Relief Society president in the Paris Idaho Stake for 21 years, remembers in her early days of service walking three miles carrying a baby and a basket to do visiting teaching. The basket was to collect the sisters’ contributions—a few eggs, a ball of yarn, a spool of thread, a few pennies; and they always gave the visiting teachers a little treat, “if it was only a slice of freshly baked bread with butter and jam.”

The sisters gleaned wheat into long, gathered aprons during harvest time, and stored it in their own building, following the Relief Society program. They also picked wool off the barbed wire fences and met to wash, dry, and card it to make quilt battings. “We tore rags and had a rag bee to sew the strips together and wind them into balls so the sisters could weave rugs on their carpet looms.” They canned, sometimes until one or two in the morning, using a hand sealer.

A widow since 1951, Sister Peterson has had experience in meeting privation with fortitude. She married her husband on a Friday in 1909. He left Sunday night on a mission. She lost two of her eight children and her mother within the same three weeks and says quietly, “If it wasn’t for prayer, I couldn’t have kept on going. My husband called the stake president to give me a blessing; after that I quit shaking.”

David H. Jensen, farmer, postal worker, and president of Montpelier Idaho Stake, says, “Heritage makes a difference.” His father hauled in the first load of gravel for concrete for the stake center, a lovely building with the chapel curved in a graceful semi-circle and murals on the walls. His maternal great-grandmother was one of the original 1863 settlers; his mother’s father was in jail in Boise for polygamy when he was called to become bishop of the valley’s Dingle Ward. His father has lived in the same house since he was four. And President Jensen lives right next door.

“It has a bearing on our thinking,” he says. “Mother still quotes things our grandfather used to say. I recall a couple of occasions as a teenager when I got involved in wrongdoing, and I always thought, ‘What’ll my relatives think? How will I face them?’”

He has a theory that his combination of family and religious heritage insures that either “we stay active or it ruins us for anything else.”

In contrast to the parents who see the valley as a protection from the world, he says sorrowfully, “We’re not a little sheltered area with no sin. I’m aware of a lot more than I’d like to see,” and grieves over the cases of immorality in young people and inactivity among parents.

At the same time, he shares his pride in and his love of his stake. “Latter-day Saints have problems, too, but they don’t have to be overcome by them.”

Home teaching for 1973–74 was 72 percent, 48 percent of the marriages were in the temple, 84 percent of the young people eligible were attending seminary, Relief Society visiting teaching was 69 percent, and eight converts had been baptized. Little Pegram Branch, numbering about 12 families, plans to build its own chapel and has high percentages of activity, even if there are only two children by actual count in Primary.

As President Jensen says, “My feeling toward calls is that I’ve been so blessed by the Lord that anything I could do would be minor in attempting to even the score.”

Taft Budge, president of Paris Idaho Stake, which covers the south end of the valley, agrees with President Jensen’s assessment of the problems and also of the people. He admits that sacrament meeting attendance is higher in his stake—between 50 and 55 percent—but can’t put his finger on the reasons. “It’s always been like that,” he says.

He was named for his father who, in turn, was named for Ezra T. Benson, one of the early apostles and grandfather of the current president of the Council of the Twelve. Brother Budge and President Jensen are cousins, both maternal grandparents having come with the original pioneer company of 1863, and his wife, Jean, is a descendant of Charles C. Rich.

Both of them grew up in the valley and married there; both their grandfathers were stake presidents and they see the changes to the valley as challenges. The little ward chapel of Garden City, near a booming recreational resort, was designed for 200 people; 840 showed up last summer when the Fourth of July fell on Sunday.

They agree that it’s a fine place to rear children, but praise their own seven children as extremely conscientious on their own. Their last son, who left during the winter on a mission to Sweden, told his grandmother at the age of 13, “Grandma, if Dad told me I could stay home from Church and watch the ballgame on television, I don’t think I’d do it. I just wouldn’t feel right.”

Perhaps the combination of circumstances is irreproducible in the twentieth century. Possibly this generation is the last in which the gospel will mesh so seamlessly with every aspect of their daily lives that they are barely conscious that “being Mormon” could be different from “being alive,” in which love of their valley, their family, and the Lord are parts of them—root and branch. Their lives are not spectacular. They are, as President Budge says, “good people. Just good people.”

[photos] Photography by Paul Proctor

[photos] Top: Jan and Tammy Thompson eye their calves proprietarily. Bottom: Rancher Lloyd M. Smith served ten years as Georgetown bishop.

[photos] Top: Montpelier’s broad main street reflects its Mormon planning. Center left: Fine quilting is a personal tradition with Hazel L. Peterson. Bottom left: Kris Hart wields a mean tennis racket on Montpelier’s courts. Right: A modern tractor, an old barn: partners in prosperity.

[photos] Top: Marcia Mattson practices organ in Paris’ beautiful tabernacle. Center: “Blue” doesn’t quite describe the color of Bear Lake’s water. Bottom: Taft Budge, president of Paris Idaho Stake, chats at his desk.