Called to Settle, Called to Build

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    The Latter-day Saints founded almost five hundred towns and settlements in the West between 1847 and 1900. These communities had a surprisingly high success rate—only 13.9 percent failed, 5.2 percent because of such external pressures as Indian conflicts, the coming of Johnston’s army, and the Mexican Revolution. The rest failed because of floods, inadequate water, or poor location. (See Lynn A. Rosenvall, “Defunct Mormon Settlements: 1830–1930,” in The Mormon Role in the Settlement of the West, ed., Richard H. Jackson, Provo: BYU Press, 1978, p. 52.)

    These five hundred villages had a lot of things in common. They were usually laid out with straight streets, in villages with farms clustered around them. The Latter-day Saint meetinghouse—sometimes with a complex of official buildings—was the center of town. There were variations, too. Most settlements were established under President Brigham Young, but not all. Some were personally supervised by a resident General Authority. Some colonists were called from the conference pulpit and went dutifully. Others pulled up stakes on their own and went to what they hoped were better opportunities. Other settlements vigorously recruited more settlers among family and friends.

    We’ll look here at three communities that are, in some ways, representative of the range of Latter-day Saint colonization. The first is Parowan, Utah, founded in 1851 and hence one of the earliest colonies beyond the Wasatch Front. It was led by Elder George A. Smith of the Council of the Twelve on assignment from President Brigham Young. Some of its people had volunteered for a one-year mission; others had been called; still others had been recruited by Elder Smith. Brigham Young personally kept in close touch because of Parowan’s potential importance in establishing an iron industry for Utah.

    In some contrast is Snowflake, Arizona. It came later—in 1879—and was colonized largely by people who were independently seeking better opportunities. The town they founded, though not directed under apostolic authority, was approved by Elder Erastus Snow of the Council of the Twelve and maintained Latter-day Saint ideals of cooperation.

    The third settlement, Cowley, Wyoming, was one of the last to be formally colonized by the Church. Founded in 1900, on the brink of the twentieth century, it had many characteristics in common with the earliest settlements: it was apostle-led, its settlers were called to their mission, and cooperation in building its canal was an absolute necessity for survival.

    All of these settlements contributed to the strengthening of the kingdom and, more importantly, to the testing and building of strong and committed members of the Church.

    Authors’ original spelling has been retained, following standard historical practice. See reasons for spelling variations in “Nineteenth-Century Spelling,” Ensign, Aug. 1975—including uncertain spelling conventions and spelling as an expression of personality.

    Parowan: Forging a Dream

    President Brigham Young’s dream for a kingdom of Latter-day Saints took shape almost as soon as they were in the Valley. Two years after their arrival, Parley P. Pratt led an exploring company south, in November 1849, and returned with the report of “a hill of the richest iron ore” near present-day Cedar City. The Iron Mission, 250 miles away, was planned and under way by the next summer.

    In July 1850 the Deseret News published the First Presidency’s call for men “who have been blest with means” and “who want more means” to undertake a year’s mission. The first phase would establish an agricultural base, and the second phase would exploit the iron deposits. The company was supposed to leave Salt Lake City immediately after October conference, but volunteers were so scarce that George A. Smith of the Council of the Twelve received authorization to call others to go. The first company left in the chill of December, arriving 13 January 1851.

    By April they had surveyed about sixteen hundred acres of farm land, sowed a thousand acres of wheat, built roads, constructed a fort, made fences, and dug wells.

    Meanwhile, the Church kept a constant stream of “iron missionaries” headed south, and “by the fall of 1851 virtually every man in Utah Territory who understood the working of coal or iron had been sent to Parowan.” 1 One of those families was that of Lucy Hannah White, whose father came home from October conference in 1851 “and told Mother he was called to move South three Hundred miles. Mother felt dredful bad for she had been seperated from her people so much and now we were setled so near them.” But there was no question about accepting the call. On October 14, Lucy’s mother gave birth to a son; three weeks and three days later “we started to go where we were called.” 2

    By the time they had arrived, George A. Smith had established Parowan’s daughter-colony at a site between the iron mountain and the coal deposits, first called Coal Creek, then named Cedar City, the site of future ore-processing activity in the area. The Whites, arriving before Christmas, had loneliness added to homesickness and poverty since so many of the people there “was from the old World, … so differant from what we were used to. When they talked to us we could not understand half they said … but we were called and had to make the best of it.” 3

    By trial and error the first blast furnace was built. On 29 September 1852, local historian William R. Palmer described the citizens gathering at sunset to see the torch applied to the furnace and then keep an all-night vigil. At dawn, when the furnace was tapped, “a moulten stream of iron came pouring out. Instantly their pent up anxiety broke loose … in shouts of ‘hosannah, hosannah, hosannah, to God and the Lamb.’” Before nightfall a deputation of five was riding toward Salt Lake, carrying samples to President Brigham Young. 4

    That first year’s work produced only enough iron to make sufficient nails to shoe a horse and a pair of andirons; but enthusiasm was high and reached what may have been its peak at spring conference next year when George A. Smith was called upon to address the second day of April conference, which had been designated “an Iron Conference.” By the time President Young had spoken twice, and some extremely lengthy items of church business had been discussed, the people had been in the meeting for over five hours. Elder Smith, “keenly aware of their restlessness,” preached what was probably the shortest sermon in his life by picking up one of the andirons already presented by President Young, holding it above his head and shouting, “‘Stereotype edition.’ Then be descended from the pulpit amid the cheers of the Saints.” 5 (A stereotype then was the matrix from which endless copies could be made; it was a pithy way of predicting a great future.)

    Despite high hopes, the iron foundry never produced consistent and reliable quantities of iron between its opening in 1852 and its closing in 1861. Various problems plagued them, some internal and some external.

    A great flood in 1853 left the site strewn with twenty- and thirty-ton boulders; apprehension about the Walker War, an Indian conflict that had erupted in Utah Valley, replaced iron-making by fort-building. In 1854 most of the time was spent constructing a rock furnace, since the brick furnace was too soft. A good run was poured off for Brigham Young’s visit in 1855, but operations halted for the winter when the stream that supplied their power froze solid for three months. Accidents with the furnace damaged it in 1856, but a drought again caused a failure in their water supply; and the grasshopper plague meant that major efforts had to be spent to keep from starving to death.

    In 1857 Brigham Young recommended moving the site to a flood-free location, but just when they were ready to resume operations, President Young warned them that Johnston’s army was on the way. They immediately began military preparations, but their usual spirit of unity was blighted in September when some men from Cedar City and Parowan were involved with Indians in the slaying of more than a hundred non-Mormons at nearby Mountain Meadows. Some of the Saints moved away after this tragic event, and a “spirit of disunity” seems to have prevailed in the area. 6

    Johnston’s army cast its shadow into the next year as well. President Brigham Young instructed stake president William H. Dame to lead an exploring party of sixty or seventy men westward across the Escalante Desert to find oases in the White Mountains where Church headquarters could be set up. Obediently, they searched and found some limited water sources which they started to colonize in preparation for the mass migration they expected. In the spring of 1858, some 30,000 Mormons evacuated northern Utah as the army approached; Parowan, in addition to its explorations, sent teams and wagons to help make the move, and they manufactured bullets from the Latter-day Saint lead mines near Las Vegas for the expected conflict.

    The “Utah War” was peaceably settled, but the Iron Mission had lost another year’s work, and two more unsuccessful trial runs in the fall of 1858 were the last until 1861. Then seven wagon loads of federal cannon balls, sold to the Church when the soldiers returned east to fight the Civil War, were hauled south and converted to “bells, stove parts, rollers to squeeze the juice out of sugar cane, and other castings.” 7

    This decade of intensive effort cost an estimated $150,000, and one historian estimates that the iron missionaries could have earned the equivalent of a million dollars elsewhere. When the books were closed in 1858, the company owed more than $37,000, not counting thousands of days of unreimbursed labor. 8

    Yet as local historian William F. Palmer stressed: “The mission did not fail. They failed only to profitably make iron. But they founded Cedar City, a place that has been the business hub of Southern Utah down to this day, and they reclaimed thousands of acres of land which provided homes for several hundred emigrant converts to the church.” 9

    Elder Erastus Snow, whose Cotton Mission in Saint George succeeded the Iron Mission in Parowan and Cedar City, stressed the same point: “We found a Scotch party, a Welch party, an English party, and an American party, and we turned Iron Masters and undertook to put all these parties through the furnace, and run out a party of Saints for building up the Kingdom of God.” 10

    That tempering did, in fact, unify them. For instance, even though President Dame had been regarded as one of several persons responsible for allowing the massacre at Mountain Meadows to occur, he refused to avoid arrest, even though he had the opportunity, and suffered steadfastly and uncomplaining through almost two years of imprisonment before his indictment was quashed. He then served a mission to England while retaining, apparently at Elder George A. Smith’s request, both his stake position and his position as colonel in Utah’s Nauvoo Legion, and saw his stake unite in a touching manifestation of loyalty when President Brigham Young stopped in Parowan in May 1877 to reorganize the stake. According to the somewhat more open procedures of those times, when President Young asked the conference whom they wished for president, one high councilor named President Dame. It was promptly seconded. There was an embarrassing silence after President Young asked for other names, broken by President Dame’s tactful suggestion, “‘I move that we leave the selection of a president of Parowan Stake to President Brigham Young.’” President Young nominated President Dame’s first counselor, Jesse N. Smith. “Less than sufficient to satisfy President Young voted in the affirmative,” so President Young, apparently realizing the loyalty and devotion of the stake, asked John Taylor to address the group on “another subject” and dropped the idea.

    Soon after his return to Salt Lake, President Young sent Wilford Woodruff and Erastus Snow back to Parowan to reorganize the stake; this time the priesthood voted before their arrival to accept the two Apostles’ selections. Unable to decide, the two apostles reinstated the same stake presidency temporarily, a decision that was made permanent a year later in 1878. President Dame served for an additional two years, a total of twenty-four years, and was released in 1880. 11

    The four wards Elder George A. Smith originally established are now three wards, but the original rock church, lovingly constructed by its pioneers, still stands behind its splendid stake center, now serving as a Daughters of the Utah Pioneers relic hall to house cherished mementoes of the past.

    That past includes an impressive record. In the same year (1851) that Salt Lake City organized its Deseret Dramatic Association, and within months of the founding of the city, Parowan had organized its own dramatic association—ultimately, in 1897, completing a fine brick Opera House with bricks and lime burned on the site. It had a young people’s touring group and a stock company that was used to thinking on its feet. When the butler ushered a couple into the wrong scene, the quick-witted hero politely ordered him, “‘Show them right into the next room.’” 12

    The Relief Society, organized in 1863, took its work of storing wheat seriously and for years had its own granary. Each spring they loaned seed wheat to the farmers, who paid it back in the fall with an added peck per bushel. 13

    Cedar City, with its college and tourist facilities, has now become the population center of the region. But nineteenth-century Parowan had contributed liberally to founding at least fifteen other settlements, including sending fifteen families to Snowflake, Arizona, in 1878 and twenty to Cowley, Wyoming, in 1900. 14

    A Parowan Indian Tale

    Although Parowan was prepared for Indian trouble and annoyed by petty thievery and threats for some time, the settlement itself escaped depredations. One of its folktales, however, centers on a band of Indians who demanded a sack of grain apiece from Brother Davenport’s meager harvest at threshing time. He countered by selecting, from the threshing crew, Bob Quarto with a pegleg, Robert Miller with a curly red wig, and Elder George A. Smith with his false teeth. “At a given signal, Bob Quarm gave a war whoop and unbuckled his peg leg and threw it in the air. Robert Miller, not to be outdone, gave another war whoop and threw his wig in the air, exposing his starry dome. The Indians stood wide-eyed, but when George A. Smith gave a howl and let his false teeth fall, they took to their horses and fled.” (Luella Adams Dalton, History of the Iron County Mission and Parowan, the Mother Town, n.p., n.d., p. 91.)


  •   1.

    Leonard J. Arrington, “Planning an Iron Industry for Utah, 1851–1858,” Huntington Library Quarterly, 21 (May 1958): 237–42.

  •   2.

    Lucy Hannah White Flake, Diary, eds. Chad J. Flake and Hyrum F. Boone, typescript (Provo: BYU Library, 1973), p. 4.

  •   3.


  •   4.

    Cited in Arrington, p. 244.

  •   5.

    Ray Haun Gleave, “The Effect of the Speaking of George A. Smith on the People of the Iron Mission of Southern Utah,” Brigham Young University thesis, 1957, p. 70.

  •   6.

    Arrington, pp. 251–57.

  •   7.

    Ibid., pp. 257–58.

  •   8.

    Palmer, cited in Arrington, p. 259.

  •   9.

    Palmer, cited in Gleave, p. 41.

  •   10.

    Cited in Arrington, p. 249.

  •   11.

    Harold William Pease, “The Life and Works of William Horne Dame,” Brigham Young University thesis, 1971, pp. 180–81.

  •   12.

    Luella Adams Dalton, History of the Iron County Mission and Parowan, the Mother Town (n.p., n.d.), pp. 237, 244, 249.

  •   13.

    Ibid., p. 312.

  •   14.

    Gustive O. Larson, Iron County Centennial, 1851–1951 (n.p., n.d.), p. 32.

  • [photo] Parowan’s beautiful church, quarried out of native sandstone, was built in 1857–63. Carefully maintained as a relic hall by the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers, it is open for visitors during the summer or by arrangement.

    [photo] Elder George A. Smith of the Council of the Twelve, founder of Parowan. (Photo by C. R. Savage.)

    [photo] This early photograph of Parowan’s old rock church shows the trees only half grown. The Ensign thanks Frank O. Mortensen, stake historic arts correspondent, for his assistance; photography by Jed A. Clark.

    [photo] Looking northwest into Parowan from the hills above town.

    [photo] The Jesse N. Smith home, now maintained by the Smith family, can be visited by arrangement. Jesse N. Smith, first cousin to the Prophet Joseph and a cousin of George A. Smith, came to Parowan with the first group in 1851, served as its mayor, and later was called to settle in Snowflake, Arizona, where his home still stands.

    Snowflake: Obedient Individualists

    The first Latter-day settlements in northern Arizona were made by families called to that mission—the Little Colorado River villages of Brigham City, Sunset, Taylor, and Joseph City, in 1876. Snowflake, however, was settled by individualists who left the northern settlements in search of better opportunities, taking with them their ideals of consecration and cooperation.

    One of these individualists was William J. Flake, a southerner born of North Carolina parents who had come west with the Mississippi Saints. During the family’s stay in Parowan, nineteen-year-old William met sixteen-year-old Lucy White and they were married. “We had verry little to keep house with but we were just as happy as could be,” wrote Lucy later. “We loved each other and loved our home and felt truely thankfull.” 1 They were living in Beaver in 1873 when William was called as one of a group to help explore Arizona—but without finding anything he was enthusiastic about. Thus, in 1877 when he came home from April conference, he glumly announced that they had been called to go to Arizona that fall. Lucy, who remembered her mother’s anguish twenty-six years earlier at leaving Salt Lake for Parowan now shared that pain, but they were equally obedient: “We was called and there was no other way.”

    The trip itself tested that commitment. Their three-months-old baby daughter was ill when they left on November 19. The two oldest daughters came down with diphtheria. The weather “was dredfull cold.” When a child in the company died, Lucy was asked to prepare the body for burial and “the watter would freeze as quick as it touched the child.” They had to leave one son with some of the exhausted stock. “One day we onley traveled one mile.” On New Year’s day, the frost hung so thick in the air they could hardly see the lead horse on their wagons. Finally, exhausted, Lucy herself was taken ill and couldn’t get out of bed for several days.

    When they reached the settlements on the Little Colorado, the rest was welcome but the settlement itself, Taylor, was discouraging. They worked five months and were defeated by the desert flash floods. As soon as a dam was built, “a little freshet would come and the dam would go like a spider web.” 2 After they repeated the process five times in five months, the settlement was abandoned.

    William looked south, at James Stinson’s ranch on Silver Creek. Stinson decided to sell out for $11,000 and in July William brought his and five other families into the area. In contrast to Taylor, Lucy remembers, “The hills was all covered with green grass. Every thing looked like we was welcome here.” 3

    William resold the land at the same terms on which he had purchased it, even though his generosity was sometimes exploited. Other colonists followed: the old Taylor settlement was completely abandoned that summer. Elder Erastus Snow, after visiting the Little Colorado settlements, arrived at Flake’s new settlement on Silver Creek, named the townsite Snow Flake for himself and William (combined into one word in 1906), and reassured him that living in the United Order was not required of them at that time.

    This was a great comfort to William since some of the Little Colorado settlers had felt that people who left the order were apostatizing, even though these settlements later abandoned the order themselves. Elder Erastus Snow, according to Lucy, asked William, “Would you make a good bishop?” William promptly answered, “No sir” but suggested some names. Within a few days, Elder Snow had organized the stake with Jesse N. Smith of Parowan as president, and the bishopric with William as first counselor to his own choice for bishop, John Hunt of New Mexico. Both men moved into the settlement within a few weeks, each bringing with them some family members and friends.

    In January, at a community meeting, they decided how to divide the town and farmland. The farmland was graded into ten-acre plots of first- or second-class land, a method suggested by Elder Snow. Each head of family drew one city lot and two farm lots, one of each class. The price was apportioned so [text missing 4 5 ]

    Those first years were hard. The women wore dresses made out of wagon covers; the wheat sacks, once emptied, became men’s trousers. Lot Smith, president of the Little Colorado settlements, loaned the settlers 150 bushels of seed wheat and some molasses. James Stinson would occasionally shoot wild cattle near town and then ride in to tell the Mormons it was theirs for the taking. Bill Atcherson, apparently a local nonmember, planted a field of carrots which he left in the ground, plowing them up a row at a time to give to the pioneers. “He even hauled wheat from Albuquerque for which he was offered $20 per hundred pounds but refused to sell it, preferring to lend it to the Snowflake settlers and take flour in return at $6.00 per hundred when they were able to replace it.” 6

    A school, the first session of the Apache County Court, and the first stake conference were squeezed into those hard early months of scrabbling for enough to eat. The Saints united to establish a cooperative market, sawmill, tannery, and stock herd, ventures that served their purposes and were eventually abandoned. Latter-day Saint settlers had moved into the neighboring town of Bagley in 1878 (renamed, at President Smith’s suggestion, Taylor, for President John Taylor) and they cooperatively worked out water arrangements and mail pickups from Holbrook some thirty miles away. 7 Cooperation is still a key word: they now jointly sponsor a community ambulance service.

    The community has always been mostly Latter-day Saint. A 1971 survey gave religious preference as 68 percent LDS and 11 percent with no preference. A Baptist congregation accounts for an additional 11 percent. Church organizations took care of most functions in early times since the town was not incorporated until 1919. 8

    Culture has always been an important element of community life. When Bishop John West arrived in January 1879, his wife Mary Jane insisted that the family organ be set up after the beds and stove in their tent. Then she played “Home, Sweet Home” while her children sang. 9 Community songfests flowered with a brass band at the Snowflake Stake Academy in 1908; drama had preceded it with the Snowflake Dramatic Association’s season in 1882, its motto: “No play that could be procured was considered too difficult.” During one tense scene in “Tempest and Sunshine,” a mother and child were praying for deliverance during a terrible storm. An owlhoot was supposed to interrupt them. The cue was given; no hoot. It was repeated. Still no hoot. Finally, the boy desperately looked into the wings and whispered piercingly, “Hoot, doggone it, hoot!” The belated hoot was almost buried under shouts of laughter. 10

    The heritage of working and playing together was tested again in the 1880s when settlers discovered that the Aztec Land and Cattle Company held deeds to lands they thought they’d purchased. The settlers rallied as a community, and those located on government lands accepted an assessment of $6.25 an acre to help those located on Aztec lands pay again for their property. 11

    Even though they had come as individuals, rather than as the tightly organized and authoritatively supervised colonies represented by Parowan and Cowley, Snowflake’s founding fathers and mothers were equally responsive to the laws of the Church and the claims of compassion.

    [photo] Overview of Snowflake, Arizona, from a gentle hill to the southeast. The original trail the Flake family followed in 1878 entered from the northeast.

    [photo] Elder Erastus Snow of the Council of Twelve. Associated with Elder George A. Smith in colonizing the Iron Mission, he also helped found St. George and the Arizona settlements and was involved in nearly every aspect of pioneering in the southern settlements.

    [photo] One of the older homes in Snowflake. Note the second-story windows, curved to allow as much glass as possible before encountering the roof line, and the Greek-Revival returns on the corners of the roof.

    [photo] Jesse N. Smith, who left a comfortable home in Parowan to settle in Snowflake, Arizona, built this handsome brick home, now a museum. The Ensign thanks Al Levine, local historian, for his assistance; photography by Eric W. White.


  •   1.

    Lucy Hannah White Flake, Diary, eds. Chad J. Flake and Hyrum F. Boone (Provo: Brigham Young University Library, 1973), p. 9.

  •   2.

    Ibid., pp. 21–25.

  •   3.

    Ibid., p. 26.

  •   4.

    Ibid., p. 27.

  •   5.

    Albert J. Levine, From Indian Trails to Jet Trails: Snowflake’s Centennial History (Snowflake: printed under auspices of Snowflake Historical Society, 1977), p. 18.

  •   6.

    Ibid., p. 21.

  •   7.

    Ibid., pp. 31–32, 148.

  •   8.

    Ibid., pp. 139, 141.

  •   9.

    Ibid., p. 152.

  •   10.

    Ibid., pp. 152, 154–55.

  •   11.

    Albert J. Levine, ed., Snowflake: A Pictorial Review, 1878–1964 (n.p., n.d.), p. 8.

  • Cowley: Drama at Prayer Rock

    Water was literally life in the arid Big Horn Basin of Wyoming, and that’s why work on the canal came even before building houses in Cowley, Wyoming, a Latter-day Saint settlement in the Big Horn Basin in 1900.

    There was a sense of purpose as well as urgency about the project. It is not known exactly how this section of unsettled land came to President Lorenzo Snow’s attention, but in February 1900 he sent Elder Abraham O. Woodruff of the Council of the Twelve to examine the area. The temperature near the future site of Cowley was about ten degrees below zero; they drove horses and buggies over only thirty miles and evidently took no soil samples. But their consultation of the maps and conversation with William F. Cody, the famous Buffalo Bill, who was coholder of a state permit to construct an irrigation system in the area, were apparently decisive; even before he had reported back to President Snow, Elder Woodruff had arranged to order plows and scrapers from a hardware dealer at the nearest railhead, Bridger, Montana. 1

    The few hundred families who were called wasted no time and were on their way in early spring. Most of them were the children of first-generation pioneers in Utah and Idaho settlements. It was the twentieth century, but barely, and they drove horse teams and traveled in companies ranging from eighteen wagons to two.

    One of these families was that of John H. and Avilda Dickson. They left Morgan, Utah, with their children and rendezvoused with the other Saints at Ham’s Fork, Wyoming, where Elder Woodruff was organizing the colonists into companies. John returned to Utah to finish selling the farm and hence was miles away when his little daughter, who had been ill for some time, grew worse and died after a couple of days of stormy traveling. Outside the wagon were four-foot snow drifts.

    The best solution seemed to be to send the oldest son, William, back to Evanston to put the child’s body on the train and travel with it to his father in Utah, while Avilda continued on with the company and her two-month-old baby. Alone in Evanston, twenty-year-old William was astonished when the train agent said he must have a doctor’s certificate giving the child’s name, cause of death, and certification that she had no contagious disease. The train was going to leave in thirty minutes.

    “In this dilemma he went back of the depot where he could not be observed and prayed, asking that he be shown what to do.” He began walking uptown and passed the office of an attorney-notary public. He felt impressed to go in and tell his story to James C. Brown, the lawyer, who promised to help him. When he found out that the Latter-day Saint who had made the little girl’s coffin had said he had been a coroner, the lawyer wrote out a statement that the child had been in the coroner’s charge, went to the railroad station with William, and signed all of the necessary papers. There were no further difficulties with the ticket agent. (See pp. 8, 10.)

    The first families forded spring-swollen streams and faced snowstorms most of the way to Wyoming, but by the end of May about two hundred were camped near the Shoshone River, objects of interest to their ranching non-Mormon neighbors who had earlier settled the nearby towns of Cody, Meeteetse, Burlington, Otto, and Lovell (see p. 15). On 28 May 1900, Elder Woodruff held the plow, and Byron Sessions, who would be sustained as the first stake president a year later, drove the team that scraped the first furrow for the canal (see p. 17).

    It soon became apparent that even their backbreaking labor could not finish the project in a year, and no food could be raised until water was available for irrigation. Serious discouragement plagued the camp. A special prayer implored the Lord’s blessing to open the way for them to complete the canal; Elder Woodruff backed up their petitions by officially calling all those in the camp “on a mission to complete the Canal and establish homes” (p. 20). “Modern manna” came in the form of an $80,000 contract to construct twenty-three miles of railroad. Half the men’s cash earnings went to the colony in exchange for canal stock; the money was, in turn, used to pay those working on the canal half cash as well as half canal stock (see p. 22).

    A second major obstacle that turned out to be a blessing by confirming the Saints’ faith was encountering Prayer Rock in late June or early July that first year. Nearly two miles from the head of the canal was a fifty-foot cliff; at its base rested an enormous rock, about twenty feet long, directly on the line of the canal right-of-way. It was six or eight feet high, and no one knew how far it extended into the ground. President Sessions, superintendent of canal construction, had the men scrape out a hole on the lower side of the rock, planning to topple the rock into it and out of the canal’s way with a blast of powder under the upper side. After the hole was about ten feet deep, safety became a concern: the rock seemed to be leaning forward into the hole. Consequently, morning and evening prayers were held in camp for the safety of the men and the horses. The scraping continued. Even after ten feet, they didn’t seem to be coming to the base of the rock, and some of the men felt that the rock reached into the ground so far that no powder blast could make it topple into the hole. Local historian Mark N. Partridge, present for part of the events, has reconstructed what happened next from interviews and written statements by the surviving eyewitnesses:

    “One afternoon as President Sessions discussed the matter with the men working there,” his own son, Biney, expressed the discouragement that several of them were feeling: “‘We’ll never get this down. We just as well give it up.’ This seemed to anger his father, who said, ‘I p[r]ophecy in the name of Israel’s God that that rock will be in there tomorrow at this time.’ Jim George, one of the men working there, turned his back to President Sessions and faced me [Brother Partridge], pulled out his watch and said, ‘Let’s test him out.’ He said, ‘It’s just four P.M.’”

    The work continued the next day. Using longhandled shovels, the men dug in on both ends of the rock as far as they could reach, still without finding its end. They took their usual fifteen-minute break at 3:30 and had just begun working again when President Sessions called them up for another rest break, an unprecedented but quickly obeyed order. Then, without a powder blast, without so much as a tap from a hammer, “that rock began to split from top to bottom with a new break as smooth as a plastered wall, and landed right where we had all been busy working five minutes before in a hole 10 feet deep. George, with the same watch, faced me again dumbfounded, but said, ‘Five minutes to four.’” (pp. 140–43.) The standing half of the rock is still visible; the fallen half was buried in the outside bank of the canal which flows smoothly and serenely between the two halves.

    Prayer Roc

    Prayer Rock, located west of Byron and south of Cowley, Wyoming. The curving line of green trees in the middle ground marks the line of the canal. The split-off section of the gigantic rock is buried in the bank of the canal, rounding off between two telephone poles on the right side.

    The first unit of the Church was organized in Cowley as the Shoshone Branch of the Woodruff Stake, then covering nearly all of Wyoming and a bit of Utah (see p. 28). When the Cowley townsite was surveyed, land descriptions of the town lots were written on slips of paper, shaken up in a hat, and each head of family drew his lot from the hat. Eighteen log houses were built during the fall and winter of 1900. Cowley saw its first shingled roof in February 1901 (see pp. 32–35). The town’s name (after Elder Mathias F. Cowley) was officially confirmed by the Post Office Department in October 1900 (see p. 36). Byron, a few miles away, was named for President Sessions. A school began that first winter, taught by Mrs. Eliza R. Black, who held a Utah teacher’s certificate (see p. 38). The Big Horn Stake was organized by Elder Woodruff the next spring, 26 May 1901, with Byron Sessions as president. William C. Partridge became Cowley Ward’s first bishop 19 July 1901, and the ward replaced the branch. Of the first 144 families in Cowley, only one family was completely nonmember; three were part-member—it was not until 1911 that Cowley held its first strictly community, non-Church function: a bond election to install a water system (see pp. 41, 94).

    Some water for the upper farms was available in 1902 from the river, and Sage Creek provided other water. It finally reached the end of the canal 23 April 1904 at 5 P.M. (see p. 45). The first trees, planted in 1901, did not survive; but after 1902, cottonwoods and orchards began to thrive in the fertile soil, and Russian olives, planted from slips in the ’teens, became a nuisance and had to be uprooted (see pp. 57, 93). A pond on the west side of town supplied water and chunks of ice, carefully stored in sawdust or chaff during the summers to make ice cream. Skating on the pond was a popular community event, with frequent programs, plays, and debates sponsored by ward auxiliaries and dances every Friday night (see p. 71).

    In 1905, the Church population in Cowley was 543 and the communities of Cowley, Lovell, and Byron began to feel the need for a high school, so Woodruff Academy was opened 13 September 1909 in Lovell with forty-one students, rising to seventy-four before the year was over. Because the name caused some confusion with the school in Woodruff, Utah, it was soon changed to the Big Horn Academy. The next year it moved to Cowley, opening with seventy-eight students the first day, including its first married couple, William and Iva Snell. William was also the student body president. (See pp. 75–77.)

    The Church continued to maintain the academy until it was purchased by the Cowley School District in the fall of 1924. The Church underwrote the district’s first year of public operation with a gift of $10,000 until tax funds could be received (see p. 78). During its fifteen years of operation, the academy had graduated 178 students, sponsored a popular brass band, and fielded agressive basketball teams. Tiny Cowley was proud of its prowess on the floor, especially when its M-Men team won the All-Church championship in 1938 and the state championship in 1922 against all the other high schools in the state. Later, when schools were classed according to enrollment, Cowley won the state Class B championship five times between 1944 and 1958 (see pp. 108–9).

    Economically, the fertile farms were reinforced by a local brick kiln in 1907, a small oil refinery in 1909, electricity in 1912, a motion picture projector purchased by the Sunday School Parents Class (tickets 10 cents), natural gas production and power, sawmills, and other stores. During the twenties, Cowley fell on hard times. The land was damaged by rising alkali, the oil refinery was closed, and old-time residents remember fifty vacant houses in town. However, the costly process of establishing a drainage system restored the land’s fertility, a new cannery that operated until 1971 provided both a market and employment for many, and a new oil refinery opened.

    Lovell, still the biggest town in the trade area and site of the stake center, has three wards; Cowley and Byron have one apiece. But the humming oil machinery promises a prosperous future for the little town where committed individualism, faith, and cooperation trenched a canal across thirty miles of desert and split the rock that stood in their way.


  •   1.

    Information for this article is taken from Mark N. Partridge, With Book and Plow: History of a Mormon Settlement, revised ed. (Lovell, Wyo.: Mountain States Printing Company, 1976), hereafter cited parenthetically in the text. The story of Prayer Rock also appears separately as a pamphlet, Mark N. Partridge, “The Miracle of Prayer Rock,” (Lovell, Wyo.: Mountain States Printing Co., 1970).

  • [photo] One of Cowley’s first log cabins. Located on the main highway, it was originally built in 1900 by Rufus P. Snell.

    [photo] Downtown Cowley. Main street, its only paved street, runs east and west in front of the flag-flying post office. The Ensign thanks Marcella G. Allred, stake historic arts correspondent, and Mark N. Partridge, local historian, for their assistance; photography by Eldon K. Linschoten.

    [photo] Mark N. Partridge, now eighty-six, was just a boy when his father, Edward C. Partridge, came to Cowley, Wyoming, in 1900. He is standing in front of the Harry Wambeke home, originally built for a hotel by Don Carlos (Cart) Safford in 1906.

    [photo] Now an access road for ranchers, this graveled way north of Cowley was originally built as a railroad grade that included a tunnel, blasted through a mountain at immense labor by Cowley and Byron residents. But the railroad took a different direction and the tunnel was never used.