Deseret Industries at Fifty


For half a century, its best products have been people.

It doesn’t look much like the usual thrift store. The sales floor is well-lighted, the merchandise is attractively displayed, and the fixtures are up-to-date. A Deseret Industries outlet ordinarily doesn’t suggest much about the organization’s history. This year, though, Deseret Industries is going out of its way to call attention to its fiftieth anniversary.

Although its sales outlets have changed in the past five decades, Deseret Industries is still following the same charter it was given at its founding in 1938.

In that year, the Great Depression was nearing its end, and for the previous two years the Church’s Welfare Program had been helping to provide food and fuel for many needy members. In addition, resourceful local Church leaders had been finding work for some of the jobless. Still, unemployment was high, and, like other Americans, some LDS families could not afford to buy clothing or household items.

Church leaders were considering ways to help alleviate these problems when Stewart B. Eccles entered the picture. Brother Eccles was out of work, but he had an idea that would provide jobs for himself and many others. While he was in downtown Salt Lake City one day in early 1938, he felt impelled to visit Harold B. Lee, director of the Welfare Program, and explain his proposal.

Brother Lee listened to him, then asked him to write out the plan in detail. Before the day was over, Brother Eccles had been interviewed thoroughly by the Presiding Bishopric, and within a few more days, he would have interviews with other General Authorities. It quickly became apparent to Brother Eccles that they had something in mind for him.

What they had in mind had nothing to do with his proposal. Earlier, it had been suggested that the Church establish an operation similar to Goodwill Industries in Los Angeles. (The original suggestion has been attributed both to Orson H. Hewlett, a transplanted Utahn who lived in Los Angeles, and to his son Lester, a Salt Lake City businessman who later served as chairman of the Deseret Industries Committee under the welfare program.) Goodwill was providing jobs for the unemployed by taking in donated goods, refurbishing them, and then selling them. Church leaders asked Stewart Eccles to go to Los Angeles, study Goodwill Industries, and make a report.

Soon after his trip, in May 1938, he was placed in charge of a new Church operation designed to provide both jobs and low-cost goods for needy members. It was tentatively known as Welfare Industries.

That name grated on Brother Eccles; for too many people, “welfare” meant public dole programs. One day he was called to Brother Lee’s office and told that the name had also troubled President Heber J. Grant. A new name had come to the Church leader—Deseret Industries. The term deseret, meaning “honey bee” (see Ether 2:3), would carry connotations of industry and thrift.

A letter to local Church leaders, dated 11 August 1938, announced the formation of Deseret Industries “in the Salt Lake Region of the Church Welfare Plan.” The operation was described as “essentially a salvaging project in which useable materials such as clothing, papers, magazines, articles of furniture, electrical fixtures, metal, glass ware, etc. are solicited from each home-owner within our communities within the Salt Lake Region. This organization will make periodic collections … and employ … men and women workers to sort, process, and repair the articles collected for sale and distribution among those who desire to obtain useable articles thus provided at a minimum cost. It is the intent that first consideration on this project will be given to brethren and sisters who might find it difficult to qualify for employment in private industry.”

There was no doubt that Deseret Industries had the full support of Church leadership. The letter was signed by the First Presidency—Heber J. Grant, J. Reuben Clark, Jr., and David O. McKay—as well as by the Presiding Bishopric—LeGrand Richards, Marvin O. Ashton, and Joseph L. Wirthlin.

Further impetus for Church members to donate goods was given in September of 1938 in the Improvement Era. An editorial by Elder John A. Widtsoe of the Council of the Twelve outlined four purposes of Deseret Industries: “First, those who have will be given another type of opportunity to help those who have not. Second, waste will be reduced by keeping our possessions in use as long as possible. Third, the work of renovation will employ many now unemployed. Fourth, articles in common use, of good quality, will be available at a low cost.”

Elder Widtsoe went on to comment that “the American people, including members of the Church, are tremendously and indefensibly wasteful. … This waste … cannot be pleasing to the Lord. … Deseret Industries will serve a wholesome moral as well as economic purpose in securing a fuller service of our property.” (P. 544.)

Setting the Program in Motion

The first Deseret Industries plant was opened in downtown Salt Lake City on 12 August 1938, with Stewart Eccles in charge. Holger M. Larsen was his assistant. After collection drives in the area, they made their first retail sales on 1 September 1938.

Elder Widtsoe retained an interest in the operation and one day paid Deseret Industries a visit to see how it was progressing. He laid his hat down on one of the store’s tables while he took a tour of the facility. When he returned, he found that the hat had been sold!

Within two years, Deseret Industries had several smaller stores operating in the Salt Lake Valley and had outgrown its first headquarters. In 1940, its operations were moved to a much larger Church-owned building in Salt Lake City’s Sugarhouse area.

During 1939, local Church leaders in Los Angeles had begun a similar operation under the name “Latter-day Saint Industries of Southern California.” It would become the Los Angeles branch of Deseret Industries.

At Harold B. Lee’s recommendation, the stakes of the Southern California Region—Pasadena, San Fernando, Long Beach, Los Angeles, San Bernardino, South Los Angeles, and Inglewood—united in supporting the Los Angeles Deseret Industries unit. It was governed by a local committee of priesthood leaders, with general direction from Salt Lake City. This pattern would be followed in other local units as Deseret Industries grew.

Other patterns were also established in the beginning. Potential workers were referred to both Salt Lake and Los Angeles Deseret Industries facilities by their bishops. Both facilities honored bishops’ orders for goods to help needy LDS families. Workers were paid half in cash and half in commodities from the bishops’ storehouse. (That practice continued until the 1960s, when minimum wage laws made it impractical.)

Creating a New Work Force

Disaster struck the Salt Lake Deseret Industries operation in the spring of 1942: a fire burned half of the central plant in Sugarhouse. The Salt Lake unit recovered from that blow, but Deseret Industries was also facing a more enduring challenge, one that would eventually reshape it into an organization capable of serving many more people.

Prior to World War II almost all Deseret Industries’ workers had been able-bodied, unemployed men and women. But unemployment all but disappeared during the war, and much of the Deseret Industries work force was able to find work in the private sector. There had been more than a dozen Deseret Industries stores operating in Salt Lake County and five in Los Angeles County before the war. During the war, both Salt Lake and Los Angeles Deseret Industries units closed most of their stores and consolidated operations.

As a consequence, the composition of the Deseret Industries work force changed. In addition to a few able-bodied unemployed, many of its workers now were aged members with low incomes, or physically or mentally handicapped members who could not obtain work in ordinary businesses. After the war, immigrant Church members with a limited command of English also joined the work force. This mix would continue for two decades or more.

By its tenth anniversary in 1948, Deseret Industries had six stores—two in Salt Lake City, one each in Ogden, Logan, and Tooele, Utah, and one in Los Angeles. It was entering a period of slow but steady expansion that brought the opening or remodeling of several stores in the 1950s. One landmark was a new plant in Los Angeles, which opened in the spring of 1951. A number of changes had been recommended by local leaders to streamline the Los Angeles operation. With its up-to-date physical plant and attractive sales floor, it would be a means of reintroducing Deseret Industries to the public in the area.

After the war, Deseret Industries sought new ways to meet Church members’ needs. During the fall of 1951, for example, work-at-home projects (such as sewing quilt tops or repairing appliances) were established by the Los Angeles unit; these provided work for those who could not travel to the central plant because of distance or handicaps. (In a modified form, “Homecraft” projects are still available through Deseret Industries.)

Moving into Manufacturing

In the mid-1950s, an important change began in Deseret Industries operations. Stewart Eccles, who had been running the Church’s Welfare Square operations in Salt Lake City since 1942, was reassigned to Deseret Industries with a charge to develop manufacturing operations; these would not only provide more jobs, but would also provide goods to help stock the bishops’ storehouses. Brother Eccles was not told what kind of manufacturing operations to develop; Elder Harold B. Lee (by then a member of the Council of the Twelve) only told him that he would be guided to know what to do.

In 1954, Deseret Industries began a rag-rug-making operation. In 1957, a woolen mill was acquired to supply wool blankets for the storehouses.

Reflecting on the organization’s operations in 1958, twenty years after its founding, Brother Eccles noted that the refurbishing of donated goods was less important to Deseret Industries than its efforts to rehabilitate those needing employment or job training. The philosophy at Deseret Industries ran counter to that held by private industry, which sought to keep the good workers it trained. At Deseret Industries, the goal was to train people to be good workers, then help them move on to find jobs in private industry.

From the post-war period until the mid-1970s, many elderly and handicapped workers found jobs at Deseret Industries. There was, for example, one young man who was wheelchair-bound and had little use of his limbs. A job was found for him at Deseret Industries, and he felt a sense of worth that made going to work more important than staying in the comfort of his family’s well-furnished home. He even refused to go on the customary vacation with his parents because there would be no one else at Deseret Industries to do his job.

In 1963—Deseret Industries’ twenty-fifth anniversary year—an Improvement Era article focused on some of the workers and the blessings that employment had brought into their lives. The article noted that “except for capital investments made by the Church in buildings and equipment, the program is self-sustaining.” (July, p. 584.) The workers were paying their own way.

The article also pointed out that Deseret Industries plants had been used as storehouses, assisting members who needed clothing and household items after disaster struck—notably, flooding in California and Idaho during 1955. That kind of assistance has been a pattern for Deseret Industries throughout its history; it was repeated, for example, after the Teton Dam collapsed above Rexburg, Idaho, in 1976, flooding communities in the upper Snake River Valley.

Focusing on Rehabilitation

During the 1960s, another significant change in the Deseret Industries work force began. Rising Social Security benefits made it unnecessary for many older Church members in the United States to work. At the same time, legislation and changes in society enabled physically handicapped members to move more freely into the workplace. Increasingly, Deseret Industries employed workers who lacked job skills or had learning disabilities or mental handicaps. This trend became the norm, and Deseret Industries was granted “sheltered workshop” status under federal regulations, which meant that Deseret Industries could serve more handicapped workers.

During the 1970s, the Presiding Bishopric called a new General Deseret Industries Committee and charged it to raise the program to new heights. As a result, individual units came under more uniform direction from Church headquarters. Existing stores were modernized, and new ones were built in many areas.

There was also a new emphasis on meeting the individual needs of workers referred to Deseret Industries by their bishops. This included helping them reach their full potential, becoming as independent and self-sufficient as possible.

“We began focusing on vocational rehabilitation more seriously about ten years ago,” says Gary Winters, field manager for rehabilitation with Deseret Industries and the Church Employment System. It had become apparent in the mid-1970s that Deseret Industries, as it was then operating, could not serve more than a fraction of the members who needed its help. If Deseret Industries was to serve more people, it had to find new ways to operate.

In a 1979 address at a seminar for area welfare directors, D. Weston Thatcher, then director of Deseret Industries, outlined the course he saw. An operation such as Deseret Industries should prepare people to function in the outside world after they are trained; he believed that it is useless to train people in make-work projects when no jobs for them will ever exist in industry. It was time, he said, “to make direct job placement into the competitive labor market and to make purposeful job skills at Deseret Industries a reality.”

For those unable to find gainful employment in private industry, he added, Deseret Industries should provide “the best alternative … which is a disciplined, competitive, business opportunity.”

Today, because of their age or handicaps, some people still stay at Deseret Industries for long periods. But if they are capable of working in private industry, the goal is to place them there, Brother Winters explains. The Deseret Industries program should be thought of “as a training opportunity, and not as permanent employment.” This renewed emphasis on rehabilitation has resulted in a professional rehabilitation manager at every plant.

Since 1980, the number of trainees placed in jobs outside Deseret Industries has more than doubled. But more important than the statistics are the many individual success stories they represent.

In Washington, for example, one mildly retarded sister was also handicapped by her lack of social skills and experience. Through the help of the rehabilitation program, as well as one-on-one work with volunteers, she progressed through several jobs at Deseret Industries and was able to take a position with a Seattle microfilming company. This gave her the advantage of at least minimum wage pay and employee benefits from the company that hired her.

In San Diego, a former serviceman who had lost a leg in Vietnam went from Deseret Industries to a computer assembly job.

In Arizona, a woman who had been held back by her speech difficulties and lack of education went from Deseret Industries to a position in housekeeping with a local motel. Her good work moved her supervisor to seek other employees from Deseret Industries.

Deseret Industries plants can serve only so many workers on a daily basis, but the number of people aided by their rehabilitation programs each year is still increasing. Earl Matheson, current director of Deseret Industries, explains that this is possible because training programs have been made much more efficient, and workers move through them more rapidly.

Deseret Industries is always seeking new ways to help Church members, he explains. Pilot programs are currently extending rehabilitation services to members in areas where the Church membership base is not large enough to support a Deseret Industries plant. Local Church members, called Rehabilitation Service Workers, are lending both their love and their skills to helping train workers. (See Ensign, Apr. 1988, pp. 24–29.)

Some of the earlier Deseret Industries manufacturing operations have disappeared as changes in the economy have made them impractical. The ones that remain—furniture and mattress manufacturing—are better suited to the needs of current workers. Job training has been oriented toward sales and other activities that can lead to jobs in today’s service-oriented economy.

Methods and activities for helping people are not cast in concrete, Brother Matheson says. While Deseret Industries continues to follow the guiding principles set down for it in 1938, approaches will change to meet the needs of the times.

“Deseret Industries—past, present, and future—is a people program,” Brother Matheson says. “It exists to help people to help themselves, and there is still much to do.”

Golden Anniversary Activities

A variety of activities have been planned to mark Deseret Industries’ fiftieth anniversary. They include:

—Local open houses, with tours for priesthood leaders and the public;

—Fiftieth anniversary banquets in local units during August, with honors for outstanding workers;

—Cleanliness awards for qualifying plants;

—Discount certificates for shoppers in some stores;

—A breakfast to honor priesthood leaders, civic leaders, and employers of former Deseret Industries workers.