Muskrat Shoes and Grasshopper Bait97906_000_007
Resourcefulness was a way of life for most Latter-day Saint pioneers. Children followed the example of their parents and learned to “fix it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.”
During the winter of 1849–50, Susan Alley (Wells) * received an invitation to attend a holiday dance hosted by President Brigham Young. Upon receiving the invitation, Susan was excited but realized her clothes were patched and shabby. “Like the girls of today,” she said, “on receiving my invitation the first thought was ‘nothing to wear.’”
So after careful planning, the wagon cover that had protected her family and their possessions while crossing the Great Plains was brought out. The wagon cover consisted of several thicknesses of simple, unbleached factory cloth. “This was carefully dyed,” she wrote, “and as good luck would have it, it turned out a very pretty brown.”
Susan and her sister made dresses from the cloth and trimmed them with silk from their mother’s old cape. Their father, who was a shoemaker, made them a pair of slippers from the leather of his old bootlegs. “I tell you,” Susan wrote enthusiastically, “our first ball dresses were stunning!” 1
Other pioneer youth found ways to make good use of what the Lord had provided for them in the mountains and deserts of the West. Mary Elizabeth James (Jones) of Ogden, Utah, remembered having no shoes at all but instead wearing muskrat skins that had been salted, dried, and tied onto her feet. 2 Mary Louisa Woolley (Clark) used thorns gathered from City Creek Canyon as dress fasteners because she had no buttons, hooks, or eyes. 3 And seven-year-old Melissa Jane Lambson (Davis) found an old bacon sack while playing in the yard. Her mother soaked it in lye water to remove the grease, dyed it with some weeds, and made a dress for Melissa. “How proud I was of it!” Melissa later wrote. 4
Clothes were not the only area that required creative solutions. While playing at the Weber River, Lorenzo Hadley and his brother had an idea on how they could catch some fish. “We went home and I got some needles and linen thread that my parents fetched from England. I took two or three of the needles and heated them so that I could bend them and make hooks. I then took two lengths of thread and put it through the eye and bent the eye to hold it fast. We used grasshoppers for bait and my brother and I caught eight or ten fish before we heard daddy whistle for us to come home. He was sure pleased.” 5
Some children invested the little money they earned. Such was the case with Edward M. Claridge, who lived as a youth in southeastern Arizona in the 1880s to 1890s. Young Edward picked sweet potatoes for a week at 25 cents a day, drove a horse for 50 cents a day, and, during harvest time, earned six dollars cutting hay. “I bought about 15 of these beautiful ducks. … I thought I was really in the money! The next thing I bought was some calves. I had a nice little herd of 15. I kept them around the farm and sold them to Marion Lee for a very nice profit.” 6
Lydia Merrell (Goodrich) and her sisters made hats using materials that would have otherwise been wasted. After harvest in Uintah County, Utah, the girls went to the wheat fields, laid a sheet down on the wheat stubble, and then used scissors to clip the straw along the ditches and corners of the field where the harvesters could not reach. Before making hats, they cut the heads off the wheat to feed the chickens so that nothing would be wasted. Then the straw was split, soaked, braided, and sewed into the desired shapes. After the hats were finished, they were bleached with sulfur fumes to make them white. Lydia wrote, “We made fine hats and they were considered real nice.” 7
Children even had to be inventive about their recreation. Lorenzo S. Clark wrote of his boyhood: “We found [ways to] play. … The boys who were small enough, brace[ed] themselves against the tires of the wagon wheels, holding tightly to the spokes, hands on one rim and feet opposite and so go for a ride. Because the oxen moved so slowly it wasn’t really as dangerous as it sounded, but we thought it was a thrilling experience.” 8
Names in parentheses are the married surnames.
As quoted in Annie Lynch, “President Brigham Young’s Christmas Party,” Juvenile Instructor, Dec. 1918, 632.
Mary Elizabeth James Jones, “Mormon Diaries, Journals, and Life Sketches,” COLL MS 18, Special Collections, Merrill Library, Utah State University, Logan, Utah.
Mary Woolley Clark Autobiography, typescript, Special Collections and Manuscripts, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah.
“A Pioneer Story,” Our Pioneer Heritage, comp. Kate B. Carter, 20 vols. (1958–77), 12:107.
Lorenzo Hadley Autobiography, typescript, Utah State Historical Society, Salt Lake City, Utah.
Edward Maddocks Claridge Autobiography, The Children of Samuel Claridge, ed. Helen Ruth Claridge Cole (1987), 190.
Lydia Merrell Goodrich Autobiography, Life As We Lived It: The Goodrich-Merrell Story, comp. Ruth Goodrich and Gladys S. Jacobson (1975), 56.
Lorenzo Southwell Clark Autobiography, Heart Throbs of the West, comp. Kate B. Carter, 12 vols. (1939–51), 9:391–96.