A Boy from Whitney

By Melvin Leavitt

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    Being a boy in Whitney, Idaho, is hard work. It’s hoeing the crops and milking cows and irrigating fields. It’s cutting hay and harvesting wheat.

    Being a boy in Whitney is also a lot of fun. It’s playing baseball and basketball, swimming in the reservoirs, and riding horses. It’s going to sacrament meeting, preparing for a mission, and growing up strong and true.

    Boys in Whitney have a lot of good examples to follow of active parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. Boys in Whitney have a tradition to uphold, a future to build that is worthy of its past. Almost every young man in the ward goes on a mission. It’s been that way for nearly a hundred years.

    And there’s one other example. A very good one. President Ezra Taft Benson is also a boy from Whitney.

    Choice Little Community

    “I shall never forget life in an ideal family on a farm, in a choice little community,” President Benson has said. He grew up on the 80-acre farm, the oldest son of George T. and Sarah Dunkley Benson. The 80 acres were usually planted in sugar beets, and Young Ezra, or “T” as he was called in his family, did his share of the strenuous work of tending and harvesting the crop. Another 160 acres on the hillside were planted in wheat, which he cut and threshed.

    As young “T” labored in his father’s fields and the fields of his neighbors in the work-trading system that prevailed in Whitney, he soon gained a reputation as a hard and skillful worker.

    “I drove a team of horses when I was four years old, and not many years after this I was riding horses to herd cattle. I learned early to milk cows. This became, and remained, a major responsibility during my growing years—this and digging potatoes and sugar beets, stacking grain, putting up hay and doing all the other chores that fell to the oldest boy on a farm.

    “Farm work, it seemed to us, was almost continuous, except on Sunday and the latter part of Saturday afternoon. On a rainy day we would work in the machine shed or buggy shed repairing and fixing machinery, oiling harnesses, sharpening tools and hay knives, or doing some painting. Father always had those days planned.”

    Like most boys from Whitney, “T” had outstanding parents. His mother was noted for her sense of humor and sunny disposition. She had a unique gift for teaching a boy without criticizing him. One day on the way home from school, “T” took exception to the way his cousin George was treating Joe, “T’s” younger brother.

    “I finally said, ‘If you do that once more, I’ll hit you.’ He went on teasing Joe, and as a result we got into a fight. We had quite a struggle in the dirt as well as on our feet, and I made George’s nose bleed.

    “It finally ended, and George went home as we did. When I arrived home Mother noticed the blood on my hands and on my shirt and asked what had happened. Of course, I explained. She didn’t chastize me for defending my younger and smaller brother, but she did say, ‘T,’ I was going to bake some bread, but I’m right out of yeast. I want you to go over to Aunt Lulu’s (George’s mother) and get some.’ I said, ‘Mother, don’t ask me to do that after I’ve had this fight with George.’ She said, ‘That makes no difference. I need the yeast and I want you to go to your Aunt Lulu’s and get the start.’”

    In having to go to his aunt’s home and face his cousin George, “T” learned more about settling disputes than a lecture could have taught him.

    Fresh Bread and Butter

    Sarah Benson excelled in another way too. “Mother was a great housekeeper and cook. It seemed that she could take anything and make it taste delicious.

    “When we were boys, I remember we would come into the kitchen and get the aroma of baking bread. Then we would persuade Mother to let us take the top crust off the loaf and put butter on it for us to eat. Sometimes it took a good deal of persuasion.”

    Ezra’s father, George T. Benson, was known for his industry and honesty. In addition to being a leading citizen in the community, he served in both the bishopric and the stake presidency. “Father was always very prompt,” President Benson recalls. “I never knew him to be late for a meeting. He would set a time when the horse-drawn buggy was to leave the farm and drive to church. Sometimes, if a member of the family was late, he would start the horses up slowly at the appointed time, and more than once the children who were not quite ready would have to run to catch up with the rest of the family in the buggy.”

    As a small boy, “T” enjoyed few of the conveniences most people now take for granted. “There was no electricity, no running water. I remember taking baths in the great tin tub set up in the kitchen. The water would be heated on the kitchen stove. The girls would take their baths first. Then the boys would come in and carry the tub of water out and dump it, and then clean water was put in and the boys took their baths. Occasionally there were special baths, if we had to go to some special function.” Later, “T” would help his father bring electricity and running water to the home.

    The Benson family grew steadily, until there were eleven children. “Our home, of course, had been enlarged as the family increased. In the big bedroom upstairs there were five of us boys. As the family grew, two of the boys (usually the older ones) would sleep on the screened porch built on to the side of the kitchen. More than once I woke up to find a light covering of snow on my bed.

    “We had very good health, however, and very little serious illness except when epidemics came. I remember we all had smallpox, mumps, and measles. When the first of the children had smallpox we segregated him into one of the bedrooms. Soon the second one caught it, and the third, and the fourth, until we had the bedroom filled. As I remember, we all had smallpox, but we all got along fine. There was great fellowship and love in the family.”

    Plenty of Fun

    Although boys from Whitney worked hard, there was plenty of fun also. “We went swimming, ice skating, and horseback riding. And we did things that to a boy were half work and half play, like rounding up cattle in the mountains. I loved animals, especially horses, and usually managed to have my own riding horse. One special delight was going with my parents or friends on camping, fishing, and hunting trips. Such peace and inspiration came while on these trips and marveling at the handiwork of God in his creation!

    “We also played basketball and baseball. Basketball was a favorite sport of young men, boys, and parents in my boyhood days. Father and mother took a great interest in basketball because they had seven sons who played the game.

    “It was a happy day for us when Father let us use a piece of ground as a basketball court. Later he challenged any family in the neighborhood to a basketball game. It was probably fortunate for us that no one accepted the challenge.”

    Family’s First Car

    Although President Benson loved horses and would always admire a good horse more than a good car, he was excited when his father purchased the family’s first automobile. “It was a 1915 Dodge. It was of solid, substantial construction, but the suspension wasn’t very good in those days and it bounced along like a hay wagon. There were very few cars in the community. Uncle John Dunkley was the first one to get a car. The children would all gather around after Sunday School, to see him turn the hand crank to get it started. There were no paved roads anywhere in our part of the country.

    “Occasionally Father would let us drive to a distant town for a basketball game, dance, or other entertainment. One Saturday we drove to Logan. There is a slight hill to the south of Logan, and I drove our car to the limit this particular Saturday and got the speed up to about eighty-two kilometers per hour. When I reported this to Father and to the people back in the Whitney Ward, they were shocked to think I had dared to drive at that terrific speed and seemed to question whether the car would actually go that fast or not. I finally had to get evidence from some of the other boys who were with me to confirm my claim, which was the highest record of speed known in the community at that time.”

    “I attended grade school in a three-room school. “I began grade school at the age of eight, finished at fourteen, a large boy for my age, and feeling I was completely educated. During boyhood days on the farm we would usually walk to school. However, during rainy spells or winter we would usually drive a one-horse buggy, or in the winter a one-horse sleigh.”

    New Friends in High School

    He then went on to high school at the Oneida Stake Academy in nearby Preston. “I rode horseback five kilometers each way and in bad weather it was a problem sometimes to make my eight o’clock class on time. Like others, I often stayed home to help on the farm instead of going to school, especially in the fall, until after harvest, and in the spring during planting season.”

    At the academy, “T” made an important lifelong friend, Harold B. Lee, who, like “T,” eventually became president of the Church. “Harold and I went to school together at Oneida Stake Academy. We sang in the first choir in high school.”

    “T” starred on the high school basketball team as he would later star at Utah State University. His parents and family were always there to cheer him on. “T’s” opponent in one game was a young man named Marion G. Romney who was to become president of the Quorum of the Twelve.

    In a little Mormon town like Whitney, religion was in the very air everyone breathed. It was the center of the community’s existence. “Father and Mother taught their family complete devotion to the Church and full integrity in the payment of their tithes and offerings,” President Benson declares. He often recounts the time when his father had to choose between paying his tithing or a $50 debt. He paid the tithing, and almost immediately received an unexpected offer of $50 for a hay lifting tackle he had built.

    One of the greatest lessons in devotion to the gospel came when George T. Benson received a mission call. “I was about thirteen years of age when father received a call to go on a mission. He went, leaving mother at home with seven children. The eighth was born four months after he arrived in the field, but never did we hear a murmur of complaint from Mother; she was so supportive of Father.

    A Spirit of Missionary Work

    “The letters we received from Father were indeed a blessing. They seemed to us children to come halfway around the world, but they were only from across the country. There came into our home, as a result, a spirit of missionary work that has never left it.

    “Father returned home and while we would sit each day milking the cows, he would sing over and over again, ‘Ye Elders of Israel,’ ‘Israel, Israel, God Is Calling,’ ‘Come All Ye Sons of God,’ ‘Ye Who Are Called to Labor,’ until I learned every word of several of these great missionary songs. Today I don’t need a songbook when we sing these great songs that Father sang to us morning and evening.”

    Like most boys from Whitney, “T” had a desire to share the gospel himself. As a child, he had sat in Sunday School listening to returned missionaries tell about the “happiest two years” of their lives. Even when they reported persecutions it only fed the missionary flame within his young heart. Later, he went to the stake patriarch for a blessing. “Brother Dalley very slowly pronounced a blessing upon my head, which included an answer to a boy’s prayer. I was promised, if faithful of course, that I would go on a mission to the nations of the earth and would raise my voice in testimony and that many would rise up and bless my name because of my influence in helping to bring them into the Church.

    “I went home walking on air, I was so happy. I had no doubt but what I would someday go on a mission.”

    When the time came, “T” accepted a call to the British Mission. The beginning of Elder Benson’s fruitful mission is the beginning of the end of this story of a boy from Whitney. The boy would come back two and a half years later, a boy no longer but a tried and seasoned man. He spent several more years in the Whitney area, served as an outstanding Scoutmaster, married a beautiful and righteous wife, grew and learned, but that is another story.

    This much can be said, however—that Brother Benson and Elder Benson and President Benson never stopped loving his hometown, never stopped visiting his old ward, never stopped dropping in on his old friends, because a boy from Whitney does not forget.

    Photography by Church magazine staff and courtesy of family and friends.

    As a young man on his father’s farm in Whitney, Idaho, President Benson—like Whitney boys today—learned lifelong habits of industry, honesty, and spirituality. From the farm you can see Little Mountain, where President Benson’s grandfather used to stand watch for marauding Indians.

    Above: Ezra Taft Benson (seated) at the time of his high school graduation, with his younger brother Orval. Below: Boys today still find time to go fishing at Willow Flats on the Cub River, just as boys did in President Benson’s youth.

    Ezra Benson set a good example for his brothers (left to right) Volco “Ben,” Ross, George, Valdo, Orval, and Joseph. Ezra and his father, George, are at right.