Six Months in the Life of a Mormon Teenager

by Davis Bitton

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    What was life like for a young Mormon in Brigham City, Utah, during the 1890s? Fortunately for us, young Chauncey West, in his 19th year and preparing to go on a mission, kept a diary for several months of 1895. It provides a colorful glimpse of the work and worship, study and fun, horseplay and serious conversations of a young man just before the turn of the century.

    Chauncey’s closest friends were LeRoi Snow (his uncle but also 19 years old and more like a cousin) and Wallace Boden. The following entries give a glimpse of these “three musketeers.” (Spelling and minor grammatical corrections made for clarity.)

    January 5, 1895. “After the meeting was out, we also went to Wallace’s to retire for the night. We got to wrestling for the covering, and after about two hours of this work the bed fell down, so we had to sleep on the floor the rest of the night, but in all we enjoyed it to the greatest of our ability.”

    During the winter months sleigh riding was a popular activity in Brigham City. On January 7 Chauncey went for a fine ride behind “the most spirited and finest team in Brigham City if not in Utah, owned by my uncle A. E. Snow.” A few days later he wrote, “The sun, although very high and rather low toward the south, shone bright through the [clouds] and made a small effort to rid us of some of [the] winter blanket. Sleighs containing lovers and sweethearts were seen by the dozens, and the sight was a loving one. Fleet horses drawing light cutters were flying past the busy store, the merry bells echoing and reverberating over the frozen snow. In all, this was a beautiful winter day.”

    When the weather got warmer, there was time for some mountain climbing with Wallace and LeRoi, the three young men striking out for the “highest point” in the mountains above Brigham City:

    “We climbed up some of the roughest places I had ever been over. I took the lead after half of the way had been traveled. LeRoi shot a snake over five feet long. There were large, deep banks of snow, some over five feet deep. Large towering masses of stone began to get very common. I walked over one large bed of rock, jumped from one stone to another. Large, deep holes, many over 25 feet to the bottom, were a common thing amongst this immense mass or field of rock. We rolled large boulders over many precipices, and they seemed to shake the earth on their destructive path, tearing up trees by the roots. I arrived at the top first, 25 minutes ahead of the others. … We could see Logan City and the beautiful white Logan temple from our lofty view. We also saw the small towns in all directions around. I left the top for home 2:10 after writing a few notes down. I ran down a path, flying homeward, arriving one hour ahead of the boys. I enjoyed it very much; wore out my shoes.”

    On April 19 Chauncey went on a fishing trip with Wallace Boden and Henry Blackburn. They caught about 60 fish and sang as they drove home behind a team of ponies. Three days later Chauncey and Wallace met in the evening. They “laid on the lawn until late and conversed on astronomy and what could be in the stars that twinkled and sparkled so beautiful away up in the heavens.”

    It was an idyllic picture. On April 25 he wrote, “This is a bright and beautiful morning, and Brigham is laden with blossoms of many colors and shapes. This is the first year of many that I have had such pleasure of seeing and smelling the numberless flowers, and I must confess Brigham is a beautiful city of foliage, flowers and homes, and at present is wrapped in beauty.”

    Living in the age before the automobile and before movies and other mass entertainment, Chauncey and his friends nevertheless found ample opportunity for good times. Ice skating, bicycle riding, surprise parties, going out to serenade young ladies, gathering in homes to sing and play games and make candy or popcorn—such activities were thoroughly enjoyed by Chauncey West and his friends. He had an interesting band that performed on different occasions, and on March 6 he and his friends went serenading:

    “We, numbering five, consisting of guitars, mandolins, banjo and a harmonica, which I played and also led the string band with. We had a glorious time being invited in a number of places to partake of molasses candy, popcorn, and refreshments of all kinds and descriptions.”

    Some of the most common entertainments were dances or balls, many of which he attended.

    Chauncey does not seem to have had a steady girl friend. He kept company with Irene Hawes for several weeks, but in the late spring he was usually found escorting Lucy Wright. But these were not steady commitments, one gathers, for he flirted and joshed with other young ladies as well. In February he was invited to a party and asked to bring his best girl. “I informed them I had none,” he wrote, “so they asked me to call for Miss Ester Bywater, and I consented.”

    Church activities were frequent, and Chauncey seemed to enjoy them. He was a regular at the still relatively young YM-MIA. He attended Sunday School. He sang in the ward choir. He attended conferences and other meetings and commented on some of the speakers. On February 16 he heard B. H. Roberts give a grand lecture on “Why I Am a Mormon.” This was before the great priesthood reform movement that occurred early in this century, and so his priesthood assignments and advancements were rather unpredictable. He attended at least two different meetings expecting to be made a deacon (remember that he was 19 years old and was a tithe payer), but he was overlooked or the bishop failed to show up. Finally he was suddenly ordained a teacher instead. Then, within a matter of weeks, he was ordained an elder. The fact remains that he was a faithful and conscientious young Latter-day Saint and took advantage of the Church programs available to him.

    He had a job in the Brigham City Merchandise and Mercantile Association—a store founded on cooperative principles by Lorenzo Snow and usually known simply as the BCM&MA. Manager of the store was Uncle A. E. Snow. We do not have very full descriptions of what he did there, but he seems to have stocked shelves, sent out advertising dodgers, and for a time even sorted peaches. He made $24.50 a month.

    Chauncey was a demon for self-improvement. To make time for study, he rigged up an electric alarm system that aroused him in the morning around 5:00 or 5:30. Then he would usually work out for about 15 minutes swinging Indian clubs. He was especially motivated to go through these exercises in the cold winter months: getting the circulation stimulated helped to compensate for the two hours he was studying without heat. On January 10 the following scene occurred:

    “This morning at 6:30 I was awakened very suddenly by my electric clock and bells. I made one jump and landed out of bed on the floor. Then my understanding was clear and I, knowing that if I did not in a minute shut my electric bells off from the strong current that the batteries would be run down and the neighbors would turn out thinking there was a fire, I jumped spryly in the direction of my electric clock, but I had barely got started toward it in the blind darkness than I ran against some living thing and turned a somersault the air and fell all in a heap, and the noise of the gong sounded louder and louder. After I got my understanding, I made another attempt, shutting off the electric current and lighting the lamp looking for the person that I had fallen over. It was a chair.”

    These morning study sessions were frequently supplemented by further study during the day (he would go over German sentences in his mind at work and sometimes would use his lunch break for a tutoring session) and in the evening. The subjects he studied included the following.

    Shorthand (usually called phonography). He was taking a class in this subject with a half dozen young people. He may have been encouraged by LeRoi, who had learned typing and shorthand several years earlier and had served as shorthand reporter in the Box Elder Stake Tabernacle, in the Salt Lake Tabernacle, and as librarian in the Salt Lake Temple. Attempting to improve their skill, Chauncey and LeRoi sometimes wrote letters in shorthand.

    German. Encouraged by LeRoi and hoping to be called to the German Mission, Chauncey engaged George Graehle as a tutor and studied conscientiously. “At all times in the store when I had nothing to do,” he wrote on May 13, “I would grab my German book and learn a few words in German.”

    Book of Mormon. Having received from LeRoi a copy of this standard work at Christmas, Chauncey promised “to fast and read this book on the required fast day of each month.” He did not read in the Book of Mormon every day, but hardly ever did a week go by that he did not read at least a few chapters. Finally, on June 30 he recorded, “I spent the evening reading the Book of Mormon, also the noon hour. I finished the book at about 10 o’ clock.”

    History. A section of the Young Men’s MIA was devoted to the study of U.S. history. The procedure was to have one of the young men give a lecture on a specific topic. Chauncey did this on at least one occasion, lecturing on the hardships in the settlement of New Amsterdam. He also did some reading in ecclesiastical history, probably using B. H. Roberts’ book Outlines of Ecclesiastical History.

    Civil government. This was another discussion group that Chauncey belonged to and provided focus for much of his reading. In part it was something of a debating society, organized along lines similar to the model United Nations of today. He notes at one point that he “gained Montana for my state to defend hereafter.” It is not surprising, since 1895 was the year of the constitutional convention prior to statehood in Utah, that these young people organized themselves as a mock constitutional convention. One of the hot topics of discussion was female suffrage, which Chauncey defended. An indication of how opinion was divided on this subject is found in his diary entry for February 28: “I quit at 7:00 and went to Civil Government where I upheld woman suffrage. The house was in disorder. The vote stood 21 to 21. The president decided in favor of woman suffrage.”

    Law. He had a book on legal forms that he read at times. On April 26 he went to a local lawyer and had him order a two-volume set of Blackstone’s Commentaries, which cost him $10.50. Thereafter he devoted many hours to studying this basic work, commenting on one occasion, “The Latin phrases are the only things that I don’t read; although I studied Latin some, I cannot readily read them.”

    In addition to the above subjects, we find Chauncey studying at different times phonetics, etymology, geography, oratory, and rhetoric, some of which may have been in connection with his MIA but much of which seems to have been purely personal interest and desire to improve. He read several Church books, and borrowed the six-volume Chambers encyclopedia. Obviously fond of music, he persuaded his older sister to give him piano lessons and practiced quite conscientiously.

    Early in April Chauncey traveled to Salt Lake City with LeRoi, who had been staying with him. They took the train as far as Ogden, where Chauncey visited his cousin, his uncle, and other relatives, and went to the cemetery to see the burial spot of his father, who had been murdered in 1894. They then continued to Salt Lake City. The busy day was not over: “On arriving LeRoi C. Snow took me through the electric light works, business college, bicycle school, and Christensen’s Dancing Academy. … We then went to my aunt’s house.”

    The next day, after a trip to the depot to get their baggage, LeRoi showed him ZCMI, the Deseret News building, and the natatorium, where they took a swim. On April 6 they went to see the City and County building:

    “It is a fine, large, immense and beautiful structure in outside appearance, with a town clock and tower, in which we were favored with the privilege of ascending into. We went through the principal halls and some rooms, winding our way gradually to the top. We were in the clock and saw the four chimes that make known the time. At last we reached the high tower and could see all over the city, being up a height of 263 feet.”

    After attending all of the sessions of general conference, they visited the Deseret Museum and Science Building at the University of Utah and attended a class in theology at LDS College. Later Chauncey visited the gymnasium and the public library.

    He was still only a teacher in the Aaronic Priesthood, but Grandpa (Lorenzo Snow) was president of the Salt Lake Temple, so Chauncey was ordained an elder and received his endowments. He also participated in baptisms for the dead. He enjoyed almost a unique opportunity to examine the interior of the Temple:

    “We started to see the interior of the Temple at one o’clock and went in the six towers as far as we could safely get. We went almost to the top of the west, middle tower, up past the last strait projection. I never care to be in a nicer place than the Temple. When we came back down, I sat in the chair made for the President of the Temple (my Grandpa). It was as soft and easy as life could wish to rest upon. I walked over the top of the Temple. We came out after 3 hours of walking and seeing. I went through as thoroughly as anybody and more than visitors and workers.”

    The next day, too, he spent time looking through the Temple, “and enjoyed myself very much under its holy roof.”

    As we have already noticed, Chauncey West was not all seriousness. On April 12 he rented a “wheel” and rode out to his cousin Abraham H. Cannon’s place and there found “Uncle George and about 20 of my cousins and aunts there at a family gathering.” Another bicycle ride followed the next day, when, at 6:00 in the morning, he and LeRoi met three young ladies.

    “The girls looked very neat in the tight fitting waists and bloomers. I rode along the side of Miss Abbie Wardrobe and enjoyed the trip very much. We returned after about one and a half hours ride with our partners. Then leaving them at home we started for Becks Hot Springs and had a fine trip. We went around the sloping bicycle track and then returned. We then started for the Fort, namely Fort Douglas. We had a hard ride going up, but coming down I just sailed.”

    He was ready for a short nap when they got back to LeRoi’s place. Then they caught a train for Saltair beach, did some sightseeing, and returned for an evening at Miss White’s.

    On April 14 he started for home, stopping off for a day in Ogden. On the morning of the 16th, he was back in Brigham City ready for work. The vacation had lasted just 12 days.

    As valuable as is this picture of teenage activities of the 1890s, it must be conceded that Chauncey West was no typical young man. His achievement in seeing to it that all sides of his personality—intellectual, physical, social, and spiritual—continued to develop shows that it can be done, but such balance has always been extraordinary. Besides, as we have seen, he was highly conscious of his relationship to several leading men of the Church. He was especially fond of “dear old Grandpa,” Lorenzo Snow, whom he described as “over 87 years old and spry as can be.” On April 28, 1895, the young man had a conversation with his grandfather that he would never forget:

    “Last night Grandpa told me how he came to join the Church and said he had eaten and drunk at the table of Joseph Smith, the seer, translator, interpreter, and prophet. And Grandpa said he knew this church was a true church, and had it direct.”

    Chauncey recognized that it was a rare blessing to have such a forthright statement from someone he loved and trusted and who was in a position to know.

    Photos by Lonnie Lonczyna