A Boy from Whitney

by Melvin Leavitt

Associate Editor

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    The rich soil of Whitney, Idaho, produces bountiful crops and strong men.The recollections of five friends

    Being a boy in Whitney, Idaho, is hard work. It’s hoeing beans 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. Stalwart parents and grandparents live and work with them. Their families have visited the graves of great- and great-great-grandparents in the cemetery on the edge of the ravine, and retold the old stories of dreams and sorrows and triumphs. 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. Their older brothers are on missions right now.

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

    “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 thinning, tending, and harvesting the crop. Another 160 acres on the hillside were planted in dry-farm 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 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; we had 17 Holsteins. This became, and remained, a major responsibility during my growing years—this and digging potatoes and sugar beets, shocking 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.”

    “T” gained lasting local fame by thinning an entire acre of beets in a day at the age of 16. “It was back-breaking, done in a bent-over position, using a wide bladed hoe on a handle about eight inches long.”

    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 one that you’ll remember.’ He went ahead and as a result we had a real fist fight. During the encounter, I brought blood from George’s nose, and we had quite a struggle in the dirt.

    “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 chastise me for defending my younger and smaller brother, but she did say, ‘T,’ I’m right out of yeast. I want you to go over to Aunt Lulu’s (George’s mother) and get a start of yeast.’ I said, ‘Mother, don’t ask me to do that after I’ve had this encounter with George.’ She said, ‘That makes no difference. I need the yeast and I want you to go through the field and get the start.’”

    Needless to say, “T” learned more about settling disputes than a lecture could have taught him.

    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 have never known him to be late for a meeting. He would set a time when the buggy was to leave the farm and drive the mile and a half to church. Sometimes, if there was a late one, he would start the team up slowly at the appointed time, and more than once the children who were not quite ready would have to run to catch the buggy.”

    As a small boy, “T” enjoyed few of the conveniences we take for granted. “There were no modern lights, no running water. I remember the great tin tub on the floor in the kitchen. The water would be heated on the stove in the kitchen. 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 the new batch of 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 11 children. “Our home, of course, had been enlarged as the family increased, but I well remember that the only heat in the upstairs bedroom was through a grill over the stove in the kitchen, and the girls’ rooms got their heat from a grill over the stove in the living room. In the big bedroom upstairs there were five of us boys. As the family increased, two of the boys (usually the older ones) would sleep on the screen porch off the kitchen. More than once I awakened and found a light covering of snow on my bed.

    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 trapping muskrats and 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.

    “Winters were cold and the snow was deep. Ofttimes the snow was over the fences. I’ve known times when we would get on skis with a long rope tied to a saddle horn and we could go from the road right over the fence and back onto the road again. The road would become packed, too, and we could travel on skates behind a horse’s tail, or with a long rope tied to a saddle horn, or a rope to a bobsleigh.

    “We also played basketball and baseball. Father and mother took a great interest in basketball because they had seven sons who played the game.

    “Father always permitted us to have a basketball bankboard at home. It was a happy day when he allotted us a piece of ground where we could have the full length basketball court with the bankboard at either end. Later he challenged any family in the county to a basketball game. I presume it was probably fortunate for us that no one accepted the challenge.”

    Although President Benson loved horses and would always admire a good team more than a good car, his timing was perfect for greeting the age of the auto in Whitney. “When I was 16, on the farm, Father purchased his first car, a 1915 Dodge. It was of solid, substantial construction, but rode like a hay wagon. There were very few cars in the community. Uncle John Dunkley was the first one to get a car, which was a Ford. The children would all gather around it after Sunday School, to see him crank it and start it off down the road. There were no paved roads in our county anywhere.

    “Occasionally Father would let us drive to a distant town for a basketball game, dance, or other entertainment. One Saturday we drove to Logan. The only stretch of pavement between Whitney or Preston and Logan was from Smithfield to Logan. There is a slight slope to the south toward Logan. I pushed the Dodge to the limit this particular Saturday and got the speed up to 51 miles 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 of the 51 miles per hour, which was the highest record of speed known in the community at that time.”

    “T” attended grade school at the proverbial one-room school, which in this case had three rooms. “I began grade school at the age of eight, finished at fourteen, large for my age, and feeling totally educated.

    He then went on to high school at the Oneida Stake Academy in nearby Preston. “High school! How one’s horizon broadens, how one grows in body, and mind during those awakening years!

    “I rode horseback three miles each way to get to high school and in bad weather it was a problem sometimes to make my eight o’clock class on time. Like others, I often missed school to help on the farm, 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 and I went to school together at Oneida Stake Academy. Harold and I sang in the first choir in high school. I can remember the first song we ever learned; it was ‘Let the Lower Lights Be Burnin’ ’”

    “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.

    Among President Benson’s many memories of playing basketball is one of playing in a swimming pool! “The pool was drained and dried. The bank-boards were at either end, attached to the cement wall and there was no out of bounds at the end, so you could throw the ball against the wall and then catch it and pitch for a basket.

    “T’s” opponent in another memorable game was a young man named Marion G. Romney.

    There were so many happy times for a boy from Whitney, especially if he was friendly and outgoing like “T.” He had a good singing voice and often sang at community get-togethers. There were ward picnics and impromptu rodeos and wrestling matches. There was the 24th of July celebration. There were Thanksgiving and Christmas, each with its beloved traditions. Not only was “T” seldom unhappy, but it was hard to be around him and stay unhappy yourself. Life was full and growing fuller all the time.

    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 derrick he had built.

    One of the greatest lessons in devotion came when George T. Benson received a mission call. “I was about 13 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.

    “Mother was a stalwart. Never did we hear a murmur from her lips. 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 Cedar Rapids, Marshall Town, Iowa; Chicago, Springfield, Illinois; etc. There came into our home, as a result, a spirit of missionary work that has never left it.

    “Father returned home and while we were sitting in the yard on one-legged milking stools, milking cows the ‘armstrong method,’ 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 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.” When the time came, “T” accepted a call to the British Mission. He attended his farewell party, as so many boys from Whitney before him, on the old tennis court.

    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.

    If you should ever visit Whitney on a summer morning, you will understand why its grown-up boys remember it as a kind of heaven on earth. It is a patchwork of green and golden fields dotted with tree-shaded farm houses, silos, and gracious old barns. Eastward the land folds upward into softly rising hills alive with subtle contours. Wheat grows high up their flanks, giving way finally to sagebrush and columbine. Beyond the hills, shaggy blue mountains sketch the horizon.

    In the valley below, blinding white clouds cast indigo shadows on the fields. Meadowlarks sing in the morning, and even barbed wire gleams with dew like the strands of a silken web. The sweet smell of hay and the incense of tilled earth rise to the nostrils. The lowing of cattle mingles with the far-off drone of a tractor. The soil is rich, a deep sandy loam that holds moisture and catapults plants into the warm air.

    It is different than the Whitney President Benson grew up in, but it is also the same. The teams of Percherons and Belgians have given way to tractors. Wagons and buggies have surrendered to pickups. Hay is baled rather than stacked. The old rock church and the three-room school exist only in well-worn photo albums. The hiss of the steam thresher is no longer heard. The walls of old barns are lined with rusting iron tools that modern boys cannot identify. But the important things are all the same. Neighbors still help neighbors. Hard work is still a way of life. The eternal rhythms of sowing and reaping persist. Honor and honesty and faith in God are the rich soil in which the Saints grow strong. And young men and women are still living happy, righteous lives. It’s enough to make a boy from Whitney feel proud.

    Life in Whitney

    “Grandfather George T. Benson, my father’s father, was bishop of the Whitney ward for 23 years, as I remember. He had been a counselor in the ward in Preston. The ward had grown, and it was decided to divide it by making a ward down in the Whitney rural area. While a meeting of the priesthood was called and it was decided to go ahead with the division, the visitor, who was probably great-grandfather Ezra T. Benson, asked what the ward should be named. Grandfather responded by saying, ‘There’s a young bishop in Salt Lake presiding over the Twentieth Ward by the name of Orson F. Whitney, whom I have often admired. I suggest we call this the Whitney Ward.’

    “This was approved. Orson F. Whitney later became a member of the Council of the Twelve, was my mission president, and performed the marriage of Flora and me.”

    President Benson

    “People here take care of one another. All the time I was bishop, right in the bottom of the Depression, I never had a family come to the bishopric to ask for help. If someone was hurt or sick, the others helped him. They still do.”

    Orval Benson

    “We wrestled and rode calves and played kick the can and old sow and run sheep and foot-and-a-half and swam and played ball and whittled. I had 50 willow whistles once. We just made our own fun.”

    William Poole

    “I don’t think you could find a better place. There weren’t many families. If we wanted to go to town (Preston), we had to ride a horse. I remember the folks on Saturday nights would always load the kids in the buggy and go up there and have their ice cream cones and sit on the street and enjoy them.”

    Howard Swainston

    “There were a lot of pranksters. On Halloween you couldn’t keep a post with a mailbox on it or an outhouse where it belonged. One morning a local farmer found his white top buggy right up on top of that big hill.”

    Orval Benson

    “In that little Whitney ward it was almost unheard of for a young man not to go on a mission.”

    President Benson

    “If anyone was hurt in the ward, everyone would turn out and help him get his work done. Or even if he just had too much work to do, the ward would go and help him finish it. We just grew up with the idea that we were supposed to help people. There was a lot of love here.”

    William Poole

    “I remember the ward picnics. I remember Grandfather Benson, the bishop, carrying a large dishpan full of fried chicken from his home to the ward picnic.”

    President Benson

    “We had watermelon busts. We had homemade ice cream. We had corn on the cob. We always had good food at our celebrations.”

    Fielding Winward

    “A farmer couldn’t thresh his grain by himself. It would take six wagons, each with its team. So we all went in together. We’d all thresh one farmer’s wheat, and his wife would feed us. Then we’d move on to someone else’s place.”

    Fielding Winward

    “Families would go and visit families. You just knew when a family came to see you that they’d come for dinner—the whole family, with no appointment necessary. They were always welcome. We’d just go. We’d trade around. Uncle George’s family might come to our place, and then maybe the next time we’d go to their place, or down to uncle Joe’s. We’d laugh and talk and share our thoughts and feelings. I think those kinds of experiences got kids thinking right about life.”

    William Poole

    “I can’t think of a person in our ward when I was a boy who didn’t work hard—from sunup to sundown if that’s what it took to get it done. And it was a neat little place. Everybody had their fences up pretty. They drove nice horses. They had it nice around their farms. That taught young kids to be neat too.”

    William Poole

    “We harvested the dry-farm wheat with a header. “T” ran the header, and I ran the header box. The header was a big cutter bar pulled by six head of horses. It would cut the grain and elevate it into a big box. Then we’d put the boxes in stacks, and the steam thresher would come, and we’d pitch the grain into the thresher. Now they do it all with a combine.”

    Orval Benson

    “We built our hay derricks ourselves, but we had to go to certain places to get the trees, because they had to be red pine. That was the only kind that was strong enough to make a derrick out of.”

    Howard Swainston

    “It was a choice community of about 50 families, 300 people, all of them members of the Church except one, and he finally succumbed.”

    President Benson

    “A Big, Husky, Robust Boy”

    William Poole, a cousin, age 78

    “One time my brother and I went up to Uncle George’s halloweening. We were just little boys, and as we got through putting our tic tacs on their windows, a ghost appeared. We ran for home. We lived down the road a quarter of a mile. We forgot to undo the catch on the little gate. We hit the gate and both of us fell down. When we got on our feet again, the ghost had disappeared. I learned later that the ghost was Ezra T. with a sheet over him.

    “As small boys, my brothers and I used to wear our hair short, as short as the clippers would cut it. I think Uncle George was about the only one who had enough money to buy a pair of clippers in those days. So we’d always go up to Uncle George’s to get our hair cut, and Ezra T. was the biggest boy, so he’d always cut our hair. He’d start at the back and come right over to the front. Then he’d go by one ear over to the other ear. Then he’d get the mirror and show us how we looked, and we had four patches of hair. He’d say, “Is that the way you wanted it?” We’d tell him no, and then he’d always discover that the clippers wouldn’t cut anymore. He’d tease us for a long while, and then finally the clippers would start working and he’d finish our hair.

    “Ezra T. always liked sports, and he was a good ball player. He always played hard, but I never heard him argue about the decision of the officials. He would knock flies to us younger kids, and I’d think, ‘Oh, if he knocks them any higher they’ll go out of sight.’

    “I think Ezra T. Benson was as honest as anyone could be. We’d trade work on farms so no one was out much money for hiring help. And Ezra T. went to a lot of farms because he was a good worker, and they all wanted him to come and help in the hay because he could pitch hay pretty. He’d lay those piles up and they’d just fold down flat. When Ezra T. got big enough to work in the hay, my dad always tried to get him to come help. If he could get Ezra T. Benson, he knew that the job would be done well.

    “One thing about Uncle George Benson’s family, they were never late to any meeting that they ever went to. And I know they used to pass our place, and we figured, Well, we’ve got just a few more minutes, because they’d always be early. I know that they all had their shoes shined on Saturday night, and their clothes laid out so that on Sunday morning all they had to do was put their clothes on. They knew right where they were.

    “Ezra T. was always a fellow who liked to have a good time. He always had a lot of fun in everything he did. And at a social he just had a way of mixing in with people, and they’d all have a good time. I think most of the boys in Whitney that were younger looked up to him and felt that he was a real good fellow and would give them good advice.”

    Lawrence Bodily, a friend, age 79

    “When I was just six or seven, I saw Ezra T. and Serge Ballif, both about 14 or 15, get into a water fight with Henry Mockli, a neighbor who was in his 30s. They just about drowned him. They were working out in a field, and they started water fighting out of the ditch. I’ll never forget that. When he’d chase one, the other would get a bucketful of water and go after him. It was good, clean fun. Ezra T. never did anything that I know of, nor any of the other boys either, that wasn’t good, clean fun. A better town never existed than this little town of Whitney when we were kids.”

    Fielding Winward, a friend, age 78

    “We had a hay farm up above the Bensons, and we’d go there to get a load of hay for our livestock every day, up past Bensons. The day after President Benson came home from his mission, my father and I got our team and sleigh to go up and get a load of hay. With snow on the ground and no shoes on the horses, we weren’t making any noise. The sleigh just slipped along so easily. When we got pretty close to Bensons, Father said, ‘Brother Benson just came home last night, and he’ll be tired this morning, so we won’t bother about calling on him now.’ And we’d just got past their lane when President Benson came out of the house just as fast as he could. He climbed up on our sleigh and was just so joyful and happy to see us. And we felt the same way about him. He shook hands with us and gave us a squeeze. We visited a minute, even though it was cold. He was such a joyful, pleasant-looking fellow that it made you feel good just to know him.”

    Howard Swainston, a friend, age 87

    “Ezra Taft was a little above the ordinary person. I always pictured him that way. He was one swell fellow. I’m a month older than he is. We grew up together. We thinned beets. We worked together. He loved to ride horses. We just grew up as almost brothers.

    “He was a hardworking, clean-living young man. It wasn’t an uncommon thing for him to go out and thin an acre of beets a day. He was a hard guy to follow. We used to go to the canyon and get wood together. We used to put up our hay with hay derricks. I remember going into Cottonwood, 20 miles north. He and I went and got us a derrick apiece. We had to camp overnight. I never liked olives, and he made me eat some olives he had, and from then on I loved them.

    “Someone interviewed me and asked if I had any idea he would be President of the Church. I said, ‘Good heavens no!’ We never thought of such things in those days. We knew he was a good guy, but we had no idea that he would be President of the Church.

    “He was quite a joker. He was popular among everybody. He could make friends with anybody. He was just that type of a guy. He knew how to meet people. He had that personality. He seemed to like everybody. He didn’t have any enemies. He was just a good person. Everybody respected him.

    “I can just see us out playing, having fun together, riding horses, playing ball. Every 24th of July we’d put on a celebration, and he was right with us. We’d have a rodeo and race horses and wrestle. That’s the kind of guy he was. He was always right at the head of everything. He was a leader right from the start.

    “I can just see him as a big, husky, robust boy. He always had a smile on his face. I can just see him to this day that way. He was always ready to meet you and speak to you or go riding with you. That was the way he was—a lot of fun.

    “Ezra T. was pretty good at basketball. He was a good athlete—a strong fellow. He was hard to handle.

    “I think if I remember him in church he was just a little bit more spiritual than the rest of us. I think he was born to be a President of the Church, but we didn’t realize it.”

    Orval Benson, a brother, age 83

    “Mother had a sense of humor that was just out of this world. When she’d say something, Father didn’t know if she meant it or if she was kidding him. He finally found out. My father’s name was George Taft Benson, and she’d always call him either Dad or George all the time except when she was really serious. Then she’d say “Taft.” Father loved her so much he’d never go against her as far as the family was concerned. We had the happiest home. I can never remember when there was quarreling. Mother had such a sense of humor that we never had any disposition to quarrel. She came from the Dunkley family, and they’ve all got a good sense of humor. Father was more stern from the Benson side. We had a wonderful family relationship.

    “We all used to play baseball. We’d go down to the church every night and each Saturday afternoon all summer. Not very long. We’d work till six and milk the cows and go down there. We didn’t have lights, so we only played an hour or an hour and a half each night.

    “When Joseph F. Smith came to office, he instituted the half a day holiday on Saturday, but Father always got us up on Saturday at four, so we always got our day’s work in before noon.

    “We did a lot of swimming in Johnson Reservoir. After work, if we weren’t going to play ball, we’d just jump on our horses and ride up there in ten minutes and go swimming. Our ponies didn’t like to go out in the water, but we’d make them go out just as far as they’d swim, and then we’d turn them loose and grab ahold of their tail and let them tow us back to shore.”

    Photography by 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, brotherhood, and spirituality. From the farm you can see Little Mountain, where President Benson’s grandfather used to stand watch for marauding Indians.

    The old rock church has been replaced by a modern chapel. And cows are milked by machines more often than by boys. But Whitney is still a farming town where chores must be done every day. The law of the harvest is not just a parable here, but a daily reality, as it was many years ago for the Benson family.

    Dress styles for young men have changed significantly from those in the 1921 grade school photo shown above. But some things haven’t changed at all. Young men still splash and swim in Johnson Reservoir or shorten the long summer evenings by knocking softballs over the outfield fence.

    Fielding Winward, Ages 13 and 78

    William Poole, Ages 13 and 78

    Lawrence Bodily, Ages 14 and 79

    President Benson attended high school at Oneida Stake Academy. He learned an important lesson when he was falsely accused of cheating. “I began to realize,” he later said, “that when you are at peace with your Maker you can, if not ignore human criticism, at least rise above it.”

    Howard Swainston, Ages 19 and 87

    Boys in Whitney still work hard, play hard, and study hard, just as they did when President Benson graduated from high school. The farm work has to be done first, but then there might be time to go fishing at Willow Flats on the Cub River, just as boys did in President Benson’s youth.

    Orval Benson, Ages 14 and 83

    “T” soon grew into Elder Benson, and later into President Benson. But the town he grew up in and loved has in many ways remained the same. There is still magic between a boy, his horse, and his dog. Spiritual roots run deep, and the scriptures are still a yardstick by which a good life is measured.

    The priesthood was important in the Benson family, and as the oldest son, Ezra 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.