'Old Deseret' preserves flavor of 1860s life

It is a study in contrast: a frontier village frozen in time on a mountain bench overlooking the Great Salt Lake Valley with it's urban cityscape and sprawling suburbs.

The village is called Old Deseret, and it is a part of Pioneer Trail State Park. Located at the mouth of Emigration Canyon, where Brigham Young first viewed the valley, the park has as its centerpiece the famous "This Is the Place" Monument dedicated by President George Albert Smith in 1947.But visitors to the monument can enrich their experience by strolling through the village, immediately to the north of the monument. There, authentic pioneer dwellings and structures are set in orderly blocks with dirt streets at right angles, a layout reminiscent of virtually all early Mormon settlements.

Even the animals - domestic and wild - are consistent with the frontier, agrarian setting.

On a hot July afternoon, a chipmunk scampers across a trail near the entrance to the village. On a pole fence, a magpie strips bark from a rail, seemingly oblivious to tourists only a few feet away. Within the village, a small herd of Cotswold sheep - an English breed brought to the valley in the 1860s - graze in a pasture, while just over the fence, a flock of pigeons coo contentedly.

The park has existed since 1959, when the state park system began, said park manager Mike Barker. It was expanded, he said, with the introduction in 1980 of Old Deseret, intended as a "living-history museum," a reconstruction of a typical Utah community of 1847-69.

Major construction took place until 1984, when extensive flooding tapped the state's development budget for years to come. Progress on the park's master plan has been stymied since then.

Pioneer Trail has been selected as a legacy park for Utah's 1996 centennial celebration.

There is already much to appreciate in Old Deseret, especially for Latter-day Saints contemplating their heritage.

Guided tours are conducted through the Brigham Young Forest Farmhouse. President Young built the large frame-and-stucco house on a 640-acre farm four miles southeast of Salt Lake City. The farm provided dairy products for his family, and was an experimental station for the growing of lucerne (alfalfa), sugar beets and silkworms.

Another prominent feature is the Social Hall, a reconstruction of the original that stood in downtown Salt Lake City in Brigham Young's day. (The foundation of the original was unearthed by construction workers in May 1991, and a memorial was dedicated on the site in June 1992.)

Inside the Levi E. Riter cabin, one of three log structures in the village, docent Paul Smith sat dressed in authentic pioneer clothing. An institute of religion teacher with the Church Educational System, he volunteers his time as one of about 60 unpaid workers at the park.

Log cabins were not as common in Utah pioneer settlements as some might think, he said, and are actually a Scandinavian invention. Brigham Young, he added, encouraged his people to build more lasting structures of adobe, a sun-dried clay material.

The Mary Fielding Smith home, placed in an isolated area of the village to symbolize its original location in an isolated area southeast of Salt Lake City, is an example of adobe construction, although it has been covered with stucco to halt deterioration, a common pioneer practice. It is also an example of pioneer frugality: the 14-by-22-foot dwelling accommodated six family members and two additional boarders.

The Milo Andrus house typifies a larger pioneer dwelling. Built in 1858, it was moved to the park from the agricultural community of Crescent, some 15 miles south of Salt Lake City. There it stood adjacent to Highway 91, the main route through the valley and a former Pony Express trail. In addition to housing the Andrus family, it served as an inn and wayside stop for travelers going to and from Salt Lake City.

In Old Deseret, the Andrus house is interpreted as a typical general store and family home, complete with the furnishings of a more well-to-do household, such as a piano.

Also featured in Old Deseret are a blacksmith shop, carpenter shop, three other homes, and a thatched-roof bowery typical of the open-air meeting facilities erected by pioneers shortly after their arrival in a new settlement.

Volunteers dressed in pioneer costume engage in period crafts such as wool-spinning and rug weaving. Rides are available on horse-drawn wagons and are included with the price of admission, $1.50 for adults and $1 for children ages 6 to 15.

Old Deseret is open daily from 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., and the park itself is open between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. When the village is not open, visitors may view the monument without having to pay admission.

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