Taming a desert

Wilford Woodruff farm home memorialized by monument

A monument marking the Salt Lake City farm home of Wilford Woodruff, fourth president of the Church and one of the luminous figures in its very early history, was dedicated June 21 at a program with Elder Earl C. Tingey of the Presidency of the Seventy as the featured speaker.

The Holladay Chapter of the Sons of Utah Pioneers sponsored the dedication of the monument, placed last year in the front yard of the small, nondescript home at 1604 South 500 East on what today is a tree-lined street in a quiet, residential neighborhood.

The marker notes that the Woodruff farm occupied 20 acres between today's Kensington Avenue (1500 South) and 1700 South, and between 300 and 500 East. "This rich farmland was irrigated with water from Parley's Creek and Emigration Creek," the marker notes.

A member of the Quorum of the Twelve during the presidencies of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and John Taylor, President Woodruff entered the Salt Lake Valley with Brigham Young on July 24, 1847. He farmed the land for over 45 years to provide for his family. The marker relates that he grew numerous experimental crops, including wheat, potatoes, cotton, sugar cane, melons, currants, madden, indigo, strawberries, apples, grapes and "bushels of crickets."

Also on 500 East are four other Woodruff family homes, located at 1590, 1604, 1622 and 1636 South.

In a program at a ward meetinghouse across the street from the farm home, Elder Tingey told the congregation that in preparation for the assignment from the Brethren to speak at the monument dedication, he had visited the site a few days earlier to try to feel the spirit of it.

He said he grew up and worked on his family's farm in Bountiful, Utah, and he farms a portion of that land himself today. He said he has great admiration for what President Woodruff and others did, through the process of irrigation, to beautify the valley, which was essentially a desert when they settled it.

Elder Tingey shared a quotation from President Woodruff at a meeting in Salt Lake City of the Irrigation Congress in September 1891, when he was 84 years old. President Woodruff was recollecting the coming of the pioneers to the valley:

"We had a desire to try the soil, to know what it would produce.... We pitched our camp, put some teams on to our ploughs (we brought ploughs with us), and undertook to plough the earth, but we found neither wood nor iron was strong enough to make furrows here in this soil. It was like stone. We had to turn water on it. When we came to put our teams upon the ground again they sank down to their bellies in mud. We had to wait until the land dried enough to hold up our teams....

"Without this water, this irrigation for which you have met here today, this country would be as barren as it was in 1847, as we found it."

Elder Tingey remarked, "Somehow, we've got to plant in the hearts of our children the legacy of faith that established this valley and other places where our pioneers came." He added that he likes to find out, wherever he goes, how places get started and, in that spirit, said he feels that neighbors of the Latter-day Saints in Utah who are not of the Mormon faith will be blessed as they understand the heritage that has developed the city where they now live.

Earlier in the program, Carolyn Owen, historian for the Wilford Woodruff Family Association, said the neighborhood, known as "Waterloo," is special to the Woodruff family, and that her own progenitors, including her parents, had lived there.

Sister Owen said President Woodruff was initially allotted property in what is now downtown Salt Lake City, where Abravenel Hall is located, and later received 20 acres for the farm in what was then considered the "country," as there were no homes south of 900 South. On the farm, he constructed a two-room log home. She said it is not precisely known when the exterior was plastered over with stucco, when the extension was added on the rear, or when the front porch was added.

The house is of interest to historians, she said, because it was President Woodruff's principal residence from 1886 to 1892.

"When he farmed, he did as much to teach others how to farm as to obtain a livelihood from it," she said. "With him, all life and labor was a mission. In addition to Church work he was president of the Utah Horticultural Society and the Deseret Agricultural and Manufacturing Society. Bread, molasses, fruit, milk and butter were the products of his farm and were the chief supply of his table. He raised his own mutton and beef, and his family made clothing from the wool of his sheep. He took great pride in the fact that he lived by the labor of his own hands and was self-sustaining."

The farm home today is occupied by Marilyn Oblad, one of President Woodruff's descendants, who purchased it seven years ago after returning to Utah from Upstate New York; she has assumed the role of caretaker. After the dedication in the yard, she conducted visitors on tours through the house, showing where a portion of an interior wall has been removed to display the logs from which the home is constructed.

In the backyard each July for the past seven years, Sister Oblad and others have presented "I Went on My Way Rejoicing," a play about President Woodruff's life written by Noni Sorensen. The play is scheduled this year for July 18 and 19. Admission is free.

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