Chesterfield . . . a town not forgotten

Tucked within the early morning shadows of nearby foothills stand the remnants of a Mormon settlement, Chesterfield.

Chesterfield, a remarkably untouched example of 19th century Mormon colonization, began in 1881 and thrived to about the 1920s. Then the settlement came to a premature end, as did many of its residents, from the harsh conditions of just existing. The town died largely untouched by the fingers of 20th century progress. So Chesterfield remains a pioneer ghost town, a slice of the 19th century frozen in time.The settlement is situated in the northeast corner of the Portneuf River Valley in Southeastern Idaho. Today it consists of a scattering of 27 surviving buildings on some 100 acres.

Overlooking the town is its home-built meetinghouse of hand-fired red brick. Here, hardy settlers gathered to worship. On a neighboring hill is a neatly maintained cemetery where headstones record the often high mortality rates that accompanied frontier farming. Between these monuments of life and death lived people of unwritten histories whose labors created this historic legacy.

To preserve this legacy, a representative of Mormon colonies of the late 19th century, some dedicated historians started the Chesterfield Foundation Inc. in 1979. They made long-term plans to restore the settlement. Funds from the state and from private individuals and families came, beginning a low-budget, high-labor project. Volunteer efforts include those of local workers, youth service projects, missionaries, and individuals drawn from every quarter.

Pres. Fred G. Yost of the Grace Idaho Stake is one of the boosters of the restoration project. Many of the members of the modern Chesterfield Ward, now located a distance from the original settlement, are descendants of those who came in the previous century.

The Chesterfield Ward's youth recently held a joint conference with the young friends from Utah. This connection was made by Elder Jay and Sister Shirley Simons, missionaries of the same ward. The youth removed old fences, chinked a log store with mortar, and pruned a tree grown shaggy.

Gary L. Hatch, a local school teacher and farmer, is president of the foundation. He said the school and meetinghouse, are in good condition, and work is going forward on the tithing office and other buildings.

Workers who came to help in the project are an answer to prayers, he said. One such worker is Clyde Knight.

"I'm not sure why I came back to Chesterfield," said Brother Knight, a volunteer builder from the Shelton 1st Ward, Elma Washington Stake. He happened to visit Chesterfield two years ago. While here, he looked over the crumbling brick tithing office that was held together by rusty cables. He puzzled over how such a building could be restored without being torn down first. He left wondering about it.

"I couldn't forget Chesterfield," he said. "I just kept thinking about it." One night, a plan for restoring the tithing office came to him. He'd restore the inside walls first, then bolt the outside bricks to the strengthened inside walls. Then it would be a matter of simply re-mortaring the bricks.

He returned to Chesterfield and completed the difficult project in two summers. The nearly-complete tithing office is now a model of restoration, solid enough to last many more years.

One building, the Ira Call cabin, has been largely restored by the Call family. One of their members, Juanita Davids Davies, serves as a missionary in Chesterfield and looks after the cabin. She's planted flowers in the yard and placed relics of the past throughout the home. Two red flags on the fence mark the path of the Oregon Trail that once threaded the town. Descendants of Jasper Perkins and Nephi Moss have started restoration on their ancestral homes.

Brother Hatch occasionally leads tours of the settlement. He shows various buildings, including the tithing granary, which offers a glimpse into past times through a list of goods donated in 1903: 160 pounds of butter, 174 dozen eggs, 520 bushels of oats, 17 tons of wild hay, 31 head of horned stock, 2 horses, 5 pigs and $797 in cash. Not included on that list is the labor used to make roads, build the meetinghouse and school house, and to haul tithing-in-kind to Salt Lake City.

Brother Hatch's tour includes the restored school, and the Judson Tolman-Nathan Barlow store. The front of the store offered mercantile goods for sale. In the rear was a carpenter's shop where wooden caskets were often made.

Chesterfield was founded along the Oregon Trail when Chester Call of Bountiful, Utah, found ample pastures here in 1879. In 1881 several families joined him and the colony eventually grew to more than 400 people. Over time, their rude log shelters were replaced by more substantial structures, including elegant brick homes. But the promise of general elegance was never realized. In its place came a reality of hard labor.

Labor was the lot of this town. Typically, the men of Chesterfield rose early to feed the livestock, milk cows and clean barns. Then they worked the farmland until dark when it was time to return home and milk the cows again.

At home, women's work was equally arduous. Women cared for the household, poultry and gardens, picked and preserved fruit and vegetables, cared for the children, fed the workers, and often helped on the farm. The severe winters added to their trials. Winters were cold, 50 or 60 degrees F. below zero, with snow six or eight feet deep.

One resident, Alice Tolman Yancey, wrote of a pioneer winter in Chesterfield:

"I remember one storm when the snow rolled up just like rolls of cotton. It was a pretty sight . . . our buildings were made from lumber and it was so cold it would sometimes pop and snap . . . the drifts were sometimes as high as the house." (Chesterfield: Mormon Outpost in Idaho, p. 57.)

Despite heavy winter snows, in the summer rains frequently passed to the north or south and left the fields around Chesterfield dry. Sometimes hard frosts in the summer ruined crops.

Then, after years of struggling, a ravage of death came upon the settlement with the influenza epidemic of the 1918-19. The town would never again be the same, and droughts and depressions followed as to ensure that.

Western writer Frank C. Robertson, once a resident of the town, said that ultimately, Chesterfield died a victim of progress.

"Once a man with 160 acres of land and a dozen cows would make a good living. Now it takes at least a thousand acres, and thousands of dollars worth of machinery. The young fellows with nothing but muscles and ambition have had to go elsewhere to make a living; the land belongs to a few men. . . . The town means nothing to my future, but what a lot it meant to my past." (A Ram in the Thicket, p. 298.)

The ghost town Robertson remembered is changing; what it meant in the past it may again mean in the future. The restoration project is restoring significance. Once again, there is optimism on the streets of Chesterfield, Idaho.

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