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'The Mother Town' of southern Utah a legacy of Pioneer faith, grit

PAROWAN, Utah — One of the things Steve Decker loves about his hometown is that no matter where people go in the world, they are always proud to claim it as “home.”

Decker and his sister, Sandra Decker Benson, long-time residents and local historians, were born and raised in the small southern Utah town by parents who were also born and raised here. They, in turn, have raised their own families here.

“It’s a great place to raise children,” Benson said.

Today, Parowan — with a population of about 3,000 — is a mix of old and new, with many lovely historic buildings, a tree-lined Main Street, an original town square and a scenic location nestled in a valley at the mouth of a canyon. Valentine Peak, a red-tipped mountain, is a common landmark for the city.

Parowan is often referred to as a “gateway” to nearby Brian Head Resort and Cedar Breaks National Monument, and Parowan Gap, some 12 miles northwest of the town, attracts tourists interested in the ancient petroglyphs inscribed on the smooth boulder surfaces.

And yet many of the charms that make Parowan a place of pride for its residents are the legacies of its hardy Mormon Pioneer founders.

In January 1850, apostle Elder Parley P. Pratt and members of his exploring party discovered the Little Salt Lake — a now depleted landlocked alkaline lake that bore a resemblance to its counterpart in the north — in the Parowan Valley with nearby deposits of iron ore. Based on Elder Pratt’s findings, President Brigham Young called for 100 volunteers “of faith and good works” to establish a settlement in the area to produce much-needed iron stores.

A plaque in Parowan’s Heritage Park quotes President Young as saying: “Iron we must have. We cannot well do without it.”

Elder George A. Smith of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles led a company of 120 men, 31 women and 18 children from Provo to establish the “Iron Mission” in December 1850. They arrived on Jan. 13, 1851, and immediately held civil elections, started holding school, built a bishops’ storehouse and, between 1861 and 1867, finished a yellow sandstone chapel complete with a belfry and town bell.

The building, now known as the Old Rock Church, served as a place of worship, town hall, school building and social hall. It fell into disrepair but was restored in 1939 and is now a museum with an impressive repository of historical relics — everything from furniture, dishes, dolls, paintings and farm tools to dresses, clocks, jewelry, musical instruments and photos.

Many of the artifacts show how the settlers focused on cultivating the arts amidst the toil of forging a community in the wilderness. “They were there to make the desert ‘blossom as the rose,’ whether outside or in,” Decker said.

Parowan was the first settlement south of Provo and the fifth stake in the Church. It’s sometimes known as “The Mother Town” as many of the original settlers were then called to colonize other areas, including Johnson Fort, now known as Enoch, and Coal Creek, which became Cedar City. The well-known Hole-in-the-Rock expedition, where a group traveled narrow and steep terrain on their way to settle the Four Corners area, set off from the steps of the Old Rock Church. Original residents also left to create settlements in Colorado, Nevada, Arizona, California, Oregon and Wyoming.

It required incredible faith and fortitude to be called to colonize again and again, Benson remarked. “It was hard living.”

Decker said Utah’s motto — “Industry” — is also representative of Parowan and its founders.

Early Mormon settlers have left a legacy of self-sufficiency and what Benson calls “stick-to-it-iveness,” she added. When hard situations arose, which they frequently did, they didn’t waste time with a “woe-is-me” attitude. “People would say: ‘We’ve got what we’ve got. Now what are we going to do with it?’ ”

But besides demonstrating tremendous grit, early Pioneers were also generous and cooperative. They relied on and helped one another, Benson explained, characteristics that live on in the “small-town hospitality” of present-day residents.

Which is one of many reasons “everyone in Parowan likes to talk about being from Parowan,” Decker said.

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