Darwin Thompson, second counselor in the Salmon Idaho Stake, described an 85-mile wagon trek as "a great rodeo and the longest parade I've ever seen."
The "parade" was actually the six-day Centennial Fort Lemhi Wagon Trek June 4-9, undertaken by 230 people, including members of the Salmon Idaho Stake and some of their friends and relatives from other parts of Idaho and neighboring states. The trek included 50 horses, eight wagons, several buggies and a number of pickup trucks.The trek, which celebrated Idaho's centennial, commemorated the 1855 arrival of the first Mormon settlers in Idaho. That first group, which consisted of 27 missionaries sent by Brigham Young to befriend the Indians and settle new territory in the Salmon River area, founded Fort Lemhi.
With only six weeks to prepare, the original group set out for the unknown territory with 13 wagons, 54 oxen, a few cows, several horses, and enough food and supplies to last them a year. It took them a month to trek the 380 miles from Salt Lake City to the beautiful valley where they decided to settle.
They promptly began planting crops and building homes and a surrounding fort that they named after the Book of Mormon prophet Limhi. (Over the years, the spelling was changed to Lemhi.) When grasshoppers devoured their first summer's crops some of the men returned to Utah for more supplies and recruits, including several family members, women and children.
From then on, treks between Fort Lemhi and Salt Lake City were frequent considering the distance and the dangers. Many were made during late fall and early spring, some even during the winter. Eventually the settlement grew to include about 100 people.
For several reasons, relations with the Indians began to deteriorate and the missionaries were forced to abandon the settlement and return poverty-stricken to Utah.
The modern-day wagon train commemorated that part of Idaho's history as it left Gilmore Summit, about 70 miles southeast of Salmon in central Idaho, and headed for the site of Fort Lemhi. Mid-way through the trek, participants gathered at Salmon Idaho Stake Pres. Leroy Bird's auction barn to witness "Fort Lemhi – A Reality," a dramatic presentation commemorating the settlement of Fort Lemhi. The modern-day wagon train had circled at the Bird ranch for night camp and joined with townspeople to watch the production that outlined the history of the missionaries who settled the area. The production included pioneer songs by Primary children.
While some 230 people participated in the trek, not all went the entire distance. Each day's trek included about 150 people. New trekkers joined the wagon train at various points along the way while some left the train after a period of time.
For all of the trekkers, the wagon train was a lesson in history not only of the early missionaries but also of the later settlement of the Lemhi Valley. Today's trekkers related to any of the 27 original missionaries said the wagon train brought them a lot closer to their heritage because it motivated them to dig into their own history and into the lives of their ancestors. The research, they said, involved other members of their families.
"When this trek was planned I started researching," said Darwin Thompson, who is distantly related to Nathaniel Levitt, the missionary who was sent in 1855 from Fort Lemhi to Salt Lake City to get salt when the pioneers couldn't find a natural salt lick in the valley. "I knew that Nathaniel Levitt was on the trip but I didn't know how he was related to me, so I had my son, Rex, look up the genealogy in Salt Lake City."
Scott Taylor of Salmon also said that the experience piqued his interest in the life of his great-great-grandfather, Pleasant Green Taylor.
"I didn't know that he Pleasant TaylorT was a part of the Fort Lemhi experience until I became involved in the production," said Taylor. "Now, it has inspired me to look up more about his life."
Pres. Bird thought the trek brought everyone closer to their Mormon roots. "I think it's important that we keep ties with the past and realize some of the hardships that they endured," he said. "And even though we aren't, by any means, roughing it the way they did, it helps the young people to learn about the past."
Young people comprised over half of the total 230 participants in the wagon train. Ages ranged from 6 months to 84 years. It would be difficult to judge who had more fun – the children or the adults. It could have been 11-month old Ty Porter who performed for an audience each night. Or maybe it was 76-year old Gar Hodges. Or maybe 6-year old Robby Koester who rode bright-eyed and grinning all the way, either on his own horse or behind his mother, Jill.
But maybe Mel Daniel, a retired policeman from Detroit who bounced across the sagebrush driving a team of wild black Shetland ponies pulling a miniature covered wagon, had the most fun. Then, it could have been the teenagers who had water fights by day and giggled by night in their tents.
The trek wasn't all play and no work – especially for trek organizer Beverly Cockrell and the kitchen crew that rode along. For them, it was up at the crack of dawn and to bed late at night as they toiled to produce meals fit for royalty. Steak, pork chops, chicken, cookies, potato salad, baked potatoes, homemade soup, tacos, hoagie sandwiches, Dutch oven bread and cherry cobbler, upside-down cake and home-made ice cream were menu items.
Cooking was made easier by a "new-fangled" chuck wagon designed by Beverly and a few neighbors. Mounted on a six-by-ten foot trailer, two old water heaters were welded and transformed into barbecue grills with hinged lids that could close over the grills and create ovens adequate for baking cookies and potatoes.
Work details were shared among the wagons and assigned ahead of time on a daily basis.
Most of the participants said they would go again if they had the chance. Emma Herbst, 76, said she would go again, "not next week but the week after."
Wagon trek with LDS 'a heartening journey'
- Candace Burns, a freelance writer in Idaho, accompanied a group of Church members on a wagon train trek June 4-9.
Maybe what brought us all so close on our trek was just that people who are attracted to the challenge of an event like a wagon train are an open-hearted, fun-loving sort. Or maybe it was working and meeting adversity together. But, I suspect the Mormon tradition of celebrating family was the main ingredient in the closeness of all of us on the wagon train.
As a non-Mormon on the trek, I felt it was a privilege to go along, witnessing the love, unity and cooperation of all involved. It was like being invited to the anniversary of a very special couple whose family was gathered, working together to create a special moment.
There were several things that impressed me about this crowd. The most obvious was the families and the fact that it seemed that almost everybody was related to everybody else. As a single parent with an only child, I thought it must be a very comforting feeling to be a child in the midst of so much family and so many close friends.
That comfort was really reflected by all the children who were at ease with adults, conversed easily and were generally thoughtful and helpful.
"Participation" is a word that rang loudly over and over. I could really see that the pioneer tradition of sharing the work load has carried over into the modern Church.
Another tradition that I was happy to see carried over was that of prayer and thanksgiving before meals. And the testimonies given at the last campfire were truly a revelation to me. I was thrilled to hear them given in the name of Jesus Christ.
I, myself, am a Catholic and very much involved in my faith. One of my most consistent prayers is for unity of the church, unity of all who love and worship Jesus Christ. For me, this fellowship with Mormons was a very heartening experience.