Each autumn, descendants of early LDS pioneers return to Grafton, a ghost town in southern Utah. They gather for an annual reunion and to remember the sacrifices their ancestors made while taming a volatile and often unforgiving wilderness.
Nestled against Zion National Park, Grafton owns a rich history. Over the last 150 years and interspersed with long periods of being completely uninhabited, Grafton has hosted a uniquely wide swath of humanity ranging from Church members of the humblest origins to Oscar-winning Hollywood movie stars.
In 1861 President Brigham Young, fearing a cotton shortage in the wake of the Civil War, called dozens of families to farm cotton in southern Utah. Many of those families had crossed the plains as part of handcart teams; some settled in a two-year-old town called Grafton approximately 30 miles east of St. George.
The impetuous Virgin River flooded out Grafton in 1862, carrying away entire houses and destroying the town in the process. Undeterred, the settlers moved a mile upstream and rebuilt Grafton.
An 1864 Church census counted 168 Graftonians. In 1866, all villagers relocated to nearby Rockville because of a two-year mandate by President Young that all LDS people in southern Utah needed to be domiciled in communities with at least 150 men. For those two years before they were permitted to once again take up residence in their homes, farmers with plots in Grafton daily commuted several miles each way from Rockville to tend their land. Only a few of the original settlers returned to live in Grafton in 1868; the 1870 U.S. census counted only seven families residing in Grafton.
In his book Historic Grafton: Uninhabited But Not Forgotten, historian Ronald L. Morris summed up the lives of Grafton’s residents: “They helped each other in times of birth, sickness and death. Money was scarce. Articles of necessity were made by hand or obtained by barter. Harvest time was a community social event. They found enjoyment in work, not in escape from it. Their homes at first were tents, wagon boxes, dugouts, and log cabins. These were later replaced by adobe buildings and brick houses. Residents would meet on Sundays for worship and often during the week for other religious or social activities. Families enjoyed such activities as singing, dancing, making candy, popping corn, swimming, horseback riding, picnics, peach-cutting bees, husking bees, corn and chicken roasts, and melon busts.”
Years passed. Babies were born, children grew to adulthood and marriages spawned new families. But ultimately, geography constrained the growth of Grafton’s population. “As the families had children, those children didn’t have land to inherit because there was only a limited amount of it,” said Jane Whalen, president of the Grafton Heritage Partnership, the nonprofit entity charged with maintaining and preserving the town. “There was no land for the youngsters, the young men.”
In 1906, work finished on the Hurricane Canal. The new waterway redirected a sufficient amount of water from the Virgin River to irrigate farmland in and around the town of Hurricane, located about 16 miles west of Grafton. That canal essentially constituted a de facto death knell for Grafton because there was a greater abundance of flat, farmable land available in 4-acre parcels. Although the last residents wouldn’t depart until 1945, Grafton quickly lost the vast majority of its population to Hurricane. The Grafton Ward was reorganized into a branch in 1907, and the Grafton Branch ceased to exist when it was absorbed into the Rockville Ward in 1917.
An ancillary footnote to Grafton’s story is its connection to Hollywood. Where most pioneer towns either outgrew their quaintness or were destroyed by natural phenomena such as flash flood, Grafton essentially remained frozen in time such that today it still bears a strong resemblance to the Grafton of 100 years ago. Because it maintained its frontier ambience, Grafton proved to be an ideal setting for movies set in the Old West. Portions of six motion pictures have been filmed in Grafton, including a pair of Academy Award winners: “In Old Arizona,” the first talking movie to be filmed outdoors, and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford.
The annual Grafton reunion, first held in 1961, serves as a veritable portal to yesteryear. It’s a chance to revisit the admirable qualities, timeless examples and well-lived lives of stalwart ancestors. The reunion begins with lunch; attendees spread out over what looks like a large campground, loosely bunched as extended families according to common ancestry.
As the eating ends and a program commences, folks relocate their chairs and collectively gather under shade. Lou Graff, an elderly gentleman with rounded shoulders and a gravelly voice, is the master of ceremonies. In this, the 49th such reunion, the memories conjured up are as much about the now-deceased attendees of those first reunions as they are about the Grafton pioneers themselves.
People alternate coming forward to a lone microphone piped through a single portable speaker. A story is told about a branding implement used to mark cattle in Grafton; a poem is read about a horse with one good eye named Chalkeye that refuses to be broken; a song is sung tongue-in-cheek about the close family relationships of Graftonians (in such a small town, many of the second generation were related to each other and some families even moved away because of concerns that cousins could begin to marry).
Preserving the past
Ms. Whalen is a realtor in Hurricane who played a vital role facilitating the Grafton Heritage Partnership Project’s acquisition of 250 acres of Grafton real estate in 1999 (100 acres of that land has since been sold to the Bureau of Land Management). She now serves as the organization’s president, raising funds to undertake preservation and restoration projects annually for the five historic buildings that remain intact.
“It was heavy lifting during the sale, doing all the conservation easements that permanently protect the property,” she said. “Now it’s not as bad, not as much work. We meet quarterly. Now that we have the land and buildings stabilized, it’s just fundraising every year to keep it going.”
Although Ms. Whalen is not a descendant of Grafton pioneers, it’s a cause she believes is worth working to preserve.
“It’s really a project that brings historic and landscape preservation together,” she said. “If [a home] was constructed in 1862, we shouldn’t be doing these modern things to it. We’re trying to preserve the ghost town character and agricultural lands; we’re trying for a rustic restoration so it gives you that character of the time period.”