People here in Utah are celebrating today. No, George W. isn’t visiting, neither is Dick Cheney, two who’ve been warmly welcomed here of late even when most of the country can’t stand them anymore! This is a republican state after all. If you don’t know any other reasons why Utah would be celebrating, then it’s clear you aren’t Mormon! The nice young cashier in the grocery store inquired of me Monday night when my grocery bill came in just under $100, Do you have big plans for the 24th? I had to think for a minute, then realized she was referring to Pioneer Day which warrants a bigger celebration than July 4th. When I first moved here, neighbors assured me the best fireworks would be reserved for this day.
On this day in 1847 a nearly exhausted Brigham Young emerged from his tent, looked out across the desolate valley before him and declared this is the place! The group had lost so many people. They endured unimaginable hardships while crossing the plains and then making the long trek over the Rocky Mountains to get here. Even Brigham himself was barely recovered from illness. I say it’s probably a good thing they weren’t in Nevada instead of Utah. The story could have been so different! With determination and hard work, they had crops planted and a dam built within days. Then they celebrated with ceremonies while consecrating the two-square-mile city. After that they declared to the rest of their members back east that the promised land had been found at last, and invited them to come and settle here. By the end of that year nearly 2,000 Mormons were living here.
Ten years later in 1857, on July 23-24, the first ever Pioneer Day Celebration was held at Silver Lake (probably known then as Trout Lake). Brigham sent out word that on these days he was going to spend some time resting at a campground there, and invited other faithful and their families to join him. A whole lot of people showed up, despite what must have been a very difficult road to maneuver in those days. There were 2,587 people, 464 carriages and wagons, 1028 horses and mules, 332 oxen and cows gathered there to celebrate. And somebody really understood how to celebrate!
There was a planned program of addresses, presumably by council dignitaries, music from six brass bands, singing programs, athletic events, drills by six companies of militia, and dancing, punctuated by salutes from a brass howitzer. U.S. flags were flown from the two highest peaks. Young’s directive to the invited guests was initially to keep a low profile about the planned celebration since the selected site’s physical accommodation was relatively small there in the canyon. You know how that kind of thing usually works out. One member probably couldn’t help bragging to others in his community about what a good time they had, and the celebration grew steadily bigger for the few years they celebrated in that spot.
Here’s a couple of pictures of that area, Silver Lake at Big Cottonwood Canyon. You can see there really isn’t a whole lot of flat ground to accommodate so many people and animals. Now the celebration takes place with a huge parade downtown in the Temple area. Lots of things come to a near stop on this day. Stores and libraries close and people congregate for the parade, some as early as last night. Families plan big celebrations with barbecues and fireworks. A lot of potatoes get cooked up in casseroles with cheese (funeral potatoes) and a whole lot of jello desserts and salads is served. But you gotta hand it to Brigham. He sure knew how to choose great get away spots for celebrations. And his followers to this day sure do know how to pull off a celebration big time!