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MULBERRY TREES STAND AS LEGACY OF ONCE-THRIVING SILK INDUSTRY

Published: Thursday, Jan. 12 1995 12:00 a.m. MST

MERLON LATIMER, 74, represents the third generation of Latimers who have lived and farmed in what is now West Valley City - and some of his children still live on 4100 South.

In front of the three Latimer houses, very close to the road, are seven imposing mulberry trees, now almost 100 years old. When the street is widened, probably sometime this summer, these grand old trees will come down.That suits Latimer just fine. He thinks they've reached their predictable longevity.

"We had quite a windstorm awhile back, and one of the limbs fell right out in the middle of the road, and it stopped the traffic, and we had to go out and clear the road. We had one split in two and fall on the shed out in back. When they get big at the base, they start to separate."

The mulberry tree is a historic Utah tree, dating back to Brigham Young and silkworms. During the 1860s, Young imported 100,000 mulberry trees from France, then ordered them planted in all parts of Utah.

Since silkworms thrive on mulberry leaves, he obtained silkworm eggs, too, investing about $25,000 in the enterprise. He even supervised the construction of a model cocoonery to house 2,000,000 worms.

George Watt was called on an LDS Church mission to spread "the gospel of silk," and the Deseret Silk Association was organized to disseminate information on the silk culture and distribute eggs. Bishops were urged to set aside a plot of ground for Relief Society mulberry trees.

Nearly every one of the approximately 150 local Relief Society organizations had a silk project during the 1870s.

By 1877, there were 5 million silk worms in the territory.

It was an especially exciting day for the women of Ogden when they presented Eliza R. Snow the first dress made entirely of Utah silk. Many fine silk dresses, handkerchiefs and other items were produced before the industry gave way to external competition.

Silkworms were also on the mind of Latimer's grandfather, James, who worked on the railroad between Salt Lake City and St. George. He liked the mulberry trees in St. George and thought he could plant some on 20 acres of Granger farmland.

His son, Hugh, wrote about it in his book of remembrance:

"Soon after we moved to Granger, Father bought some young mulberry trees, with the idea of raising silkworms. I helped him plant the small trees across the front of the property, down the west side and around the house. One day, I used one for a stick horse, and it made Father so mad that he whipped me. . . . They were the only mulberry trees in the whole area, and people came from all over to get the berries. Father never got around to raising silkworms, but the trees grew to become big and beautiful, and made good shade trees, but what a mess when the dark, purple berries were ripe."

Merlon Latimer says the old trees still "leaf up and look pretty good in the spring" and the berries are excellent for jam.

Which may be why many people still like them.

According to Bill Rutherford, Salt Lake City forester, "Local nurseries still sell quite a lot of them, even though they represent only about 1 percent of the total trees in the city."

When mulberry trees split and crack, he says, it is usually because of a lack of care.

However steady the decline of this sentimental tree, there is one place in the state where it still looks great - in front of Brigham Young's St. George home.

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