Living history: The past comes to life at Antelope Island's Fielding Garr Ranch

By Ray Boren

For the Deseret News

Published: Thursday, May 26 2011 5:00 p.m. MDT

When there is no hardware store near your remote island home, say at Antelope Island?s Fielding Garr ranch, what would YOU use to support the curtain rods if you haven?t the usual household necessities? A nail and a spare spoon perhaps? Photo by Ray Boren

Ray Boren, Ray Boren

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ANTELOPE ISLAND, Great Salt Lake — Looking much as most of us imagine a bear rug to be, a raggedy-edge brown mat hangs flat against a stone wall inside the barn at Antelope Island State Park's Fielding Garr Ranch.

Go ahead — stroke it. Touching things is totally OK for kids and everyone else in the barn's orientation room and museum, and outside, too, with a little common sense. Soft, isn't it? Very soft.

It is a buffalo, or more properly a bison hide, or robe.

Bison wander all around Utah's Antelope Island today, between 500 and 700 of the shaggy beasts, depending upon the time of year, says Clay Shelley, a historian and the ranch's curator. By the 1890s, there were only a few hundred more than that in the entire United States, where once millions of bison grazed.

Buffalo hides were soft, comfortable — and, unfortunately, overly popular and in limited supply.

"You can understand why they almost went extinct," Shelley says of the bison. The free-ranging animals were just about wiped out in less than a century.

Happily for the species, and for those of us fascinated with bison, people began trying to save them. The first dozen were brought to Antelope Island in 1893, and today they thrive here.

Like the bison, the ranch is one of Utah's preserved treasures, an outstanding family day-trip destination — and it is the site, this Memorial Day weekend, of the annual "Cowboy Legends Poetry and Music Gathering," under way through Monday. (See related story.)

The historic ranch dates back to 1848 — one year after the arrival of Mormon settlers in the Salt Lake Valley.

As the pioneers sought to establish the large State of Deseret in the Mountain West, Fielding Garr was tasked in 1849 by leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to set up a ranch.

He built the beginnings of a house here in 1848, one year before his church assignment, at what is now called Garr Spring, one of the best-watered spots on the otherwise mostly dry island. Now a ranch centerpiece, the expanded adobe-brick home is the oldest pioneer structure in Utah still upon its original foundation. The house was well and thoroughly lived in for 133 years, from 1848 to 1981, when the entire island became a state park.

A park "timeline of history" pamphlet notes that the LDS Church operated the ranch into the mid-1870s, when the U.S. government encouraged homesteaders, miners and others to stake claims.

But during that first era, church ranching involved the whole island, which was a range for animals such as cattle, sheep and horses. The herds and flocks partially supported the Perpetual Emigration Fund, which helped Mormon émigrés from Europe finance their trek to Deseret and the Territory of Utah.

As is the case today — and when explorer John C. Fremont visited in 1843 — the lake's level was low 160 or so years ago. Animals were generally brought to, and retrieved from, the island via a 3-mile "sand bar" on the south end. In 1951-52, a causeway (now damaged and no longer used) was built in the same spot. There are also photos of a flat-bottom sailboat employed to move animals and goods across the water.

In the earliest days, during the gold rush of California Forty-niners and the pioneer migration west before the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, Garr, his successors and their hired hands raised horses on the island. On occasion, these were herded north into southern Idaho, Shelley says.

There, on the California and Oregon trails, the Mormons would trade westbound pioneers two healthy animals for four weary or ailing ones. The tattered animals would be taken to Antelope Island for rehabilitation and later trade or sale, providing a resource for the emigration fund.

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