ST. GEORGE — In this sesquicentennial year of the founding of St. George in 1861, enthusiasts are gathering to this red-rock locale this weekend for the 46th annual conference of the Mormon History Association.
At the Dixie Center, more than 130 scholars, many of whom are not members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, will give presentations on various aspects of Mormon history.
Speakers include Elder Bruce C. Hafen, president of the St. George Utah LDS Temple and an emeritus general authority of the church. He is a native son of St. George. William MacKinnon, this year's president of the association, will give the presidential address discussing his perspective as "A Presbyterian Afoot in the Mormon Past."
The conference concludes Sunday with a devotional in the historic St. George Tabernacle, built by Mormon pioneer settlers. Southern Utah University President Michael T. Benson and former Dixie State College President Douglas D. Alder are the featured speakers at the devotional, discussing southern Utah higher education and Mormon history.
In keeping with the setting, many of the conference presentations will focus on the theme "From Cotton to Cosmopolitan: Local, National and Global Transformations in Mormon History."
St. George began as part of the LDS Church's cotton mission of the 1860s. Though the cotton industry here was short-lived, the settlement remained and flourished into a tourism destination, a college town and the location of the church's oldest operating temple, dedicated in 1877.
Conference early-birds chose from any of three preconference tours, one of which highlighted the city's past with "Historic St. George LIVE." Put on by the city of St. George with the help of volunteers, it featured re-enactors portraying luminaries from the city's history, such as Mormon leaders Jacob Hamblin, Orson Pratt, Erastus Snow, probate judge John Menzies Macfarlane and church President Brigham Young. The latter's winter home, upgraded in 1873 from an existing structure he purchased, is today among the city's tourist attractions.
Among highlights of the tour:
Jacob Hamblin had a reputation among the American Indian people as a man who "never lies, never promises what he can't deliver and is protected by the Great Spirit." In the persona of Hamblin, re-enactor Robert Thornley said of the local Indian tribes: "These people were survivors. They knew where to find water in unbelievable places. ... We became very close to these people. They taught us how to track game clear up in the Pine Valley Mountains. And they taught us that you can survive through all sorts of amazing little things."
At the Pioneer Opera House, portraying Mormon apostle Orson Pratt, re-enactor Leonard Stephenson, said the floor was designed so it could be tilted toward the stage to afford audiences a better view of theatrical productions. Conference attendees were invited to go below the floor to view the mechanism (no longer functional) that allowed the floor to be tilted.
On one occasion during the performance of a melodrama, "Little Jenny Brown," an audience member became so involved that he drew a pistol and demanded that the villain "unhand that young woman." A man next to him pushed his gun hand up just as the firearm went off. The bullet hole is still visible in the ceiling.
In the persona of Mormon apostle Erastus Snow, his great-grandson Donald R. Snow spoke to attendees in the St. George Tabernacle and told of its construction.
Despite discouraging conditions in the early settlement, Brigham Young told the people to stay and suggested to Snow that they build a large structure — the tabernacle — "right in the center of town, because that would show the people we're here to stay permanently" he said.
Patterns in the stones of the structure bear tell-tale marks so that one can tell with each stone which stonemason carved it.
St. George began its history as a cotton mission when the Civil War caused the cotton produced in the southern United States to become scarce. After the war, when cotton was again plentiful supply, St. George's cotton industry ended.
But it also had a brief silk industry, as silk worms were placed on mulberry trees — their leaves being the only food source the worms would eat — to spin their cocoon. On the rounds of Brigham Young's winter residence is a 140-year-old mulberry tree from that period. It survives, despite being split in two by lightning in the early 1970s.
St. George was named for Mormon apostle George A. Smith, who was regarded as a "saint" by residents. Among some of the Indians he was known as "man that comes apart" because he would amaze them by removing his wig, glasses and false teeth in their presence.