SALT LAKE CITY— They had the boots, they had the Western shirts with the sequins, they had the boot-cut jeans, they definitely had the big ol' buckle, but after gracefully dismounting their horses, the royal court had a confession.
"We are not really horsewomen," said Courtney Curtis, lowering her voice as she said it, which didn't do any good because she was confessing to a guy from the media.
That's OK, though. There's nothing in the rules that says you have to be Annie Oakley to reign over the Days of '47 festivities. Although you do have to be honest — so no problem there, either.
Every year to kick off the massive Days of '47 celebration, they hold a pageant to select a queen and her court. But it is not your average beauty pageant. It's all about heritage — as much about the past as about the future. The Daughters of the Utah Pioneers are in charge, and have been since royalty started being crowned in 1947, and they're not the frissy types. They would not get along with Donald Trump. They don't want their pageant filled with pale, rail-thin women who haven't eaten since Christmas. They don't want you to wear a swimsuit; they want you to make one.
They want women who LOOK like they could wrangle your horse; who could have crossed the Plains, fixed supper every night, not whined about it, and looked terrific while they were at it. Women who measure up, in other words, to Wallace Stegner's description in his book, "The Gathering of Zion."
Stegner, a non-Mormon and therefore considered without bias, wrote in his classic book's foreword: "That I do not accept the faith that possessed them (the Mormon pioneers) does not mean I doubt their frequent devotion and heroism in its service. Especially their women. Their women were incredible."
In addition to that, royalty hopefuls have to be able to trace their roots back to such people. That's the first and foremost rule of the contest: every contestant has to come from ancestors who arrived in Utah before the railroad was finished in 1869.
You'd be surprised how many qualify and enter. This year 36 finalists made it to the three-day competition that selects the queen and her court. Emerging from that showdown were Queen Courtney, first attendant Ashley Kearl and second attendant Megan Howell. Each of them received a college scholarship — $3,000 to the queen and $2,500 to each attendant — a crown, a lot of nice clothes and the responsibility of appearing at Days of '47 events all summer.
Courtney can trace her pioneer roots back to the Mormon Apostle Parley P. Pratt and Mormon Prophet George Albert Smith, while Ashley's genealogy reaches back to Isaac Riddle, who discovered Pine Valley in southern Utah. And in the small world of polygamy department, they have a common ancestor in Thomas Davis Giles, "The Blind Harpist from Wales," who arrived in Utah in 1856 without his eyesight but with a remarkable talent for playing the harp.
Giles is both Courtney's and Ashley's great-great-grandfather — but with different great-great-grandmothers.2 comments on this story
As for Megan, her claim to pioneer fame is Thomas Jefferson Thurston (who had a twin brother named George Washington Thurston), the man who founded Morgan County in 1852. She is also related to Jesse C. Little, an original 1847 pioneer and church leader for whom the little town of Littleton in Morgan County is named.
The royalty couldn't have been more excited about their past or their future the day I met them, when they arrived on horseback for a Days of '47 press conference at the State Fairpark.
"It's wonderful to be able to meet so many people and try to exemplify our great pioneer heritage," said Courtney, sounding very queen-like.
Then the talk swung around to all the cool outfits they get to wear.
"Did you see these belts?" gushed Megan.
They're ready for anything, except maybe the rodeo.
Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Monday and Friday.