Brigham Young was one of the most remarkable men of his age — or any age, for that matter. As pioneer, colonizer, government leader, family man and spiritual giant known as the "Lion of the Lord" (and that only begins to cover his resume), he is one of the most famous figures in Utah history.
And there's still a lot we can learn from him, says Michael Barnard, who, with his wife, Mary Ann, has spent the last decade or so re-creating the personas of Brigham and Mary Ann Angell Young.
For a number of years, they made regular appearances at This Is the Place Heritage Park. "I started out there as a banker and a barber. Then, one day, they asked me to go to the Brigham Young house, and that's all it took," says Michael.
They have since retired from full-time volunteering at the park and now work as docents at the Church History Museum two days a week. But they still make appearances at parades, conventions, youth conferences, treks, family reunions, church meetings and more: walking, talking, living, loving and looking like the Youngs.
Michael not only shares a similarity in appearance, over the years he has also developed a broad knowledge of Brigham's writings and discourses. "My library contains about 50 books on or by him. If you give me pretty much any subject, I can tell you what Brigham had to say about it."
Family, for example. "Brigham was very much into family life. He adored his children."
One example of family life occurred when what were called the Big 10 Sisters got older and wanted to invite gentlemen callers to their home, says Michael. Brigham only had one rule: They could use the library, but the light had to stay on at all times. One time, Brigham noticed that the library seemed awfully quiet. "He went in and found that the girls had stacked piles of books all around the light, so only a little was shining at the top. That put an end to that."
Another example of Young family life came from an article Michael read in an old Deseret News. "It told of Brigham walking down the street, taking five of his children to the dentist. To take them to the dentist himself, that says a lot about his concern."
Brigham was a plain talker, says Michael.
"For example, a lot of people thought he didn't like the federal government. That wasn't true. He used to say, 'I dearly love the federal government. I just hate the ... rascals that are running it.'
"He would also get wound up on the subject of the railroad." Brigham could rail with the best of them, "but he would also tell you exactly what the Lord wanted you to do with your life."
Mary Ann Angell is an equally interesting person, says Mary Ann. "I adopted her because our names are the same. But I love to tell her story. Not enough is told about pioneer women. She spent a lot of time alone because her husband was gone so much. Just think how difficult that would be. But she had such perseverance and strength."
Mary Ann has a second persona she sometimes dons: that of Fanny Brooks, a Jewish hatmaker who came to Salt Lake shortly after the Mormon pioneers arrived. "A lot of people are surprised to learn about her. They don't realize that people of a lot of other religions came. The Mormons weren't alone for very long."
Mary Ann became a milliner when she was working at This Is the Place. It has been such fun, she's kept at it. "Hatmaking is almost a lost art," she says. She frequently gives programs displaying some of her hats and talking about their history. She also makes hats on special order for other people who need historic costumes.
For the pioneers, she says, the first hats were utilitarian, worn mostly to protect their skin and keep the dust away. The bonnet of the plains is an iconic image. "But once they arrived here and were established, they wanted pretty things."
Her hats are lined and embellished. Some are made of straw for summer, some of felt and other materials.
The Barnards enjoy bringing the Youngs to life. "So many people know a little of their story but don't know a lot of the details," says Michael. Especially kids. "There's so much going on with electronics, it's easy not to think of the past. But as they say, if we forget the past, we're tempted to live it all over again."
So many children don't know what hard work is today, adds Mary Ann. "They are shocked to find out all that had to be done, all that the pioneer kids had to do." Although, they do think it is fun, adds, Michael, "when they find out that the most popular job for kids on the trail was to gather buffalo poop."
As Brigham, he also likes to shake hands with kids. "I like to see what kind of a grip they have. That was one thing Brigham liked, a good, firm handshake that felt sincere."
Neither of the Barnards come from what is commonly called "pioneer stock." None of their ancestors came across the plains with the pioneers. "But their stories belong to us all," says Mary Ann. "We wouldn't have what we have today without them."
Sometimes Michael jokes that when he dies and gets up to the Pearly Gates, instead of meeting St. Peter, "I think Brigham Young will answer the door. He'll probably ask me what I've been doing in his name."
But the Barnards have nothing but respect for Brigham and his family. "We need to appreciate all they and all the others did and all they went through," says Michael. "I often think of that vanguard company and how Brigham was so very sick that many thought he would die. And there they would be, in a place they didn't know about, without their beloved leader. Can you imagine how that would have felt?"
Brigham was "a temple man who had to go 25 years between temples. The story is told that he didn't like the steeple on the St. George Temple, so no one was surprised when it was struck by lightning after Brigham's death."
He also traveled more than 40,000 miles throughout the territory — in a buggy. "He always said that if people worked hard enough and sweated enough, this desert would bloom like a rose. I think he would like how it's blooming today."
There are hundreds of stories the Barnards could tell on everything from the Civil War to fancy jewelry, tin whistles, the Gold Rush, breakfast foods, parasols, burying children and more.18 comments on this story
But one of Michael's favorite stories is a recent one. He had visited a youth group that was re-enacting a handcart trek and had talked to them about the hardships of the trail, about the importance of faith and perseverance, about the importance of building their own testimonies, as Brigham recommended, and not relying on the testimonies of others.
Several days later, one of the girls on that trek told him that the next day she hit the wall. She wasn't sure if she could even continue. "She said she looked up at the top of the hill and it was as though Brigham was there, urging her on. She knew I was not there, and yet, she said it was like Brigham was telling her that she could make it, that she could go on."
That's the power of this remarkable man, Michael says, and that's why he so enjoys sharing his life with others.