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Pioneer Memorial Museum: Salt Lake's treasure house of artifacts and stories is a 'secret' everyone can share

By Ray Boren

For the Deseret News

Published: Thursday, April 26 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

Salt Lake City's Pioneer Memorial Museum houses thousands of 19th-century artifacts.

Ray Boren

Salt Lake City — As startling as the idea may seem, considering it is housed in a prominent colonnaded building at the top of Main Street, Salt Lake City's Pioneer Memorial Museum is something of a secret.

Not to everyone, of course, says Maurine P. Smith, president of the International Society Daughters of Utah Pioneers (DUP), which is headquartered in and operates this treasure trove of thousands upon thousands of artifacts, photographs and individual histories.

"Among fourth-graders studying Utah history, the museum is very popular," she says. "Sometimes we get seventh-graders, too."

On occasion, children teem the exhibit halls, visiting by the scores on day-trip tours, perhaps as many as 500 per week during the school year, Smith says. Excited, inquisitive voices bounce off the walls and exhibit cases.

And with the grand Utah State Capitol perched on its landscaped grounds to the northeast, tourists drop by as well, visiting from around the continent and from overseas, Smith says.

But local adults and families — they seem to be another story these days.

In hopes of giving them another option, the DUP has extended its hours into the evenings on Wednesdays. Pioneer Memorial Museum, at 300 N. Main St., is now open daily, Monday-Saturday, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., with that Wednesday exception, when doors are open until 8 p.m. The museum is closed on Sundays.

Although they may be secrets of a sort, the DUP and its museum — and 114 smaller satellite pioneer museums and relic halls in Utah and around the Mountain West — don't wish to be, Smith says.

A stroll through the four-story Pioneer Memorial Museum and its adjoining two-story Carriage House illustrates why the collection, and the collectors, could be on the agenda for anyone interested in history, genealogy or just about anything else, for that matter. The facility is chock-a-block with curiosities.

The artifacts and archives showcase and preserve the history of a specific era, the days of pioneers, when Mormons dreamed of a homeland of their own — the "State of Deseret," spanning the West from the Rocky Mountains to the Sierra Nevadas and south to San Diego and the Pacific Ocean.

And in this trove, artifacts come in all sizes.

One of the largest?

The ornate proscenium curtain from the pioneers' Salt Lake Theatre, the city's once-beloved playhouse and lecture hall, might fit the bill. It is a focus of the museum's central hall, hanging from the rafters beneath an illuminating skylight.

Built in 1861, when the pioneer village had all of 12,000 residents, according to the Utah History Encyclopedia, the aging theater was razed in 1928. In the Brigham Young room beneath and just behind the curtain are three burgundy theater chairs once reserved for the pioneers' religious and political leader and his family and guests.

Among the smallest museum items?

How about locks of hair.

"Hair art" abounds on the walls and in the cases of Pioneer Memorial Museum. Snipping, preserving and displaying strands of loved ones' tresses was seemingly as popular during the 19th century as knitting and quilt-making. There are even personal pocket-book "samplers." One tiny example, made in Nauvoo, Ill., includes small locks braided and shaped into curves and knots, with hand-written instructions on how to mimic the designs.

Creations from these tresses and snippets include mementos such as watch fobs, bracelets and even framed designs.

On one wall is a depiction of a willow tree — it could be said to represent the "Tree of Life," Smith says. The artwork was made using short strips of hair from early LDS Church leaders. Among them were Brigham Young and even Joseph Smith, the latter's strands said to have been preserved after the founding Prophet was martyred in Illinois in 1844.

From the museum walls (and even in the stairwells), some 2,300 pioneers themselves peer down upon visitors from antique photographic portraits, Maurine Smith notes. Thousands of the DUP's photos have been digitized, as well, she says.

Other museum possessions range from pieces of jewelry and everyday tools, including spinning wheels and carpenter planes, to 19th-century transportation. The Carriage House has more than enough room for Brigham Young's "council wagon," from the pioneers' initial 1847 trek; a horse-drawn trolley car; handcarts; and a canvas-topped U.S. Army conestoga wagon.

One of the most popular exhibits features a bright red, nickel-plated steam fire engine from 1902 — named the "Roosevelt," in honor of U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt. The antique isn't quite of the pioneer era, but it is nevertheless a magnet for visiting children, says DUP guide Constance Huntsman.

But the kids' "all-time favorite"?

A stuffed, two-headed lamb, says Maurine Smith. And it has been for generations.

"People come in, 40 years down the road, and say, 'Do you still have that?' "

Displaying artifacts over the long term, and especially objects that have been donated by families, is a priority for the DUP and for Pioneer Memorial Museum, Smith adds.

Take for instance an exhibit case featuring an array of pots and pails. She points to a row of brass buckets, a few with plentiful dings and bumps testifying to their years of use hauling water up from a well or some other utilitarian purpose.

Showcasing EVERYTHING is important, and part of the agreement when the DUP is formally deeded such a keepsake and given details about its provenance and ties to particular pioneers.

When descendants visit, "they don't want to see a 'sample,' " whether it is at Pioneer Memorial Museum or one of the DUP's dozens of satellite museums, Smith says.

"They want to see theirs," she adds. "If it belonged to your family, it's the most important artifact here."

While Latter-Day Saint pioneers were a dominant force in the settlement of Utah, and of the more grandly envisioned Deseret, the non-sectarian DUP and its museums embrace the widest possible definition of "pioneer."

"We're not just Mormon pioneers — we're pioneers," Smith says. Their number includes those who died en route, or were simply passing through the State of Deseret or the subsequent Territory of Utah, pre-May 10, 1869, and the arrival of the Transcontinental Railroad.

That takes in mountain men, like Jim Bridger, whose webbed snowshoes and cane occupy a glass case of their own.

The DUP umbrella also includes teamsters and Forty-Niners headed to the gold fields of California; non-Mormon merchants who settled in Salt Lake City; miners and prospectors; and the U.S. military, such as the soldiers of Johnston's Army, who arrived in 1857 to suppress reportedly "rebellious" Mormons during the so-called Utah War.

Beyond the artifacts, preserving history in general, oral and written, is a prime directive for the Daughters of Utah Pioneers.

Anyone who has traveled Utah's roads has probably noticed the hundreds of DUP historic markers scattered around the state, telling of the settlement era and specific incidents, from the momentous to the tragic.

That decades-old project continues, in Utah and beyond, Smith says. The 567th such plaque was recently dedicated in Layton. DUP markers can be found throughout the Mountain West, and in Europe as well, for many pioneers set out from England, Germany, Scandinavia and other homelands, headed for Deseret and Zion.

Books about the era, and the places and people of pioneer times, line shelves in the DUP's archive rooms. Shelves brim with files that collect documents and written histories of individual pioneers. Tiers of folders rise from floor to ceiling toward the back of the headquarters and museum building.

The details therein can be eye opening and fascinating.

As a result, the DUP and Pioneer Memorial Museum can be a valuable tool for those researching their roots. Genealogical libraries and the Web offer excellent resources for tracing family trees, but the society's mission, Smith notes, is somewhat different.

"They collect the facts," she says. "But we collect the stories."

Additional articles in the Rediscovering Deseret series:

  • Old age among myths of Daughters of Utah Pioneers membership

  • The area of Deseret started huge, got smaller as it became Utah

  • Shifting shape: Salt Lake City is a living metropolis

  • Hotel Utah, 100 years of history

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

  • Escape to another time at Lagoon's Pioneer Village

  • Life in 'Old Deseret' — This Is the Place Heritage Park carries on LDS pioneer traditions

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