The Benson Grist Mill is a rugged monument to a dynamic pioneer past

By Ray Boren

For the Deseret News

Published: Thursday, May 17 2012 5:00 p.m. MDT

More than 160 years old, Tooele County?s historic Benson Grist Mill remains a stately landmark just south of I-80 in Stansbury Park, on S.R. 138.

Ray Boren

STANSBURY PARK, Tooele County — The exchange was like a conversation straight out of a familiar car commercial on TV:

"What's that?" a tiny girl asked upon stepping inside a shadowy wooden structure at the Benson Grist Mill Historic Site in Stansbury Park, where supervisor and guide Suzy Wall was offering a tour. The girl pointed to timeworn hardware hanging on an inside wall.

"These are tools," the child learned. The equipment, inside the "Bolinder Blacksmith Shop," is part of an artifact collection from a horse-powered era, long ago. But she wanted to know more.

"What's this?" and "What's that?" she asked a few more times in her inquisitive little-girl voice. A young woman approached along an outdoor path, pushing a stroller.

Curiosity has no age limit, and for children and former children interested in Utah's agricultural and mechanical past — 150 or so years ago, when this territory was the settlers' prospective "State of Deseret" — pioneer Ezra T. Benson's grist mill site is just the ticket.

That ticket is free, to boot, notes Wall.

The mill, 25 miles west of Salt Lake City, rises picturesquely off S.R. 138, the highway to Grantsville, about a third of a mile west of that route's intersection with S.R. 36, the main highway between I-80 and the city of Tooele. It has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1972.

The site, complete with covered picnic tables, has become a virtual village as well as a roadside park. It hosts a replica miller's house, historic cabins, a granary, a large barn and all manner of other buildings, plus several wagons. Most were rescued and moved here from throughout Tooele County, which owns and operates the location.

As a result, the mill is a great setting for family outings and reunions, weddings and other functions. These range from heritage-related events to holiday celebrations, such as a pumpkin walk in October and an old-fashioned Christmas. The park is basically open to the public April 30-Oct. 31 each year, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily, Monday through Saturday.

The star attraction is, of course, the impressive wood and stone mill. It is a five-story 19th-century "skyscraper," if one counts the dank, spider-webby lower depths, where a burbling millrace, fed by ponds that are now part of residential Stansbury Park, turned a great waterwheel that powered hefty millstones, grinders and grain elevators.

It was built in the early 1850s, only a few years after Mormon pioneers arrived in the Salt Lake Valley, on the other side of the Oquirrh Mountains. Early owners included Brigham Young, John Rowberry, Benjamin Crosland and Ezra T. Benson. Actual construction of this technological wonder was by the extended Lee clan, according to a display inside the mill itself, featuring their photographs.

The immediate vicinity, including today's Stansbury Park and nearby Lakepoint, just south of the Great Salt Lake along Interstate 80, was known then as "E.T. City," after Benson, Wall adds. Also a leader in settlement of the Cache Valley, Benson was the great-grandfather of a subsequent president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who was his namesake: Ezra Taft Benson.

Other photographs inside the mill dramatically illustrate the mill's decayed state about 130 years on. In the pictures, the once-stately rural tower looks forlorn and gap-toothed, wooden planks missing from its sides and roof. But in the early 1980s, local citizens, led by Jack Smith, united to rescue it, Wall says.

The Benson Grist Mill is now a vivid reminder of what we sometimes forget: how ingenious and determinedly self-sufficient Utah's pioneer settlers were. That forgetfulness isn't new.

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