About Utah: Book of Mormon witness Martin Harris, 'The Man Who Knew,' died who knows where

Published: Sunday, July 29 2012 9:34 p.m. MDT

Cory Orvin, who lives at 97 N. 100 East, poses next to the water pipe believed to be all that's left of the Martin Harris house.

Lee Benson

CLARKSTON, Cache County — It is one of the most iconic, and dramatic, moments in the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Martin Harris, one of three men who testified that in 1829 he saw the golden plates from which the Book of Mormon was translated and the angel who delivered them, is 92 years old, his body is used up, he's on his deathbed after spending the better part of his life in conflict with the leaders of the LDS Church — and he tells a steady procession of visitors that he's not taking anything back. He saw what he saw.

And with that on his lips, he dies.

It all happened here, in 1875, in the sleepy northern Utah farm town of Clarkston, where to this day they commemorate the event every odd-numbered year with a summertime pageant, "The Man Who Knew," held next to the cemetery where Harris' grave is marked by a large granite monolith.

No one debates the authenticity of what happened 137 years ago in Clarkston.

They only debate where it happened.

It seems no one's entirely sure just where Harris was living when he drew his final breath.

As former Clarkston Mayor Denzel Clark says: "Unfortunately, everybody in Clarkston that has property nearby claims that's where he died."

That may be an overstatement, but only by a bit.

Drive into town on a picture postcard day, as I did, and roll down your window and ask, "Excuse me, can you point me to where Martin Harris died?" and what you'll get is a multiple-choice answer.

Part of the problem is that Harris was a short-term resident in Clarkston. He moved here with his son Martin Harris Jr. and his family from nearby Smithfield in October 1874 and died the following July just after he turned 92. His son moved away not long after that. The Harrises thus left a small but memorable swath in the town that was first organized in 1864 and named after one of its first settlers, Israel Clark.

To this day, Clarkston remains full of descendants from the Mormon families that first moved in — Clarks and Godfreys and Griffiths and Griffins and Jardines, people who can connect to kin who were here when the Harrises called Clarkston home.

From generation to generation they've heard and passed along the stories about Martin Harris' nine months in Clarkston and the way he testified to anyone and everyone about the gold plates and the angel.

But with the passage of time certain little details have become murky, giving rise to plenty of lively speculation as to the when and especially the where.

"There is a lot of folklore and legend and everybody wanted him to live in their house," smiles Denzel Clark, who will be 82 on his next birthday and traces his roots back to Israel Clark. "I don't challenge anybody because they have their feelings, but if he lived in all the places he's supposed to have lived, he probably didn't have time to sleep."

If Denzel Clark were a betting man, which he isn't, he'd wager that Martin Harris' final residence was on a piece of property near the corner of 100 North and 100 East. That's where the old Carbine homestead stood, he insists, and it was the Carbines who invited Martin Harris Jr. to move from Smithfield to Clarkston in 1874 to look after their place while they spent a year in St. George.

It's Clark's belief that the Carbine house, long since disintegrated, stood on the corner lot that now belongs to Cory Orvin. And if not there, then next door at Lloyd Bytheway's yard.

"It's possible that back then the house could have straddled both properties," says Clark.

Then again, there is also an old foundation about a block away, at 210 N. Main, on Gary Godfrey's property, that family lore suggests was where Martin Jr. brought his aged father to live.

"All I know is people say Martin Harris lived there with his son," says Gary Lee Godfrey, Gary's son whose house is next door, as he points toward a foundation that reputedly dates back at least to 1874 and now sits inside a frame of more recent vintage.

In the end, there's just enough mystery to keep the topic percolating, in a healthy sort of way.

"I guess we'll never know 100 percent," says Lloyd Bytheway as he surveys the spot in his yard that May Have Been. "It would be cool if it were here, but I'm not holding my breath."

Next door, Cory Orvin points to an old metal pipe that stands in the long grass in his back yard and says, "This could be all that's left."

Adds Clark, "I'm sorry they didn't save the old building. But people back then, I'm sure they didn't think one thing about it.

"But you know," continues Clark, a faithful, card-carrying, believing Mormon all his life, "it really doesn't matter where he lived. What matters is what he said, and that he said it here before he died."

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Monday and Friday. Email: benson@desnews.com

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