Brigham Young's winter home: Residence offers visitors glimpse into the life of 'the American Moses'

Historic St. George residence offers visitors glimpse into the life of 'the American Moses'

By Ray Boren

For the Deseret News

Published: Thursday, Dec. 13 2012 5:00 a.m. MST

Beginning in 1870, plagued by arthritis, the church president began living a portion of each year in St. George — becoming as some have noted, one of the first "snowbirds," escaping bone-chilling winter weather in Salt Lake City for milder temperatures in the Cotton Mission — Utah's Dixie.

"From the time he left for St. George in November 1870 to spend the winter until his death seven years later, more than 30 percent of Brigham Young's time was spent either in St. George or on the road between that settlement and Salt Lake City," Irving noted.

President Young's first, small residence in St. George, no longer standing, was "a charming house, in old New England style," with a wide front porch, his daughter Susa Young Gates wrote years later. Her mother, Lucy Bigelow Young, one of Brigham Young's plural wives, was sent to St. George to preside over the household — after she and Susa had a little "practical instruction in bread and cake-making and in candy-making" at a new bakery.

But Susa's father subsequently decided to build another house, one "with an office and extra large barn, garden and vineyard," she wrote.

President Young had workmen add a large, two-story adobe wing to the north side of an existing structure. Today it is known as Brigham Young's winter home.

Collings meets visitors in a small, detached office on the east side of the main residence. There he begins to regale tourists with tales of Brigham Young — "a robust man, very active" — as well as the pioneers sent to the area to raise warm-weather crops such as cotton and other agricultural products. These were becoming scarce because of the Civil War that sundered the United States beginning in 1861.

Old black-and-white photographs in the office show a bleak, tree-less desert, dotted with tiny houses, with settlers and Indian converts and friends gathered and grouped for the occasion.

Indians who scratched out a harsh living along the Virgin River and its tributaries said nothing would grow in this setting, Collings says. Even pioneer explorer Parley P. Pratt had relayed to Salt Lake City in 1852 "a very negative report of this area," a region of sandstone and lava rock and undependable streams that seemed "turned upside down on itself."

But President Young, on an early visit, prophesied something greater. Collings says the Mormon prophet declared that, "Between these volcanic peaks there will be domes and steeples — this will be a mighty city."

And he urged his people to put their shoulders to the wheel, Collings says, for prophecy is fulfilled by action.

In the first year, they raised 100,000 pounds of cotton. They planted 40 different grape varieties; tobacco; and pomegranate, fig and pecan trees; as well as vegetables and melons.

They even imported mulberry trees and silkworms from France, he says, the foundations of a small silk industry.

Even while living in tents and dugouts, they set about building and completing the St. George Tabernacle — and soon began work on the temple, which they would complete and dedicate before Young's death in 1877.

"What did that do? It gave them roots — spiritual roots" in their frontier settlement, Collings says. "They had the motivation; they had the desire."

Leading a tour of the winter residence, Collings points out the well-crafted pioneer-era furniture — squatty chairs and rockers, tables and end pieces. Several feature faux–grained woodwork in mostly ponderosa pine, cleverly painted to look like mahogany, rosewood or cherry. Interior wood in the parlor, dining room and bedrooms, such as the fireplace and trim, also is painted — to look like quarried stone.

"The marble here is not marble," Collings says with a smile. And granite is not granite.

Many of the pieces, from the furniture to the china to the top hat, cane and box on Brigham Young's bed, were donated for exhibit by his descendants, Collings says, and the overall décor is otherwise accurate to the period.

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