Tradition and technology make for a successful family reunion

By Roger Rice

For the Deseret News

Published: Saturday, March 31 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

Water is being heated on an old wood stove. Those at the reunion had the opportunity to wash clothes using a tub, a washboard and lye soap.

Roger Rice

What would make more than 1,000 members of the same family gather together in a remote area of Arizona and camp for three days? The Whiting Reunion.

A brief history might help explain this phenomenon. The ancestors of this unusual family were Edwin Marion Whiting and Anna Maria Isaacson. Edwin and his older brothers were called by President Brigham Young in 1878 to live in the united order settlement of Brigham City, Ariz.

While there, he met Anna Maria. They became engaged and followed the honeymoon trail in 1881 to the St. George Temple, where they were married. When the settlement failed due to water issues, Edwin and Maria established a homestead in the White Mountains near Springerville, Ariz. That same homestead is still owned by the family. The Whitings had five sons and four daughters.

While living at the homestead the family established a sawmill and several other successful businesses, including the well-known Whiting Brothers Service Stations and Motels throughout the southwest.

Edwin died in 1934. President George Albert Smith — then Elder Smith — spoke at his funeral. In his talk, Elder Smith gave the family this advice: "As long as she (Maria) lives, meet together once a year if you can. … And if you do this, petty things will not come between you, but you will love one another and the joy that has filled your lives heretofore … will come to you and be with you always.”

For many years, the family met yearly. Eventually, they decided to gather every two years. The first official homestead reunion was held in 1948, and the family has continued meeting at the homestead ever since.

That's the brief history. But what exactly happens at these reunions to cause family members to travel all the way to the White Mountains of Arizona from as far as Alaska and Hawaii and spend three days camping in the wilderness (five miles off the highway on a dirt road with no landline or mobile phone service or texting)?

Well, this is probably unlike any reunion you have ever attended. We don’t sit around and reminisce — it's much bigger than that.

Recreating the past

We begin Thursday evening and end Sunday at noon. We learn about our ancestors with hands-on activities. For example, we create a “Whiting Village” (think Colonial Williamsburg or This is the Place Monument, but on a smaller scale). The village is open for two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon, both Friday and Saturday.

In the 2008 reunion these were the attractions in the village:

  • Barber shop
  • Beauty parlor
  • Beekeeping
  • Bullwhip competition
  • Calf roping
  • Cash store
  • Chair factory
  • Chicken coop
  • Cow milking
  • Family dramatics
  • Hat shop
  • Ice cream parlor
  • Jail
  • Laundry
  • Log cabin construction
  • Movie theatre
  • Museum
  • Photo studio
  • Post office
  • Quilting
  • Rope making
  • School
  • Storytelling
  • Train
  • Treadle sewing machine
  • Woolen goods

Each of the above activities marked with an asterisk represents a family occupation or business. Photos taken at some of these attractions can be seen on the Whiting Homestead website.

Volunteers run each of the attractions. Everyone in attendance has a “Passport to the Past” containing details about the various attractions and other activities. Each attraction has a number assigned, and as a person visits each attraction the corresponding number on their passport is checked off. Once you have so many numbers checked off, you get a prize. Many people, especially the children, attempt to get as many items checked off as possible.

One big advantage of the village is that it gives in-laws (like me) something useful to do, rather than just sit around and reminisce about the old times.

Modern-day activities

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