FILLMORE, Millard County — It’s the start of tourist season, and here at the Territorial Statehouse State Park Museum they’re bracing for all the summer traffic exiting off the freeway at either end of town.
Actually, bracing may not be the best word.
This might be Utah’s first capital city and the statehouse might be Utah’s first capitol, but in reality the 159 year-old building is a largely ignored relic.
As Carl Camp, the resident director and curator, observes, “Millions go by on the freeway and we get 10,000 visitors a year, I’d say that’s pretty hidden.”
Maybe that’s just as well. Because more than anything, the old Territorial Statehouse stands as a monument to what can go wrong when government gets involved.
Alaska has its bridge to nowhere.
Utah has this.
It all started when the Mormon pioneers, not long after arriving from Illinois in 1847, came up with the idea to butter up the President of the United States, one Millard Fillmore, by naming the capital city of their new territory after him.
And not only would they call the city Fillmore, they would call the surrounding county Millard.
The flattery worked. One of the first things President Fillmore did in office was appropriate $20,000 – serious money back then – to build the new statehouse in Fillmore.
So good, so far. But after that the plan soon began to crumble when two things happened in close succession:
One, in the next presidential election, Democrat Franklin Pierce defeated Whig Winfield Scott while Fillmore didn’t even make it out of the Whig convention – and there went federal support for the statehouse.
Two, Utah governor Brigham Young came to the conclusion that his decision to place the capital city in the center of the proposed territory of Deseret was seriously flawed because closer inspection of Fillmore and surrounding area revealed that there wasn’t enough water and there were too many Indians.
The bulk of the new settlers, including anyone interested in politics, preferred to stay in Great Salt Lake City.
By this time the most famous architect in the Rockies, Truman Angell, had already designed Fillmore’s capitol building and workmen had erected the south wing, which is where the 1855 territorial legislative session was held.
But that was it. The only other legislative meetings held in the large hall on the third floor were when the legislators – all on the same side for a change – voted to move back to Salt Lake.
After that, at one time or another, the building served as a school, a theater, a Presbyterian mission, a civic center, and, for a brief time during the Utah War in 1858, Brigham Young, bound and determined that nothing would stop the presses, used it as a hiding place for the Deseret News.
Neglect and deterioration might have ultimately prevailed had it not been for the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers, who stepped in during the 1920s and turned the building into a museum. In 1957 the state government finally took back custody and made it Utah’s first state park.
Carl Camp, for one, is sure happy that they did. Carl is the person-in-charge at the Territorial Statehouse. He considers Brigham Young’s nightmare to be his dream job.
He was assigned to Fillmore in 1996, not long after he earned his history degree at Utah State, with an outdoor museum emphasis. Seventeen years later he still has a hard time believing his good fortune.
“I’d grown up watching Disney movies where the caretaker lives in a small town and takes care of the local museum,” he said. “I thought that would be a great life but it only happened in the movies. I didn’t think those kinds of jobs actually existed.”
As it’s worked out, he and his wife Kristine have been able to live in a house half-a-block from his job, and use the statehouse to help raise their eight kids.
“I love this place and I love the history here,” says Carl, who notes that it’s difficult to count the exact number of visitors. “We’re a state park without a gate,” he points out. The only way to track visits is by paid museum admissions ($2 for adults, $1 for kids), which average around 10,000 a year. But many more people than that walk around the building and use the grounds as a park.
“They come at all hours, day and night. It’s just a very pleasant, quiet place,” Carl says.
Once the politicians moved on.
Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Mondays. EMAIL: firstname.lastname@example.org