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Mormon History Association conference notes Mormon relations with tourists

Published: Friday, July 31 2015 2:14 p.m. MDT

ST. GEORGE — Tourism in Utah has had a complicated and ambiguous relationship to Mormonism from the time the state was settled, said Susan Sessions Rugh, the Friday luncheon speaker at the annual conference of the Mormon History Association.

She addressed more than 700 professional and amateur historians who have convened in St. George for the three-day event that ended Saturday.

"Visitors to Brigham Young's Salt Lake City satirized Utah's 'peculiar people' as frontier blackguards and homely polygamous wives," observed Rugh, a professor of history at BYU.

In 1947, Utah observed its centennial by emphasizing pioneer history, Rugh said. But with the advent of "industrial tourism" in the post-World War II period, "Utah officials attempted to brand the state like any product," she noted.

"They tried various slogans that skirted the subject of religion," she said, such as "Utah, the friendly state," "Utah, land of color" and "Utah, the unique."

"Finally," Rugh said, "with 'Ski Utah' in 1960, Jim Cannon (Utah Publicity Council director) created a successful brand that carefully concealed religion under a cosmopolitan wrapper of skiing and apres-ski nightlife."

In the 1980s, Moab emerged as a mountain-biking capital, and St. George became a retirement community, she said, noting that Delicate Arch from Utah's red-rock country was designated the symbol of the state centennial in 1996.

Thus, Mormon culture and history were deliberately ignored in post-war state branding.

Rugh cited historian Hal Rothman's phrase "the devil's bargain," which refers to the effort by corporate interests in the West — assisted by locals — to promote economic growth in a way that unwittingly destroys local culture.

"I'm arguing that states were also part of this, not just corporations, but the idea of 'the devil's bargain' is a powerful interpretive trope," Rugh said.

She applied it to Utah in analyzing "this messy mix of church and state, religion and business, God and mammon."

Rugh compared the views of three tourists to Utah: Frenchman Albert Tissandier, who came in 1885; Vermont novelist Zephine Humphrey in 1934; and photographers Dorothea Lang and Ansel Adams in the early 1950s.

How does the traveler observe the landscape, and how does the traveler see the Mormons were two questions Rugh posed.

Traveling through southern Utah, Tissandier was contemptuous of the landscape.

But he wrote that in every house he visited, "I could see the same order, the same fastidious neatness, the same comforts. One would never have thought oneself to be in a country so far from any civilization."

Despite seeing the religion as "bizarre," Tissandier remarked that Mormons "are hospitable, kind to strangers, gentle and fairly well-educated. Most of them take an interest in all matters of civilization."

Humphrey arrived a half-century later with her husband, Christopher, traveling through Utah on a return from California. She wrote of staying in one of Utah's comfortable and cozy auto camps of the period.

The two attended an Easter Sunday service in the St. George Tabernacle, "a queer-looking church."

Humphrey wrote of the sacrament service in the meeting. The high point for them was their own participation, as the sacrament was served to them first as visitors, what Humphrey called "a crowning touch of human kindliness."

"The gracious courtesy of the act had a fineness about it, which added distinction to the already unusual ceremony."

Yet, the Mormons struck her as considering themselves "a people set apart," a difference she implied was a cultural and biological trait, Rugh said.

In 1954, an article appeared in Life magazine called "Three Mormon Towns," Tocquerville, Gunlock and St. George. It featured photography by Lang and Adams.

The text writer, Daniel Dixon, Dorothea's stepson, wrote: "Once, somebody says nobody Mormon would give a gentile a bed to sleep in; now, they make a business of it."

The article claimed that most of St. George's 4,500 people earned their living catering to passing strangers. The city had 23 motels, many of which still exist.

Returning to the present, Rugh said the "Ski Utah" campaign culminated in the 2002 Winter Olympics.

"Religion had been contained in a truce between church and state," Rugh remarked. But five years later, the hit TV show "Big Love" "exposed the state's identity as a home to fundamentalist Mormon sects with roots in the 19th century practice of polygamy," she added.

"In my view, we desperately need to move beyond the 19th century — keep it, but also move beyond it — and push the history of Mormonism forward into the 20th and 21st centuries if we're really to understand our past and its meaning," Rugh said.

"Can we do anything about being peculiar? About being the objects of curiosity?" she asked. "If the history of tourism is our guide, probably not. But as citizens, we can make money off the tourists, and as Mormons, we can introduce them to the gospel and give them a chance to become one of us."

email: rscott@desnews.com

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