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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'

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

At top, Brigham Young's winter home, now a pioneer-era museum. Above, cotton, a At top, Brigham Young's winter home, now a pioneer-era museum. Above, cotton, a "Dixie" crop. (Ray Boren)

One in an occasional series revisiting the people, places and history of the provisional state of Deseret.

ST. GEORGE — It is coincidental that the exterior wood trim of pioneer leader Brigham Young's winter home is painted in pleasing shades of green and red — colors we associate with Christmas, a time of year when the great Mormon colonizer took up residence in St. George in his later years.

The story goes, Elder Lloyd Collings says, that in the early 1870s the builders of the St. George LDS Temple ordered white paint to coat the Mormon community's planned centerpiece. With sandstone walls that were to be plastered and then whitewashed, the temple was to become the first completed and dedicated by members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in their sprawling, proposed "State of Deseret," more generally known by this time as Utah Territory.

Ripening almonds from a tree beside Brigham Young's winter home fill the palm of Elder Lloyd Collings, a guide. (Ray Boren) Ripening almonds from a tree beside Brigham Young's winter home fill the palm of Elder Lloyd Collings, a guide. (Ray Boren)

When the paint arrived, however, half of the wagon delivery was white and half was green, Collings says. Brigham Young and the settlers did not alter their concept, though, and today the temple is, as they envisioned, a gleaming white sentinel in the midst of modern St. George.

The abundant green paint did not go to waste. According to oral history, "They made good use of it throughout the town," Collings says, applying it to many fences, houses and mercantile establishments. Green Gate Village in downtown St. George derives its name, and sections of its décor, from the tale.

Some of that paint seems to have been used on the then-new adobe-brick and wood-trimmed residence that Brigham Young, then the LDS Church president, was building on the southeast corner of the intersection of St. George's 100 West and 200 North streets.

An era-accurate cast-iron stove dominates the kitchen in Brigham Young's winter home. (Ray Boren) An era-accurate cast-iron stove dominates the kitchen in Brigham Young's winter home. (Ray Boren)

During restoration work on the winter home, layers of paint were scraped away to reveal the original colors, Collings says, and that is what is re-created for us to see today: eaves and porches, banisters and pillars painted a jade green, pleasingly accented by strips of cranberry red.

Collings and his wife, Sister Janet Collings, are missionaries from Chilliwack, British Columbia, Canada, called by the LDS Church to be guides in St. George in part because they speak French. An incredible number of visitors to the American Southwest, including Utah's Dixie, are French or French-Canadian, Collings says.

As a Daughters of Utah Pioneers historic placard on the front of the Young residence notes, "During the construction of the St. George Temple, President Brigham Young found the climate in the vicinity beneficial to his health, and decided to have a winter home built in St. George. On December 15, 1873, he arrived from the north (Salt Lake City) and moved into his new house."

A hat and cane repose upon an orderly, canopied bed in Brigham Young's bedroom. (Ray Boren) A hat and cane repose upon an orderly, canopied bed in Brigham Young's bedroom. (Ray Boren)

After going through a variety of owners over a century and a half, today the residence is operated as a museum by the LDS Church. Missionaries, including couples like the Collingses, lead the tours.

"The winter home of Brigham Young is lovely," a traveler from Florida recently observed on the website TripAdvisor, "but the real value of this free opportunity comes from the personal tour and education provided by the Mormon docent. Not only will you learn about the house and its history, but also of the pioneers who settled St. George and their beliefs that live on to this day."

During the 1850s, '60s and '70s, Brigham Young was not content to sit in his home office in Salt Lake City, or to simply direct Mormon settlers from the pulpit. He regularly, even annually, journeyed to new settlements north and south to meet with, observe and rally the colonizers of Deseret. He and his entourage were welcomed by local brass bands, banners and feasts — and he addressed dozens of impromptu meetings each trip.

Brigham Young purchased a small house on 100 West and 200 North in St. George and added a larger section to the north for what would become his winter residence in his later years. (Ray Boren) Brigham Young purchased a small house on 100 West and 200 North in St. George and added a larger section to the north for what would become his winter residence in his later years. (Ray Boren)

"These excursions gave Brigham a personal knowledge of the country and aided in laying plans for new settlements," historian Gordon Irving wrote in the Utah Historical Quarterly in 1977, the centennial of Brigham Young's death.

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.

An oft-told tale of pioneer times relates how the village of St. George came to acquire a great deal of green paint for what was meant to be their new, white LDS temple. Restoration work revealed just such a shade on outdoor railings and trim of Brigham Young's winter home. (Ray Boren) An oft-told tale of pioneer times relates how the village of St. George came to acquire a great deal of green paint for what was meant to be their new, white LDS temple. Restoration work revealed just such a shade on outdoor railings and trim of Brigham Young's winter home. (Ray Boren)

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.

Brigham Young's winter home, now a pioneer-era museum, presides over a pleasant lot on the southeast corner of 200 North and 100 West in St. George. (Ray Boren) Brigham Young's winter home, now a pioneer-era museum, presides over a pleasant lot on the southeast corner of 200 North and 100 West in St. George. (Ray Boren)

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.

Brigham Young's large bedroom in his St. George winter residence was obviously as much an office as a room in which to rest and sleep. (Ray Boren) Brigham Young's large bedroom in his St. George winter residence was obviously as much an office as a room in which to rest and sleep. (Ray Boren)

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 parlor of Brigham Young's winter home is filled with pioneer-era furniture and woodwork — much of it painted pine. (Ray Boren) The parlor of Brigham Young's winter home is filled with pioneer-era furniture and woodwork — much of it painted pine. (Ray Boren)

"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.

On the walls are many portraits: a large one of Brigham Young himself over the fireplace mantle; a drawing in profile of Joseph Smith, the first prophet of the LDS Church and President Young's martyred predecessor; several of George Washington, a personal hero to Brigham Young; others of advisers like Daniel H. Wells and George A. Smith (for whom, some say, St. George is named); and one of Brigham with his wife Amelia.

Brigham Young's large second-story bedroom is more than a simple bedstead. It is obviously an office, as well.

During the 1870s and in his later years, pioneer leader Brigham Young spent part of each year in his winter home in warm St. George. (LDS Church) During the 1870s and in his later years, pioneer leader Brigham Young spent part of each year in his winter home in warm St. George. (LDS Church)

"He spent a lot of time here," Collings says. "We know that he read a lot. We know that he wrote a lot." For a man who had very little formal schooling, he was well-, and self-, educated.

And as the prayer stool at the foot of the bed testifies, "We know that he prayed a lot," the missionary guide adds.

Besides the comfortable home and quarters, other factors made it possible for Brigham Young to spend so much of the year in St. George.

His wife Harriet Amelia Folsom Young served as a hostess and nurse, capable of helping him with the infirmities of time and age, for like the century itself, Brigham Young was in his 70s.

And by the 1870s, the telegraph was linking communities across the continent. Indeed, Collings notes, Brigham Young had access to just such a line between St. George and Salt Lake City. He was informed and in charge.

This was a necessity for a man who, as historian Leonard J. Arrington summarized in the biography "Brigham Young: American Moses," "directed the organization of several hundred Latter-day Saint settlements; took contracts to build the transcontinental telegraph and Pacific Railroad; set up several hundred cooperative retail, wholesale, and manufacturing enterprises; established colleges and universities; and initiated the construction of meetinghouses, tabernacles, and temples."

If you go …

Brigham Young's winter home is at 89 W. 200 North in St. George. Several signs along St. George Boulevard point visitors to its location.

Tours of the home are free. Missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints serve as docents and guides, focusing upon history.

Hours vary depending upon the season. They are currently 10 a.m.-5 p.m. in winter, with the last tour beginning at 4:30 p.m. Extended hours begin April 1, from 10 a.m.-7 p.m. For up-to-date information, call 435-673-5181.

The winter home is presently decorated for Christmas, with several Christmas trees, wreaths and other seasonal items.

On the Web:

www.utah.com

www.stgeorgetemplevisitorscenter.info

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company