CEDAR CITY — Zipping along at 65 to 80 miles per hour, you can easily travel from the northern border of Utah to the southern border in a day.
It wasn't quite so easy for Brigham Young and other LDS Church leaders in the early days of colonization in Utah Territory — and beyond. Excursions to all of the far-flung enclaves of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at least once a year were a priority, but they could be endurance tests for human and animal.
When I was in Cedar City recently with a daughter and a couple of granddaughters, we picked up a little brochure in the Iron Mission State Park Museum titled "Brigham Young's Excursions to the Settlements," published by the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers. It details one of the pioneer leader's trips from Salt Lake City through the midsection of the territory and into the scattered settlements of Utah's Dixie.
This particular trip was a bit different. Most often, the authorities traveled in small groups and made serious business of it. On this trip in September 1864, they made a party of it, with a company of about 50 men, women and youths that required "thirteen light vehicles and two baggage wagons," according to a description that Vilate Murray Kimball, wife of Heber C. Kimball, wrote to family members.
In high holiday mood, the party drove to Pleasant Grove the first day, despite encountering "one of the severest hailstorms that ever visited that part of Utah," according to the account in the pamphlet.
It was then on through Payson, with an earlier stop in Provo to pick up William B. Pace's "first-class" string band. On the third day they were in Nephi, where "every man, woman and child in the place was out in holiday attire." The welcoming events included a brass band at the head of a cavalry company "discoursing sweet music to the satisfaction of all." Excursion leaders kidnapped the Salt Creek (early name for Nephi) brass band "body and breeches" and continued their journey.
In Fillmore, then the nominal capital of Utah Territory, the excursionists experienced an overwhelming welcome at the old Capitol Building (it was never completed as the capital role was moved to Salt Lake City). There the kidnapped brass band played "one of their fantasies in B" while "anvils boomed, cows bellowed, horses bucked, donkeys brayed, women shouted, youngsters yelled and dogs yelped."
A grand banquet and dance topped the stay in Fillmore, which lasted two and a half days. The dance was in the "large and commodious $28,000 Capitol Building," with the "famous Fillmore Fiddle Band" preempting the Salt Creek contingent for the occasion.
After the festive dance came the Sabbath sermons, addressed to the largest congregation ever assembled in Millard County at the time.
Then, it was on to the southern reaches of the territory. On Sept. 11, the excursion was in Pinto, a small Iron County community. The group rested a bit in Pine Valley to prepare for the hardest part of the journey. But they didn't rest so much that they missed the meeting and dance sponsored by Pine Valley Saints. By now the party had picked up newcomers (seems they just couldn't resist a band, for instance) until they totaled more than 100.
The following morning they were headed down out of the mountains to St. George, accompanied by wagons carrying hay, grains and provisions that would be needed to accommodate the gathering in the Dixie capital. It was 40 miles of bad road, with everyone having to walk at times to relieve the draft animals.
They were greeted by apostles Orson Pratt and Erastus Snow and other distinguished residents of St. George, a hardy and doughty bunch who had made the Cotton Mission one of the most successful sponsored by the pioneering church. The travelers were made welcome for three days and four nights, with merriment interspersed with solemn advice.
One thing the party did not see in St. George was a temple. That eventuality was still some years away, with the dedication of a "House of the Lord" in Utah Territory not occurring until 1877. It was the first in Utah, the first since the Saints had been forced to leave the Nauvoo Temple in Illinois as they fled to the Great Basin.
The excursion continued on its merry way with a seemingly inexhaustible store of good spirits, over the desert wastes to the small communities that dotted southern Utah. At Grafton, Washington County, President Young advised that the settlers "build on higher ground, above the stream so that you will not be washed out." Periodic flooding was one of the ironic challenges of living in near-arid Dixie.
With the majority of the Saints in the south bolstered for another year by their visits, the excursion reversed and headed north, stopping at the Sanpete County settlements for more frivolity and refreshing of faith. In Mt. Pleasant, a banquet was interrupted by a hidden band that played a rollicking version of the "Highland Fling."
Finally back in Salt Lake City, after a 60-mile sprint from Springville, the excursion enjoyed another festive welcome and finally dispersed to their individual homes convinced that "they had enjoyed the time of their lives."
You might think of that the next time you are zipping down (or up — there were equally remarkable excursions into Utah's northern reaches) I-15 in your air-conditioned auto.