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Courtesy Joan Hawkins
John Good performed traditional Welsh music during the opening of the Malad Festival in June 2017.

Croeso!! (Welcome!!)

Ha! Didn't know I could speak Welsh, did you? Of course, after the "croeso," there would be a very long pause before the next word, especially if the next word were "LLanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch." That's a Welsh town that boasts the longest name (58 characters, count them!) of any community in Europe. Of course, the locals shorten it down to Llanfairpwll. Otherwise, they'd have aged a decade before they could tell you where they live.

These are the sorts of tidbits that people of Welsh ancestry glean from the Malad, Idaho, Welsh Festival, held every summer to honor their descent from the Welsh pioneers who came to the area in the mid-1800s. Such "memorable" events have become common, and it's possible there is an event focused on your ancestral beginnings. Look for them.

The Welsh who came to Utah Territory were converts to the budding Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but there was yet another pull that brought them to the American West, said Jean Thomas, chairwoman of the upcoming 2018 festival, the 14th of its kind. It will be held the last weekend in June, which slops over into July 1 in 2018.

"The United States government was offering free land in the West," she said. "It was a huge incentive for these people who hadn't been able to own land in Wales."

Of her 16 great-great-grandparents, 14 emigrated from Wales, she said.

Welsh converts had a great impact on the pioneering efforts of the LDS Church. Some of them filtered into Utah's midsection and became coal miners as they had been in Wales. Others looked for opportunities in agriculture.

Thomas' ancestors settled for a while in the Willard area of Utah's Box Elder County, but they moved north when the Malad Valley beckoned. "They thought they were still in Utah," she said. But as large chunks of Utah Territory were lopped off to create surrounding states, they found themselves in Idaho.

The Welsh also had a big impact on the arts in the early settlements. Second LDS Church President Brigham Young heard Welsh singers doing what Welsh singers do so very well and in 1849 called one of their number, John Parry, to be the first leader of the then-Conference Choir. Subsequent early leaders of the now-famed Mormon Tabernacle Choir tended to come from the Welsh ranks.

That Welsh tendency to love poetry and music is, of course, a big part of today's Welsh Festival, Thomas said. There is a lot of competition for the honor of sitting in the Eisteddfod bardic chair. The Eisteddfod is a traditional Welsh event dating back to 1176 and dedicated to poetry and song. The town's specially designed bardic chair was used for the first time during the 2017 event.

(It was at the 1893 international Eisteddfod, held at the Chicago World's Fair, that the fledgling Mormon Tabernacle Choir came to the world's attention. The Utah contingent came in second to the Welsh entry, creating a considerable stir among those who still looked on Utah as a desert backwater lacking in the arts.)

The Malad Eisteddfod also seeks for the outstanding "bard" (poet) of the year and gives him or her the chance for a moment of glory in "the chair." Here, it's just a moment in the chair, not the chair itself. That is tucked away to be on hand for the moment of glory for the next year's winner, Thomas said.

Elegant chairs and crowns are part of the Welsh Eisteddfod tradition, and the winner got to keep them.

Malad's elegant bardic chair was used for the first time during the 2017 community Eisteddfod. It features a carved dragon, a traditional Welsh symbol. | Provided by Joan Hawkins

The Malad Festival chair, introduced into the celebration for the 2017 version, truly is a work of art, decorated with the Welsh dragon and polished to a shine. It was donated by Bob Crowther and designed as a bardic chair and finished by Shaun and Roxanne Albertsen, according to a special section of the Idaho Enterprise touting the 2017 festival.

The Maladians include a youth version of the poetry contest as well, hoping to lure another generation into a love and respect for the valley's traditions.

Malad's three-day celebration features a full schedule of speakers, displays, foods and crafts, wagon tours, quilt shows and bake sales, photo exhibits and a whole lot of et ceteras, all aimed at reminding today's Malad Valley residents (and guests) of their Welsh beginnings.

"Anyone who has been in Malad for any length of time is likely to have Welsh heritage," Thomas said. "We really try to replicate what life was like then."

She has a cadre of some 30 event chairpersons who "do a fantastic job," each assigned to a specific aspect of the festival.

The event is "both secular and spiritual," she said, but the objective is always the same: to remind today's Maladians that their lives are what they are because of intrepid ancestors who were brave enough to leave what was comfortable and try something new.

For many Malad residents, the only thing better than a festival to learn more of their ancestry is a trip back to Wales for a first-hand look at the beginnings. In the fall of 2016, a group of 13 made the "pilgrimage." Thomas was among them. She took a "taxi tour" of the areas where her ancestors had lived, and with the help of Marion Williams, an accommodating Welshman, found clues in villages, farms and churches as the taxi, often dwarfed by shrubbery along the one-lane roads, maneuvered in and out of their target areas.

She was "flabbergasted" to learn from one local woman that there had been others "from a little town in Idaho" making the same requests. It confirmed her conviction that "everyone knows someone from Malad."

Just goes to show you to what lengths some people will go to learn more about their forebears.