I just know you all jumped out of bed this morning and put on your best bib and tucker to be ready for the big celebration.
No? C’mon, it’s Utah’s birthday! She is 122 today. The least you could do is bang on a pan or set off a firecracker. I did my part. I hummed the first few lines of “Utah, We Love Thee,” the song Evan Stephens wrote, anticipating the day when President Grover Cleveland put his signature to the official document allowing Utah entre into the Union. And I pulled out my file of statehood clippings that I saved from the 1996 Utah centennial celebration to glean these goodies:
President Cleveland could simply have said, as he signed the Jan. 4, 1896, documents, “Finally, Utah is a state.” But in true legal fashion, what he said was: (after a whole bunch of whereases) “Now, therefore, I, Grover Cleveland, president of the United States of America, in accordance with the Act of Congress, aforesaid and by authorization thereof, announce the result of said election to be so certified and do hereby declare and proclaim that the terms and conditions prescribed by the Congress of the United States to entitle the State of Utah to admission into the Union have been fully complied with and that the creation of said state and its admission into the Union on an equal footing with the original states is now accomplished.” To which he set his hand and seal with an elaborate ceremonial pen.
Congress relayed news of the signing to the telegraph office located just south of the ZCMI store and the celebration began. A Utah National Guard battery fired a 21-gun salute and anyone who had a steam whistle or a bell used it. Businesses closed and buildings rapidly put up (or unveiled) bunting. The western facade of ZCMI virtually disappeared under bunting, while the Dinwoodey Building sported a classy star-shaped design.
Utahns were given more than a year to get ready for the official announcement. Congress had passed the Utah Enabling Act in summer 1894, but the president could not sign it into law until all its provisions had been met, including the writing of a Utah Constitution eschewing polygamy.
But now, at long last, statehood was a reality. Hordes of people streamed into the downtown Salt Lake City streets despite the bitter cold to cheer the news. (Some people suspected, based on all the rancor surrounding the Utah debate, that Washington enemies had purposely chosen to have Utah declared a state during the winter. Little did they know we had this great July 24 celebration to fall back on.) I’ll bet some of those revelers were my pioneer ancestors. This is part of my family history and, I’ll bet, ditto for many of today’s Utahns.
The Mormon Tabernacle Choir sang Brother Stephens’ salute to Utah during a special performance in the Tabernacle, a large star and letters spelling out “UTAH” decorating the space between the largest pipes of the organ.
Overhead was a huge 160-foot-long flag put together by a half-dozen women for the occasion. In anticipation of statehood, such a banner had been planned, but there was no money available to finance it. A $250 donation from George M. Cannon, chairman of the general celebration committee, saved the day, according to an article by John M. Hartvigsen in the Utah Historical Quarterly, Vol. 79, No. 3, 2011. The donation bought 1,296 yards of good quality bunting at 19 cents per yard. The seamstresses worked in the ZCMI overall and fabric quarters to put the huge banner together. It featured 46 stars, with one larger than the rest, representing Utah. The flag adorned the south wall of the Salt Lake Temple on a few occasions afterward, but eventually it succumbed to its own size and weight. As rents appeared in seams and along the stripes, it was eventually burned in a secluded part of the Temple Square grounds.
Matilda Houtz reigned as Statehood Queen. Her white dress boasted leg-o-mutton sleeves and her crown was topped with a star. She posed next to a shield with the inscription "Union Forever" emblazoned across a design of stars and stripes.
Heaven knows the trek to statehood had taken long enough. It was 1848 when Brigham Young and his pioneer followers first petitioned for territorial status. Even before their emissary to Congress could reach Washington, D.C., they had amended the request, seeking statehood (as the State of Deseret). There were not enough settlers in the area to legally support such a petition and sentiment against The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the East effectively scuttled even the notion. About a half-dozen petitions for statehood over the next few decades were rebuffed.
In the meantime, things in the United States were changing rapidly. The Western reaches were filling up, prodded by the will for “Manifest Destiny” — the sense that America was naturally intended to stretch from Atlantic to Pacific. There was the matter of the Civil War and its aftermath. The Industrial Revolution was changing how and where Americans made a living. Unprecedented immigration was changing the flavor of America’s melting pot.
Utah Territory, originally a sixth of the land mass of the United States, was whittled away as the states of Oregon, California, Nevada, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona were created, each taking a nibble or two out of the territory and leaving Utah as an unassimilated leftover.
Statehood for Utah would seem inevitable. Otherwise, a map of the United States today would resemble a big jigsaw puzzle with one piece lost between the cushions of the sofa.
The July 24 celebration has long displaced Statehood Day as the state’s big gig. But it wouldn’t hurt each Jan. 4 to give a thought and a thanks to the long and arduous efforts of a lot of people to give us our home state.