Brigham Young Winter Home
Today's strips of fast food joints, new hotels and outlet malls hardly suggest the struggle St. George's first residents faced to make a livable place out of this hot redrock desert. Just years after its 1861 settling, the original inhabitants of St. George, sent here by Mormon church leadership in Salt Lake City, were ready to leave. It was hot, very dry and what water there was was in the Santa Clara and Virgin Rivers, both flood prone and nearly unmanageable. Sensing the need for St. George to endure, both for its geographic importance and its warm-weather climate, then-president and prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Brigham Young instigated a public works project to help residents. In a food-for-labor program, Young set St. George residents to work on public works projects and northern Utah residents donated or tithed food and living supplies to workers. Over a 13-year period, settlers constructed St. George's tabernacle, courthouse and Mormon temple. When Brigham Young himself moved into the James Chesney home in 1869, the community's destiny was sealed.
Brigham Young, as the locals say, was St. George's first snowbird. Suffering from arthritis, St. George's warm, dry and snowless winters were the right medicine for the church leader, who spent several winters here. The original portion of his home was begun in 1869 and completed in 1871. The front addition -- now, what most would call the main part of the house -- was completed in 1873. Made from adobe, plaster and local rock, the two-story home is indicative of homebuilding in Utah at the time, where homes had large wrap-around front porches, thick insulating walls, a vegetable storage room in the basement, and three or more bedrooms. Young's home also had a detached office with telegraph station, and a large office-style master bedroom upstairs. The home also has an ingenious ventilation system where warm air flows out from the ceiling into the attic and out of the house. Orchards and gardens surrounded the home on three sides. Interestingly, only one of Young's many wives lived in the winter home.
Subsequent to Young's death, the Brigham Young home passed through several ownerships before it was purchased by the LDS church and opened to the public as a museum. (Guided tours are free.) Because of the changes in ownership, many of the original pieces of furniture were lost. Some original pieces are still with the home, however, and in some cases replicates have been introduced.
Securing materials for the building of the home and its subsequent additions showed the ingenuity and perseverance of early Mormon settlers. Baking adobe from local mud and hauling logs first from the Pine Valley Mountains then from Mount Trumbull -- several days' journey to the south -- local building materials tended to be a mix of happenstance and scientific experimentation. Even today, visitors to the Young home can see where the adobe bricks contain the outlines of the sagebrush used to stabilize it, as opposed to the typical straw. What could not be made locally had to be shipped in from outside the region, and maybe even from the East Coast. Young, himself a hobbyist furniture maker, constructed some fine examples of pioneer-era rockers and chairs. Other items, such as the bulwark piano in the first floor sitting room, were brought across the Plains in wagons.
And in perhaps the ultimate act of making-do, in some cases the Mormon settlers had the materials they needed but not the ones they wanted. Raised on the hardwood lumber common to the eastern half of the country, Mormon carpenters were often unhappy with the way the local softwoods took stains. Rather than import hardwoods halfway across the country, Mormon carpenters instead actually painted grains simulating hardwoods onto the softwood. This astounding though nearly dead art can be seen on many of the doors, windowsills and tables in the Young home.
The Young home sits in a neighborhood of pioneer homes, many of them wonderfully restored. Some homes are open to the public, others offer tours, and some are not open to the public. A few, such as the Seven Wives Inn kiddy-corner from the Young home, are businesses. More than two-dozen of St. George's finest historic homes and buildings can be seen on a walking tour of the downtown area. The Brigham Young Winter Home is at the southeast corner of 200 North and 100 West. Hours are 9 am - 5 pm in winter, 9 am - 7 pm in spring, and 9 am -8 pm in summer. For more information call 435-673-5181.
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