Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Mormon Row in Grand Teton National Park

by Andrea Downing 
the Moulton Barn

Map of Mormon Row drawn by Craig Moulton, courtesy of Jackson Hole Historical Society and Museum

The first homesteaders came from Rockland, Idaho, and stopped in Victor before they crossed the Teton Pass. Nowadays, we have a road, steep and full of hair-pin bends, yet they crossed the pass in wagons.  They camped on Fish Creek in Wilson, where I now reside part-year, before they moved on to make their claim for 160 acres under the Homestead Act, paying their $21 claim fee.  Some would secure further acres under the Desert Land Act, which required them to irrigate the land. 
Thomas Alma & Lucille Moulton Homestead, ca.1910
They arrived in July, too late to plow or plant. Water and shelter were their first concerns. They dug irrigation ditches, and dug down 120ft. or so for wells. This was the time to dig to be sure water would be available in summer—when water would be at its lowest. Then they built log cabins with a dirt roof, the lodge pole pines coming from nearby forests. And they went to Flat Creek, where hay was available for anyone who wanted it, cut it by hand, and also planted an early maturing oat, ready in 90 days. They plowed through the sagebrush with either a hand plow or a sulky plow. The soil underneath was fertile, and the resultant burning sage made an evening’s entertainment.
John & Bartha Moulton Homestead, ca. 1910
They called the community Grovont.  Most of them were ranchers, but the cattle they raised were not for their own consumption. Their subsistence depended on elk meat, hung in winter and left to freeze until they wanted it, and hogs killed and cured in summer, then wrapped in newspapers to keep the flies away. Huckleberries were another staple along with garden vegetables they could grow in the short season:  rutabagas and carrots predominated. The cattle were sold to raise money for other necessities; the steers were driven to Victor, Idaho, put on the train for Omaha and sales.  Since the price of a steer could vary as much as between $29 and $600, income was not guaranteed.  Some families traded hay, eggs or chickens, oats or cream for butter down in the town of Jackson. The Moultons had a dairy and sold milk to the local dude ranches. In addition, there was trapping, and one could earn about $50 a month from coyotes.
Andrew & Ida Chambers Homestead, ca. 1920
So, was there any recreation in this subsistence-level existence? Of course!  The Church was a major center of activity, not only for services but especially for dances.  Everyone danced, and dances were twice a month at the church (but no drinking or smoking allowed).  Still, they lasted until 3 a.m., and there’s a story about the piano player having to tape his bleeding fingers.  Christmas and Halloween parties were well attended, political rallies, weddings and harvest celebrations, and concerts and school plays, too.  Irrigation ditches became ice skating rinks in winter, and the butte afforded skiing and sledding, while in summer there was swimming in nearby water holes. 
In 1925, the Gros Ventre mud slide on Sheep Mountain damned the Gros Ventre River east of nearby Kelly, Wyoming, and caused a lake to be formed.  Two years later, the damn failed, flooding Kelly and killing six people, yet uncovering a warm spring that never freezes.  The Mormons called it ‘The Miracle Spring’, and they dug ditches to bring the water that would never freeze to their homesteads year-round. So life went on, improved somewhat.  Better houses were ordered from the Sears Roebuck Catalogue and shipped by rail to Victor, then brought by stage over the Teton Pass and erected by community effort.  Other new houses were stucco with cement.  Out-buildings were built:  log barns, granaries, and pump houses.  School, originally in someone’s living room before moving to the Church basement, finally had its own building when someone donated land. Mail came in by team or sleigh from Jackson or Moran.  Kerosene and gas light gave way to electricity in the 1950s. 
Thomas Perry Homestead, ca. 1910
So, what happened to this vibrant community? Admittedly, it was at subsistence level, but the homesteaders had made a conscious choice of the life they wanted, and this was it.  But in the 1950s, the government started a buy-out of the land that was unproductive.  The Snake River Company, with Rockefeller money behind it, bought up marginal lands, and then moved in on the homesteaders whose older generation took the money, with life leases permitting them to stay their lifetimes. John Moulton was the last to close at his death in 1990.  And so, this community became part of Grand Teton National Park.
Today, the Church, which served as such a center of community life, serves as the Calico Pizza, my local restaurant in Wilson, Wyoming.

An earlier version of this post appeared at in 2014. My sincere thanks to Emily Winters, Director of Archives at the Jackson Hole Historical Society and Museum, for her assistance in my research for this article.  All photos are author's own.


Emily Heebner said...

Fascinating! And inspiring. Thank you.
Emily Heebner

Patti Sherry-Crews said...

Love this so much! I'll never forget my visit to that lovely place and I'm even guilty of taking a picture of that most photographed barn. We had the best tour guide, of course ;-)
So interesting that they are letting the structures fall to nature. Thanks for a well-researched post. It's good to remember how they got along back then in a challenging environment.

Andrea Downing said...

Glad you liked it, Emily. Thanks for stopping by

Andrea Downing said...

Patti, I think everyone who has been to the Tetons has photographed that barn! Yes, they did do very well on what they had--and imagine coming up the Teton Pass in wagons. I hardly want to do it in a car...

Zina Abbott Author said...

Interesting. I've seen the barn in images multiple times, but did not know the history. It is too bad that, unlike Bodie, California, there was not an effort to save the historical buildings using "arrested decay" methods to help preserve them in the state they were at the time it became a park.

Andrea Downing said...

Zina, I believe the Moultons make an effort to keep the barn in 'arrested decay' and I also believe it costs them quite a bit. As for the other homes, I'm afraid I'm not sure although I do know some of the descendants are still around. thanks for bringing this up.

Alicia Haney said...

This is very interesting, I enjoyed reading it and learning of it. I enjoyed the photos, especially the top one with the beautiful mountain behind it and the very pretty sky. Thank you for sharing this. Have a Great rest of the week. God Bless you.

Andrea Downing said...

Thank you for your very kind words Alicia, and for taking the time to stop by.

Hebby Roman said...

I would have never thought there was a Mormon community in the Grand Tetons. Very interesting information. The West is so full of communities that were started and then for one reason or another, they didn't continue to be viable.
Interesting and well-researched post.

Andrea Downing said...

Hebby I don't think you should be too surprised--the Mormons firmly believe in spreading their 'word' so opening new communities seems logical, plus, of course, WY is right next door to UT where the main brethren are.
Thanks for your kind words!

Julie said...

Such an interesting post, Andie! I've seen the barn and traveled that road, mostly in deep winter, from Idaho! I'm with you. I can't imagine taking a wagon over it. Nice photographs, too. Nice to learn some more western history. Thank you!

Andrea Downing said...

Julie, the Teton Pass is certainly a road for good brakes! I'm headed up to Yellowstone next week and hoping they don't close the south entrance, as they did last week due to snow, because in that case I'd have to go down the pass and up to West Yellowstone! Guess I'm not made of that stern stuff ! Thanks for stopping by.