Soon after Brigham Young entered the Salt Lake valley, he slammed his cane into the ground and declared, “Right here will stand the temple of our God.” That same week, Young’s followers started to survey and build up a city from the desert floor. At what would be the city’s center, they laid the foundation for a temple. When pressured by others to push ahead to California, where the ground was wet and the soil fertile, Young replied, “This is a good place to make saints.” Young would die forty years later, but in that time he would organize and establish 350 colonies, mostly in Utah and southern Idaho, but some as far away as Mexico and Canada. His goal was a God-centered, utopian society
One of Young’s settlements was Little Denmark, now Spring City, in central Utah. Spring City stumbles at the base of two mountains the pioneers called “God’s Armchair” and the slightly smaller “Bishop’s Armchair.” Apart from a few veins of rich earth that a creek dragged down from the mountains, Spring City’s soil was acrid and white with oolitic sediment. Half a dozen natural springs dotted the valley, but they were highly contended for by the local Blackhawks who regularly raided the Mormon settlers. The Spanish flu came and the settlers who remained stayed indoors for nearly a year. One homesteader said of the valley, “not even a jackrabbit could exist.” The only things that seemed to thrive were sagebrush and rattlesnakes.
Spring City finally turned a corner around 1900. In February of 1913, 20,000 jackrabbits—the same rabbits that people thought couldn’t survive—were captured in and around the town. Everybody and everything—except the Blackhawks and the jackrabbits—seemed to enjoy some ease.
But Spring City reached its capacity. There wasn’t enough arable soil to sustain a larger population and only so many people could work at the local café, general store, creamery, saloon, and the milling company. They believed they were commanded by prophets and God to make the land yield support for their growing population, and when God could only offer a rainstorm here and a mild winter there, the settlers endeavored to change the one thing that would actually sustain them: the land itself, down to the character of the soil.
My great granddad, Simon T. Beck, ran beef cows on the mountain just north of God’s Armchair. When he tired of eating beef and mutton, he fished for brook trout in the small streams that wound on top of the flat mountain. He didn’t need rods, lures, flies or bait—he’d lean over a fallen log crossing the stream, drop a hook in the water and the fish would strike. He noticed most of the water eventually sloped off the east side of the mountain, away from Spring City.
I imagine it started with a single shovel load. Simon threw some rich, brown mountain earth into the stream and watched it dissolve in the water, then he threw in a few more loads. Then he moved some rocks and diverted the stream a couple of feet. Then he got his son, my granddad Osmer, to help him. After a couple of summers of bending the stream they ran into a problem. A big problem. A mountain. They talked to the city council and generated some interest. Working with money given by FDR’s New Deal, the town chopped terraces into the mountainside and started construction on a tunnel that would go through a few miles of mountain to bring water and soil down to Spring City. And the canyon that the stream once ran through puckered and wilted..