Tuesday , March 18, 2014 - 2:19 PM
In late July a couple of decades or so ago I was checking in with Jonathan, a seminary classmate of mine, to make arrangements to stay overnight with him at his parsonage en route to fly fishing in Idaho. We were both new in Presbyterian ministry. I was the pastor of a center-city California congregation in a neighborhood so rough that cops patrolled the area three to a car. Jonathan served in Malad City, Idaho, where there might have been three cops for the whole county.
"By the way," Jonathan said, "they had a huge community festival here a couple of days ago." And then he added with some amazement, "It was bigger than the 4th of July!"
He also noted that the locals also cooked some of the best food he’d ever tasted over fire in strange three-legged cast-iron pots with concave lids.
"They probably called it Pioneer Day," I said.
He was silent for a moment and said, "Yeah, I guess you’d know about that."
A month later when Jonathan was ordained in the Malad City Presbyterian church I traveled from California to participate in the rite. My gift to him was a Dutch oven.
You don’t have to be a religious Mormon to appreciate the pioneer heritage that is so prominently celebrated in the West. Moreover, when I’m questioned about my Mormon ethnicity I’ll include the several hundred pounds of Dutch ovens I own as part of my credentials.
Some would argue that my obsession with Dutch ovens has nothing to do with my Mormon background, but rather, being afflicted with ferronic fixation disorder, sometimes called castironitis.
When Pioneer Day fell on Sunday last year, I included "Come, Come Ye Saints" in the hymn lineup for worship. The version we used was from a United Church of Christ hymnal wherein the third verse has been slightly revised so that non-Westerners, like people in Connecticut, can sing it.
A number of non-Utahns have remarked to me about the energy put into the Pioneer Day gala with parades, fireworks, etc. They had lived in other communities where they might have had a Founders Day, but they had never seen anything like Utah’s Pioneer Day.
Well, like a lot of things that are simply done better in Utah than elsewhere, our Founders Day — Pioneer Day, is the biggest community celebration of the year.
When I’m asked what the big deal is about, I explain that, in part, Pioneer Day celebrates the escape from the United States where systematic persecution of the Mormons was not only tolerated, but supported by state and local governments. The Mormon separation from the good ol’ USA lasted until the Treaty of Hidalgo, which was ratified ten months after Brigham Young said, "This is the place." My Mormon ancestors were en route to Zion at the time.
And of course there were others who came to Utah, some before the Mormons. Ogden is named after the leader of a Hudson’s Bay team of trappers who were in Utah in the 1830s. Fort Buenaventura was started by Miles Goodyear two years before the Mormons arrived. In fact, Goodyear encouraged Brigham Young to send settlers to what is now Weber County. Mormon leaders liked the idea so much that four months after arriving they approved the purchase of Goodyear’s fort for a small fortune.
The 1st Presbyterian Church of Salt Lake City established what would later become Westminster College the same year Brigham Young University was officially launched. And Presbyterians also set up the first school system in Utah.
All that to say, while Utah is clearly Mormon country, there were other pioneers.
Speaking of Founder’s Days — a few years ago the city fathers and mothers of Fruit Heights initiated a local founding celebration in early August. I guess some people just can’t get enough of this stuff. My church is located in Fruit Heights across the alfalfa field from city hall and is nicknamed, "Fruit Heights 12th Ward." We were asked to help out. To our horror we discovered that there were no plans for Dutch oven cooking at the Fruit Heights Founders Day. I think the lack of Dutch oven cooking at major community events in Utah is actually illegal. So the Presbyterians stepped up with their black pots and saved Fruit Heights from the ignominy of a Dutch oven-less celebration.
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