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Lighting up the past

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Most pioneers celebrated their first Thanksgiving in the Salt Lake Valley under the dim light of paraffin candles.

And no, it was neither luxurious nor romantic.The off-white candles burned fast, so they could only be used sparingly, said Carol Milne of Kaysville.

Milne and several other women in pioneer garb spent a recent Saturday at Old Deseret Village in This Is the Place State Park making old-fashioned paraffin candles.

Hand-dipped candlemaking was, and still is, a tedious task.

First, beef or sheep fat is rendered into tallow over an open-pit fire.

"Usually this happened in the fall when pioneers were slaughtering their animals," Milne said.

When the fat melted, it was scooped out, strained and blended with paraffin - a white, waxy petroleum substance. The mixture was then dipped into molds.

"The pioneers would make dozens and dozens of candles at one time . . . often they'd work in co-ops," said Milne.

Once cooled and hardened, the candles were generally placed in a closed container nailed to a wall. Candles left on the floor or tabletop were often eaten by mice, Milne explained.

Although paraffin candles were generally simple, a few pioneers would use herbs to improve their scent.

Beeswax candles were pioneer favorites, but they were more expensive to make unless the candlemaker owned hives.