Legend has it that alchemists of the Middle Ages were obsessed with finding a way to turn "base metals" like iron into coveted gold. In the earliest days of pioneer Utah, however, iron itself was worth its weight in gold. Hard to find and costly to transport, it had become a precious metal.

"Iron we need," Brigham Young declared, "and iron we must have. We cannot well do without it, and have it we must, if we have to send to England for it."In the 1840s and '50s, before the railroads kicked into high gear, creating an even bigger demand, "there was no iron to be had in the United States," where foundries were few and far between, says Carl Davis. People even in the remote West needed the metal - for horseshoes, plow tips, nails, wagon-wheel rims and a host of other uses.

Journal entries by 18th-century explorers Escalante and Dominguez and by mountain man Jedediah Smith helped Mormon pioneers track down heavy black rocks near Cedar City. When stones brought back to Great Salt Lake City in saddle bags were assayed at 70 percent pure iron, Mormon leaders asked for 50 volunteers ("Farmers, Blacksmiths, Carpenters, Joiners, Millwrights, Bloomers, Moulders, Smelters, &c," said the Deseret News of July 27, 1850).

That tack proved less than successful - so the Iron Mission was born, and colonists were "called" to the southern outpost, explains Davis, a ranger at Iron Mission State Park.

Modern Cedar City traces its roots back to members of that delegation, who settled on Little Muddy - later Coal - Creek. On Tuesday, Nov. 11, the 146th anniversary of their arrival, the community will celebrate Iron Mission Days, with crafts demonstrations at the park, an afternoon town meeting at the Old Rock Church and the annual Birthday Ball at Southern Utah University. (See schedule on C2.)

When you say "state park," many people think of camping, fishing and other outdoor recreational pursuits. But Iron Mission State Park is a museum - one brimming with, and just about surrounded by, historical artifacts.

Out front is the 7-by-7-by-7-foot cage that once bedded up to four prisoners at the jail in Lund, once a rough rail junction town, as well as a Conestoga wagon and a few antique farm implements. Out back, visitors find the oldest structure built in Iron County, the George Wood log home ("the birthplace of 24 children," says a plaque), which began its career in Parowan in 1851 before being carted to Cedar City; an old granary; a transplanted mountain cabin; scores of pre-Civil War wagon wheels; dozens of wagons and more old farm equipment.

Inside are exhibits - including the original, locally made community bell - about the Iron Mission. The "Deseret Iron Co." experiment, said to be the first such foundry west of the Mississippi River, led to long-term settlement of the region but actually lasted only seven years. Unreliable fuel (local low-grade coal and juniper charcoal); the unpredictable creek; primitive iron-making works and personnel problems prompted Brigham Young to call an end to it in 1858, notes an entry by Morris A. Shirts in the "Utah History Encylopedia." Iron-related industries revived in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Other venerable museum artifacts derive from Daughters of Utah Pioneers collections, including dolls, photos and personal effects such as bow ties and lace.

And then there are the remarkable carriages and wagons of Cedar City's Gronway Parry.

Parry started accumulating and restoring old horse-drawn vehicles of every description in the 1930s, using many (some of them re-creations) in the Westerns made in the Kanab area. "He would provide the wagons and the outriders, and the local Paiutes would be the Indians," Davis says. Hollywood recruited and sent along the actors and moviemakers.

The best buggies, carts, drays and wagons are sheltered inside the museum, many with model horses in harness.

There's a top-of-the-line Clarence, a large family carriage, from Springville; an express wagon, used to carry mail and packages; a white turn-of-the-century milk delivery wagon with yellow-spoked wheels; and a surrey - complete with fringe on top. A sign by a simple but elegant pale hearse explains that "a white hearse carried children, a black hearse carried adults."

Americans could order many carriages and conveyances from the Sears, Roebuck catalog. An Albany cutter - a small horse-drawn sleigh - cost $12.95. Another mainstay, the Volkswagen Bug of its era, could be had for $10.50.

There are coaches, too. One is a replica, a bright-red beauty made for the 1966 version of "Stage-coach," starring Ann-Margret, Alex Cord and Bing Crosby. A real-life version sits nearby. It's a bit battered, but what would you expect, going back and forth over the Four Corners area a week at a time. "They had 11 to 15 people on a stage," Davis says. "People were always crowded, inside, riding with the driver and hanging off the top."

Real-life artisans ply their crafts at the museum, too. "Rawhide George" Renner makes beautiful cedar chests there. Participants in the federal Green Thumb program make rag rugs as durable as those from pioneer times. Quilters, spinners and a papermaker also rotate through.

Iron Mission State Park was created in the mid-1970s and moved to its present museum site in 1980, says park manager Todd Prince. A new master plan, which should guide efforts over the next decade and beyond, is being devised. Plans call for a new wing, allowing additional exhibits and storage space and offices. The state also wants to update the exhibits, in part to better reflect the original pioneer mission, Prince says, with perhaps a working blacksmith shop and hands-on demonstrations.