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See the past of Iron County

If you were a prospector in the mid-1850s, you were most likely looking for gold or silver -- unless you were a Mormon pioneer.

Brigham Young didn't set much store by those metals, because he felt it took more time and effort to mine them than they were worth, so he didn't encourage his people to go looking for them. But iron was another matter. President Young knew that iron was essential. "Iron we need, and iron we must have," he declared. "We cannot do well without it, and have it we must."Iron was an important enough metal that an age had been named after it, and that importance didn't decrease after the Industrial Age came along. But iron was scarce throughout the United States, which meant needed supplies were imported from England's Manchester and Leeds -- at great expense.

So, the pioneer hierarchy was delighted when rich iron ore deposits were discovered in southern Utah, near what is now Cedar City. A article appeared in the Deseret News on July 27, 1850, asking for volunteers to go south to be farmers, blacksmiths, joiners, millwrights, bloomers, moulders and smelters. Iron was needed for wagon wheels, tools, hammers, nails, pots and kettles, and Young meant to have it.

When volunteers didn't sign up, the church extended official callings to the Iron Mission. A site near Coal Creek was selected in November 1851 for the iron works. Ten months later a small blast furnace was finished, and the iron foundry opened.

Despite the fact that many of the laborers had worked in mines and foundries in England, they faced enormous difficulties in this frontier outpost: Indian troubles, floods, heavy freezes, furnace failures and more. The foundry was eventually closed down in 1858.

But if you are a modern prospector, looking for historical gems in this part of the state, one place to find them is at Iron Mission State Park in Cedar City, which tells the story of this little band of ironworkers.

"You get a sense of history for the region, why Iron County was settled," says Tom Prince, a ranger at the park. And you see how some of the early iron was used -- in everything from nails and wagon wheels to a large bell that was cast in 1854 and a 7-by-7-by-7-foot iron cage that once served as the jail. The museum also includes some structures from these pioneer days, including the George Wood log home, the oldest structure built in Iron County. (It was actually built in Parowan and was moved to the park.) Also in the housing section are an old granary and a mountain cabin, both of which were brought to the site. It gives you an idea of how these early settlers lived, says Prince.

But that's not all you get. While the iron story is central to the dioramas and exhibits, "we also have a transportation theme," says Prince. "You can get a pretty good idea of how people got around in the olden days -- from pioneer wagons to the end of the horse-drawn era. Begun by local resident Gronway Parry in 1911, the collection features vehicles used from 1870 to 1930 and includes such things as a bullet-scarred overland stage from the Butch Cassidy era, a reproduction of a legendary Wells Fargo stagecoach, a Stanhope Phaeton (the forerunner of today's compact car), and an original Studebaker White Top Wagon as well as buggies, surreys, mail carts, horse-drawn farm machinery, a hearse and a "one-horse, open sleigh."

The park offers a full schedule of special activities. An exhibit featuring petroglyph reproductions and sandstone sculptures by Rusty Galetka opens July 24. On Sept. 10, Mel Bashore will present a one-man show on "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Utah: Laughable Incidents on the Mormon Trail." Iron Mission Days, celebrating the founding of Cedar City will be held Nov. 10-11.

Throughout July and August, a different craftperson or artist is featured each weekend, exploring and demonstrating pioneer crafts such as quilt-making, braided rug-making, woodworking.

George "Rawhide" Renner has been making wooden chests at the park for the past couple of years -- making them the old-fashioned way, without metal. Handles are made of rawhide; the tops of the chests are curved for strength. "They used to store chests like these six high in the holds of ships," he explains, as he shows how the woodworking is done with his hand tools. And you don't share Renner's chest-making skills without sharing some of his homespun philosophy. "The art of living is simple," he says. "Be honest. Be kindly."

He figures he is doing something for America by making his chests. "I make beautiful hope chests and maybe they'll inspire women to be better women and mothers," says Renner. "Say," he adds, "could you tell people I could use a couple of apprentices here. I'll teach 'em how to make a living."

Iron Mission State Park is somewhat different from many of the state parks in that it focuses on history rather than recreation. Picnic tables are available, but there is no camping. It is open daily (except major holidays) from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. in the summer and to 5 p.m. in the winter. A small admission fee is charged.

If you want to do further prospecting in the area, Iron County's "Centennial Circle" offers more opportunities for adventure. Put together as a project for the state's centennial, this tour stretches from beyond Paragonah on the east to Modena on the west and highlights other historical and scenic attractions in the area. All are accessible by car, although some roads are unpaved. If you are in Cedar City for the Shakespeare Festival and have some extra time, there's a lot more to see and do. Here's a sampling:

Old Spanish Trail: A small portion of the trail used by early Spanish explorers, trappers and pioneers traveling from Santa Fe to California can be seen about 39 miles northeast of Cedar City. On U-20, at Mile Marker 13, you find Little Creed Road, which is a remnant of the old Spanish Trail. This road will take you to Paragonah.

Parowan Heritage Park: This park is located at the base of Heap's Springs, where Parley Pratt's first exploring company erected a flag pole and dedicated the area as the "City of Little Salt Lake."

Cedar City Rock Church: Built by Mormons during the Great Depression with donated labor and local sandstone quarried from Cedar Breaks and Bryce Canyon National Park, the church is on the corner of Center Street and 100 East. Guided tours are available from June through September.

South Rim of the Great Basin Monument: Known as the "divide" by early travelers, John C. Fremont was the first to formally conclude that this area was the southern boundary of Lake Bonneville. A monument is located on the Old Kanarraville road south of Cedar City.

Cobble Crest: The outdoor Cobblecrest Dance Pavilion, located on the corner of 100 South and 200 East in Kanarraville, was the site of Saturday night dances that drew people from all over southern Utah. Built in 1934 by local volunteers, it is the oldest outdoor dance hall still in use today.

Old Iron Town: About 24 miles west of Cedar City on Old Iron Town Road, you'll find the remains of an old iron-working settlement, including a well-preserved coke oven.

More information and maps for the Centennial Circle are available at Iron Mission State Park. For more information on either the park or the circle tour, call the park at 435-586-9290. Happy prospecting!