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Lehi looks to past to bolster future

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LEHI — A pane of glass placed in the floor of Carl Mellor's Historic Lehi Hotel literally is a window to the past.

Visitors to the hotel who peer through the glass can see a blacksmith shop and a bucket well that have sat underneath the floorboards of the hotel since the mid-1800s.

Next to the hotel stands a pioneer school Mellor finished restoring this month. He spent $370,000 on renovations.

Why would a man old enough to spend his retirement relaxing in the shade put glass in his floor and spend thousands of dollars in the name of history?

Because for people like Carl Mellor, the future of this small Utah County town can be found in its past.

Lehi was settled by Mormon pioneers in the fall of 1850 and by 1860 the city was already a main communication and transportation point for the Mountain West. The original telegraph line and the Pony Express and Overland Stage routes both ran through Lehi.

The burg's historical legacy is most evident on Main Street, where a restaurant dedicated to Porter Rockwell, an early Mormon legend who has become Lehi's most famous resident, sits between old red-brick buildings that have colorful histories steeped in the traditions of the Old West.

For proof, history buffs can take a gander at the Cobblerock Clogger's building, the second-oldest edifice on Main Street. The bar housed here in the 1800s was furnished with such opulent items as high-backed chairs, crystal lights and posh mirrors. The Prohibition era drove away the owners and the building was eventually turned into a library, then a funeral parlor, then a harness shop.

Lehi also boasts 10 private homes and six commercial buildings listed on the national historic register, including the Lehi Roller Mills that was featured in the 1980s movie, "Footloose."

Before the brick and adobe buildings crumble or are torn down for new developments, the Lehi Historical Commission is doing all it can to maintain these links to the past.

The commission hopes to make Main Street a historical district. If the city council approves the idea, the commission will have more control over restoration projects in the area and could receive more grant money from the Utah State Historical Society.

The Main Street restoration project is important to city leaders because commuters use the route when travelling to growing communities to the west like Saratoga Springs and Eagle Mountain.

"If we don't maintain Main Street it appears that our town is decaying. A vibrant main street increases our tax base because it will attract new businesses," said Richard Van Wagoner, who heads the Lehi Historic Commission.

Van Wagoner also said historical buildings give the town character and set Lehi apart.

"A community that doesn't preserve its historical buildings doesn't stand out," he said. "If you drive through Orem or Sandy you'll notice everything looks the same."

Besides the Main Street project, Van Wagoner is involved in several other efforts to maintain the city's historical flavor.

The "crowning jewel" — as Van Wagoner calls it — is the restoration of the 1872 Southern Utah Railroad Depot.

Lehi's depot was originally the final stop for the Mormon railroad, which began in Ogden and ran from 1872 to 1973 under the management of seven railroad companies.

A project 10 years in the making, the depot restoration will cost around $210,000 in grant money and private donations. The depot, 225 E. State, will be accurate on the exterior and interior and should be completed this fall, officials say.

The ground floor will feature a museum with a transportation theme including ticket and baggage rooms historically accurate right down to the window panes.

"It was fun to tear it all out because we found the original ticket window. I've been thinking about the project for the last nine years. It's been a labor of love" says John Rockwell, who also works with the Lehi Historic Commission.

Rockwell has also been busy with another memorial that hits a bit closer to home: a statue of his great-great-grandfather, Porter Rockwell. The statue, now nearly finished, will be placed in Pioneer Heritage Park, 100 N. Center, near a monument dedicated to Lehi's first pioneers.

Rockwell credits the new city administration for working so closely with the historic commission to preserve landmarks.

"A community that is interested in preserving its past is also interested in its future," Rockwell says. "That's why we're so active in this."

E-mail: jhyde@desnews.com