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Ghost town reawakening

New Widtsoe ‘settlers’ just stay for nice seasons

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WIDTSOE, Garfield County — You had to be tough to live in Widtsoe. Like many of Utah's pioneer settlements of the late 1800s, the town offered what would be seen by today's Utahns as a hardscrabble life. Though its dry farms provided families a fairly good subsistence by pioneer standards, it was mostly hard work and make-do for the members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and a few "Gentiles" who settled into the little town on the east fork of the Sevier River in Johns Valley.

Today, a new breed of "settlers" is buying land at the old townsite and surrounding areas, restoring human involvement, but of a different sort. Mainly, they're coming with trailer homes or other temporary quarters that they can call home for the "nice" seasons. Then when the weather gets miserable, they pull up stakes and return to their permanent homes.

The "recreational" mode is perfect for those who like the serenity of sparsely inhabited desert, hiking, camping and just looking at Utah's canyon country. Widtsoe is close to some of Utah's premier desert canyon scenery — Bryce Canyon National Park is just south, with Capitol Reef to the east and Zion National Park an easy drive southwest.

"We don't anticipate any kind of permanent community there again," said Garfield County tourism director Bruce Fullmer. There is little in the area to induce the rise of a permanent town.

The town was named for Dr. John A. Widtsoe, a pioneer-era LDS leader whose work in developing irrigation and dry farming techniques made many of the arid Great Basin's settlements feasible. His landmark work set a standard for agricultural efforts in other desert regions as well.

The community also went by the name of Winder for a time.

By the mid-1930s, a long period of drought had taken its toll and the town was abandoned, joining the ranks of Utah's ghost towns. Only a few remnants of buildings, foundations and the flotsam and jetsam of human occupation were left to mark the site, though an annual gathering of former residents keeps the memories alive.

Archaeologists unearthed a lot of the "folks-once-lived-here" debris in a survey that paved the way for the Utah Schools and Institutional Trust Lands Administration to sell some of the land. The school trust owned approximately a third of the land in and around Widtsoe.

Trust lands were granted to Utah at statehood, with four sections per township across the state earmarked for support of the public schools. In recent years, the trust lands administration has actively marketed some of the land to augment the permanent trust fund. Interest from the fund goes to schools and some other state institutions that also were granted lands at statehood.

To date, the trust has sold 14 lots in Widtsoe, each approximately an acre, for prices ranging from $4,000 to $9,000. The sales have added $83,905 to the permanent trust fund. About two dozen lots remain and they probably will be included in future trust lands auctions, said Diane Durrant of the administration. The agency also has some water rights that can be sold with the property — an important plus in the desert locale.

The trust lands administration contracted with Desert Research Institute of Las Vegas to do the archaeological survey as a necessary first step to selling the land. A review to detect any significant archaeological or historic values on the trust lands is a prerequisite to any sales.

"We've used (the Nevada firm) at several locations and they do a great job for us," said Kenny Wintch, lead staff archaeologist with the trust lands administration.

What the archaeologists found at Widtsoe was the remains of a typical early Utah pioneer settlement, said Anne DuBarton of Desert Research Institute. She was one of a four-member team that looked at all aspects of the town's remains. Like most LDS communities, it was laid out on the "Zion" pattern, with a large park and church meetinghouse in the center, surrounded by one-acre family lots. Grain farms located on the periphery provided the community's main sustenance, supplemented by home gardens.

"Given the profusion of broken canning jars, I'd say this was a largely self-sufficient population," DuBarton said. Thousands of glass shards from hundreds of canning jars evoked visions of dozens of housewives toiling over hot wood-burning stoves in the desert heat to provide their families fruits and vegetables for the winter ahead. And harsh winters they were. At an altitude of 7,200 feet, the town was surrounded by walls of snow and ice that isolated it for several months each year.

"Some artifacts we found reflected a higher or lower socioeconomic status" among the town's residents, DuBarton said. "For example, we found pieces of decorative glass near one of the larger, better preserved homes. Those items indicate a higher household income.

One of her favorite finds during the 10-day survey was the remnants of the Woodard family home, where "we were able to find scraps of the original wallpaper."

The team discovered some remnants of American Indian occupation — a tool, chips from arrowheads and other evidence of human occupation that predated the pioneers. Those items were left intact, she said.

The archaeologists also found evidence that some non-LDS folk lived in Widtsoe. Records indicated at least 10 residents were not affiliated with the church, but it wasn't possible, DuBarton said, always to determine where they lived based on the use of tobacco, coffee and alcohol. The evidence showed that most of the town's residents partook of these products. The church sanction against them was not much enforced in that early era.

"Collecting documentary evidence and walking around town I could easily imagine people living there," one of the archaeologists wrote. "Even in its heyday, Widtsoe was not an easy place to live. It was a hard life in a harsh environment, but the people created a good life for themselves."

The items recovered from the archaeological survey were turned over to the trust lands administration, DuBarton said, and are expected to become part of the collection housed in the Utah Museum of Natural History.

By the early '30s, with irrigation water dwindling, aggravated by erosive winds, Widtsoe suffered the fate of hundreds of American communities in the Depression/Dust Bowl era. It simply dried up. Its remaining residents requested federal assistance and received New Deal money to relocate.

The influx of new landowners signals a new, probably much less romantic, chapter in Widtsoe's history.

E-mail: tvanleer@desnews.com