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Small towns in a big world

Laketown and environs are connected but somehow remain untouched

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On June 4, 1936, Elgie Moss and Clayton Robinson spoke their wedding vows in the Logan LDS Temple and then boarded a Greyhound bus that would take them to Pocatello, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles and the Hoover Dam before coming back to Logan.

Elgie was from Woodruff and Clayton from Laketown, two small towns in northern Utah's Rich County, and that three-week honeymoon was a grand adventure, said Clayton 65 years later.

"Nowadays, students go on field trips to California or Washington, D.C. Back then, our idea of a field trip was to go up to Woodruff Creek," he said. So, setting off to see the world like that was quite something.

Nor would it be the only time. "I remember the time we loaded up the car and drove to the World's Fair in Montreal," said Eldon, one of five children born to the Robinsons. "I always marveled that they would do that, especially in those days. They wanted their children to see beyond Laketown. Education has always been important to them."

But the Robinsons were content to live in Laketown. Except for a few years spent in Laramie and Cheyenne, they have lived there most of their married life. Knowing there's a wide world beyond was enough; this is the land of their heritage. Clayton's grandfather was one of the original settlers in the valley. His mother and father lived and died there. Clayton has been a farmer, an educator and a public servant. The family has been active in church and community. They've enjoyed the recreation afforded by Bear Lake.

"It's been a good life," said Clayton.

Oh, there have been times, said Elgie, when she would have liked a new house. The Robinsons live in the two-story frame house built by his grandfather. "The bedrooms are all upstairs. But we finally did get a bathroom put in down here." They are both now 88, after all, and stairs can be a challenge. But, she said, "we've been happy and contented here."

Life has been full and busy; not perfect, but whose is? They've just done the normal things, she said. "But, sometimes, I look in the mirror, and think, 'What happened? I look just like my mother.'"

On June 2, 2001, Clayton and Elgie celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary at a family gathering in Logan Canyon. Some 58 people were in attendance; all but four grandchildren were there, two of them on LDS missions. Daughter Marian Ashcroft came with her family from North Carolina; sons Eldon, C.H. and Duane and their families were there (another son, John, died of a heart attack a couple of years ago).

"We have 22 grandchildren and 23 great-grandchildren," said Clayton, proudly. "I guess you could say our family tree extends a bit."

Family, faith, education and hard work — those have been the things that have defined life for the Robinsons, and others, who have laid down roots in this little corner of the state.

"Only men with plenty of hair on 'em are tough enough to stand the climate of Bear Lake," early settler Joseph C. Rich told his future wife in 1863. Cold temperatures aside, though, he found the area rich in both beauty and possibilities. "What a country!" he exclaimed.

Not everyone felt that way. "The early history of Rich County is peppered with examples of settlers who came, spent one winter and then left the next spring," notes Robert Parsons in his "History of Rich County." "The paths of outgoing settlers crossed the paths of other incoming settlers, as the population of Rich County has either declined or remained static during much of its history."

The Bear Lake Valley was drawn into American history early on; it was popular with Mountain Men and fur trappers in the 1820s. At least two major rendezvous were held near the lake's south shore, near present day Laketown, one in 1827 and other in 1828.

At that time, it was actually part of Mexican-claimed territory. By the time the Mormon pioneers arrived, it had come under American control — though still the territory of Shoshonis under the leadership of Chief Washakie.

The first settlers, led by Charles C. Rich, arrived in the valley on Sept. 18, 1863, with permission of Washakie to settle in the north end of the valley — and explicit instructions to leave the south end of the valley vacant.

But those instructions were largely ignored; by the next year, settlers had established Meadowville and Round Valley and then nearby Laketown.

In 1866, Charles Rich met with Washakie; and the chief, bowing to the inevitable, gave his permission for settlement on lands "as far as he could see" from a hill overlooking Bear Lake. In 1868, the Shoshonis moved to the newly created Uinta Wind River Reservation to the north.

The settlers found rich land for agriculture and soon built canals for irrigation. But these northern outposts would always be the purview of small towns rather than big cities.

"You have to enjoy wintertime," said Eldon Robinson. "It can be lengthy." As they say — nine months of cold and three months of not-so-hot.

But, said Clayton, "some winters the cold isn't as bad as it is in Logan or Montpelier. The lake — especially when it doesn't freeze — has some effect."

Bear Lake is known for its sparkling blue water. "People often ask how we get it to be so blue," said Eldon, who is park manager of the Bear Lake State Park. "We like to tell them we pour in blue dye or that so-and-so painted the bottom."

Actually, he said, there is a scientific explanation for the exceptional color. Limestone particles suspended in the lake absorb light and reflect back blue-green colors. That coupled with a sandy bottom and mostly shallow depth give the lake hues ranging from azure or turquoise to sky blue.

Add some clouds and a blue sky, and "you have a beautiful, beautiful place," said Eldon.

That scenic outlook combines with recreational possibilities to bring thousands of visitors to Bear Lake each summer. Peak season runs from about June 15 to Labor Day. "A lot of it has to do with the temperature of the water, which usually hits 72 degrees towards the end of July," he said.

In recent years, development has increased tremendously in and around Garden City. "Originally, development was all on the lake front," said Eldon. "Now there's a lot in the foothills, which increases the need for public access to the lake."

The good thing, he said, is that the lake is large; with about 110 square miles of surface: "Even on the busiest day, there's still ample room." Still, he said, as the crowds increase, they have to anticipate and be ready.

So far, the development has had minimal impact on Laketown. "It's tough for developers to come in, because so much of the land is handed down from father to sons," said Eldon.

What's nice, he said, is that on the busiest day of the year, you can go a block off Main Street and get away from it all. "And that's just the way we like it," said Clayton. "The other morning I went out and saw two pairs of Sandhill cranes, cavorting and courting and carrying on. You don't get that in the city."

That's not to say they avoid the summer crowds all together. Including Round Valley and Meadowville, the population of Laketown is now about 300, he said. But during the summer, and particularly on holiday weekends, they can get as many as 800 people coming to church on Sunday.

Sheri Heflin, who runs the Historic Rock Store, one of Laketown's oldest landmarks, also notices the crowds. "It only takes one person to run the store in the winter, but we need four in the summer. We work our butts off in the summer."

The store is of the old general variety. "We do mostly groceries, plumbing and hardware," said Heflin. But one of the most popular things is the penny candy she sells. "I still have the original counter (the store was built in 1910); the top is so scratched you can't see through it." But on busy weekends, she said, they will have a line of people who will wait up to an hour just to buy the penny candy.

Heflin has only lived in Laketown for a couple of years. "But my family used to spend summers at the old Ideal Beach, so this was like a second home." Moving from Salt Lake was not really an adjustment, she said, at least for her. "My daughter had to come from Murray High to a school where her graduating class had 34 kids."

It's a very close-knit community, she said. Everybody knows everybody. "But they aren't nosy. Maybe because they already know what's going on. If an ambulance comes, everyone knows why, and pretty soon they are showing up with bread and casseroles. Everyone genuinely cares; they'd do anything to help."

For wedding gifts, she said, everyone chips in for one big town gift. True, for doctors and dentists and such, they have to go to Logan or Montpelier. "But for a lot of the shopping, everybody has computers and catalogs. Mail comes slow, but it does get here."

Clayton remembers when he used to go haying in the fields near the state park. "The first working out I did was for Hyrum Nebeker when I was 14 along here," he said, pointing to still grassy fields in the area.

And in those days, he said, everyone had at least one cow. The milk truck would come by every day to collect extra milk to take it to the creamery.

That and the gristmill were about the only industry Laketown ever had. And they are both gone. Then, as now, agriculture was a prime occupation for people.

Clayton has about 270 acres all together that he still works, fields in several places around Laketown and Round Valley. "By the time my father got old enough to do anything, all the good land was gone," he said, so he bought up what he could here and there.

For a time, the Robinsons had cows. But it's too much work now to move them on and off the mountain for summer grazing, so he turned to Hereford steers.

This is how it works, he said, not entirely tongue-in-cheek. "We buy them for a high price in the spring. We sell them for a low price in the fall. But they keep the pasture cleaned for us."

That iffy nature of agriculture is partly why he went into education.

Clayton graduated from Utah State University with a degree in zoology and a minor in math. He went to Woodruff to teach school, and that's where he got to know Elgie. They both were in a community play. "We had to make our own entertainment in those days," he said.

After they were married, he had a chance to work for the Fish & Game Commission, doing field work in the Wind River Range. He also worked for the Union Pacific Railroad for five years in Wyoming.

"By then my father was getting older, and Laketown was looking for a schoolteacher, so we came back here."

In those days, grades K-12 met in the old school. Clayton soon became principal of the school.

That wasn't always easy, having his dad as principal, said C.H. "But he tried to be fair. I sure didn't get any preferential treatment. He was a good educator."

It's nice, he said, how many people still come up to him to say how much they admired his father, how much he touched their lives.

"People used to call him 'Shortcut,' because he could do math so well. If anyone had a math problem, they came to him. They didn't have calculators in those days, but he was a whiz. He tutored a lot of college students, as well."

Clayton had also gotten involved in politics early. "I made the mistake of hanging out with the Democrats, and before I knew it, I was on the ticket and got elected county attorney. I didn't know any more about law than I did marbles."

That was back in the 1930s. In the 1980s, he was elected to two terms as mayor of Laketown. Projects involved putting up street signs, making sure all the houses had numbers, building new tennis courts and creating a city park.

Since he has retired, Clayton has also taken up crocheting. His afghans regularly win blue ribbons and even best-of-show at the county fair. His mother taught him how to knit, said Clayton. "But that was too slow, so Elgie taught me how to crochet." It gives him something to do, she said, while he watches ballgames.

"They've been a great couple," said C.H. "Not only did they manage to eke out a living of their own, but they were always helping others. They were good friends, good neighbors."

Is there a secret to living together for 65 years? "We just fight everything out," said Clayton, with a twinkle in his eye.

No secret, smiles Elgie. "We just took it a day at a time. This was all we knew, and we tried to make the best of it. I never dreamed I'd live all my life in Laketown. But they've been good years. This is a good place to live, a good place to raise children."

Peace, contentment, tradition and a full life — that's what they've found in this little corner of the state.

E-MAIL: carma@desnews.com