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Priceless commodities

Welfare Square, established more than 60 years ago, continues to help people help others

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The big pour began on the morning of May 6, 1940. It continued for 8 1/2 days, 24 hours a day, utilizing three shifts of men and boys, as the rounded walls of the grain elevator rose higher and higher.

Originally, builders thought pouring concrete for the granary would take twice that time, but the "loyalty and enthusiasm" of the crew pushed it forward.

The grain elevator was the newest addition at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' then-new Welfare Square, and pride in the building was justified. It was the largest concrete project in the history of the state up to that time, and it involved impressive statistics: 15,000 bags of cement, $12,000 worth of reinforcing steel, 640 men and boys working, 70,151 hours of labor contributed.

The elevator could hold 318,000 bushels of wheat (more than 19 million pounds), or enough to fill 191 railroad cars, a train that would stretch a mile-and-a-half long. It was not the largest in the world, not the most magnificent ever built, but it was an impressive achievement for the fledgling welfare program.

Finished by August, the granary was dedicated by LDS Church President David O. McKay. At the ceremonies, his counselor, J. Reuben Clark, noted that "this building represents, above all else, the spirit of cooperation. I wish that all of us could really appreciate what united effort could mean if we should cooperate in all things as we have in this enterprise."

For more than 60 years, the granary has been one of the most striking landmarks on the city's west side. Visible from many parts of the valley, a somewhat rural icon in an increasingly urban setting, it has remained a symbol of sharing and sacrifice, a tangible reminder of the dignity of work and the nobility of service that are the heart and soul of the church's welfare program.

"I'm sure a lot of people in the valley don't know just what that building is," says LDS Church Presiding Bishop H. David Burton. "But it is a symbol of everything we do."

He can't look at the granary, he says, without thinking of the scriptural admonition to "go and do likewise," which in itself is the essence — both simple and profound — of the LDS welfare program.

Born in the depths of the Great Depression, founded on the notion that no one should be comfortable until everyone has enough, the church's welfare program was introduced in 1936.

The idea of caring for the poor and needy was not new, of course. Soon after the pioneers arrived in the Salt Lake Valley, they set up a network of tithing offices and bishops' storehouses that could be drawn on in times of need. Fast offerings, monthly donations representing the cost of meals church members voluntarily went without, were specifically targeted toward helping the less fortunate.

But those programs were run by individual wards and stakes. And when the Depression hit, problems rose faster than many of the units could deal with them. Money was scarce; jobs were even scarcer. By the mid-1930s, an estimated 80,000 church members needed assistance with the basic necessities for life.

"The Great Depression brought everything together," explains Burton. "So many people were in the same boat that in many cases needs exceeded resources. The best way to meet those needs was to institutionalize some of the things some of the stakes had been doing."

The church would build a central storehouse, a central warehouse and manufacturing plants. Those in need could draw on it; those who were able could work for what they needed.

In announcing the program, then-President Heber J. Grant noted, "Our primary purpose was to set up, in so far as it might be possible, a system under which the curse of idleness would be done away with, the evils of a dole abolished, and independence, industry, thrift and self-respect be once more established amongst our people. The aim of the church is to help the people help themselves."

And thus Welfare Square came into being.

In 1937, Henry D. Moyle, a member of the General Church Welfare Committee, found a 10-acre block near what is now 700 West and 700 South. For $100, he was able to purchase most of it (some buildings on the southeast corner were owned by an oil company, and the railroad owned tracks that cut across one edge).

In 1938, eight buildings on Regent Street and Plum Alley in downtown Salt Lake City were condemned, and the church offered to do the demolition work in exchange for any materials it could salvage.

Again, volunteer labor was called upon. Workers were able to save bricks, boards, electrical wire, panes of glass, even a couple of elevators — materials valued at about $20,000 at that time.

They were all transported to Welfare Square, where new crews came in to knock mortar off the bricks, pull nails out of lumber and do whatever they could to make the material reusable.

The first thing built on the square was a root cellar — insulated with bales of straw and large enough to store 50 railroad carloads worth of potatoes.

Next came a cannery, where fruits and vegetables could be processed. A heating plant was added. And in 1941, a small milk-processing plant was built.

Those first buildings were nothing fancy, notes Glen L. Rudd, who served as manager at Welfare Square for 25 years, from 1957 until 1982. But they were adequate. "They were built out of salvage materials." But that was fitting, he added, "because the purpose was to salvage people's lives."

The 1940 grain elevator is the only building left on the square from those early years. As the world has changed, as needs have changed, the other buildings have been remodeled, updated, replaced.

The latest renovation project, dedicated on Wednesday, represents the third Welfare Square, says Rudd, who has been associated with them all.

Those original buildings, built of already-old materials, had pretty much reached the end of their life-span by the 1960s. So, a new milk-processing plant and a larger cannery were added. A refrigerated storage center replaced the old root center.

Another change came. The state was building I-15 and asked to buy a small portion of the northeast corner of the square. "I was not anxious to sell," says Rudd, who felt that needs for their services were only going to increase, and they needed every inch of land.

But the church agreed to the transaction — and, as it turned out, was able to use the money to purchase a half-a-block of land across 700 South. The street itself was going to be shut off by the freeway, and that land was donated to the church. The oil company's property in the southwest corner was purchased, and the railroad tracks were removed.

And so Welfare Square, which now is technically more of a rectangle, became half-again as large as it was. "All because," says Rudd, "of President Moyle's willingness to sell the small corner for the construction of the freeway."

In 1976, a larger, more modern Bishops' Storehouse was completed. The old storehouse was replaced by a Deseret Industries building in 1983.

But by 1998, technology had again outstripped facilities, and the church decided to embark on a major four-year renovation project to remodel and update the milk processing plant, the cannery and bakery.

As the church grew and the program expanded, Welfare Square was used as a pattern for facilities in other states. There are now more than a hundred storehouses in major cities and states all over the country.

"But there's only one Welfare Square," says Rudd. And its proximity to church headquarters has meant that visitors and political leaders have come from all over the world to tour the facilities.

At one time, daily shuttle buses brought visitors from Temple Square to Welfare Square. The shuttle buses no longer run, but visitors are welcome, and tours are offered, says J. Marvin Lewis, current manager of the square.

Any visitors will see impressive things: huge ovens where 360 loaves of bread can be baked at one time; where 2,500 loaves are made each day, sending out the most delicious aroma. "Everybody says it smells good here, but you get used to it," says bakery plant manager Jim Blake.

In the cannery, four full-time employees supervise daily crews of 20 volunteers. At a rate of 13,000 bottles a day, they produce raspberry or strawberry jam, applesauce, spaghetti sauce and salsa, using a hot-fill and hold process that is state-of-the art, says Roger Lloyd, cannery manager. New equipment has made "a dramatic difference," he says. "Before, everything was in cans, but now we use bottles. The quality of the product is better, and it's nice for patrons to be able to re-seal the bottle."

The cannery also offers dry-pack canning of such things as apple slices, potato pearls, vanilla pudding, oats and pinto beans. This section is available for church members who want to add these products to their own food storage.

In the milk processing plant, not only milk but also butter, cottage cheese, sour cream and Cheddar cheese are processed. All the milk comes from church dairies at BYU and Elberta.

The products are produced under the Deseret label and sent over to the Bishops' Storehouse for distribution to patrons. Nothing is ever sold commercially.

Products produced at other centers — peanut butter from Texas, for example; cake mixes and gelatin from Kaysville; soup and pasta products from Kearns; potatoes and beans from Idaho — are also shipped here for distribution.

They are supplemented by some commercially produced commodities. "We used to even make light globes and toothpaste," says Rudd. But now it is more cost effective to purchase some of those things, he says.

The ratio is about two-thirds Deseret label and one-third outside products, says Lewis.

Occasionally, surplus products are given to local food banks and other charitable groups. But they are never sold. As the sign in the storehouse proclaims: "Deseret — the brand that money can't buy."

Every morning at 8, anywhere from 30 to 100 people will gather at the door of the Bishops' Storehouse, waiting for the doors to open. They are considered transients, although they may not all be homeless; but they have come here for help.

Each one will meet with one of the Transient Bishops at the center, who will determine what jobs they might perform in exchange for supplies. Often they will help with restocking the shelves. They may help with cleanup or even painting.

There is a dignity in working rather than receiving a hand-out, says Rudd, and that has been a fundamental premise of the welfare program from the beginning.

By 10 a.m., all the shelves will be stocked, and the storehouse will be open to patrons, who come with a bishop's order, detailing the commodities and supplies they can pick up.

"The storehouse is like a bank," says Lewis. "We fill it up with supplies, and then people are allowed to draw on it."

They, too, may be asked to work; if not at the storehouse, perhaps at the Deseret Industries store. The store, which is filled with donated clothes, "as is" merchandise and a line of D.I.-manufactured furniture and is open to the general public, also serves as a training and rehabilitation center.

"We have three categories of people," explains store manager Bill Reynolds. (1) some have disabilities that make it difficult to work in a regular business; (2) some are vocationally impaired — they may not speak English or have other factors that limit their ability to get a regular job; (3) and some are considered "work adjusted" — they are in the process of learning new skills and being placed in the marketplace.

Currently, he says, they have a staff of eight people and a force of 75 trainees. "We're basically running with trainees. And," he adds, "we speak nine different languages here." In addition to work training, English classes are taught.

Another important thing to remember, says Reynolds, is that most of what is sold in the store is donated. Things that come in and can't be used here are sent over to the Humanitarian Center for use in worldwide humanitarian projects. "But we couldn't exist without the generosity of the community."

The facilities are now state-of-the-art. Welfare Square serves as a sheltered workshop, a manufacturing plant, a storehouse of commodities, a rich and vital resource, says Bishop Burton. "It's a special place. I don't know of another place quite like it anywhere in the world."

And yet, for all that, it is not a place of bricks and mortar, he says, but a place of people. "Thousands and thousands and thousands of people have been blessed because of it — both as receivers and, equally important, as givers."

Welfare Square is where it all comes together, he says, where those who give intersect with those who receive. It is the junction box for all the people who have sweated and pulled weeds on a welfare farm project or volunteered to help with canning or gave of goods or fast offerings to connect with all those who have been in need.

It is a place, he says, of dignity on both sides.

And its impact is being felt far beyond this valley or this state. In church terminology, Burton says, "welfare" is the word used for church members, and "humanitarian" is the word used for assistance given to others. "But there is no question that the basis of the great humanitarian work the church does worldwide is rooted in the heart and soul of the welfare program."

The church would not be able to ship goods all over the globe, respond immediately to disasters such as earthquakes and floods and reach out in the many ways it does, if the foundation had not been laid so many years ago in establishing the welfare program.

The program also gives the church a chance to partner with other charitable organizations, both locally and worldwide, to help increase the work those groups do, to help them reach and help more people.

"It's impossible to say," he says, "where the rings of the pebble stop."

From humble beginnings, the welfare program has grown into a worldwide force. And Welfare Square, easily recognizable because of the old grain elevator that for 60 years has been a reminder of the power of cooperation and the blessing of work, still sits at the center of it all.

"There's a special spirit here," says Lewis. "It's hard to describe it. But if you come and work for a day, you'll feel it."

Email: carma@desnews.com