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Provo's wild bunch

Early mayors helped shape the city's rough and tumble reputation

Provo's first mayor narrowly escaped a famous massacre on property he owned.

Another of the city's early mayors hid from polygamy raids in a secret room under the floor of his closet, where a rug covered the trap door to the hideout.

These and other stories prove that the histrionics on display in this fall's mayoral race — which finally ends with today's election — are certainly not the first and probably not even the best dramas to have played out in a city LDS Church President Brigham Young once put on par with hell.

Brigham Young summoned Abraham O. Smoot in early 1868 and told him to pack his bags, according to a Smoot family history titled "Abraham Owen Smoot: A testament of His Life" housed in the Special Collections section at the Provo City Library. Smoot would be leaving Salt Lake City, where he'd recently completed a decade as that city's second mayor.

"There are three places, all on a par, one is as good as the other," Brigham Young told Smoot, according to the account in the book. "They are Provo, hell or Texas. You can take your choice."

Smoot protested strongly about the call to move south and clean up a Provo that President Young believed was putting the Wild in Wild, Wild West.

"I'd rather go to hell than to Provo," Smoot said.

Of course, Smoot agreed to go. President Young doubled as governor of the Territory of Deseret, and he made sure Smoot had similarly broad authority. Young nominated Smoot to be Provo's eighth mayor, then named him the LDS bishop of the city and Utah (County) Stake president.

Smoot was Provo's mayor for a record 13 years (1868-1881), back when mayoral terms lasted two years. The city didn't switch to four-year terms until 1962. Verl Dixon won the 1961 election and served three terms. No mayor since has won three four-year terms, though Mayor Lewis Billings would match that feat today with a victory over challenger Dave Bailey.

Smoot had six wives and approximately 25 children. The wives were the reason for the trap door under the rug in his home at 192 S. 100 East.

Smoot saw plenty of gunfire during his days as a Mormon pioneer, but it was Provo's first mayor, Ellis Eames, who had a close brush with death at the Haun's Mill Massacre in Missouri in 1838.

Eames was co-owner of the mill, according to family history accounts. About 30 to 40 families lived in a settlement around the mill, which was attacked by a mob of 250 just three days after Missouri Gov. Lilburn Boggs ordered Mormons driven out of the state or exterminated.

Men, women and children were among the 17 who died at Haun's Mill.

"The women," Eames later wrote, "seeing our situation and expecting no better treatment, took to flight, taking their little ones along with them and running away from a scene of murder which it is impossible to portray."

Olive Eames (also Ames) ran and hid with the couple's children under a bluff in a little nook by the creek. Provo's future mayor wouldn't wait long to follow their flight.

"One young man standing immediately next to me was shot," he wrote. "Seeing no prospect before us but death . . . we thought it advisable for us to try to make our escape by running out of the shop and cross the mill dam."

Olive Eames witnessed his escape.

"No sooner had I concealed myself (under the bluff) than my husband, Mr. Ames, and old Father McBride ran past, hunting a place of concealment. He called to me as he passed, 'Have you all the children?' 'Yes,' I said, 'all four.'"

Ellis Eames later found a hole in the tail of his coat.

Not much is readily known about Eames' single term (1851-52) as Provo's mayor, but there are two interesting stories about him before he seemed to disappear from the history books that are contained in family records.

First, a defendant with a knife charged at Eames while he was serving with 14 others on a grand jury in March 1853. And later, the City Council voted in August 1853 to grant him "the right to make malt liquors or ale free of license."

Wild West, indeed.

Some historians thought Eames then disappeared from the record, which really meant that Utah and LDS historians lost track of him because he moved to California and left the LDS Church.

Family accounts show Eames took his two wives to San Bernardino, where he became the district attorney. It's clear he renounced polygamy, but a granddaughter's account is obviously overstated.

"My grandfather could not endure conditions there, as he did not believe in polygamy," Olive May Ames wrote. "Brigham had forced my grandfather to take another wife. It almost killed my grandmother but Brigham Young would have killed all of them as he was a complete dictator. My grandfather and grandmother in some way managed to get away. They made their way to San Bernardino. As soon as possible they sent the second wife back to her people in Utah."

Other ancestors portray it differently, saying it was the "second wife," Sarah Haskell, who left Eames after he joined the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.