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Living history: The past comes to life at Antelope Island's Fielding Garr Ranch

When there is no hardware store near your remote island home, say at Antelope Island?s Fielding Garr ranch, what would YOU use to support the curtain rods if you haven?t the usual household necessities? A nail and a spare spoon perhaps? Photo by Ray Boren
When there is no hardware store near your remote island home, say at Antelope Island?s Fielding Garr ranch, what would YOU use to support the curtain rods if you haven?t the usual household necessities? A nail and a spare spoon perhaps? Photo by Ray Boren
Ray Boren, Ray Boren

ANTELOPE ISLAND, Great Salt Lake — Looking much as most of us imagine a bear rug to be, a raggedy-edge brown mat hangs flat against a stone wall inside the barn at Antelope Island State Park's Fielding Garr Ranch.

Go ahead — stroke it. Touching things is totally OK for kids and everyone else in the barn's orientation room and museum, and outside, too, with a little common sense. Soft, isn't it? Very soft.

It is a buffalo, or more properly a bison hide, or robe.

Bison wander all around Utah's Antelope Island today, between 500 and 700 of the shaggy beasts, depending upon the time of year, says Clay Shelley, a historian and the ranch's curator. By the 1890s, there were only a few hundred more than that in the entire United States, where once millions of bison grazed.

Buffalo hides were soft, comfortable — and, unfortunately, overly popular and in limited supply.

"You can understand why they almost went extinct," Shelley says of the bison. The free-ranging animals were just about wiped out in less than a century.

Happily for the species, and for those of us fascinated with bison, people began trying to save them. The first dozen were brought to Antelope Island in 1893, and today they thrive here.

Like the bison, the ranch is one of Utah's preserved treasures, an outstanding family day-trip destination — and it is the site, this Memorial Day weekend, of the annual "Cowboy Legends Poetry and Music Gathering," under way through Monday. (See related story.)

The historic ranch dates back to 1848 — one year after the arrival of Mormon settlers in the Salt Lake Valley.

As the pioneers sought to establish the large State of Deseret in the Mountain West, Fielding Garr was tasked in 1849 by leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to set up a ranch.

He built the beginnings of a house here in 1848, one year before his church assignment, at what is now called Garr Spring, one of the best-watered spots on the otherwise mostly dry island. Now a ranch centerpiece, the expanded adobe-brick home is the oldest pioneer structure in Utah still upon its original foundation. The house was well and thoroughly lived in for 133 years, from 1848 to 1981, when the entire island became a state park.

A park "timeline of history" pamphlet notes that the LDS Church operated the ranch into the mid-1870s, when the U.S. government encouraged homesteaders, miners and others to stake claims.

But during that first era, church ranching involved the whole island, which was a range for animals such as cattle, sheep and horses. The herds and flocks partially supported the Perpetual Emigration Fund, which helped Mormon émigrés from Europe finance their trek to Deseret and the Territory of Utah.

As is the case today — and when explorer John C. Fremont visited in 1843 — the lake's level was low 160 or so years ago. Animals were generally brought to, and retrieved from, the island via a 3-mile "sand bar" on the south end. In 1951-52, a causeway (now damaged and no longer used) was built in the same spot. There are also photos of a flat-bottom sailboat employed to move animals and goods across the water.

In the earliest days, during the gold rush of California Forty-niners and the pioneer migration west before the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, Garr, his successors and their hired hands raised horses on the island. On occasion, these were herded north into southern Idaho, Shelley says.

There, on the California and Oregon trails, the Mormons would trade westbound pioneers two healthy animals for four weary or ailing ones. The tattered animals would be taken to Antelope Island for rehabilitation and later trade or sale, providing a resource for the emigration fund.

Although history abounds all around Antelope Island, many artifacts have been gathered in a portion of the centrally located barn, in the orientation area and museum.

One of Shelley's favorite rescued items is a rusted, bullet-pocked sign found on the shoreline, which like the buffalo robe now hangs on an inside wall.

"STOP," it says in insistent capital letters. "NO TRESPASSING. THIS MEANS YOU. Island Ranching Co."

The Island Improvement Co., later the Island Ranching Co., owned the island for almost a hundred years, under men like John Dooly Sr., Frederick Meyer, John White, Ernest Bamberger and John Dooly Jr. The ranch raised cattle and sheep — by the 1930s, about 10,000 of the latter, making this "the largest sheep ranch west of the Mississippi," Shelley says.

Sheep and cattle were usually not on the island at the same time, he adds. The company had other ranching operations at Castle Rock, in Echo Canyon; and Skull Valley, to the southwest; plus stockyards in Payson. Sheep were brought to Antelope at lambing and shearing times, cattle for grazing in other seasons. The ranch had an innovative mechanized stage for sheep shearing that was part of the barn.

By the 1970s, ownership had passed to Colorado-based Anschutz Corp. In 1967, the state of Utah bought Antelope Island's northernmost beaches, 2,000 acres, for a state park. It purchased the other 26,240 acres in 1981, giving the general public access the island's wonders.

Well, except for a decade after 1983, when the flooding Great Salt Lake damaged the Davis County Causeway, originally built west of Syracuse in 1969. The seven-mile, two-lane causeway was rebuilt and reopened — thus reviving the park — in 1993. And the east-shore road to Fielding Garr ranch was paved in 1999, making it a more accessible destination.

Today, tour guides and the artifact-packed museum and ranch house all give Fielding Garr Ranch visitors plenty to puzzle over as they explore. Both informational placards and guides pose questions that spark a quest for answers involving visitors young and not so young.

For example:

Can you find the farm machine called the Jayhawk hay stacker in the ranch compound?

On one wall in the orientation museum is a colorful advertisement for a "Jayhawk" hay stacker, manufactured in Kansas, as some folks might guess from its name. In the print, a boy and a girl in rural garb of a century ago watch as two workmen and a bright red contraption lift hay onto a stack.

Shelley points out that an oversized, heavier than usual (and therefore virtually childproof) scrapbook below the ad includes a similar black-and-white photograph taken at Garr Ranch.

So, the historian says, see if you can find the Jayhawk hay stacker somewhere on the ranch property. (A clue: It isn't far away.)

Can you find various materials used to build the ranch over time?

At the ranch, builders used timber and native stone for walls. Then, as in construction of the house, they made adobe brick (often with horse hair mixed in, to give the brick strength and consistency — see if you can espy it in places). Later came concrete and cinder block.

The east-facing front of the historic ranch house, with views toward a spring, a grove of trees, the lake and the Wasatch Mountains, offers excellent samples of the materials.

Can you see them and trace the passage of time at the Fielding Garr Ranch?

The earliest walls, on the south side, were built of adobe, from bricks cured in the open air here on the island. (Schoolchildren sometimes get a chance to make their own bricks near the stable — with varying success.) A kitchen was added to the north, using adobe bricks. A clearly defined but interwoven border separates the two eras. Scrutinize and touch them, Shelley says.

The original adobe bricks, circa 1848, are rougher. The "newer" bricks, from the 1870s, are smoother, perhaps fired, and maybe they were made elsewhere, possibly in Salt Lake City, he says. Even farther along to the north side is an addition made of cinder block in the 20th century.

Can you find any silver that seems out of place in the house?

Inside the residence — the foreman's house — is a kitchen and a back room with old washing machines, for washing done by hand and in "modern" machines with motors powered by either gasoline or electricity.

The kitchen has the look of the 1950s, with countertops and linoleum from that time. Electricity eventually came to the ranch. Conduits for the wiring are in thin pipes, not in the walls, for the bricks were made of adobe long before.

To the south are a dining room and a living room/master bedroom, also featuring decor of another time, including a replicated "Mormon couch" — an early pullout bed.

Volunteer guides often throw out a question for young and old: Find silver that seems out of place, somewhere in the house.

Here's the spoiler: (If you don't want to know the answer right now, skip this paragraph.) Look closely at the brackets holding up curtain rods in the ranch house. Some are made out of silverware — bent forks and spoons.

Which bed would you choose?

The ranch house was occupied by the ranch foreman's family, including the Garrs, the Stringhams, the Walkers and, from 1938-1950, the Harwards..

J.B. Harward's son Max, who lived the rural life part of the year on the island beginning at age 12, wrote about his boyhood experiences in a delightful little book, "Where the Buffalo Roam."

One of the small bedrooms that occupy a rear, lean-to addition to the house is now called "Max's Room," according to the ranch brochure. Each has decor, furniture and beds representing different ranching eras.

In a room with blue curtains is a brass bed covered by a colorful quilt. Shelley notes that the bed's brass ends are heavy and likely would not have been brought to pioneer Utah in a covered wagon, during pioneer times. That era, between 1847 and 1869, concluded when the transcontinental railroad was completed north of the Great Salt Lake, making transport of both people and goods much easier and quicker.

A pioneer bed, made with straw ticking and a rope support, is in the corner bedroom. The blankets and quilt are often pulled back so visitors can get a good look at the layers and ropes.

Pretend you are Max. Which bed would you prefer? (Go ahead, sit or stretch out on them, Shelley says.)

Now, that is a question Goldilocks might like to answer.

Where's the fridge?

The ranch proper includes a great number of out-buildings and structures: a blacksmith shop just as you enter the main compound; the barn; the long stable and corrals to the north, including a farrow for pigs; a "sheep dip"; a bunkhouse; and a spring house.

Just outside the barn is an old "sheep camp" trailer, "the first mobile home," Shelley wryly notes. It has a bed, shelves, even a stove. Visitors can step inside. "If it's all messed up, I say to myself, 'Oh, the kids have been playing in here again,' " Shelley says.

The rural way of life on the island — which is only a few dozen miles from downtown Salt Lake City, its skyscrapers visible beneath the towering Wasatch Mountains to the southeast — are what help make a visit to the Fielding Garr Ranch so intriguing, and a trip through time.

Shelley says he and others like to ask kids visiting the ranch house to find the refrigerator.

"It's bigger than the one at your house," guides and rangers say – eliciting "No way!" exclamations from the young visitors, who hunt away.

They usually can't find it.

For the ranch compound's "fridges" were the ice house, now vanished from its spot between the bunkhouse and the spring, but once stocked with winter ice from the Garr Spring pond, and the still-chilly spring house, where goods floated on a raft on the dark, enclosed pond. It is surprisingly cool inside the spring house, even when the temperature is 100 degrees outside, Shelley says.

Life at Fielding Garr Ranch was definitely different — and often lonely and difficult. Antelope Island was close to, yet away from, the pressures of the city, and a one-of-a-kind place in which to grow up, Max Harward decided later in life.

His years here as a boy, he wrote, were "the best of times."

'Cowboy Legends' Memorial Day weekend

ANTELOPE ISLAND, Great Salt Lake — Rife as it is with authentic Western artifacts and lore, Fielding Garr Ranch can be an eye-opening, days-of-yore family getaway destination any time of the year.

But the ranch dives into nostalgia every Memorial Day weekend, when it hosts the "Cowboy Legends Poetry and Music Gathering," under way through Monday. The mini festival features local talent — though nationally known acts wouldn't mind getting in on the fun, says ranch curator Clay Shelley.

Shelley, workmen and volunteers have been busy getting the ranch ready, with three performance areas and a "trading post" for vendors (cowboy artists, Western clothing, saddle makers, activities for the kids). Some 6,000 people attended last year. Shelley expects even more this time around.

There are performances all day, with a dinner show at 6 p.m. today and Saturday ($16 per person), and a campfire potluck dinner at 6 p.m. Sunday. Saturday will also include a "Buckaroo Dance" at 8 p.m.

Wagon rides will be offered, and guided horse rides can be arranged through R & G Horses ($50 hourly; for reservations call 888-878-8002 or 1-801-726-9514).

Camping is allowed at the ranch only two times each year, Shelley notes: during the annual bison roundup in the fall and during this festival ($15 per night).

Antelope Island State Park is accessed via I-15's Antelope Drive exit in Layton, west through Syracuse and on the Davis County Causeway. There is a $1 causeway fee and a park entry fee of $9 per vehicle (unless you have a state parks pass). Fielding Garr Ranch, on the island's southeastern shore, is 12 miles south of the marina at the causeway's western end.

For more details, see the festival's website at

— Ray Boren

Additional articles in the Rediscovering Deseret series:

Old age among myths of Daughters of Utah Pioneers membership

Pioneer Memorial Museum: Salt Lake's treasure house of artifacts and stories is a 'secret' everyone can share

The area of Deseret started huge, got smaller as it became Utah

Shifting shape: Salt Lake City is a living metropolis

Hotel Utah, 100 years of history

Escape to another time at Lagoon's Pioneer Village

Life in 'Old Deseret' — This Is the Place Heritage Park carries on LDS pioneer traditions