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Escape to another time at Lagoon's Pioneer Village

Pioneer Village preserves history in Lagoon's quiet 'suburb'

FARMINGTON — Amid the midway crowds, scattered screams, mechanical clatter, and sundry bells and whistles at Lagoon, a more peaceful reminder of another time reposes in a tree-canopied corner of the popular amusement park.

Pioneer Village, a bit of early Utah, thrives in one of the region's favorite 20th- and 21st-century playgrounds.

The reconfigured "Old West" neighborhood and all of the knick-knacks, goods and antiques inside it seem like a time capsule lifted from Utah's past, when settlers hoped to become residents of the state of Deseret, because its ingredients truly are the past preserved. The structures generally hail from local streets, rural homesteads and a few locations now submerged beneath Utah reservoirs.

In fact, most of the "village" itself was first brought together not here, in Farmington, but on the Salt Lake Valley's east side, says Howard Freed, the village's curator.

Horace Sorensen, who owned the old Southeast Furniture in Sugar House, began by collecting discarded household items other people deemed worn and worthless, Freed said. A plaque in Lagoon's Pioneer Village dates this effort to 1936. It was a time before "antiquated" possessions became "antiques," and therefore a valuable commodity.

"The whole thing just snowballed and kept on going," Freed says.

Sorensen acquired more and more artifacts — chairs, divans, china, pie safes, musical instruments and such — then moved up to entire buildings, from log houses to a stone church.

Pioneer Village originally sat on 2.54 acres that Horace and Ethel Sorensen owned in East Millcreek, says Orson Wright, former national president of the Sons of Utah Pioneers. Sorensen, also a former SUP president, eventually turned the whole shebang over to the SUP, which had offices on the site.

The problem was, Wright says, Pioneer Village as it was then was virtually invisible to the general public.

"I was a guide on Temple Square from 1958 to 1978, and people would say, 'Where is the Pioneer Village?' We'd tell them, and they would ask, 'Is there anything closer?' " Even passersby hardly knew it was there.

With Sorensen's permission, the SUP decided to try to move the village. There were discussions with the state about it going to This Is the Place Monument at the mouth of Emigration Canyon, a state park that has evolved into the broadly similar This Is the Place Heritage Park. But the monument commission in the 1970s believed some of the collection should be kept and some pieces sold to other collectors, Wright says.

Sorensen and the SUP wanted the village and all of its household and other collections preserved intact, he says. It was all or nothing. Out of the blue, he says, Wright got a call from Boyd Jensen, Lagoon's general manager, for he and Peter Freed, the park's managing partner, thought Pioneer Village would be a good fit there.

After more than two years of negotiation, Wright says, Lagoon bought the SUP's Pioneer Village buildings and moved the project to Farmington, incorporating the structures, antiques and other collectibles into the park's fabric the next year, while keeping it slightly separated from the hurly-burly midway.

Wright likes the result and the fact that funds from the sale contributed to build a new Sons of Utah Pioneers headquarters building near the mouth of Parley's Canyon, giving both the village and the organization a stronger physical presence in the community.

Today, the Log Flume and Rattlesnake Rapids rides splash near Pioneer Village. People at Lagoon-A-Beach play and soak in the sun next door. The shooting gallery is at the village's center. And food stalls — including a popular ice cream shop — can be found among the village's antique buildings and a few new Old West replicas.

A memorial plaque near the central plaza honors "Horace A. Sorensen and his wife Ethel Melville Sorensen" for their "selfless devotion, personal generosity, imagination and foresight," and their dream of a living museum. "These two people have made the history of Utah and her people a visual reality for present and future generations."

On weekends, some 18,000-20,000 fun-seekers frolic at Lagoon and Pioneer Village, says Adam Leishman with the park's marketing department. During a summer weekday, that figure is closer to 10,000, he says.

The park got its start on the shores of the Great Salt Lake, directly west, when it was called Lake Park. In 1886, commuter railroad magnate Simon Bamberger, a future governor, moved the facilities next to a Farmington pond — and his rail line. The tourist destination was reborn as "Lagoon." The historic resort is celebrating its 125th year, Leishman notes.

Pioneer Village is on Lagoon's southeast corner. The cobbled-together town's residences are on the north, pioneer businesses sit to the south, and ride access and food options are between them, Freed says.

Along the northern stretch are pioneer homes chock-a-block with antique furniture (and make-believe food); a lovely rock chapel; a schoolhouse, lessons for the day (circa 1872) on the chalkboard; impressive firearm and Utah token collections; and, tucked into a shadowy corner, Lagoon's original concrete jail.

On the southern side are a print shop; the ice cream shop (and apothecary museum); a railroad building filled with model trains; a wondrous miniature circus; a carriage house; a multiple-chair barbershop (a framed sign notes: "shave and a haircut six bits"), with a millinery shop one story up, filled with once-stylish hats and frocks; and a dentist's office, along with places to find a bite to eat or slurp.

All of the pioneer-era buildings and collections have stories of their own. Freed has anecdotes ready for the telling.

The concrete jail, for instance, was really used in Lagoon's early days. Miscreants might be arrested on a Friday and would have to stay behind the barred doors and windows until Monday, when they could be brought before a court, Freed says. Their crimes? Usually drunk and disorderly, fighting, and such.

Lagoon a century ago offered rowing on the pond, dancing, shooting, games, lawn bowling and a tavern.

Several buildings were rescued from Rockport, near Coalville, much of the area now under or beside Echo Reservoir, while others came from Nephi, Charleston and Davis County communities.

Freed tells of one Rockport family's experiences, fit for an episode in a Western movie. The father happened to be on an LDS mission to southern Utah. His wife stayed home with their dozen children. "She told the children to bury themselves in the cornfield" if unfriendly Indians came by the house, "and that's what they did," Freed says.

At the top of the Pioneer Village lane is Coalville's Rock Chapel. Though filled with portraits, its south side interior tinted by light streaming through small stained-glass windows, the structure also served as the community's fort, Freed says — it was the most secure place in town.

Wright, too, is fond of the chapel. It was taken apart and brought stone by stone to Lagoon just as it was from Coalville. The late LDS Church President Spencer W. Kimball "fell in love with it" and enjoyed playing the organ inside, he says.

Freed is also proud of the impressive Utah token collection, arrayed in see-through vertical stands in a building beside the shooting gallery. Special magnifiers let visitors get a more detailed look at the items. In pioneer times, coins and other currency often were difficult to come by, so stores, businesses, mining companies and such minted their own. They were good in trade for trolley rides, milk and even a crate of dynamite, Freed says.

Another rock building, a former house, was moved to Lagoon from elsewhere in Farmington — a community renowned for rock-face structures, from homes to businesses and its historic LDS meetinghouse. Today, it contains examples of pioneer furniture on loan from the LDS Church Historical Department, often crafted using local pine varnished and "grained" to look like other unavailable woods, such as oak, mahogany and maple.

A multiphone — "sort of the jukebox of its time," Freed observes — towers in a room housing all manner of musical instruments, from other record and cylinder players to an eye-catching "giraffe piano," with its strings rising upward beyond the keyboard, like a harp. Old presses occupy the newspaper/print shop, yellowing newsprint lying on countertops and spread out on stacked holders.

The shelves of the general store — once the Rockport Co-op in Summit County — are orderly with crocks and boxes and tins advertising cereals, spices and other goods, from "Quick-Serve Beans" to "Postum Cereal." An actual collection of aging medicines and herbs — anise seeds, jalapa, Sierra salvia, many bearing corporate names still familiar today — is displayed in bottles and tall glass jars across from the ice cream dispensary, itself featuring an antique saloon back bar.

Other buildings house a prized china and crystal shop, some of the wares believed to have belonged to Brigham Young; a wonderful model railroad collection, lovingly put together by David E. Sperry, filling Kaysville's one-time rail station; and a miniature circus of fantastic detail, from tiny people and performers to big-top tents and a parade of elephants, handmade by Utahn Don Ogden.

Pioneer Village also has an antique stove display. The ornate, and perhaps one-of-a-kind, "Sovereign Jewel" stove is something to behold; an antique toy and doll museum; a blacksmith shop; and a carriage shop, including a Wells Fargo & Co. Over-Land Stagecoach, recreated by a team at Lagoon, and seemingly perfect for a John Wayne movie or a modern bank ad.

Two small boys, their faces spattered with evidence of a recent ice cream splurge, peer into the old dentist's office. Tools, molds and other devices of another, fearsome era of dentistry pepper the room. One boy notes that he actually has a cavity, but is advised he might prefer a modern dentist to what probably occurred in a chamber like this.

Not surprisingly, the dentist's office is one of Wright's favorites. The long-time SUP member and official is a retired dentist and acknowledges that he could have told the two lads exactly what each of those tools would have been used for.

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

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

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