Brigham Young and his motley crew of Latter-day Saints trekked across the Plains and reached the Salt Lake Valley on July 24, 1847. Four days later, legend has it that the church leader paused and said, “This is the right place.” They settled in the sage-filled wastelands of the Great Basin.
While contemporary accounts do not recall Young making this famous declaration, the declaration survives within Latter-day Saint memory. Folklore acts as an uncertain mirror, to borrow a phrase from William Wilson. It illuminates the cultural environment of a people and seamlessly weaves together the past with the present.
Austin and Alta Fife chronicle this cultural environment in their 1956 book “Saints of Sage and Saddle.” They wrote, “Reversing the formula of Montaigne, who attempted to paint himself because therein he saw an image of humanity, we have attempted to delineate the image of our own cultural environment so that therein we might the better see ourselves.”
More legend than history, folklore captures the universality and individuality of a culture. While roasting marshmallows around the campfire, consider telling these foundational folk tales. Expand and adapt them to preserve the vitality of the Latter-day Saint folk.
Saving the camp from starvation
Fife recorded a story from a Latter-day Saint doctor about his grandfather. His grandfather crossed the Plains with other pioneers. The pioneers soon became short on food, but his grandfather was an industrious man. He saddled up his horse to hunt and sighted a large buffalo. He quickly shot the buffalo, but his horse ran away after smelling the blood.
Soon it began to snow and his grandfather didn’t know what to do. Fife wrote, “Grandpa decided he wasn’t going to freeze to death out there on the Plains and the best thing he could do was to get in where it was warm, and so he climbed inside the buffalo.” He woke up suddenly to wolves eating the buffalo. His grandfather grasped the tails of the wolves and the wolves pulled him into the safety of the camp, where they ate the buffalo to avoid starvation.
The Golden legend
J. Golden Kimball is something of a legend among Latter-day Saints. Fife considered him “the most beloved Mormon preacher of the first four decades of our century,” and Kimball’s wit and sarcasm defines his legacy.
Fife described the Goldenesque yarns that cemented his legacy, including a story that mentions the Deseret News.
Kimball was asked to preach a funeral sermon. He began by eulogizing the departed, telling everyone how great a man he was. He listed several reasons like paying his tithing, being good to family and going to church. Then Kimball said, “I’ll tell you another reason why. He always read the Deseret News!” Kimball cheekily remarked that it takes a good man to do that.
Grandma Benson heard that the Latter-day Saints were going to speak in her small town, so she enlisted her women’s group to help her break up the meeting.
Carrying a basket of rotten food, anything from rotten potatoes to bad eggs, the women decided that Grandma Benson would give the signal and they would bombard the saints. But the signal never came.
Grandma Benson listened intently to the words of the speaker and was converted to the gospel of Jesus Christ on the spot. Following that meeting, she asked to become a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and was taken to the river Garnet and baptized.
Utah lake monsters
In the Great Salt Lake on July 14, 1877, the Salt Lake Semi-Weekly Herald reported that strange noises had been heard by the water at night. These mysterious sounds were accompanied “by the appearance of a huge mass of hide and a fin.” The source vowed that the monster was 75 feet in length and resembled a crocodile.
More well-known are the tales of the Bear Lake Monster. Brother S.M. Johnson reported that he saw an animal of gigantic size with cluster-like ears. The next day a man and three women reported seeing a similar monster. Within a short period of time, there were at least 11 witnesses claiming to see a 90-foot-long monster lurking in the lake, traveling faster than they had seen before. Reports of six similar monsters in the same lake emerged.
Efforts to capture the monsters ensued. One resident used a large baited hook attached to a 20-foot cable with 300 yards of rope, but to no avail. The Bear Lake monster might lurk in the waters to this day.
These folk tales scratch the surface of Latter-day Saint lore. Since the publication of “Saints of Sage and Saddle,” works like “Between Pulpit and Pew,” edited by W. Paul Reeve and Michael Scott Van Wagenen, contain diverse, humorous, touching and tragic tales of the Latter-day Saint people. Bring a well-worn copy of books like these along with your graham crackers, chocolate and marshmallows, and chronicle these beloved cultural artifacts.