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Pioneers past and present gather for downtown Days of ‘47 cattle drive

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Gov. Spencer Cox, left, and first lady Abby Cox ride with the Days of ’47 cattle drive through downtown Salt Lake City.

Gov. Spencer Cox, left, and first lady Abby Cox ride with the Days of ’47 cattle drive through downtown Salt Lake City on the way to the Utah State Fairpark to celebrate the start of Utah Days of ’47 Rodeo on Tuesday, July 19, 2022.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Jhulmar Gómez knows what it means to be a pioneer.

Four years ago, the Venezuela native came to Utah in search of a better life for her family. They finally joined her a year ago — all 15 of them, ranging from her own children to her sister, nieces and nephews.

Gómez and some of her family members were on 300 North on Tuesday, among the spectators waiting for the cattle drive to come down the street.

Gov. Spencer Cox and first lady Abby Cox rode in a procession of eight Texas longhorns, a wagon, and 10 cowboys and cowgirls in a cattle drive that started in the Vivint Arena parking lot, went past City Creek and Temple Square, down 300 North and ended at the Utah State Fairpark.

Gómez said she came to the cattle drive to celebrate “this beautiful state that has opened doors for us.”

Speaking through a translator, Gómez said Utah is a peaceful place where the people are kind, have good values and don’t discriminate.

“We consider ourselves pioneers,” she said. “No other state in America has people like the people here in Utah.”

That’s the kind of spirit that Utahns embody, the governor said in an interview at the fairpark.

“(In Utah), we have some literal pioneers in that we have refugees that are coming here,” he said. “We see pioneering happening in all kinds of work and scientific fields. ... We see people solving problems and making the world a better place, working together to find answers to some of the most vexing issues that we have in our country.”

Cox said this is his second year riding in the cattle drive, but the first time the procession has gone through the heart of Salt Lake City.

Pioneer Day is deeply personal to him, he said, because of his ancestors who crossed the plains between 1847 and 1865.

The holiday is an opportunity to celebrate the best parts of the community, he said.

“Whether your ancestors have been here for 170-plus years or you’re the very first person to live in the state of Utah, you’re part of that. You’re a pioneer,” Cox said.

Abby Cox added that people like teachers, foster care kids and others are all pioneers in their own way.

“It’s really important that we focus on those people that have the pioneering spirit,” she said.

First lady Abby Cox, left, and Gov. Spencer J. Cox sit atop their horses inside the Days of '47 Arena after taking part in a cattle drive that ended at the Utah State Fairpark in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, July 19, 2022.

First lady Abby Cox, left, and Gov. Spencer J. Cox sit atop their horses inside the Days of '47 Arena after taking part in a cattle drive that ended at the Utah State Fairpark in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, July 19, 2022.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Dan Shaw, president of the Days of ‘47 rodeo, also rode in the cattle drive and said he was surprised by how many people turned out.

Putting the rodeo on each year is a challenge, he said, with 300-plus animals to manage and about the same number of cowboys and cowgirls. Over 10,000 people attend each year — including last year, after though the rodeo was canceled in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Shaw said Pioneer Day is about maintaining the heritage and historical value of the early pioneers who settled the state.

He also sees modern pioneers in the refugees who come to Utah.

“I think Utahns have historically led the pioneer cause,” Shaw said.

Tuesday’s cattle drive was the first in a weeklong events lineup celebrating Pioneer Day. The Days of ‘47 Rodeo kicks off Wednesday and runs through Monday, while the Days of ‘47 Parade starts at 9 a.m. on Saturday. The route begins on South Temple and State Street, runs on 200 East, goes down 900 South, turns on 600 East and ends at Liberty Park.

But you don’t have to wait until Saturday to see the floats.

The Mountain America Expo Center is hosting the annual Float Preview Party, a free event, through Tuesday at 9 p.m. Guests can vote for their favorite floats, with the winners — a People’s Choice Award and a Children’s Choice Award — announced the morning of the parade. Winners receive a plaque.

Tom Colligan said he and his wife, Cheri, serve as chairpersons on the Float Preview Party committee — and have done so for 28 years, since the very first preview. This summer, there are 37 floats in the parade, with 32 on display in the expo center.

That’s typical for the parade that’s been running since 1849, which averages 37 to 40 floats and sees a turnout of 100,000 to 200,000 spectators each year, Colligan said. The Float Preview Party had 20,000 to 25,000 guests per day before the COVID-19 pandemic, he added This year, the event is getting about half that many people a day.

Days of ’47 Parade Chairwoman Jodene Smith said that with horses, cars, marching bands and other groups, the parade includes 105 to 110 entries a year.

And as soon as the parade is done, the board almost immediately begins preparing for the next one, she added.

Colligan said the parade preview started as a way for elderly and disabled people to experience the floats. It’s since opened to the entire community, which can now appreciate the floats up close and look at them longer than they’ll get to during the parade.

Many of the floats are sponsored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, while those created by businesses likely cost between $15,000 and $20,000, he said.

This year’s theme is “Pioneer Courage — Live it!” One float is bedecked with characters from “The Wizard of Oz,”; another features the Chick-fil-A cows, while another features Brigham Young University’s Cosmo the Cougar mascot. Some floats show traditional pioneers in 1800s garb, while others emphasize that pioneers come from all over the world. And no one float looks the same.

Andrea Luker, a member of the artistic committee for the Sandy Utah Hillcrest Stake’s float, said their parade entry was inspired by a piece of land owned by another committee member that still uses an irrigation system implemented around 100 years ago.

The float features a tree changing from spring to fall; a cornfield where, in each row, the stalks become progressively bigger; baskets of produce; a tractor, and a replica of the water valve that has been on the property for as long as it has been irrigated.

The parade entry honors the early pioneers’ struggle to grow food and otherwise survive, Luker said.

It’s also about how growing is a process, she said, something their volunteers sometimes felt as they learned by trial and error how to build a parade float.

“It takes some work to achieve things ... (but) you do eventually grow,” Luker said.

Becky Mickelson, another committee member with the Sandy Utah Hillcrest Stake float, said this is the first time in many years that the church has assigned a parade float to them.

They started around Memorial Day with an 8-foot by 4-foot by 4-foot piece of foam and carved it down into the various pieces they’d need, she said.

Some of those pieces were harder than others. The stake’s youth groups helped carve the baskets of produce, but the tractor treads were “a huge undertaking,” and every branch of the tree has to be dismantled and reassembled anytime the float is transported, she said.

The process was overwhelming at times, Mickelson said, but they took things a step at a time and were grateful for creative ideas from their volunteers.

“We accepted the invitation,” she said. “We can work hard. We can delegate. We can try and figure stuff out.”