By now you’re probably familiar with the story of Joseph Millett, which has been told several times in church settings (although I find that oddly it is always divorced from its setting in time and place – to present the story as a timeless example, perhaps? because knowing that adequate food supplies were available in Mormon settlements only two or three days ride away removes part of the pathos? because everybody quotes everybody else without ever going back to the source?). The story is also the centerpiece of the introductory film shown to visitors to the Church History Library:
In 1871, in the tiny Mormon farming settlement in Spring Valley, White Pine, Nevada (about 60 miles from Ely), Latter-day Saint Newman Hall found himself entirely out of flour and unable to feed his family. He asked some of his neighbors for help, but no one had a surplus. Finally he approached neighbor Joseph Millett who divided his supplies with the Halls. When Hall told him that he had been directed there following prayer, Millett told him there was no need to repay the loan. Millett recorded in his diary, “You can’t tell how good it made me feel to know that the Lord knew that there was such a person as Joseph Millett.”
I love that story. If you could know only one personal detail about an ancestor’s life, how wonderful if it could be something like that!
Joseph Millett’s story reminds me of another, much lesser-known story. I’ve Googled around and found websites which name the people in the story I’m about to tell, but none of them mention this story. I wonder if the family is aware of it. If he were my ancestor, I’d want to know …
Tropic, Utah, is a small farming and ranching town which lies at the east entrance to Bryce Canyon. I had a mission companion from Tropic; I used to tease her that some of the buildings we tracted in Marseilles housed more people than lived in her hometown. (I know – it’s not funny. But true.) The town of Tropic was founded in 1892. Two of the families who lived there in its first years were those of George Henry Mecham (1866-1947) and William Winspear Spendlove (1868-1933). Both were married and had started their families by 1899 when William Spendlove was called on a mission.
The Spendloves didn’t know how they were going to find the means for William to answer his mission call. They fed their growing family – five children ranging from a few months to 8 years old – from their farm crops, their cows, and some chickens. They had no cash to outfit William at the beginning of his mission, nor any means of raising the $20 or so he would need every month during his mission. But William went away to a larger community in the summer of 1899 and worked until he had saved enough to start with that October. Alice Isom Spendlove would somehow have to find a way to send cash to him every month for the next two years, as well as feed and clothe herself and her children. William headed out to serve in the Southwestern States Mission – he posed for this portrait in Green Forest, Arkansas while a missionary there.
The first thing Alice did was to accept the invitation of her widowed mother to move back to her hometown of Virgin, Utah, to live while William was gone. Housing would be free, and Alice’s adult siblings – five of whom were still living at home while they worked as school teachers and farm laborers – would help with the rest. Alice could rent the Spendlove house and fields in Tropic to raise cash to send to William, and do sewing for the neighbors.
And so that’s what they did. The rental income was sporadic and there was never anything extra, but Alice supported her husband in the mission field, her Isom relatives provided a home for her and her children, and William served an honorable mission.
In 1901, expecting that William would be home in a few months, Alice decided to move back to Tropic, to clean up and fix up her home and to do what she could toward preparing the fields for a new start as soon as William was able to get back to work. This meant that she no longer had any rental income, but she fed her children from the produce of their garden and cows, and continued her sewing.
Money ran out, though, and so did Alice’s stock of flour. On the day she gave her children the last of the bread, she told them that they needed to pray very sincerely that night for God to send them more. They knelt as a family and Alice told the Lord of their circumstances; in their private prayers that night, the children repeated their understanding of their predicament.
Alice did not go to bed that night. She lit the lamp and stayed up to continue sewing, hoping to finish the dress, to receive her pay promptly to buy the flour she needed for her children’s bread.
Well after midnight, someone pounded on her door, and she opened it to find George Henry Mecham standing there. The Mechams were not a wealthy family – George is listed as a “day laborer” on the 1900 census – and he had a wife and two daughters to support (twins had been born and died about the time William Spendlove had left on his mission). But he was a hard worker, and the Mechams were doing okay.
George explained to Alice that he was on his way home from the gristmill in Panguitch, and as long as her lamp was lit he decided to stop “and pay you that sack of flour I owe you” that night rather than returning in the morning.
Alice protested that George didn’t owe her anything.
“Oh, yes, I do,” he responded. “I owe every missionary’s wife a sack of flour.” And he brought in from his wagon a large sack holding the flour ground from two bushels of grain.
There would be biscuits for breakfast, and bread every day until the husband and father could return to again provide for the family.
In Keepa’s world, where everything seems to be connected to everything else, note that Alice Isom Spendlove was the granddaughter of Ellen Briggs Douglas Parker.