Yesterday’s post reproducing plans for housing 40 families in a United Order/Order of Enoch-style community, including facilities for their recreation and religious gatherings — and especially the communal kitchen — fired the imagination of other bloggers. First came J. Stapley’s “In Zion, Who Takes Out the Trash?” exploring whether freeing a part of the people from the necessary drudgery of life by expecting another part of the people to do such work actually negates the Zion we speak of building. And this morning comes Amy Tanner Thiriot’s post looking at some instances from 19th century church history when Latter-day Saints actually tried to live the communal ideal of “the big table” by dining together as well as sharing food preparation and clean-up chores in a common kitchen. The common kitchen was an important feature of the house plans presented in yesterday’s post — but in that plan, unlike in the very real communities described here, the architecture provided for individual family dining rooms rather than at “the big table.”
So how did that communal dining experience work out in real life? Read on.
Brigham Young called two hundred families to settle the Little Colorado River Valley in northeastern Arizona in 1876. One of the purposes of the mission was to establish United Order settlements, organized on the principle of mutual cooperation rather than competition.
The pioneers arrived in Arizona in early 1876. Many of them had traveled through the United Order community of Orderville, Utah, where they had seen the communal dining hall and kitchen and bakery.
The missionaries established four communities: Sunset, led by Lot Smith of Utah War fame; Ballenger’s Camp, renamed Brigham City, led by Jesse O. Ballenger; Obed, led by George Lake; and Allen’s Camp, later named St. Joseph, and eventually Joseph City, led by William C. Allen.
In early June 1876 President Daniel H. Wells and Apostles Brigham Young, Jr. and Erastus Snow arrived from Utah to organize the United Order in the communities. One of the first questions the settlers asked was whether each community should eat together.
John Blythe reported that Erastus Snow said, that “it was no more necessary for the saints to all eat together than it was for them all to sleep together…” 
But historian George Tanner reported that Brigham Young’s sons, including John W. Young, continued to pressure the settlements to adopt the “long table” or “big table.” John Bushman of Allen’s Camp reported that Young “counseled Joseph Richards, Isaac Turley and me to start the big table as soon as we could and the brethren would come in [to join the United Order communities].” 
The communities built forts with individual rooms opening into the fort for each family. In Sunset, the dining hall and kitchen and an office and council house were in the center of the fort. Lot Smith made the big table one of the hallmarks of Sunset. He presided at the head of the table and often used the mealtime to deliver lectures about items of concern in the community.
Wilford Woodruff spent several months living at Sunset. He said:
I conversed with several of the sisters, they preferred it to cooking at home, all fared alike, the president, priest and people. If any were sick, they were nourished, if any man was called on a mission he had no anxiety about his family, knowing they would fare as well as the rest. If any died his family would have a support as long as they lived with the people, and I must say that I felt…that these settlements…were living the United Order as near as any people could…
That was an optimistic view of the big table.
A.C. Peterson lived with his widowed mother and younger brothers and sisters in Sunset. He said that the big table system had a definite “pecking order.” Families sat together in groups, with Lot Smith and his family at the head, and the “hierarchy arranged in descending order.” Widow Peterson’s family sat at the foot of the table and was served food last.
Across from young Peterson sat a boy several years his senior who in the keen rivalry always took most of the butter patty provided for that quarter of the table by holding his knife at the ready and slicing quickly at it as grace was concluded. One day in a burst of resentment, Peterson reversed his knife and as the older boy grabbed the butter rapped his knuckles so forcefully that the latter cried out, attracting the attention of Lot Smith. Peterson was hailed before Smith, who banished him from the table for a week and lectured Widow Peterson on rearing children. 
The young man sitting at the bottom of the table was not the only one to feel the disadvantages of the system. Bishop Levi Savage noted in his diary in 1877, “we all eat at the same table… We consider it the will of the Lord to live in this manner — otherwise many would prefer living in the old style, for there is a great many trials connected with this style of living not known to the other.”
And a year later, Savage wrote, “One of the greatest trials, especially to the women in this style of living is the practice of our little settlement all dining on one table.”
Allen’s Camp made two efforts to use the big table, but abandoned them both within the first year of the settlement. Sophia McLaws said many years later “that she broke up the big table — that it was her turn to cook and she refused because there was nothing to cook.” 
From the few existing reports it seems that the system was the hardest on the women, since most of the work fell on their shoulders. The end of the big table system was hardest on the bachelors, who either had to cook for themselves or make arrangements to board with a family.
George Tanner concluded that, “The long table … used at Sunset, apparently against the wishes of many of the people, … may have been a contributing cause of the discontent there leading to the final dissolution of the settlement.”  Little more exists in the written record about the experiment and why it became a breaking point for at least one of the communities. The only one of the four communities still in existence today is Joseph City, perhaps because the leadership attempted to be responsive to the needs and stresses of the people, including in the matter of the “big table.”
 That was evidently a much repeated sentiment; when Ove Oveson, a settler in Brigham City, moved up the Little Colorado River to St. Johns, he reported, “Got the house done, and went to Brigham City to settle up with the United Order. (Smith and Lake’s Order as Apostle Wilford Woodruff called it, and said there was no more reason to eat at one table, then [sic] to sleep in one bed.)”
 Other advice received by the settlements included President John Taylor’s letter to Lot Smith: “We do not lay so much stress on minor details, such, for instance as compelling all to eat at one table should they object to it, (but we consider it quite right, where the people are agreeable.)”
 As told by A.C. Peterson to Silas Fish. From Charles S. Peterson, Take Up Your Mission; Mormon Colonizing Along the Little Colorado River, 1870-1900, Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1973, p. 103.
 George S. Tanner, Henry Martin Tanner: Joseph City Arizona Pioneer, 1964, p. 28.
 George S. Tanner and J. Morris Richards, Colonization on the Little Colorado: The Joseph City Region Flagstaff: Northland Press, 1977, p. 60.
The photo of the old fort at Brigham City is from James H. McClintock, Mormon Settlement in Arizona: A Record of Peaceful Conquest of the Desert, 1921, p. 141.