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Guest Post: The Big Table: An Experiment in Communal Living

By: Amy Tanner Thiriot - June 25, 2010

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…” [1]

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].” [2]

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. [3]

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.” [4]

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.” [5] 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.”

________________________

[1] 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.)”

[2] 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.)”

[3] 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.

[4] George S. Tanner, Henry Martin Tanner: Joseph City Arizona Pioneer, 1964, p. 28.

[5] 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.



10 Comments »

  1. Interesting! My ancestor Lorenzo Hill Hatch was a counselor to Lot Smith at this time in Woodruff AZ, and his history records that they started with 8 families living the United Order in Woodruff, and by 1878 two years later, they were down to 3 families.

    Comment by anita — June 25, 2010 @ 9:03 am

  2. I corresponded with Charles Peterson earlier this year – he has an extraordinary memory. And the Savage family journals are all extraordinarily rich.

    This sort of reminds me of the stories about how President Kimball would bring a box of chocolates to meetings with the FP and 12, and how they got to choose by seniority. The newest members always got the crappy chocolates.

    Comment by J. Stapley — June 25, 2010 @ 10:44 am

  3. Woodruff? Cool. Charles Peterson notes that in addition to the original four communities, United Order communities were attempted in Taylor, Woodruff, and Snowflake, but they all ended about the time the one in Obed did.

    One of the most difficult parts of the journey for the early settlers was the crossing of the Colorado River at Lee’s Ferry. When Daniel Wells traveled to Arizona in 1876, his group also included Lorenzo Hatch and Lorenzo Roundy. Roundy was drowned during the crossing and Hatch was swept down into the rapids, clinging to the top of a carriage, but his life was saved.

    Comment by Amy T — June 25, 2010 @ 10:15 am

  4. (I’m shifting between two laptops for the time being, which makes it hard for me to find quotations on one machine to blog with on another machine.)

    The Kingston United Order began with individual family kitchens and dining rooms, but as soon as they could finish a large enough building they began eating at a big table. Within a few months, though, the kinds of troubles that Amy cites for Sunset had appeared at Kingston. Unwilling to completely abolish the big table, they still ate as a community but at five smaller tables, each presided over by a community leader, to preserve more of a family feeling. “There is no misstake but it is the better way at least experience has taught that lesson.”

    Even so, the problems of status and inequality and hurt feelings and cold suppers persisted. One particular problem was that they had American, English, Swiss, and Danish members who were used to different methods of preparing food and who could not learn to enjoy other methods of cooking. They tried to work them out — “The principles of union were held up in favor of the big table” — but eventually they decided that it would work best for each family to prepare its own meals and eat separately from the community. “There was an order meeting held this evening wherein the people voted to discontinue the big table for the present … The milk was to be divided according to numbers & the Hall dishes were to be distributed according to necessity.”

    An English journalist who visited the Order and interviewed its residents and and was generally quite sympathetic (although you might doubt that from the following quotation) reported, “When they ate at a common table, the living, it is said, was even more frugal than it is now, and there was hardly a piece of crockery among them all, the ‘family’ eating and drinking out of tin vessels. The women, either from mismanagement among themselves, or want of order among the men, were unable to bear the burden of ceaseless cooking, and the common table was thereupon abandoned by a unanimous vote.”

    I think it quite interesting to note that memoirs written late in life by people who were children during the Kingston United Order days remember the big table very fondly, much more fondly, evidently, than their elders who had tried to make it work. Somewhere in my files, too, I have memoirs of a couple of Order members who talk about the prayers given before meals, and how they dreaded when it was the turn of one man who droned on and on and on, guaranteeing that the food would be cold. Another hazard of a Mormon big table!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 25, 2010 @ 1:38 pm

  5. In my research on the 1873 expedition to the Little Colorado that turned back, not many of the journals talked about the United Order, probably because they never got to the point that it was possible to practice. However, leader Horton D. Haight, Jacob Miller, and others who all left from Farmington at the same time, had pledged to “have all in common”, so I suspect that the long table was at least envisioned. For the 1873 colonists, the closest they got to the long table was sharing their flour with the horses, as there was no other feed after they had fed their horses the seed grain.

    Amy, I have some pretty amazing pictures of the climb up out of Lee’s Ferry over Lee’s Backbone, which was no picnic either. Wilford Woodruff described it in his journal some years later as the most difficult ascent and descent he had ever encountered.

    Comment by kevinf — June 25, 2010 @ 2:18 pm

  6. It’s ironic that the only time I’ve ever heard a contemporary talk positively about plural marriage is in imagining how the kitchen and eating duties could be shared. It sounds as if, in practice, the sharing of “the long table” wasn’t so great, after all.

    Funny, to those in a United Order community, the hymn “Again We Meet Around the Board” must have had a pejorative double meaning!

    Comment by Hunter — June 25, 2010 @ 3:32 pm

  7. Two vehement thumbs down for the communal table. It’s a real blessing not to have to end a long day with lukewarm cream-of-whatsit casserole and someone else’s kid kicking you under the table to divert attention while flinging peas under your shoes.

    PS- Welcome back, Ardis. Hope everything’s ok.

    Comment by Moniker Challenged — June 25, 2010 @ 4:33 pm

  8. When I was a freshman at BYU, and we had a dining hall called the Cannon Center where we would eat every day. My ward was extremely close, and we were always eating together in large groups. This often involved moving tables together to fit everyone, and we were always trying to find the perfect arrangement that would fit everyone and make everyone feel included–i.e. the person on the end was never left out of the conversation. And because it’s set up as a buffet style, serving everyone wasn’t difficult because they did it themselves.

    In my experience, that’s when the Big Table concept really takes hold and isn’t a burden–when that’s genuinely what everyone wants. When you’re compelled to do it, it simply doesn’t work because your heart isn’t in it.

    Comment by Paradox — June 25, 2010 @ 5:22 pm

  9. @amy #2–yes, lorenzo was lucky in the crossing accident. he did lose many possessions including a journal, known to the family biographers as his “drowned journal.”

    Comment by anita — June 25, 2010 @ 7:18 pm

  10. How timely to talk of Lot Smith when this is the family reunion weekend and not all would fit around one table.
    You always find great information, I first came to this site when the Utah war was posted.
    Thanks!

    Comment by gretchen — June 26, 2010 @ 3:42 pm

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