Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » Luther M. Winsor: “My Assignment Here in Persia”

Luther M. Winsor: “My Assignment Here in Persia”

By: Ardis E. Parshall - January 31, 2011

Luther Merkins Winsor (1884-1968) was born in Southern Utah and spent most of his career working on development the water resources of the state. When he left Utah, though, he really left town – his professional life took him to Chile in the 1920s, and to Iran in the 1940s.

Early in his five-year service in Iran, Time Magazine featured Bro. Winsor in an article about U.S. advisers to the Shah of Iran:

… Thoroughly embroiled in Persia’s entangled politics and economy are seven U.S. advisers to Ali Soheily. They are there because: 1) the better Persia is run, the better the Russian supply route will work; 2) the Allies are anxious to offset Germany’s influence in Persia, establish a firm barrier between the Nazis and the rest of the East.

Last week the seven were deep in trouble. Lent unofficially by the U.S.,they were paid by Persia. But they had no powers; they could only advise. The seven: …

– Bearded, aging professor Luther M. Winsor, the agricultural adviser, travels the length & breadth of arid Persia, arguing, pleading and explaining to Persian landowners the need for irrigation. (Until Hulaku Khan’s invaders destroyed it almost 700 years ago, Persia had an excellent irrigation system of underground passages and canals.)…

The difficulties all stem from an economic system the advisers are not empowered to change. At best, they can only do a patchwork job on the facade of Persia. If they can make the patches stick long enough to get Persia’s important job of war supply done, they will have earned their keep and the thanks of the Allies.

“It gives one a thrill,” Winsor wrote, “to be working over again the ground that was trod by the ancient prophets and to put water back into the ditches that have been dry so many long centuries.”

His service in Iran began with perhaps a little too much thrill, though, and he sent an account of his experiences to Harold B. Lee, with whom he had worked on developing the Church’s welfare plan:

Sheraz, Iran, Jan. 26, 1942

My Dear Brother Lee:

While I have a short breathing spell I shall take the opportunity of writing to let you and our former fellow associates, relatives and friends know how I am doing and to tell you about an experience I have just had. Will you please pass it along to the others since it is very difficult for me to write so many individual letters.

I am on my first long field trip through Southern Persia, and have just had an adventure that, but for the providence of the Lord and the persistent vigilance of my two faithful and loyal servants, would have cost me my life.

We were traveling south from Ispahan and were just entering a long winding valley bounded on both sides by high rugged, barren mountains similar to those through which the Virgin River flows just northeast of Beaver Dam below St. George, when we were held up by 20 brigands in the real, old fashioned legendary manner of a hundred years ago as described by the author of Haji Baba of Ispahan. The location is about 40 kilometers north of the ancient capital of Medea, that flourished during the reign of Cyrus the Great, 500 B.C.

As we approached the foot of the rugged cliffs where deep, narrow, winding gorges penetrate far into the mountainside, I remarked to myself, “What a setting for banditry.” Suddenly it was changed from contemplation to reality. Two British lorries had already been stopped and we were forced to slow down because the road was blocked by the trucks. Suddenly from ambush two long rifles appeared. Then the rugged slopes seemed to be alive with brigands.

I was riding in the front seat and was not molested for a time for in Persia the “big shots” always ride in the back. My associate and my personal secretary and helper were dragged from the car and stripped of their clothing. Then I was relieved of my money, my glasses, camera, watch, etc.

Then two other cars were observed to have stopped about one-half kilometer up the road and one was turning around. My driver was forced to turn his car around and drive back in an effort to stop these two machines. they caught one, but the other got safely away, and notified a small garrison of soldiers that were quartered eight kilometers further up the valley. But the soldiers were slow in responding and did not appear until the bandits were well out of the way with the long night ahead.

Meanwhile attention of the group had been focused upon me and some were quite determined that I should be shot. One of them started the cry that I was English. Another, who was at that time on top of the closest lorry said, “Who is the Englisher, show him to me and I will shoot him.” Another came running up and said: “You are Englishman, you have taken our country, now, we will take you to execution field.” He gathered hold of me and endeavored to pull me away, but I broke his hold and stepped back to my car that had returned. My driver and my secretary made a desperate effort to convince the mob that I was not English but was an engineer who had come to help them with their water problems. The secretary showed them our instruments, then showed them his prayer symbol of polished clay and told them that he is a Mussulman from Meshed and swore by Allah and all the saints and prophets that I was not English.

Still they were not satisfied and three nasty looking, old-fashioned muskets of ancient vintage were leveled at me. My driver had also very eagerly pleaded and swore by God and the Prophets that I was not English. Finally he stepped in front of me and said, “If you shoot him you must shoot me first.”

Just then the leader shouted, “Take your packs and run for the mountains, the soldiers will come. So they left me and ran. The leader stayed behind to complete the examination of my baggage, then he went a short distance up the slope and stood guard until we left.

During the entire time I was not the least big excited, and I had no feeling of fear. When they were pulling at me and I realized that they wanted my life, I offered a silent prayer with full faith that the Lord would see me through safely and He did.

In the very beginning I had touched the good side of the chief by revealing the secret compartment of my wallet where the big money was concealed and by showing him how to work my camera. He later on returned my glasses and fountain pen; but the glasses were finally taken by another of the ruffians when I was stripped of my outer clothing down to my garments.

We went back to the caravans where the soldiers were stationed and spent the night.

There we borrowed enough clothing to serve our momentary needs and money enough to carry us to Sheraz where the governor general fixed us up with new clothes and other things of necessity.

I have received royal treatment from all officials here and telegrams of apology and assurance of complete restitution from officials at Teheran, together with assurance that the culprits will be apprehended and hanged at the scene of their crime. Already 13 suspects have been brought to prison here and I have looked them over carefully. They answer the general description, except in a few individuals whom we are sure we did not see at the “holdup.” The stories about their capture are confused so I am not at all sure that these are the men.

January 29. – Since I wrote the above two days have passed. I spent the 27th in a series of conferences, revisits to the military prison and in a short trip to nearby agricultural projects. Yesterday, at the request of the general who is in charge of military forces in Southern Persia, I accompanied the Colonel (commander of local forces) to the village where the prisoners were captured. We were heavily armed and were preceded by an escort of 209 soldiers. It appears that the men put up a desperate resistance for 18 hours then surrendered after the base of the tower where they were barricaded was set in flames by means of gasoline-soaked inflammables.

I saw the signs of the conflict, and the collection of old guns that looks as if it had been taken from an Arabic or a Turkish antique shop. The general has promised to give me one of these as a trophy.

The wretched condition of the villagers and the village and the terrified pleading of the women and children made my heart bleed, and I shall never forget it. It makes me more determined than ever to devote my energy and talent such as I have to the relief of these poor people. There was not enough food and clothing in that village to serve the needs of one family. Most of the men as well as the women and children were bare-footed, and were clothed in rags that the ragman in America would not accept. Really it is heart-rending to witness such absolute poverty and misery. I went into one hovel where two little children were shivering in ad ark corner. They were terrified at first but I made them understand that I would not hurt them and was rewarded by a smile and a mumbled “God bless you” when I gave each some money.

Today I am dining with the governor general and I hope to impress him with the need for solving their crime problem, not by hanging a few unfortunates who happen to be caught, but by making it possible for the people to secure a decent livelihood.

As you see by the sketch enclosed, the village referred to above is just over a chain of low hills from Persopolis and Persopolis is in a large valley now nearly desolate for lack of water on the land, but there is a river of considerable size flowing by. The older diversions have gone to ruin and need only to be repaired to provide the life-giving water to a fertile soil. there is a new sugar factory nearby that runs at 25 per cent capacity because the sugar beets cannot be grown in sufficient quantity within reach of the factory, and the crop, such as it is, must be carried in on the backs of donkeys or camels. Meanwhile the nation is rationing sugar to the people and monopolies have developed which control the product and the price so that the poor people must go entirely without. In one of the recent robberies the bandits took sugar only and let it be known why they took it.

There are several sugar factories in the country and none is running to as much as 50 per cent capacity. One of my jobs will be to put the land and the water together in the vicinity of these factories so that each can increase its output to somewhere near maximum capacity, and at the same time make a livelihood for more and more of these poor people.

At present there is a tremendous percentage of these poor villagers who smoke opium, one of the local products of the soil. They do it to ease the pains of hunger in many cases. when one sees their wretched condition he is prone to say, “I do not blame them for trying to forget their pain for even a little while.”

I have just returned form the governor general’s dinner and I was accorded a wonderful reception as the guest of honor. I met many of the leading men and some of their wives. These included the general who is chief of staff of the Persian Army, the English consul and wife, two of the leading physicians and their wives, and several leaders in business and professions. Several of them including the governor general speak English well.

All expressed sympathy for the treatment I had received on my way down here and the general gave me assurance that it would not be repeated if he and his men could prevent it. I assured them that I was none the worse for the experience and I sincerely appreciated their concern for my welfare and that probably it was a part of th great plan for arousing the country to a state of action so that the work of improving the conditions of the people may go forward faster than it might have done if we had not been molested.

I feel that this affair has served to focus attention on our work and that we shall be able to make much better progress from here on.

Tomorrow and the next day I am to see the country nearby including a part of the valley near Persopolis that is going to ruin and requires rebuilding. then we will take a military escort and make a study of a string of valleys far up the river and down the river to where the surplus waters enter a salty sea. I expect to find many opportunities for development and locate sites for study where storage is possible.

It gives me a real thrill of satisfaction to realize how badly my particular brand of service is needed by a people who respond so readily to kindness and real understanding, and I am truly thankful that my life has been spared to render this service that is needed so badly.

I have met many wonderful characters of both high and humble rank and all have responded favorably and with enthusiasm to the frank, straightforward manner that I have adopted in discussing our plan of procedure which is to help the country by improving conditions for the common people. I have told the men in high office that I want to spend my time in planning projects that can be built with limited capital by the people who will be directly benefited and with the materials that are at hand, rather than to start out with big and prohibitively expensive structures that would be more spectacular, and would be chiefly beneficial to the men who are already wealthy. This attitude of sincerity in wanting to help the people who are on the land or who would gladly be there if they had a fighting chance, has struck a responsive chord and I have great hope of making real success of my assignment here in Persia.

I am lonely at times for my family and my associates and friends at home; but I am endeavoring to keep so busy that I do not have time to think about home too much.

Will you please remember me sincerely to Dr. Widtsoe and our associates on the welfare and agricultural committees.

Ever your friend and brother.

L.M. Winsor



  1. Luther Merkins is my great-grandfather’s brother, so my grandfather sometimes liked to tell us about his accomplished uncle. Here is something written by Luther’s uncle, Joseph Frank Winsor, which gives a sense of where Luther Winsor and his career came from:

    “Water was the big problem in our life on the farm. My first work on the ditches was on what was called the Jarvis dam. I took a team and worked right with the men.

    “The Jarvis dam was on the Virgin River. Every time a flood came the dam was gone and we’d have to go out and put it in again. The Virgin River was a great trial to the pioneers. Dam after dam was washed away. We combined the Jarvis, Virgin, and Seep ditch and built a pile dam. I went out south and hauled two loads of cedar posts about 20 feet long. Then I hauled brush and cottonwoods to weight in among the piles. Rock was piled in among all this. The building of this dam took weeks and weeks. When finished it held for about three years. We got the ditches running nicely and people felt they were going to be able to do something with their farms.

    “A big flood took the dam and it had to be discarded. Water the parched fields must have, so we did not give up.

    “I went up to start work on the Washington field dam. Isaac McFarlane came up with a big crew of men, scrapers, and wagons. They scraped the sand away until they came to a harder bed. They did this to turn the river over the ledge out of its original channel. It happened to be a dry season so the work could go on. We had to build an abutment of rocks on the end of the dam next to the river. My little team and I dragged pretty nearly all of that rock. We dug a tunnel in the south end of the dam to draw the water into the Washington field ditch. The work went on all winter with a crew of about 100 men on that dam. It was successful. It was the first time the old river was whipped into line, and made the farmers of Washington and St. George quite independent.”

    If you follow this link to where my cousin transcribed that account, you may also enjoy learning why Brigham Young said “Now Brother Winsor, you leave that boy alone—that is about the best breakfast joke I’ve ever seen.”

    Comment by John Mansfield — January 31, 2011 @ 9:21 am

  2. Hey, thanks, John!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — January 31, 2011 @ 9:53 am

  3. Add ‘expert cartographer’ to his list of credentials. A handdrawn map, with neat labels and distance scale is no easy feat.

    I sense more emotion in his frustration over neglected ditch headgates than in the hold-up, which I attribute to his caring more about the condition of other than himself.

    Comment by Clark — January 31, 2011 @ 11:50 am

  4. When I saw the name Winsor, I was wondering if there was a connection to Pipe Springs/Winsor Castle. John, thanks for sharing a little more about this family. Sounds like irrigation was in Luther’s genes.

    Comment by kevinf — January 31, 2011 @ 12:05 pm

  5. This was wonderful to read. Thank you.
    The Anglo-Soviet invasion had just happened, less than five months earlier. Iran had declared itself neutral, but the English needed to control the oil fields and the Soviets needed a trade route for supply lines. So they invaded and split the country between the two. The English had just weeks before this letter was written set up a new Shah (the one deposed in 1979). No wonder the English were so hated.
    The Americans came late to the party, January 1942. So Luther Merkins must have been in the first wave of American advisors.

    Comment by Bruce Crow — January 31, 2011 @ 7:50 pm

  6. I really enjoyed this post and the added information from John.

    Comment by Maurine Ward — January 31, 2011 @ 10:09 pm

  7. Boy oh boy, could I use some good Persian food about now.

    What an adventure! It sounds like one of Washington Irving’s Alhambra stories with the governors and poor villagers and bandits.

    The Jarvis Dam mentioned in John’s comment would have been named after Brigham Jarvis (1850-1933), the son of George and Ann Prior Jarvis.

    Comment by Researcher — February 1, 2011 @ 6:35 am

  8. Here’s a map, courtesy of Google, of the same area (the red A is Persepolis):

    View Larger Map

    (If that didn’t work, Ardis, just delete this comment.)

    Which just goes to show that Bro. Winsor had pretty darn good map-making skills!

    Comment by Mark B. — February 1, 2011 @ 7:23 am

  9. Another modern Church connection to Persepolis: In October 1971 the Shah of Iran held a celebration of Persia’s 2,500 year history. Among those invited were about 30 leaders or representatives of major world religions. Elder Ezra Taft Benson attended as the representative of the Church–and told about the experience in a BYU devotional a few years afterward.

    Comment by Mark B. — February 1, 2011 @ 7:34 am

  10. Not bad for a Mormon boy from Dixie, eh?

    I’m glad you’ve enjoyed this, and especially appreciate all the “value added” comments — Bruce’s political context, the map, the genealogical connections. It all helps to integrate LMW’s letter into the fabric of the past.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 1, 2011 @ 7:37 am

  11. I should apologize in advance for dragging this conversation away from Luther Winsor, but I found that Time article in their archives and saw a familiar name in the list:

    Colonel H. Norman Schwarzkopf, onetime superintendent of New Jersey State Police when the Lindbergh baby was kidnaped and murdered, is trying to improve Persia’s rural police, the undisciplined, isolated officers who patrol villages and outlying districts.

    Yes, he’s the father of that General Schwarzkopf.

    Comment by Mark B. — February 1, 2011 @ 8:45 am

  12. We should link to that Time article, Mark. I missed the Schwarzkopf name! Thanks. What a small world this really is.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 1, 2011 @ 8:58 am

  13. Please note the spelling is wrong for the middle name. Luther Murkins Winsor is my grandfather’s Walter F. Winsor’s brother.

    A part of his travels will be shared in print with some of our family members at the Walter F. Winsor Family Reunion we are holding Saturday June 18, 2011.

    Comment by Pamela W. Barber — June 18, 2011 @ 12:41 am

  14. Wow, just found this through the grapevine; Luther Murkins was my great grandfather, and though I’ve heard the story of the bandits’ attack told many times (and a little different each time), I had never seen a contemporary written account. Thanks for posting it!

    Comment by Adam Winsor — October 26, 2011 @ 9:55 am

  15. Something about Luther Murkins Winsor’s mother that you may enjoy, including a photo of Luther at two-years-old:

    Comment by John Mansfield — May 26, 2014 @ 7:38 am

  16. Great bit of Mormon history to go with that picture — I highly recommend that readers click over.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — May 26, 2014 @ 8:54 am

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