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MHA: Guest Post: My First MHA Experience

By: Kevin Folkman - June 02, 2011

I’ve had a few days now to consider last weekend’s Mormon History Association conference in St. George, and while the events are still fairly fresh, I wanted to share it with Keepa’s readers.

I had not anticipated attending until a few months ago. I’ve been a member of the MHA for about two years now, but only made the final decision to attend the conference in January. I was not clear about all that would happen there, but with my recent obsession with Mormon history, I hoped that I could learn a few things about research, and gain a better perspective on how the entire Mormon history ecosystem is structured.

My wife and I flew into Salt Lake on Thursday, where Kate’s father picked us up and drove with us to St. George. He planned on visiting with his oldest daughter and her family, while my wife and I attended the conference. Well into his 80’s, he has a pretty good grasp of the importance of history himself, and has always been a great source of oral history on Southern Idaho where he grew up and WWII where he served as a B25 pilot. He never seems to run out of stories to tell, and the drive went by quickly.

Checking into the hotel Thursday night, we ran into Ron and Marilyn Barney, who were gracious and friendly to us newbies. Marilyn is the business manager for the MHA, and Ron works for the Church History department and is MHA’s new executive director. We got to the Town Square outdoor opening reception a bit late, and unfortunately didn’t run into anyone we knew, but did get some great dutch oven peach and apple cobbler with ice cream. We sat for a few minutes on a park bench, and enjoyed the warm evening with no clouds or rain, which is a treat for us Seattleites during this endless spring that has yet to mature.

The next morning, we had signed up for the newcomers breakfast, which I have to admit was a bit of a disappointment. There was no one to welcome us, the bagels ran out, and all of us newcomers all seemed to be stricken with terminal shyness. We should have slept in another hour. But from there, things got continually better.

The conference was held in the Dixie Center conference facility, a fairly new facility at the South end of town. There was plenty of open space to congregate or rest between sessions, the meetings rooms were comfortable, and the air conditioning kept pace with the 700+ attendees, never too warm or too cold. The rest of the meals were very nice, the food tasty, and the service prompt. It was a great facility for this kind of a conference.

The real attraction, though, were the plenary and breakout sessions. In our first session on Cotton Mission diaries, I listened to Todd Compton speak about Jacob Hamblin’s relations with the various Native American tribes of Southern Utah and Arizona. One of the arguments he presented from his upcoming biography of Hamblin suggests a growing disagreement with Brigham Young over the treatment of the Southern Paiutes in particular. New understandings of the relationships of Mormons and Native Americans often came up in the sessions we attended. I got the chance to talk to Todd after his presentation and personally thank him for reading an early draft of my Arizona article. Polly Aird gave a lively presentation about early St. George settler George Hicks, and his somewhat contrary view of Utah’s Dixie and his experiences there. It was also a chance to introduce myself to Polly, a fellow Seattleite that I had not previously met.

At lunch, Bruce Hafen, General Authority Emeritus and current president of the St. George temple, spoke about his own ancestors arriving in Salt Lake City direct from Switzerland, where they were directed within a few days to the Cotton Mission in St. George. Like many other settlers, their first glimpse of the red hills and desert didn’t exactly match their anticipation of Zion. He referenced the opening words of the hymn “Zion Stands with Hills Surrounded,” thinking about the green hills of Switzerland as compared to the desert in which they found themselves. But like many others, they went to work and helped to build a community where Zion became what you had in your heart.

We had read through the program ahead of time about which sessions to attend, and often had to make tough choices between what all seemed like equally interesting topics. The format of the conference doesn’t allow for sessions to be repeated, so you have to consciously choose what not to attend. Even when my first two choices for one afternoon slot were too crowded, my third choice still turned out to be terrific. Curt Bench gave a great, humorous presentation about Juanita Brooks and her writing, and Brandon Metcalfe discussed James Bleak’s 2,000 page manuscript history of the Cotton Mission that was 40-plus years in the making and previously unknown to me.

I was also fortunate to meet some very interesting folks, and a few old friends. At lunch the first day, we sat next to a presenter and his wife who actually attended the same high school as my wife and I. They knew my wife’s younger siblings, and we knew her older sister, and his older cousin. I also got to sit in on an ad hoc session about Arizona Mormon history with Charles Peterson and a number of other great scholars of Arizona history. It turns out that before we moved to Washington we lived in the same ward with Charles’ son John, a CES instructor at the U of U, who presented a paper on Pipe Springs and its role in Southern Utah and Arizona history. We ran into J. Stapley a few times, and also met fellow ‘naclers Kevin Barney and Tracy M in real life for the first time.

The Great and Spacious Hall of Temptation, also known as the booksellers’ exhibit, whispered the siren song of books available for sale, some inexpensive; others rare, autographed, and very expensive. I managed to restrain myself and buy only one book, a second edition of Levi Peterson’s biography of Juanita Brooks that I’ve long wanted to read.

Juanita Brooks’ presence hung over much of the conference. St. George is where she wrote most of her best known works, raised her family, and scared away visitors who interrupted her writing by leaving the ironing board up, the iron hot, just inside the front door, claiming to be too busy with the socially acceptable work of housekeeping. It allowed her to read diaries, write and edit her manuscripts and correspondence, and keep the world at bay, with her typewriter always on the kitchen table. It was especially touching during the awards dinner on Friday night to see her given special recognition, and a certificate of award accepted by her four surviving children.

For me, getting to attend this conference taught me a lot about the actual practice of researching and writing history. I received encouragement from several folks about further research and projects, and discovered new resources that should prove very useful. I would have liked to have spent some time and met more people, but there is always next year in Calgary, Alberta, site of the 2012 MHA conference. We haven’t been to that part of Canada for many years, and Southern Alberta and the Mormon settlements there coincide with some areas that I’m starting to research.

I’ll make one final observation that was both sobering and hopeful for Mormon History. I’m just making an off the cuff estimate, but probably 80% of the attendees seemed to me to be in their fifties or older, and younger attendees were a minority. I didn’t get the chance to meet any of the JI bloggers, but they and other young scholars were well represented in both the awards and presentations, and that bodes well for the future of Mormon History.



20 Comments »

  1. Thanks for the summary, Kevin. I’m glad you found the whole conference enjoyable, besides a few hiccups. Like you, I often leave MHA feeling excited about new research possibilities.

    And I’m sorry to hear that the Newcomer’s Breakfast fell flat this year. It was a blast when I went–lots of good food, and I got to chat with Ron Barney and Kathryn Daynes the entire time. Good times.

    Comment by Ben Park — June 2, 2011 @ 7:46 am

  2. I ran into Ron Barney in the library lobby last night and mentioned the breakfast to him. Somethin’ tells me that this is a hiccup that won’t happen again next year.

    Picking which sessions to attend is always a dilemma, isn’t it? And when you think of how many proposals had to be turned down due to lack of space, you get an idea of how much active work is going on in Mormon history studies at the moment.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 2, 2011 @ 7:58 am

  3. I was very happy to meet you, Kevin. I remember my first MHA, when it was in Kirtland. ( had avoided the conference for a long time because I sort of had the idea that it was for professional academic historians. But I soon learned that it’s not that restrictive, that it’s for anyone with an interest in Mormon history. And I had such a blast that first year I’ve endeavored to return every year since.

    (I wish I were retired and could do the pre and post-conference tours, but that’s just too much time for me to take away from work.)

    Comment by Kevin Barney — June 2, 2011 @ 8:10 am

  4. I didn’t want to make a big deal about the newcomer’s breakfast, but it was in such contrast to everything else that weekend, that it stuck out in our minds. And in all fairness, we were maybe ten minutes late, so someone might have said something and left before we got there.

    We enjoyed the whole experience, and now I’ve got to start conspiring with Stapley and others to lobby for a Seattle hosted MHA some time in the near future.

    Comment by kevinf — June 2, 2011 @ 9:37 am

  5. Good to see you Kev., I was kind of bummed not to have had more time to chat. I’m working on a Seattle proposal for the Barney’s and would love some help. The biggest dilemma: tours.

    Comment by J. Stapley — June 2, 2011 @ 11:22 am

  6. Kevin, I’m sorry I didn’t get a chance to meet you. Thanks for the rundown on several sessions I was not able to attend. And yes, MHA in Seattle would be wonderful.

    Comment by Christopher — June 2, 2011 @ 11:27 am

  7. Stapley, tours are an issue. We could always reenact some moments from local church history, like Sonia Johnson chaining herself to the gates of the temple, or visit Ed Decker’s boyhood home…

    Christopher, I kept my eyes open for some familiar names on nametags, but with 700+ people coming and going, I couldn’t read fast enough to catch that many. I’d seen Kevin Barney’s picture before, so he was a bit easier to identify.

    Comment by kevinf — June 2, 2011 @ 12:09 pm

  8. Sounds like an enjoyable conference. I would have loved to have been there since I’m currently working on a St. George project and one of those post-conference tours sounded particularly interesting.

    You touched on one question I had after seeing some of the coverage of the conference: the attendees looked rather geriatric on average. I didn’t know whether that was just that random photos happened to show the oldest attendees, or if it had something to do with the fact that the conference was held in St. George, which allowed a lot of retirees to attend, or if the MHA conference tends to attract an older audience for other reasons.

    Thanks, Kevin, and all the others who provided notes about the conference here and on BCC and JI. That was very nice for someone who would have loved to have been there but really doesn’t have the option.

    And perhaps one of these years a conference could be scheduled for New York or Philadelphia or some other Mid-Atlantic location.

    Comment by Researcher — June 2, 2011 @ 3:08 pm

  9. Researcher,

    Those pictures of all the geriatrics were a carefully selected exact, fully representative sample of the average attendee.

    More seriously, there were a lot of older folks there. If I noticed that lots of people looked older than I think I look (about which I am probably wrong), then there were a lot of old people there. It would be interesting to get an average age for attendees, but I suspect that it is somewhere in the 50 to 65 range. Some folks obviously attended because of the convenience of St. George, but I couldn’t guess how many were St. George residents and retired. Some certainly were. I’ve heard rumors of concern about how the MHA membership is getting older. There are a lot of younger members making a splash, typified by Jared T.amez from the Juvenile Instructor who won one of the major awards, but couldn’t attend due to the birth of a new child. Time and finances may also limit the ability of younger scholars with heavier family responsibilities, study and research schedules, and typically low grad student fiscal resources.

    Comment by kevinf — June 2, 2011 @ 3:43 pm

  10. Perhaps the attendees represent those who have the TIME, (not just those with the interest.) I think it’s likely that there are many young people interested in Mormon history, who because of the stage of life they’re in, can’t shake free of life’s other responsibilities for a few days.

    I look forward to a time when I’ll be able to attend. In the meantime, a job and house full of young kids keeps me pretty busy.

    Comment by Clark — June 2, 2011 @ 3:47 pm

  11. In the few years I’ve been involved with MHA, I’ve noticed how old the average attender is (a lot of people with leisure time use MHA as a travel agency, especially when the meeting is in some Mormon-glam spot like Nauvoo or Vermont; at the Vermont conference, especially, I could hardly believe how many very elderly people were there, and how they treated us presenters as shipboard entertainment, and pushed their way to the front of any line where free food was involved — grrr, I didn’t like that conference at all) — but I’ve also noticed how young the bulk of the presenters are. I think that bodes well for the future of Mormon history. As Clark says, time is a factor, and as Jared’s situation proves, family concerns are most urgent for younger scholars, so maybe that accounts in part for the disparity between presenter and listener.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 2, 2011 @ 3:58 pm

  12. For what it’s worth–this was the second largest conference in MHA history (over 700 in attendance; just behind SLC a few years ago), and there were more students than ever before (over 60 registered, and at least 50 showed up for the student banquet Friday night). Compare that with the number of students in attendance at the SLC conference and it’s nearly doubled. So my sense is that the average age has actually gotten younger the last few years.

    Comment by Christopher — June 2, 2011 @ 7:09 pm

  13. I’d think, Kevin, that you’d be a bit more careful about writing “a lot of older folks” and “average age … in the 50 to 65 range” in the same paragraph.

    Some of us might take it personally.

    Comment by Mark B. — June 3, 2011 @ 8:21 am

  14. Mark, I know my drivers license says I’m 59 (still just shy of qualifying as a senior citizen at Chuckarama), but I often don’t recognize the gray haired guy in the mirror. I thought these folks seemed older to me, but under enhanced interrogation I might have to admit that they are probably around my age. Hence the confusion, another tell tale sign of creeping middle age. Only that the creeping is in the other direction now.

    Comment by kevinf — June 3, 2011 @ 9:55 am

  15. One solution, Kevin, is to never eat at Chuckarama! : )

    Comment by Mark B. — June 3, 2011 @ 10:32 am

  16. Yikes! I’m going to start feeling sheepish that I brought up the subject of age!

    Thanks for the numbers though, Christopher. Good to hear.

    Comment by Researcher — June 3, 2011 @ 10:53 am

  17. Mark, I was just pointing to the lowest bar for official entry into senior citizen status. I’m no fan of Chuckarama. Even the name has an unfortunate and unintended sense of onomatopoeia.

    Comment by kevinf — June 3, 2011 @ 4:35 pm

  18. Thanks to Kevin Folkman for these great insights. They’re very helpful to MHA’s Board in making changes. I’m delighted that the Folkmans made it from Seattle and that so many others did likewise. (Nine of my children, grandkids, and cousins traveled to St. George from five states and enjoyed the experience a great deal.)
    Kevin’s comment about the Newcomers’ Breakfast identifies a lamentable snafu for which I apologize, and Ardis is correct that this won’t happen again. I had planned on being there, but was diverted to a 6:30 breakfast with Elder Jensen, Rick Turley, and Reid Neilson, but that doesn’t explain why no one from the Board or staff was there to greet you and start the session. Mea Culpa!
    As for the average age of the attendees, the only thing that I can say is that MHA’s Board has been trying mightily to make sure that MHA is welcoming to students and younger members. For the past five years or so, a graduate student has been elected a member of the Board (currently Christopher C. Jones of William & Mary, who has just succeed Jenny Reeder of George Mason U.) to make sure that we are staying in touch, and the Friday evening student receptions at the conferences that I’ve attended at both Independence and St. George were a lot of fun. I’d note that a substantial number of the annual MHA awards announced at the annual conference have gone to younger rather than greyer scholars, including undergraduates and graduate students.
    As for the picking and choosing between concurrent sessions, it is, alas, a real dilemma. In part to met this issue, the new president of MHA, Richard L. Jensen, worked mightily at St. George to record the plenary and concurrent sessions, with the thought in mind that if the technical stuff worked properly, we would try to post recordings to MHA’s website so that you might download them free. Richard is now working with the recordings, and we’ll see if the quality is acceptable. Check MHA’s website (www.mhahome.org) periodically to see how this effort turns out, and perhaps Ardis could keep you Keepa readers current on this one too.
    Thanks again to Kevin for his guest blog. See you in Calgary at the end of June 2012, if not sooner.
    Cheers!
    Bill MacKinnon
    President, MHA 2010-2011

    Comment by Bill MacKinnon — June 4, 2011 @ 4:45 pm

  19. Bill, thank you for reading this. It would be great to be able to listen to recordings of the other sessions. Even when I had to attend second or third choices, the sessions were still enjoyable. To that extent, I guess it’s like reading through old journals, in that you don’t know what other gems you might run across. I do congratulate you and the board for a job well done in St. George.

    Comment by kevinf — June 5, 2011 @ 10:14 am

  20. And I enjoyed meeting you, Kevin, as your article is really a good one. Yes, MHA was great. I had a very hard time choosing between sessions. Often I would attend different sessions in the same hour. I met a number of people who have already helped me with my research, which is one of the great advantages of these conferences.

    Comment by Todd C — July 1, 2011 @ 12:09 am

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