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.