Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » Guest Post: The Fire and Light Was Always Free: A Case of Pioneer Hospitality

Guest Post: The Fire and Light Was Always Free: A Case of Pioneer Hospitality

By: Amy Tanner Thiriot - March 01, 2012

Last week, the story of Roseinia (Rose) Sylvester Jarvis told about her parents and their hospitality toward travelers.

English immigrants James and Rebecca Nicholson Sylvester moved to Southern Utah to live by their daughter Mary Birch and her family in the small town of Bellevue (now Pintura). Bellevue was a day’s journey from both Cedar City and St. George, so any traveler passing either way could stop in Bellevue and stay at the hotel run by Mary Ware Gates.

In winter time our house was seldom free from company, for it was always open to the poor who could not go to the Hotel next door, who refused shelter to all who could not pay, so we used to say that the Hotel Keeper took the money while father took the gratatude [sic] and blessings of the people, but some paid so we managed to live and was loved and respected by all. Some times, after many years men have called at our door and said “Mrs. Sylvester I called here when I was broke and hungry and you fed and warmed me and now I wish to pay you for it,” [M]other would have forgotten the circumstance, but they did not[. T]he fire and light was always free. If people had their own provision they were all right, if not, that too, was furnished.1

I was struck by the comment that the fire and light was always free; even more so after reading an essay by Ella Jarvis Seegmiller.

I’ll assume that many of the regular readers of Keepapitchinin have been to Southern Utah. Not much in the way of firewood.

The early settlers could make a long trip to Pine Valley to get firewood, but that was an immense effort and the men were busy trying to create an irrigation system and keep their families from starvation. In the early days, they really were starving. Scurvy, an awful sickness caused by lack of vitamin C, took a heavy toll on the settlers and was only treated when George A. Smith advised the early St. George pioneers to eat raw potatoes, complete with the skin. In these physically demanding circumstances, firewood was a precious commodity. Ella Seegmiller explained:

When the families moved onto their city lots, they found them covered with mesquite, greasewood, sage and rabbit brush, all of which they utilized for fuel… Willows grew on the banks of the streams, and they were cut down and hauled into town when the men were returning from work [building irrigation systems and planting crops]. When there was a shortage of wood in the home, women or children would go out into the valley and drag in a bundle of greasewood until their husbands and fathers could bring a load of willows or driftwood.

Ella also told about starting fires in the morning:

As the supply of matches began to fail, they had to resort to some plan to preserve their fire. All of them were not versed in starting fires with flint and steel, so they buried the coals at night in the ashes, but when, the next morning, it was found that the fire had died in the night, they were obliged to borrow from their more fortunate neighbor. (I presume there are those here who could testify with me, to having been called out of bed early in the morning to go for fire.) After going out and surveying the neighborhood in order to locate a fire from the smoke coming out of the chimney, it was customary to go and ask for a few coals. If we were fortunate enough to have a fire, others would come to us, and frequently it would be quite a while before we had fire enough to get breakfast, having divided it so much. The housewives took it good-naturedly, however, knowing that it might be their turn to ask a favor soon…

Light was another scarce commodity. Ella explained that they lacked the ingredients for candles, so the pioneers came up with other solutions:

a little grease was placed in a shallow dish and a piece of rag with a pebble or a button tied in it, was put in and the end lighted. It served to supply light for sewing, knitting, or housework, failing that, a pine knot, especially in the winter time, furnished a very good light, Many a night have we sat around the fire of a fat pine, my father on one side of the chimney-jam [sic] reading aloud either the newspaper or an interesting book, my mother on the other side sewing, while the other members of the family sat in front of the fire either knitting or engaged in other work or past-time.

The Sylvester family did not provide hospitality out of an excess of goods and resources —they lived in a small rock house in one of the driest communities in a dry region — but out of their poverty and the goodness of their hearts.

Two years after her husband died, Rebecca Nicholson Sylvester’s daughters convinced her to move in with her children. She rented out her house, but before she left, she prepared clothing, bedding and table linens for the new tenants so they could entertain “any poor travelers wet, cold or in need.”



The picture of Southern Utah is by Ken Lund, and is available on Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

  1. Who were these travelers? Probably pioneers traveling south to settle, travelers on church business, settlers traveling to Salt Lake for conferences or to be married, freighters traveling between Utah and California, miners, traveling salesmen, etc. In the summer they could usually camp outside – camping can be very pleasant in Southern Utah, but in the winter and in bad weather, anyone who had spent the entire day on the road would appreciate shelter and warmth and a kind word. []


  1. Amy, thanks for sharing more about this story. It helps a lot. If I recall, Pintura is just off I-15, and was probably a collection of small houses built with the native stone. There are a few of those visible from the freeway somewhere in the vicinity and they look pretty rustic (a charitable word, I think). Sharing “Fire and light” under those extremes of poverty is a pretty powerful example.

    Sorry, but it appears that the Randy Bott thing has sucked all the joy out of the bloggernacle these last couple of days. I came here for a break and a breath of fresh air, which like the “light and fire” is free. Thanks, Amy, and thanks, Ardis. Just trying to keep some balance.

    Comment by kevinf — March 1, 2012 @ 12:29 pm

  2. This was wonderful, Amy. Rose’s use of that phrase — “the fire and light was always free” — was unique enough to make an impact by itself, but your explanation made it all the more profound. Thank you.

    By the way, another phrase in the post really piqued my interest: “we used to say that the Hotel Keeper took the money while father took the gratatude [sic] and blessings of the people.”
    I’ve often heard people say, when giving service, that they’re doing it because they “need the blessings.” And I take them to mean that they need the blessings from God; kind of like the phrase “earning jewels in one’s crown.” So, I was intrigued when I read that they’d say that they took the gratitude and blessings “of the people.” So, there’s a nod that any return might be coming from the people (and then likely only in the form of gratitude). For some reason, I like that better. To me, it’s doing good deeds not as a way to amass heavenly rewards, but in a simple, Golden Rule way. Love it.

    Comment by David Y. — March 1, 2012 @ 1:12 pm

  3. I think that the quote, “the fire and light was always free” will become a part of Keepa’ninny lore.

    Comment by Maurine Ward — March 1, 2012 @ 2:08 pm

  4. Thanks for the kind comments. I really enjoyed learning about the Sylvester family, a bright light in the history of the region, and a family to remember the next time you drive down (or up) that stretch of I-15.

    Comment by Amy T — March 1, 2012 @ 7:30 pm

  5. I know this is going to be as out of place as the Bishop scolding those at Sacrament Meeting because their numbers are so few. Still, I do regret it when a post like this, especially a guest post, gets so little attention. I appreciate those of you who have commented, and I suspect kevinf is right, that the race discussion is so all consuming and so wearying that many sensitive readers, the ones who would naturally respond to this post, have had to withdraw and regroup.

    This is the kind of post I had in mind when I started Keepa, the kind of post I am able to write all too seldom these days:

    * It honors individual Latter-day Saints by recognizing them for doing extraordinarily good things simply by doing what they should have done under the circumstances.

    * It introduces us to Latter-day Saints that virtually none of us would have known otherwise.

    * It is a story that would have gone untold except for the fact that its teller had a “wait a minute …” moment, realizing that the simple words “the fire and light was always free” shouldn’t be taken at face value, that they concealed as much as they told.

    * It is beautifully written, filling us in on the background we need, letting the characters speak in their own words, and showing us their deeds (in contrast to just telling us they performed good deeds).

    * It ends on a high note. Rebecca’s preparations for those who would come after remind me of those tales, whether folk legend or historical fact I do not know, of the women of Nauvoo sweeping their floors before closing their doors for the last time, leaving perfectly orderly homes to be taken over by those who had driven them out. In any case, Rebecca’s last actions in connection with this story prove the absolute sincerity of her longstanding hospitality.

    As painful as it has been to claim certain people as my brothers and sisters this week, even more joyful is it to be able to claim Rebecca and her family as my sisters and brothers.

    Thank you, Amy.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 1, 2012 @ 8:15 pm

  6. This really is wonderful. Thank you, Amy and thank you Ardis.

    Comment by Carol — March 1, 2012 @ 10:39 pm

  7. We’re all like Cordelia, whose great love for her father left her speechless, and all we’ve got to say is “Nothing.”

    But, having been scolded by Ardis (“Nothing will come of nothing” indeed), I’ll add my thanks to Amy and to Ardis for this wonderful post. Surely the fire and the light in the story weren’t really free–they were gifts purchased at a price by the Sylvesters and given freely to the travelers on that desolate road–but so too the “fire and light” that a simple, yet beautiful, story like this brings into an otherwise bleak day in this little online community. Free to us readers indeed, but purchased at a price by those who brought the story to light.

    Thanks again, Amy and Ardis.

    Comment by Mark B. — March 2, 2012 @ 5:59 am

  8. Oh my goodness. You guys are going to make me blush. I must say that I enjoyed writing this post — there was no extra research involved!

    Comment by Amy T — March 2, 2012 @ 7:17 am

  9. What a heartwarming piece of history! I’ll think of this family the next time I’m that corner of Utah!

    Comment by Robin — March 2, 2012 @ 9:12 am

  10. I don’t comment often because I usually have nothing to add, and I don’t like cluttering up your site with “me too!”, but I read and greatly enjoyed this post. It was a wonderful window into the everyday struggles of our ancestors, and a fabulous reminder of how vague is our modern understanding of what life was like back then.

    Comment by lindberg — March 2, 2012 @ 1:20 pm

  11. living in an area surrounded by trees and coalmines, it had n’t occurred to me that there was anything unusual in the phrase “the fire and light was always free” . Now I stand corrected and look forward to introducing this phrase to my own family. Thanks to Amy and Ardis for this post.

    Comment by Anne (UK) — March 3, 2012 @ 1:37 pm