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.
- 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. [↩]