Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » Overcoming the Great Depression and Establishing Zion at Moon Lake

Overcoming the Great Depression and Establishing Zion at Moon Lake

By: Ardis E. Parshall - October 10, 2012

Moon Lake,  in the Uinta mountains of northeast Utah, is now primarily a wilderness recreation area managed by the U.S. Forest Service. The surrounding area was settled in the late 1800s by ranchers and farmers, and today there are a number of small towns (Roosevelt being the largest) and unincorporated communities. Moon Lake reservoir, created by the building of a dam completed in 1940, helped to stabilize the water supply in the high desert region.

The Great Depression of the 1930s hit rural Utah especially hard. The Moon Lake Stake, led by President Edwin L. Murphy, was down and out in 1938 – 80% of the farms formerly owned by Latter-day Saints in the stake had been sold for taxes. Only 2% of the farms were operating at all – virtually no fall planting had been done in 1937, there were no plans for spring planting in 1938, and many of the stake’s members were surveying their limited options for moving elsewhere to earn a living. The stake’s members were living almost exclusively on the dole – even in terms of 1930s dollars, the amount of food shipped into that one stake in 1937, according to President Murphy, amounted to “$17,800.00 in canned vegetables; $7,000.00 in bakery bread; 200 tons of flour, 50 tons of breakfast bacon, 85 tons of salt side.” He lamented that most of that food could have been produced locally at a savings of many thousands of dollars … except that everybody was discouraged, and almost nobody had the capital to raise a crop anymore. Even bishops were so discouraged that they were asking to be released.

President Murphy decided to implement the full range of services available through the Church’s relatively new Welfare Plan in an almost desperate effort to help his people become self-sustaining once again. He organized stake and ward committees to work with Welfare’s Agricultural Committee, and went to work with them all.

They surveyed the farms to decide what had the best chance of growing in each locale (farming had earlier, apparently, been haphazard – “little consideration was given to the adaptability of seeds for our section of the state,” he said, “many just planting anything to cover the soil.”) High-quality seed was furnished by Salt Lake. Not all the local farmers received it, though; they were “very careful in placing the seed with brethren who would take good care of it.” Much of what they raised in the 1938 season was saved for seed for the next year; in addition to that, the Welfare Committee provided the stake with an additional $2,360 worth of prime seed.

By the spring of 1940, the crops had been so successful that almost no further outside seed was needed – instead, the stake formed a local exchange to provide all the farmers in the stake with the necessary seed. So much wheat had been raised locally – 23,000 bushels in 1938, 55,000 bushels in 1939 – that not one pound of outside flour needed to be shipped into Moon Lake.

They still need some canned goods from the central supply in 1940 – but local sisters were canning 75% of the stake’s needs. Some parts of the stake were well-adapted to growing tomatoes; others did better with peas, corn, and beans. With planning among the stake and ward committees, each community grew what was best for their soil, sunlight, and available water, each community’s sisters canned in their own homes whatever their ward grew, and the wards exchanged with each other for what they needed. In 1940, plans were drawn up to build a small local cannery to make this food preservation and exchange more efficient.

The stake’s members cooperated in other ways – ways that seem alien to today’s practices, and that no doubt would draw opposition from many in today’s political climate. The individual farmers in the stake formed a cooperative, pooled their money, and spent it unitedly. They invested in $2,365.00 worth of farm equipment – cooperatively. Those with dairy herds, which produced the area’s greatest cash income, formed a cooperative “cream pool” and sold their product to a single creamery, earning more than they could have done individually. In 1940, they turned toward building a stake creamery of their own.

They established cooperative feed yards to produce, store, and distribute their hay and grain, and, as with the cream pool, obtained better pay by selling as a block than they had been able to do individually. They cooperated to test different types of feed, deciding together what worked best for their herds. They jointly purchased and cared for the few bulls needed to improve the entire stake’s livestock– three Durhams, two Jerseys, three Holsteins, and two Herefords.

In addition to canning so much of what the community needed to feed itself, the Relief Society sisters cooperated in making 42 quilts in 1939 – turning their surplus of 18 over to Salt Lake City to be used elsewhere.

Two families lost their homes to fire in 1939 – the stake built them new homes.

The stake purchased land for a storehouse, and for a sawmill, to be supplied with timber from the nearby mountain slopes, with labor furnished by local priesthood quorums. Working as a body, and after much coordinated effort, the stake convinced the state highway commission to build a good graveled road into the area. Another stake committee made arrangements for government help in bringing electricity into the stake.

The cooperative efforts of the stake members were so dramatically successful that President Murphy was asked to speak about his work in April Conference of 1940. In introducing him, President J. Reuben Clark noted that the stake had been so successful that he, President Clark, wouldn’t have believed the reports if he had not known President Murphy to be an honest man.

President Murphy concluded his talk:

We have made notable progress by cooperation of the stake Agricultural Committee, Priesthood quorums, Relief Societies, other Church auxiliaries, Extension Service, Farm Security Administration, County Commission, etc.,in applying a planned economy to family living on the farm. We have attempted to put in operation the five-point program recommended by the general Church Welfare Committee, namely:

1. Conservation of our resources.
2. Production of more profitable crops.
3. Cooperative producing and marketing.
4. Assisting men to become farm owners.
5. Making farm life more attractive.

Cooperation. Not just for the 19th century. It’s the Mormon Way.



  1. Thank you for this, Ardis.

    This is what “society” means: planning, cooperation and pooling of resources to produce the basic conditions for human survival that no individual can entirely produce on his own (and never has). And the end result is not just physical survival, but a surplus of harder to quantify, but equally as important, necessities: human dignity, compassion and fellowship.

    Comment by Mina — October 10, 2012 @ 7:10 am

  2. I love this! Mention was made of opposition in today’s political climate, and I wholeheartedly agree with that statement. It’s a shame though. To me, this is the power of the private sector coming together and helping each other out in a VERY effective way, specific to their area and needs.

    Comment by Jonathan — October 10, 2012 @ 8:37 am

  3. What a great example of the law of consecration. As to “opposition in today’s political climate,” I fear the greatest opposition might come from most of us as members today. I fear that we have lost much of the spirit of shared sacrifice that would be required in a situation like this. Not to mention basic skill sets.
    We are a little more removed (actually, almost completely removed) from the production of food in today’s culture for a lot of our urban membership. I think of my ward pooling the resources of all the Microsoft and Amazon employees living in our ward, and how that could be harnessed. The question becomes one of how might we best cooperate given today’s needs and the capabilities of our members in meeting issues of unemployment, home foreclosures, and loss of insurance coverage to meet basic family health needs.

    This is a great, thought provoking story today.

    Comment by kevinf — October 10, 2012 @ 11:57 am

  4. Ardis, thank you so much for this post. It’s fascinating to look back at these efforts to mitigate the damage of the Great Depression.

    By the time our current financial difficulties are seen through, including potentially (if not likely) challenging days in the near future, it will be interesting to see how history views our own attempts to become self sufficient as part of a like-minded community.

    Comment by Kurt — October 10, 2012 @ 12:03 pm

  5. What a touching story! What a remarkable stake president.

    Kevin raises some interesting questions. I wonder about implementing something like this in my geographically large suburban/rural East Coast ward, and there are really so few income-producing assets that could be held in common. The greatest income-producing assets are the highly-trained professionals and I can’t imagine it would help anyone in any significant manner to hold large household tools (lawnmowers, vacuum cleaners) in common.

    I’m left marveling at the experience of these people just as I marvel at the United Orders on the Little Colorado and elsewhere — the efforts during those times in history to build the community — and wonder about the possibilities and limitations of community building in my own ward.

    Comment by Amy T — October 10, 2012 @ 12:36 pm

  6. I suppose all these concerns are a (maybe the) reason for our operating on an almost exclusively cash basis today with money donations to the fast offering fund, plus the very occasional, very scattered couple of hours once in a while working on a stake welfare project or assembling something for Humanitarian Services. That may be more practical and efficient in today’s conditions, but emotionally and spiritually it doesn’t satisfy: Donations become a little accounting to do and a check to write, rather than a contribution of ourselves. Even if we were able to get in mind the idea that, whatever we do for a living, all hours worked on Tuesday afternoon and all day Wednesday are the hours that pay the donations and so should be thought of as something special, it wouldn’t feel like the same level of consecration.

    But I admit to having failed to come up with even the silliest possibilities for improvement. Nobody wants what I have to offer; they only want my money, so that’s what I give.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — October 10, 2012 @ 12:55 pm

  7. Inspirational!

    The problem with the modern system is that it not only deprives us of the feelings of consecration, but that it also is inefficient. (Even in this story, Pres. Murphy laments the inefficiency of buying goods instead of making them.)

    When speaking on this subject in General Conference last week, the presiding bishop had to recycle a story from the same session six months ago. Evidently there’s only one ward in the entire church that’s figured out how to apply “lived consecration” to the modern world we live in.

    Comment by The Other Clark — October 10, 2012 @ 1:41 pm

  8. Our ward in Northern Idaho has a “”bishop’s woodshed.” The ward purchases logs not suitable for lumber from a logger in the ward by the semi-truck load. Last month, the entire ward showed up with chainsaws, splitting mauls, and hydraulic log splitters to tackle the 6-8 semiloads of wood at the site.

    By lunch, we’d filled the shed with 15 cords of wood, with another 10 stacked outside. Even the primary kids helped. The YM will distribute this to needy members over the course of the winter.

    My Utah ward would have been amazed; there’s no similar opportunity there.

    Comment by The Other Clark — October 10, 2012 @ 1:46 pm

  9. Very inspiring. Both of my parents acknowledged that their families survived the great depression by living only on what they could grow. The congregation that my Mennonite cousins attend still live in much this same way. Maybe it takes a shared devotion to God to trust each other enough to succeed in a communal society.

    Comment by charlene — October 10, 2012 @ 2:16 pm

  10. Great story, Ardis. One more reason to rue the urbanization of American society. (Said by one who lives in a city of nearly 8,000,000–and who isn’t going to move until I’m taken out feet first.)

    Comment by Mark B. — October 10, 2012 @ 2:19 pm

  11. Mark B., your unit produced shoe polish as its project in the [American] Church-wide welfare program of the 1930s — a truly urban contribution!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — October 10, 2012 @ 2:25 pm

  12. If only I could get some of that polish, my shoes would look good when I’m carried out.

    Comment by Mark B. — October 10, 2012 @ 3:07 pm

  13. I remember many times as a young man and in the first 10 or 15 years of married life, helping out on welfare farms in Utah. We thinned beets (something I was already far to familiar with), harvested potatoes, picked grapes and peaches, and hauled hay from one stake farm to a nearby stake that had a dairy.

    Even then, back in the 70’s and 80’s, I could see that mechanizing the potato and other harvests would get the crops out of the ground and into the welfare system more quickly and efficiently than our admittedly amateurish manual labor. I remember thinking they should make that conversion, and it wasn’t long before it happened.

    Now, we never talk about welfare assignments in our area. They have closed the wet pack cannery, and there are no welfare farms that I know of in Western Washington that I know of. The nearest we get to large, organized service projects is collecting food for the local foodbanks every year, or our youth doing car washes to raise money for the local VFW post to mail packages to the troops in Afghanistan, which we’ve done twice now. Our most valuable collective asset is time, it seems, and no particular skills are required. While I gladly support these things, I recognize that we are not “producing” anything. That kind of makes me sad. There was something dramatically more satisfying at seeing those sacks of potatoes piling up on a flat bed trailer, and seeing all the dirty knees, hands, and faces that went with it.

    Comment by kevinf — October 10, 2012 @ 3:27 pm

  14. I’m sometimes ambivalent about the value of welfare projects. I love the idea, but I get annoyed at the inefficiency of it sometimes. Sometimes (e.g.) working at the cannery is a great experience and I feel glad I was there helping. Other times, particularly if things aren’t very well organized, I find myself thinking that rather than take vacation time from work to do it, I could have gone to work and then paid an unemployed ward member $10/hour to do the welfare service for me, and we all would have come out ahead.

    Am I evil? Am I missing the point? Yeah, probably…

    Comment by lindberg — October 12, 2012 @ 1:40 pm

  15. No! You’ve made an important point. I’m idealizing the hands-on welfare experience, and I hope that it is/was ideal more often than not, but a poorly planned, poorly executed project would be just as off-putting as a poorly planned lesson or a poorly executed talk.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — October 12, 2012 @ 1:43 pm

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