This is one of my Tribune columns from 2011, posted now as background for the 1916 poem Old Folks’ Greetings—
In the very heart of Salt Lake City, at South Temple and Main Street, stands a monument topped with a bust of Charles R. Savage. The monument does not honor Savage’s considerable achievements as one of Utah’s pioneer photographers, but is a tribute to his concern for Utah’s most elderly citizens.
As a young man, Savage cajoled merchants into donating food and coal to widows. He convinced friends to join him in purchasing other supplies. His sympathies took a new turn when, day after day, he noticed an elderly neighbor sitting quietly on her porch; he wondered whether the old woman ever left her home, and whether she ever had an outing to look forward to.
In 1874, he discussed his thoughts with two friends, George Goddard, a fellow worker in the LDS Sunday Schools, and Edward Hunter, the LDS presiding bishop. The men conceived an annual holiday for Utahns age 70 and older, a day for an excursion away from home, with transportation and entertainment furnished by the young. Although the day originated with LDS planners, intentions were to honor all elderly Utahns, free of religious or political or racial divisions.
Utah’s first Old Folks’ Day was celebrated on May 14, 1875, when 180 elderly men and women were entertained at Lake Point on the shore of the Great Salt Lake. They enjoyed rides aboard the steamer “City of Corinne,” and were treated to refreshments and dancing before returning home, tired, perhaps a little sore, but rejoicing in the change of scenery.
Old Folks’ Day caught on, spreading to other communities in Utah and surrounding states, celebrated annually until its discontinuance in 1970. Events always included rides in train or carriage – getting away from familiar surroundings was one of the day’s greatest attractions.
The celebration on Aug. 5, 1884, was typical. A special 14-car train left Salt Lake headed south, gaily decorated with flags. Aboard were nearly 600 oldsters, tended by young people who served them lemonade and cake. A small choir passed through the cars singing familiar melodies. Each time organizers identified a passenger who was 80 years of age or older, a blue ribbon was pinned to the veteran’s clothing. At each stop, more old folks were helped aboard, until nearly 1,000 descended from the cars at American Fork.
The Rev. T.F. Day, American Fork’s Presbyterian minister, greeted the train with a long line of carriages and drivers to convey guests to the scene of the day’s festivities. Local men had cut brush and built a bowery on the site of today’s Town Hall, and in its shade a picnic was served to the music of the Pleasant Grove band.
After lunch guests heard brief speeches, more music played by bands from Lehi and Pleasant Grove, and dramatic recitations. Everyone over 70 received some present, while special gifts were awarded to some: Mary Bishop, 95, of Salt Lake, received a silver-plated teapot as the oldest lady, while James Burgon, 90, of Union, received a valise as the oldest gentleman. Parasols were given to ladies, and fancy canes were given to men. Dentists offered free dentures to the oldest man and woman who were completely toothless.
The mother of the most children won a prize, as did the oldest ladies who had never married. Albina Covey, baptized in Aug. 1830, was given a prize for longest membership in the LDS church. When no one spoke up as oldest Methodist, Presbyterian, or Episcopalian, the intended prizes were given to Rev. Day to distribute as he saw fit. Gifts were given to those born most distant from Utah, a woman from India and a man from Hawaii.
Following closing exercises, the elderly guests returned to Salt Lake by 7:30 that evening. The official report of the excursion closed with the prayer, “God bless the fathers and mothers who are nearing the great change, and fill their hearts with peace and sweet content!”
Charles R. Savage is known far beyond Utah for his early photographs – but it is his love for the elderly that Utahns chose to honor with a monument.