Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » Old Folks’ Day
 


Old Folks’ Day

By: Ardis E. Parshall - November 08, 2012

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.



8 Comments »

  1. Is it still celebrated in Utah?

    Comment by Julia — November 8, 2012 @ 8:44 pm

  2. Nope. Last time was 1970. I don’t know why it was dropped.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 8, 2012 @ 8:54 pm

  3. Wow, I had no idea about any of this. Thanks! I’d seen the Savage name on lots of old Mormon portraits, so that was familiar, but had no idea he was a member of the Church nor that he started a holiday. (And had never even heard of Old Folks’ Day.)

    If Old Folks’ Day lasted until 1970, surely there are readers out there who celebrated it or heard of it in their youth?

    Comment by David Y. — November 8, 2012 @ 10:51 pm

  4. It sounds like a tradition that should be restarted, but on a larger scale (meaning not just Utah) and something that would be especially relevant with the Baby Boomers starting to close in on 70! Wonder if there would be a way to start people thinking about how to implement it in their communities. Maybe a push for YW goals and Eagle Scout projects, combined with grants from AARP and Meals on Wheels? Anyone have connections and want to work on it together?

    Comment by Julia — November 9, 2012 @ 1:45 am

  5. I am certain that Gunnison and Koosharem (Central Utah) still have an annual ‘Old Folk’s’ party. Many former residents return for the dinner and dance and other activities. They honor everyone older than a certain age as well as the oldest people in town. They used to be given a ribbon as a designation, I haven’t gone so I don’t know how they are honored these days. I still heard them advertized this year.

    Comment by Rachelle — November 9, 2012 @ 12:41 pm

  6. Awesome! State support ended in 1970, but it’s wonderful to hear which local communities continued it on their own.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 9, 2012 @ 12:47 pm

  7. While I’m a huge fan of Savage the photographer (you can’t do much digging in Utah/Mormon history without encountering his work in numerous digital archives), I’m tickled to hear about this other side of the man.

    I don’t remember this tradition at all from my youth, but I do know that I grew up with a sense of respect for the past, and the people from it who were still living among us, that I now think was something regionally and culturally distinct. Memorial Day, for example, was always about so much more than military remembrance, it was a day to go to the cemetery and as my parents put it, “visit with family.”

    I’m also reminded of numerous older folk, directly related to us and not, that my family used to visit with when I was a kid: to take them on some small kind of outing, or just to stop in and say hello. I am blanking on the name of one such dear old lady, very well known, in Heber. Unfortunately, my parents are currently airborne enroute to a Ute football game in Seattle or I’d call my Mom for her name. I’m guessing you would likely know her, Ardis.

    Comment by Mina — November 9, 2012 @ 3:29 pm

  8. My husband often jokes that after helping at some of the Old Folks parties, now that he is an “old folk” they don’t celebrate it any more. Actually our ward has had a mini Old Folks dinner the last couple of years with the young men and women involved with putting on a banquet and activities for us “old folks.”

    The original Old Folks outings blessed the people working on the committees also, not just those people being served. Many years ago about six young couples were called to be on the committee for the Hyrum Second Ward Old Folks Party. They formed a bond that has lasted to this day. They have gone on vacations together, meeting for dinner several times a year, and other activities. Most of the people in that group are deceased now, but the ones still alive continue to be best friends.

    Comment by Maurine Ward — November 14, 2012 @ 12:54 am

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