FEATURE – Most drivers on Interstate 15 probably have noticed signs accompanying the Fillmore exits informing them that a building in the town of 2,500 residents approximately halfway between St. George and Salt Lake City once served an important purpose in Utah’s history, but few of them stop to check it out.
For a few years, believe it or not, Fillmore was the official capital of Utah – a Utah very different than the one today.
The whole reason for the settlement of Fillmore in October 1851 was to eventually turn it into the seat of government for the newly-recognized territory. Brigham Young, both president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and governor of the Utah Territory at the time, foresaw what was then known as Pahvant Valley as a major population center. He chose the site of the future city because it was smack dab in the middle of the territory, whose boundaries back then encompassed most of what is now the state of Nevada.
A few months before the town’s establishment, anti-Mormon U.S. President Zachary Taylor had died, leaving Millard Fillmore, his vice president, as his successor. The new president was much more kind toward the Mormons and his administration approved Utah’s drive to become a territory not too long after assuming power.
As a “gift” to the new president, Young selected Fillmore as the name for the town and Millard as the moniker for the county, which at that time extended all the way to the California border. The adulation worked, apparently, since the Fillmore administration appropriated $20,000 to build a capitol building in Fillmore, albeit the amount was less than appropriations given to other territories.
One can only assume that Fillmore’s first settlers were brimming with optimism at the prospect of establishing such an important place. An assignment to settle in Millard County might have been seen as much more desirable than a call to a more barren, farther-flung location. Carl Camp, Territorial Statehouse State Park manager, however, said there really is no record describing how any of them felt when they first arrived.
Establishing a new settlement so late in the year definitely had its disadvantages. Many first-year settlers spent the winter in their wagons and those who were able to built quick cabins using cottonwood logs.
The original design for the statehouse, drawn up by Truman O. Angell, architect for the Salt Lake Temple and Young’s brother-in-law, envisioned a grand four-winged structure with a domed cupola in the middle. To say it didn’t quite work out as planned is a major understatement.
Unfavorable weather, trouble with Native Americans, lack of decent transportation and squabbling over funding all took their toll and slowed the construction schedule. Another big issue that had to be addressed was building an approximately 6-mile road up Chalk Creek to a quarry where sandstone could be easily cut for the building’s walls.
Started in 1851, it took until 1854 just to finish the basement. There were questions as to whether Brigham Young was using the appropriations for the building to pay off church debts. Young swore that all of the government funds he received went towards that south wing and later petitioned for more money to complete the whole building as planned but, unsurprisingly, it was not granted – one of the first indications of the failure that loomed.
Working at a breakneck pace compared to early construction, the stonework for the other two floors went up in three months and it took a full year to complete the interior, Camp noted. The building was completed in time for the territory’s Legislature to meet in late 1855 in what was just the south wing of the building originally planned.
“The early settlers worked long hard hours to build it,” said Fred Hayes, director of the Utah State Parks and Recreation Division. Hayes spent the early part of his career at the Statehouse.
“They were pretty proud of their efforts, and many even carved initials and symbols in the stonework,” he said. “It kind of became a symbol of their struggle to make something out of nothing, which in reality is the story of the early settlers of the Utah Territory.”
That December 1855-January 1856 session was the only full legislative session held in the building. Brigham Young and legislators quickly realized that the distance from the real population center, what was then known as Great Salt Lake City, approximately 150 miles north, was too much (it often took four days to travel to or from Fillmore) and the small town was not fit to temporarily accommodate all the members of the Legislature.
One good thing the Statehouse brought the town was an excellent venue for dances. Even before the building was finished, settlers regularly held dances that lasted until midnight. One early teacher, Emily Hoyt, wrote in her journal about her displeasure with the late dances because the participants were regularly tired the next day.
Once the Statehouse was finished, a dance was held in celebration before that first legislative session started. Camp said Hoyt disparaged the dances until she got invited to “the big one” to celebrate the opening of the building, a dance in which Brigham Young himself participated.
Besides hosting the Legislature, the building did become the hiding place and base of operations for the Deseret News for a few months during the Utah War, when, in 1857, President James Buchanan sent troops led by General Albert Sidney Johnston to supposedly quell what was perceived as a Mormon insurrection against the government.
An extremely short session in 1858 was the last time the building was used by the Legislature. The sole purpose of that meeting was to assemble in what was still legally recognized as the territorial capital to vote to officially move the capital back to Salt Lake City to appease the new federally-appointed governor.
Camp thinks that once early Fillmore settlers realized their town would not be the capital anymore, they were disappointed, he said. Some settlers moved on even if only as far as Meadow a few miles south to start farming.
“I can’t imagine the disappointment when the Territorial Statehouse was abandoned literally before it was finished,” Hayes said. “I’m sure those masons, carpenters, and others who worked so hard were totally devastated. But, they moved on and made other significant contributions to settlements elsewhere. I think there is a metaphor in there for us all.”
A host for ‘odds and ends’
After its short-lived stint as the territory’s capitol, the Territorial Statehouse served many different purposes, mainly as a school and a social hall. One of the schools in the building during the 1880s was a Presbyterian Mission School whose main aim was to discourage children from practicing polygamy in the future. It didn’t quite achieve that goal, but at least it gave the children a good education.
“It hosted lots of odds and ends,” Camp said of the structure, adding that it served as a jail, law offices, library, photography studio and a hall for the American Legion, which was the only organization on record during that time period to make any improvements to the building – adding another layer to the floor on the top story in 1917.
After the turn of the 20th century, the building was falling into disrepair. Just over 30 years after its construction, the Presbyterian Mission School complained about the need to replace some windows and repaint in some places. Later on, local children would crawl in the broken windows and use the basement as a hideout. Considered for demolition, the Daughters of Utah Pioneers stepped in to stop any such thought in 1928. Not wanting to see the important historical relic gone forever, the organization approached the state to fund the renovation.
When it came to the DUP member who was a major impetus for the renovation, Mame Dame, and her attempts to get funding, Camp joked that she “didn’t hear you when you said no.”
With the help of the state, the DUP restored the building and turned it into a museum in 1930. Members of the DUP operated the museum, and the state parks commission paid the bills, which is why it can lay claim to the title of Utah’s first state park. Camp said to this day there is confusion as to which collections are the DUP’s and which are the state’s since they didn’t keep good records.
In 1957, the museum fell under the auspices of the newly created State Parks and Recreation Division and has been operated by it ever since.
Later trials and threats
Even though the Territorial Statehouse was the state’s first government building, the oldest government building still standing west of the Missouri River and the state’s first state park, it sometimes hasn’t pleased state legislatures, because it does not draw many annual visitors and thus does not make much revenue.
Most state parks are recreation-oriented and many – especially those that have a reservoir for boating and water sports – actually make the state money.
“Our heritage parks don’t ever do that,” Camp said. “We’re not making the money.”
There have been times the legislature has seriously considered closing the statehouse because they’ve felt like it’s a drain on the State Parks and Recreation Division’s budget.
In the late 1990s, one legislator even joked that the park would do better if a representative stood outside the building and handed out $5 bills to anyone coming to visit and told them to move on. A former park manager even said the Statehouse did not make a good museum and that a new museum should be built to house its artifacts in order to return the building to its original purpose as some sort of government office.
While the Statehouse has been maligned and put on the chopping block several times, it has obviously never been closed down.
“When they really think about it, they realize it is a very important part of our history,” Camp said of the state legislature’s decision to keep the park open.
“I think Territorial Statehouse has such ´staying power´ simply because of the amazing story it tells about Utah’s struggle to get going.”
The Huntsman connection and revival
Jon M. Huntsman, Jr., current U.S. Ambassador to Russia, has deep roots in Fillmore. His fourth great grandparents were among its first settlers.
After Huntsman was elected Utah’s governor in 2004, knowing that the State Capitol would be under renovation, he decided to deliver his first State of the State address in Fillmore at the Territorial Statehouse to give the oft-forgotten relic another day in the sun. Not only did Huntsman have an affinity for the place because of his family connections, he said he wanted to get out among Utahns not living along the Wasatch Front.
In a Salt Lake Tribune article three days before the event, Huntsman said that he might be “a little bit unstable” during the speech because of the emotion the town evokes for him.
“My whole family tree is represented in Fillmore,” Huntsman said. “It’s where I learned how to drive a car, learned how to shoot a gun, fish.”
Huntsman’s decision to give the speech in Fillmore caused quite a stir. Just as with legislators of old, some members of the state Legislature at the time grumbled at the thought of having to travel 150 miles for an event usually held in their backyard. Some refused to attend and did end up boycotting the event, saying it was a waste of taxpayer money to stage it so far from the capital.
Event organizers asked Camp to pull portraits of Huntsman ancestors from the museum’s hall of portraits in its basement to be put on display during the speech. Camp informed them that there were roughly 30-40 pictures of Huntsman’s forebears on the wall, which would be overkill. In the end, Camp ended up displaying eight portraits – only those with the last name of Huntsman.
Camp said the event, which happened on Jan. 20, 2005, revived interest in the Statehouse, causing a short-lived uptick in visitation. To commemorate Huntsman and to provide visitors with something many of them could relate to, the museum put together a display about Huntsman in one of the rooms on the museum’s middle floor.
To build awareness and help generate revenue, nine years ago Camp set up a program that has turned the park into a venue for historical-themed LDS church youth conferences. The Building Zion Youth Camp has been filling up every slot made available recently. The camps consist of 80-100 youth at a time who camp right on the Statehouse’s lawn, which is fitting historically because the first settlers camped kitty-corner across the street on land that became a fort, and the Statehouse’s builders camped right next to the building while it was under construction, Camp said.
Just as they were for the early settlers, dances are a staple for the youth groups. In fact, Camp brings in some local youth to help teach the visiting youth the dances. In addition to the youth group dances, the top floor of the building hosts other regular dances throughout the year for locals, including on July 3 to commemorate Independence Day, at the beginning of the school year and a formal dance on Jan. 4 – Statehood Day – as well as other times when groups “beg” for one, Camp said.
Camp acts as caller for the dances, but his job isn’t like a standard square dance caller. It’s a little easier. He says all he does is shout instructions, when needed.
The youth camps and the annual Old Capitol Arts and Living History Festival, held annually the weekend after Labor Day, have helped raise awareness of the Statehouse and its history. Camp said actual visitation numbers are hard to calculate if one counts all the people who walk around the building after hours taking pictures, as they often do during the festival.
Camp said just over 9,000 visitors came through the door in 2017, but approximately 3,000 enjoyed July 4 festivities and another 6,000 participated in the September festival.
But one thing Camp and most visitors can agree on is the 162-year old building is a gem.
Visiting the Territorial Statehouse
Territorial Statehouse State Park Museum is located in downtown Fillmore, just over two hours north of St. George on I-15. As such, it makes an ideal midway stop on a trip to or back from the Wasatch Front.
Visitors enter from a small addition to the building on the northeast corner. Once inside, the staff will tell visitors to expect uneven floors, especially in the basement, which feels dungeon-esque with all its exposed stone. The basement contains the hall of portraits and the Deseret News printing press exhibit among others. The Huntsman room is on the middle story, whose floors are a little uneven as well.
The showcase is easily the top floor (arrived at by a steep set of of narrow stairs originating from the room in the southwest corner of the middle floor), the large room where most of the action happened in the building – where the Legislature met and where seemingly innumerable dances and social gatherings occurred.
One cannot help but imagine what it must have been like to see the Legislature at work or attend one of the late night dances in the room. And to the former legislative chamber’s credit, its well-finished wooden floors do not feel uneven.
For more information on the Territorial Statehouse State Park Museum, go to their website.
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About the series “Days”
“Days” is a series of stories about people and places, industry and history in and surrounding the region of southwestern Utah.
“I write stories to help residents of southwestern Utah enjoy the region’s history as much as its scenery,” St. George News contributor Reuben Wadsworth said.
Read more: See all of the features in the “Days” series.
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