FEATURE – Washington County’s earliest Mormon settlers, if alive today, would probably be surprised at the area’s current status as an outdoor recreation and retirement mecca and one of the fastest growing areas in the state.
When they first came in 1861, all they saw was an inhospitably hot, red-rock desert. The challenges were myriad. There seemed to be either not enough water or too much of it when the Virgin and Santa Clara rivers overflowed their banks and destroyed much of what lied in their paths. In fact, the rising river nearly destroyed the entire settlement of Santa Clara, in 1862.
Some didn’t have the fortitude to keep going and left. However, the homes of two of Dixie’s lead settlers – the Brigham Young Winter Home and the Jacob Hamblin Home – stand as a testament to these pioneers’ challenges, foresight and perseverance despite the odds stacked against them.
Neither Young nor Hamblin spent even a decade in the homes that now bear their names, but the homes’ legacies help tell visitors the sometimes difficult colonization story.
The two homes were built less than a decade apart and have some definite similarities. Neither of them have hallways; one room leads into another because they did not want to waste space – especially space that had to be heated in the winter. Heating was a reason for another similarity: narrow, steep staircases.
Neither home had indoor plumbing, of course, but every bedroom was equipped with a chamber pot, and if one needed a drink, or culinary water for any reason, pitchers of water could be found throughout the house.
Coincidentally, both homes were also owned by grandchildren of their original occupants for a short time and both were placed on the National Historic Register in 1971.
The differences are plenty, and in a way, each home reflects the personality and status of its most famous occupant. The Brigham Young Winter Home, fashioned of thick adobe walls, has a refined Victorian feel and showcases more ornate features, such as an exterior coat of paint and cornices on its roof, becoming of the man of high status who spent his winters there.
The Jacob Hamblin Home, however, shows an exterior fashioned from locally quarried sandstone. This more rustic and rugged look reflects the persona of a man nicknamed the “Buckskin Apostle,” whose main mission was to pacify the attitudes of the Native American population toward the Mormon settlers – and wore buckskin while doing it.
Brigham Young Winter Home
The second president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Brigham Young, known as “The Great Colonizer” or “The Mormon Moses,” was the one who ordered the settlement of what was first known as the Cotton Mission. He made frequent visits to the area before establishing his winter home in St. George.
He could also be called “Dixie’s First Snowbird” since he ultimately decided to spend more time in the area to take advantage of the mild winter climate, which helped him ease the pain from arthritis during his waning years. Another reason he wanted to be a semi-permanent resident was to encourage settlers to finish constructing the St. George Temple. It would be the only temple of the four under construction at the time following the migration west (Salt Lake, Manti and Logan being the others) he would see dedicated before his death in August 1877.
The original part of the winter home was built by James Chesney in 1866 and designed by architect Miles Romney. Built atop a blackrock foundation, the gabled roof is covered with wood shingles. The structure also includes architectural elements that hearken back to the Nauvoo period with its bracketed cornices.
When Brigham Young purchased it, he commissioned an addition built in the early 1870s and made it his winter home until his death, spending two to five months there each year depending on the business he needed to take care of in Salt Lake City. While he was in the home, St. George was church headquarters being that the city was where the prophet lived.
Much of the original wood remains in the home. Some of the wood, pine that skilled artisans hardened and grained to look like oak, is affectionately known as “Brigham Oak.” During its heyday, four fireplaces heated the home.
Also during these days, the entryway became his waiting room for the many people who wanted to meet with the prophet. Many meetings occurred in his bedroom because he had trouble tackling the stairs in his old age. Because of this, often when he wanted to go outside, he simply made a short trip to the balcony adjacent to his bedroom.
Some of Brigham Young’s furnishings have been returned to the home, such as a rocking chair, a bed and a secretary, as well as some china in the kitchen that he chose and ordered but died before it was delivered. The rest of the furnishings are a reflection of the period in which he lived in the home.
The office to the side of the house boasts benches from the St. George Temple before its first remodel in the 1930s.
Approximately 15 years after Young’s death, the home was purchased by St. George’s first dentist, Judd Gates, who used the upstairs of the home for his offices. Later on it became a rental property, but by the early 1940s, it was vacant and in need of repair.
The dilapidated condition inspired Young’s grandson Georgius Cannon Young to purchase the home and plan for its restoration. In 1959, the property was deeded to the Utah State Division of Parks and Recreation, who restored it with the help of the LDS church.
According to a document on the St. George Temple Visitor Center website, the church became the home’s 25th owner in 1975, when the state exchanged it and the Jacob Hamblin home for land the church owned near what is now This Is The Place Heritage Park.
The late Elder L. Tom Perry, an LDS apostle, dedicated both homes in 1976, saying in his dedicatory prayer that the homes would be for missionary service. That has come true as the senior couples providing the tours say plenty of the homes’ visitors are not LDS.
Jacob Hamblin Home
Jacob Hamblin might have been the longest serving missionary in church history at 32 years, from 1854 until his death in 1886. His main mission was to ease tensions between Indians and settlers, but in the process his efforts also included about 400 Native American converts.
His mission in life was made clear to him after an incident while on his first settlement assignment after arriving in Utah, in Tooele. He drew his gun to shoot an Indian, but it misfired. The others in his party experienced the same thing when they tried to fire. At the same time, the Indians’ arrows could not hit Hamblin or any of his companions.
“It appeared evident to me that a special providence had been over us … to prevent us from shedding the blood of the Indians,” he later wrote, as quoted in a 1984 Ensign article. “The Holy Spirit forcibly impressed me that it was not my calling to shed the blood of the scattered remnant of Israel, but to be a messenger of peace to them. It was also made manifest to me that if I would not thirst for their blood, I should never fall by their hands.”
This calling and promise emboldened him and, combined with his honesty and lack of fear around the natives, made him an effective missionary. He earned their trust to the extent that he sometimes completed dangerous assignments alone because others feared for their lives should they accompany him.
“Jacob Hamblin was trusted by the Indians,” the historic register nomination form for his home noted. “He believed in absolute honesty when dealing with them, in showing no fear under any condition, but he also demanded justice from them as well.”
Hamblin arrived in Santa Clara in December 1854 and was instrumental in building a fort resembling Cove Fort to guard against Indians. Ironically, the fort was built with the help of Indians. Finished in 1855, the fort served as Hamblin’s family home.
In 1857 Brigham Young appointed Hamblin president of all the Southern Utah Indian missions, and in 1863, skilled stonemasons built Jacob Hamblin’s home with sandstone quarried nearby after the fort was destroyed by flood in 1862. A marker and plaque designate the existence of the fort less than a mile west of the now-Jacob Hamblin Home.
The home includes two identical bedrooms on the bottom floor, one to the west and one to the east, which were for Hamblin’s two wives, Rachel Judd and Priscilla Leavitt. The two women apparently truly loved each other, unlike many wives in polygamous families.
Each of the bedrooms have fireplaces on the outside walls and small sets of stairs leading to the second floor from the back outside corners. With no kitchen in the house, those fireplaces were where meals were prepared.
The upstairs of the home contains a large room used for religious, civic and social events. The home was built into the hillside so that the second level could be entered from the outside at ground level, so visitors could go directly to the large room without entering the private living quarters.
At one point, the home probably housed up to 12 children. It also featured a lot of storage space and was a sort-of trading post for those traveling the Old Spanish Trail, which passed right in front of the home.
Due to his duties with the Indians, Hamblin was constantly away exploring or negotiating and could not supply well for his families. The longest, uninterrupted stretch he spent at the home was when he was very ill for approximately a year in 1866.
Hamblin made several exploring trips along the Colorado River, becoming the first person to circumnavigate the region of the Grand Canyon and assisting John Wesley Powell with his surveys of the Colorado River area. He and Powell teamed up in another venture as well, helping to broker a treaty with the Navajos at Fort Defiance in 1871.
Hamblin moved to Kanab in 1869, and his home was leased to a “Mr. Bauman,” who used it to produce wine. Later the Samuel Knight family retained control of it until Hamblin’s granddaughter Clara Hamblin Harmon purchased it. The home was in a state of utter disrepair when the Utah State Parks and Recreation Division acquired it in 1959. The home was restored with help of the LDS church and opened to the public under church ownership in 1976.
There are no original furnishings in the Jacob Hamblin Home. The only thing on display in the home that was actually Hamblin’s was a saddle in the back room, as well as tools that were found onsite during restoration and presumed to be Hamblin’s.
Visiting the homes
The Brigham Young Winter Home is located at 67 W. 200 North in St. George, and the Jacob Hamblin Home is at 3325 Hamblin Drive in Santa Clara.
Friendly senior LDS missionaries guide visitors through each home and are able to answer visitors’ questions about the two pioneer leaders and the area’s history.
Visitors will be thankful to know that today the two homes do have air conditioning. If they didn’t, one senior missionary said, the homes wouldn’t be open in the summer. Both homes also have bathrooms onsite but not in the homes themselves in order to help them retain their pioneer character.
As visitors tour the homes, they can’t help but picture what life would be like back in the 1860s and 1870s. And visitors also can’t help but be thankful that their home is equipped with modern conveniences such as a bathroom instead of a chamber pot.
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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.
For previews on Days Series stories, insights on local history and information on upcoming historical presentations, please “like” Wadsworth’s author Facebook page.
Wadsworth has also released a book compilation of many of the historical features written about Washington County as well as a second volume containing stories about other places in Southern Utah, Northern Arizona and Southern Nevada.
Read more: See all of the features in the “Days” series.
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