Mormon Row: Historic Site or Ghost Town?

What is the difference between a ghost town and a vacated  historic site? Is there one?

Recently, back up in the Tetons, I ventured with a couple of friends to visit

Map of Mormon Row drawn by Craig Moulton, courtesy of Jackson Hole Historical Society and Museum

Map of Mormon Row drawn by Craig Moulton, courtesy of Jackson Hole Historical Society and Museum

Mormon Row, a four mile stretch of homesteads and ranch houses just southeast of Black Tail Butte in the valley of Jackson Hole. Here were solid, but decaying, remnants of a community that once thrived, was vibrant with life, if not exactly prosperous by today’s way of understanding. The National Park leaves its historic buildings to decay naturally, which I daresay means that, with time, they’ll be gone. But for now, the buildings stand as a monument to what people do to secure a better life, to survive, perhaps also a monument to what really matters in life.

The first homesteaders came from Rockland, Idaho, stopping in Victor before

Thomas Alma & Lucille Moulton Homestead, ca.1910

Thomas Alma & Lucille Moulton Homestead, ca.1910

crossing the Teton Pass. Nowadays, we have a road, which, I have to say, I’m somewhat reluctant to drive, yet they crossed the pass in wagons. They camped in Wilson, where I now abide part-year, on Fish Creek, before moving on to make their claim for 160 acres under the Homestead Act, paying their $21 claim fee. Some would secure further acres under the Desert Land Act, which required them to irrigate the land.

Arriving in July, too late to plow or plant, water and shelter were their first concerns. They dug irrigation ditches, and dug down 120ft. or so for wells. To be sure water would be available in summer, this was the time to dig—when water would be at its lowest. Then they built log cabins with a dirt roof, the lodge pole pines coming from nearby forests. And they went to Flat Creek, where hay was available for anyone who wanted it, cut it by hand, and also planted an early maturing oat, ready in 90 days. Plowing through the sage brush, with either a hand plow or a sulky plow, the soil underneath was fertile, and the resultant burning sage made an evening’s entertainment.

John & Bartha Moulton Homestead, ca. 1910

John & Bartha Moulton Homestead, ca. 1910

The community was called Grovont. Mostly ranchers, the cattle raised were not for their own consumption. Their subsistence depended on elk meat, hung in winter and left to freeze until they wanted it, and hogs killed and cured in summer, then wrapped in newspapers to keep the flies away. Huckleberries were another staple along with garden vegetables they could grow in the short season: rutabagas and carrots predominated. The cattle they owned were to raise money for other necessities; the steers were driven to Victor, Idaho, to put on the train for Omaha and sales. But since the price of a steer could vary as much as between $29 and $600, income was not guaranteed. Some families traded hay, eggs or chickens, oats or cream for butter down in the town of Jackson. The Moultons, of Moulton barn fame (the most photographed barn in the country, apparently) had a dairy

Moulton Barn

Moulton Barn

and sold milk to the local dude ranches. In addition, there was trapping, and one could earn about $50 a month from coyotes.

So, was there any recreation in this subsistence-level existence? Of course! The Church was a major center of activity, not only for services but especially for dances. Everyone danced, and dances were twice a month at the church (but no drinking or smoking allowed).   Still, they lasted until 3 a.m., and there’s a story about the piano player having to tape his bleeding fingers. Christmas and Halloween parties were well attended, political rallies, weddings and harvest celebrations, and concerts and school plays, too. Even in winter, when temperatures could drop to -60, and -27 or so was a norm, irrigation ditches became ice skating rinks, and the butte afforded skiing and sledding, while in summer there was swimming in nearby water holes.

Andrew & Ida Chambers Homestead, ca. 1920

Andrew & Ida Chambers Homestead, ca. 1920

In 1925, the Gros Ventre mud slide on Sheep Mountain damned the Gros Ventre River east of nearby Kelly, Wyoming, and caused a lake to be formed. Two years later, the damn failed, flooding Kelly and killing six people, yet uncovering a warm spring that never freezes. The Mormons called it ‘The Miracle Spring’, and they dug ditches to bring the water that would never freeze to their homesteads year-round. So life went on, improved somewhat. Better houses were ordered from the Sears Roebuck Catalogue and shipped by rail to Victor, then brought by stage over the Teton Pass and erected by community effort. Other new houses were stucco with cement. Out-buildings were built: log barns, granaries, and pump houses. School, originally in someone’s living room before moving to the Church basement, finally had its own building when someone donated land. Mail came in by team or sleigh from Jackson or Moran. Kerosene and gas light gave way to electricity in the 1950s.

Thomas Perry Homestead, ca. 1910

Thomas Perry Homestead, ca. 1910

So, what happened to this vibrant community? Admittedly, it was at subsistence level, but the homesteaders had made a conscious choice of the life they wanted, and this was it. But in the 1950s, the government started a buy-out of the land that was unproductive. The Snake River Company, with Rockefeller money behind it, bought up marginal lands, and then moved in on the homesteaders whose older generation took the money, with life leases permitting them to stay their lifetimes. John Moulton was the last to close at his death in 1990. And so, this community became part of Grand Teton National Park.

So now, is it a ghost town or an historic site? What is the difference? Perhaps it is that a Ghost Town is abandoned, a place where subsistence is no longer viable. Mormon Row, the former community of Grosvont, could have continued, but Time and Progress overtook it. The people saw the sense of taking the money and running with it, of leaving the area for future generations that would appreciate the enlarged Grand Teton National Park. Yet, the ghosts are still there. It’s an historic site, yes, but one that resonates with its history, as well as lost possibilities, forgotten potential.

Today, the Church, which served as such a center of community life, serves as the Calico Pizza, my local restaurant in Wilson, Wyoming. I eat there yet see no ghosts, nor even history.DSCN1517

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My sincere thanks to Emily Winters, Director of Archives at the Jackson Hole Historical Society and Museum, for her assistance in my research for this article.

 

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14 responses to “Mormon Row: Historic Site or Ghost Town?

  1. What a haunting tale of Mormon Row, Andi. We’ve had similar circumstances on the Texas coast. People were asked to give up their homes in order to preserve an area for it’s historic integrity and natural state. But, somehow the idea of those precious souls who toiled, loved, and lived in Grovont must surely be saddened ghosts. An amazing story.
    Karen Casey Fitzjerrell

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  2. Ashantay Peters

    Great photos! And I enjoyed the post. The story is intriguing, and I hope you consider working with the material

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  3. The view is awesome. Love the history and the map. Thank you for sharing. Where I live in East TN, it is where The Smoky Mountain National Park is and all the people gave up their homesteads and land to preserve. Cades Cove is one of my favorite places to go, and at first they tore down the farm houses, etc., but they wised up and started saving it as part of the heritage. I love hiking and walking up to the homes. It is such a beautiful place and I am so blessed to live right here near it.

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  4. Interesting, Andi. I can imagine stories set in that time and place could almost be limitless. Love the photo of the creek. I’m a nut about bodies of water, creeks especially. This story reminds me of an old trapper’s cabin about a mile from where I grew up in Montana. When we were kids we loved to go there and pretend and to climb on the part of the roof that was still there, etc.. Once, we were startled by a black bear inside the cabin (doorless and windowless then.) We scattered as did the bear. Now, no trace remains of the cabin or the bear, but its progeny still roam those hills. I sure miss that old place. Well, the kid who remembers does. So historic or otherwise, I guess we can’t keep material things forever. Maybe that is why we write books.

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    • Not to disappoint you, Eunie, but I believe the photo is an irrigation ditch they dug, not a creek–but I’m not totally certain. Your story of the cabin and the bear is wonderful–it would make a great scene in a book!

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  5. I enjoyed the post, Andrea. Their lives must have been hard, but then all small ranchers and farmers have a hard life. I’m glad you posted while the buildings are still standing.

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    • Caroline, I think their lives were hard–and as you say, so are the lives of most small ranchers. But they seem to have been so happy with so little and able to entertain themselves with so little. It seems nowadays we need about 5 different digital devices to keep us happy and don’t take time to enjoy nature or our surroundings.

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  6. Andrea, thank you for bringing back happy memories about that part of the West. Several years ago, my family and I stayed at one of the vacation cabins that the Moulton’s used to rent out on Mormon Row. It is breathtakingly beautiful and since I’m from Idaho, it felt like coming home. Wonderful piece!

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  7. I saw those cabins. I believe they are booked very far in advance being so popular and, yes, they are in a magnificent setting. I can imagine staying there makes for a fabulous vacation right in the heart of th national park. Thanks for your input.

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  8. I try not to think about living with WiFi and indoor pluming, to be honest. If I had a past life I hope I never have to remember chopping wood or walking down to the river for water. Having said that I can’t imagine what life was like, but I love diving into stories that evoke the past. Your photos inspire even a city gal, like me.

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    • I think, Brenda, it’s a case of ‘needs, must’ If you HAD to go without indoor plumbing, and didn’t know any different, you would obviously do it. We tend to view that life from the perspective of the 21st Century–thinking how very difficult it must have been. When people say life was simpler then, I believe what they actually mean is that life, or people’s concerns, was/were more basic. I had some experience of this living in Africa for a time–communities/people were closer emotionally because all the extraneous things did not matter; we struggled together. And wouldn’t it be nice to just enjoy a dance that went on til 3am without checking your phone every few minutes?

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