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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.