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Category Archives: Ghost Towns

What will become of the historic Benson Grist Mill? Make your voice heard

The Benson Grist Mill with Oquirhh Mountains in the background (photo by Clint Thomsen)

The Benson Grist Mill with Oquirhh Mountains in the background (photo by Clint Thomsen)

Last week the Tooele Transcript Bulletin reported that the staff of the historic Benson Grist Mill in Stansbury Park had been laid off due to county budget woes. According to the piece (the online version of which is behind the TTB’s pay wall), the mill complex will remain closed for a 30-day “timeout” period, during which the Tooele County Commission will decide its fate.

The mill’s temporary closure and uncertain future are alarming to those of us with a passion for Tooele County history, especially those who so diligently restore it from shambles in the 1980s.  I haven’t spoken directly to County Commissioner Shawn Milne about the mill, but I gather he understands the site’s historical value and will do his best to see that it re-opens under capable oversight.

But whose oversight?  Milne reached out to local residents today via Facebook to solicit feedback:

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My take?  It’s a no-brainer.  Assuming the LDS Church is interested in acquiring the complex, it would be the best steward hands-down.  Here’s why:

1.  Private ownership means tax dollars can be used elsewhere.

2.  The mill plays a major role in LDS Church history in the county.  It was built in 1854 by LDS apostle Ezra Taft Benson to serve the predominantly LDS population of the region.  The construction of the mill and the relics surrounding it (including the ruins of the Grantsville Woolen Factory) are archetypical of classic Mormon Pioneer architecture.  Who better to care for these old structures than the organization that originally built it, and whose heritage it so perfectly encapsulates?

3.  The LDS Church very capably oversees numerous historic properties.  And it’s the whole deal, too– preservation, maintenance, public tours, and…

4.  Archaeology.  The mill and surrounding structures are an archaeological treasure trove.  For everything you see above ground at that site, there’s triple that underground.  Tooele County never had the resources to fund true archaeological research at the site (example: in 2008 a portion of the original miller’s residence was accidentally unearthed by a Stansbury Park maintenance crew.  A photo or two was taken and the site was promptly paved over).  The LDS Church, however, has a full archaeological arm.  The mill has been dubbed the most significant historical structure in western Utah.  Just imagine what lies beneath!

I don’t know whether or not the County Commission has approached either Stansbury Park or the LDS Church about taking ownership of the mill, and these are just my initial thoughts spurred by Milne’s Facebook Post.  But I’m obviously concerned about the mill’s future, and given the two choices, this is the best way to go.

What are your thoughts?  Commissioner Milne’s Facebook question was posed specifically to Stansbury Park residents, but I’m sure the Tooele County Commission would appreciate your thoughts regardless of where you’re from.  Contact them via their website here.  I’ll post updates as I learn them.

My previous posts and articles about the Benson Grist Mill:

Historical discoveries still await in old E.T. City area
Preserving History: Stansbury couple’s work provides a look into county’s past
A Glimpse into the Past: Investigating Tooele Valley’s Most Visible Pioneer Relic

 

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Some Halloweentime Reading

Halloween is once again upon us, so here are a few spooky stories from the archives to get you in the spirit!

Ghosts in the desert? Past and paranormal meet in Old River Bed

Ghosts of Mercur Cemetery don’t reveal themselves easily

Spring Canyon Spooks: In search of the White Lady

‘There’s a body in there!’

Saltair’s spooky side shines in “Carnival of Souls”

 

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A Glimpse into the Past: Investigating Tooele Valley’s Most Visible Pioneer Relic

A Glimpse into the Past: Investigating Tooele Valley’s Most Visible Pioneer Relic

Ruins of the Grantsville Woolen Factory near Lake Point, Utah (photo by Clint Thomsen)

The following originally appeared in the October 9, 2012 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.

If you drive the northern stretch of SR-36 with any regularity, you’ve seen the remains of that old stone building. That’s right, the picturesque, castle-like edifice off the highway’s west side, about a mile north of Stansbury Park. Chances are it catches your eye most every time you pass it. And even if you’re not a history buff, chances are you spend at least a moment of your commute wondering about it.

It’s got to be old, you tell yourself — pioneer era probably. But what was it? Who built it? And why was it abandoned?

Every old building has its story, and the Grantsville Woolen Factory is certainly no exception. Situated near the Benson Grist Mill in the historic heart of Tooele Valley, the 143-year-old building is one of the county’s most significant cultural treasures. But like the structure itself, the factory’s story isn’t completely intact.

The factory was a product of pioneer ingenuity in an era of extreme independence, when Mormon leaders encouraged pioneer communities to become as self-sufficient as possible. In the early 1850s, LDS Church President Brigham Young began counseling towns to build woolen factories. By 1857, several factories had been established in Salt Lake and Utah valleys. The most notable was the Provo factory, which was the largest woolen factory west of the Mississippi River.

Young brought the same counsel to Tooele Valley in 1867 when he encouraged a Grantsville congregation to improve their sheep breeds by building a factory of their own. Construction of the Grantsville Woolen Factory began the next year, financed by several prominent Tooele County citizens. The building was located in old E.T. City along Adobe Rock Creek, a sizable waterway fed by a network of brackish springs.

View southwest from the Grantsville Woolen Factory toward Adobe Rock Creek and Lone Rock Ranch (photo by Clint Thomsen)

Bishop John Rowberry was president of the company, with James Wrathall as factory superintendent and John Forsyth as machinery consultant. Various staff, including Forsyth, settled at the adjacent Lone Rock Ranch across from Adobe Rock.

The one and a half story factory measured 49-by-89 feet. Its walls were constructed of fitted blue limestone boulders cut from the nearby Oquirrh Mountains. Its upper room featured louvered windows and was supported with thick beams hewn from Oquirrh timber. It was accessed via two outside staircases. Twenty-five large windows on the lower story facilitated natural lighting, and machinery would be powered by a dam built across the creek.

The Deseret Evening News reported that the building’s completion was marked on Aug. 20, 1869 by an epic, all-night party featuring talks from local leaders, a substantial supper and dancing. Music of excellent quality and in any desired quantity was provided by bands from Tooele and Grantsville.

The factory was officially dedicated on April 29, 1870 by Elder John Taylor of the LDS Church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. In the highlight of the event, the factory’s 350 spindles were briefly set in motion. The future of the Grantsville Woolen Factory couldn’t have looked brighter.

Grantsville Woolen Factory ruins, view toward northeast (photo by Clint Thomsen)

But according to the 1961 publication of the “History of Tooele County” by the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers, the factory operated only 10 months before closing. That’s also when the details get sketchy.

Some blamed a scarcity of raw materials for the factory’s failure. Some blamed the muskrats that constantly bored through the dam, hindering water wheel operation. Others, including Forsyth, said parts of the structure were built on quicksand. Each of these factors seems plausible. The “History of Tooele County” notes that pioneer sheep flocks were indeed small and their fleece light. Muskrats still menace the waterway today, and the soil along the entire channel is generally loose.

Whatever the reason for the decline in production, it was the quicksand that ultimately proved fatal. It happened, of all times, during a visit by the LDS church’s first presidency and other church leaders in late 1870. According to the book, the dam gave way as the men were feeding their horses, unleashing an “avalanche of water, seething, boiling, foaming and lashing with terrible fury from either bank of the yielding dam, in its rapid passage down the heavy grade.”

The dam was never rebuilt, and the factory’s machinery was transported to the Provo factory in 1872. Little is documented about the history of the factory after it closed. The “History of Tooele County” briefly mentions that the structure was later repurposed as a fishery, a dairy, a factory manufacturing overalls and even apartments.

Eventually the structure was completely abandoned. The roof was removed and used to remodel the historical adobe house still standing at Lone Rock Ranch. The wooden columns gave way and the narrower tops of the walls began to crumble. The Forsyth cabin was moved to the Benson Grist Mill complex in 1986, and E.T. City itself was eventually absorbed into Lake Point.

Adobe house at Lone Rock Ranch, built around 1909 (photo by Clint Thomsen)

The entire area, including the factory, the ranch, and Adobe Rock, is believed to have been acquired by Kennecott Utah Copper in the 1960s, although the exact acquisition date is unknown. Erda resident DeLaun Blake and his wife Wilhelmena said they leased the ranch to Kennecott from approximately that time to the mid-1990s. They were the last occupants of the adobe ranch house. Blake, 91, has fond memories of living next to the factory and is still amazed at the design.

“[The walls] are beautifully straight,” he said. “The amazing thing about it is they didn’t even have a cement foundation. They put mortar on the ground, put rocks in a maze with mortar that wasn’t straight cement. You look at it today and its absolutely straight walls—no bends or bows in them at all. You’ve never seen such great walls in your whole life.”

Blake recalled planting rainbow trout in the springs, lending credence to the creek’s viability as a fishery.

“It seems like they grew an inch per month,” said Blake. “I used to throw the line in the morning, catch about a 12-inch trout and eat it for breakfast. Boy, it was nice.”

Kennecott — now Rio Tinto — continues to lease the land for agricultural purposes. While the company has no specific plans for the factory ruins, Kennecott Asset Manager Jeff Lachowski said the company is mindful of history and is interested in preserving the site. Public access to the ranch and factory site is restricted. However, the restored Forsyth cabin at the Benson Grist Mill is publicly accessible.

Large carp have now taken over Adobe Creek. On a clear afternoon last week, dozens of them cruised the shallows on both sides of the broken dam. The factory’s vacuous rectangle was empty, save for the fallen beams. Wooden frames lined many of the glassless windows. Walking along the thick stone perimeter, one laments the factory’s premature demise.

Would the factory have continued to operate had the dam not broken? Would it be occupied by some other enterprise? Would there be more of it left? No one will ever know, but one thing is certain. The stately skeleton of the Grantsville Woolen Factory remains a solid testament to Tooele County’s pioneer spirit.

Stay tuned next week for a video tour of the ruins.

Photo by Clint Thomsen

 

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The story behind those Beach Boys photos at Saltair

The Beach Boys at Saltair circa 1968 (via Google Images)

GREAT SALT LAKE, CIRCA 1968—

The exact dates are fuzzy, but Bill Hesterman, Jr. and his younger brother Dave remember their first trip to Saltair like it was yesterday.

It was early on a Saturday afternoon when their father, Bill Hesterman, Sr., pulled the family’s red Toyota Land Cruiser off Highway 40 and aimed it toward the lake’s southern shore.  There, at the end of a mile-long trestle, stood Saltair—the world-famous “Lady of the Lake.”

Or Saltair’s ghost, at least.

The historic resort had been deserted for nearly a decade.  The locked gate at the trestle’s entrance was a half hearted formality.  The Utah State Parks Commission, to which the resort had been donated in 1959, had neither the resources to maintain the iconic pavilion nor an interest in restricting access to it.  Saltair hosted throngs of recreationists and big-name musical acts for nearly 60 years before it succumbed to the elements, extraordinary operating costs, and an ever-receding shoreline.  Now the dilapidated Moorish edifice appealed only to urban explorers and tourists who pined for its glory days.

It was those glory days that brought the Hestermans to Saltair that day.  Bill and Dave sat in the back seat.  Riding shotgun was The Beach Boys founding member Al Jardine, who was in town with his band mates to play a concert at Lagoon later that evening.   Jardine was stoked to explore Saltair.  Bill and Dave were stoked to be hanging out with their rock idol.  Hesterman shifted into 4-wheel-drive, hopped the railroad tracks and cruised the alkaline mile out to the ghost resort.

The Beach Boys stand on pier pylons behind the abandoned Saltair Pavilion (via Google Images)

Even casual Beach Boys fans know the band’s connection to Utah runs deep.  It’s well known that the band’s 1964 hit “Fun, Fun, Fun” was inspired by Salt Lake City teenager Shirley Johnson England, daughter of KNAK radio station owner Howard Johnson, who took her father’s Ford Thunderbird and naughtily cruised State Street.  And of course there’s the 1965 song, “Salt Lake City.”  The Beach Boys played Lagoon seven times during their formative years are set to headline BYU’s Stadium of Fire Independence Day celebration next month.

So what brought The Beach Boys to Utah in the first place?  How did little ol’ SLC become The Beach Boys second home?

It all started in the early 60’s when Hesterman, then a DJ and general manager of KNAK Radio, played a rough Beach Boys demo tape on the air.  “Daddy-O,” as Hesterman was known on-air, was likely the first disc jockey to play a Beach Boys record on radio outside of California.

And Utah listeners were smitten.  As the fledgling band’s sunny lyrics and rich harmonies began to define the surf rock genre, Hesterman promoted them heavily.  He arranged several Beach Boys concerts at Lagoon and later toured with the band in Europe.

Jardine reflected on those early Lagoon concerts in a 2010 interview in Goldmine Magazine:

“It was a magical time. It was like being in a time warp (I think). It felt like we were back in the 1940s and ’50s doing these big ballroom dances, which were so popular in that era.

“We set attendance records every year … it became an annual affair. That’s the kind of vibe we were having with our fans and [even] the promoters at that time. Everybody was pretty happy with The Beach Boys. It was reciprocal feeling, and we always set attendance records.”

He also talked about Hesterman:

“Bill Hesterman was the deacon in the Mormon Church — he never prophet-eltized (sic) or tried to push his particular faith on us. He was just a normal guy with a great radio voice and just promoted the heck out of The Beach Boys. That spilled over to the promoting of the Lagoon.”

Hesterman was actually a Mormon Bishop at the time, but I think we can cut Jardine some slack.

He became good friends with band and their manager, Murry Wilson (also the father of band members Brian, Dennis, and Carl).  When the Hesterman family traveled to California, they visited the Wilsons.  When the band was in Salt Lake, they hung out with the Hestermans.  While the tune “Salt Lake City” was a public tribute to their Utah fans, it was written in Hesterman’s honor.  And although “Barbara Ann” wasn’t written by The Beach Boys, they often dedicated SLC performances of it to Hesterman’s wife, Barbara.

The Hesterman children were given tour jackets and backstage passes to Beach Boys concerts, and were sometimes introduced by their father on stage.

Bill, Dave, and their younger brother Mark grew especially close to Al Jardine.

“I remember him picking me up as a little kid and holding me in his arms,” Mark Hesterman recalled during a phone interview earlier this week.  “He always seemed to be well grounded, just a regular guy.”

Bill “Daddy-O” Hesterman remained close friend of the band until he passed away in 1996, and his sons still keep in touch.

But back to that Saturday at Saltair.

According to Dave, the outing had been Jardine’s idea.  He had heard about the resort growing up and was intrigued by its musical heritage.  With the Lagoon concert several hours off, Jardine saw an opportunity.  They’d have plenty of time to tour the old pavilion before join up with the other Beach Boys for the concert.

They spent two hours wandering the pavilion and exploring underneath.  They climbed the grand staircases.  They walked to the middle of the dance floor, which for decades was the largest unobstructed dance hall in the United States.  They stood there for a while, just to take it in.  This was the place where generations of Utahns danced, fell in love, and thrilled to the music of the Mills Brothers, Phil Harris, and Nat King Cole.

“You felt like the ghosts of the bands were in the background,” Bill Jr. recalled.

Saltair featured the largest unobstructed dance floor in the U.S. (Utah Historical Society)

Though it was certainly run down, Bill Jr. said the old pavilion’s infrastructure seemed plenty solid—perhaps fully restorable with proper funding.

Leaving Saltair proved difficult when the Cruiser high centered on the railroad tracks.

“We were stuck out there in no-man’s-land,” Dave laughed.

Everybody got out and started to dig.  They tried rocking the Cruiser and using a railroad tie for leverage.  They worked for over an hour, racing against the clock and the darkening clouds and the next passing train.  Bill Sr. was fretful.  Jardine, according to Bill Jr., “thought it was great sport.”

They finally freed the cruiser and sped to Lagoon, arriving late to an anxious crowd.  With no time to clean up, Jardine joined his band mates on stage covered in Great Salt Lake mud.  By all accounts, the concert was great.

When Jardine told the other Beach Boys about Saltair, their interest was piqued.  It was decided (with a measure of reluctance from Bishop Hesterman) that they would all return to Saltair on Sunday for a photo shoot before leaving town on Monday.  On Sunday afternoon Hesterman, the band, and a photographer loaded into the Cruiser and drove west (Bill Jr. and Dave didn’t make the trip; Hesterman insisted they stay home and attend church services).

The cover of Unsurpassed Masters, Vol. 19 (via Google Images)

As reported in last week, the photos taken that day were featured on a European repackage of Today! and a later Sea of Tunes bootleg release.  The guy in the middle of the cover shot?  Yep, that’s Bill “Daddy-O” Hesterman.

Aside from those photos, little is known about the trip or the photographer.  Calls to Al Jardine’s manager were not immediately returned (no shock there; the band is on tour and this is a modest blog).  But Jardine did mention the trip in the same Goldmine Interview:

“In 1968, Bill took us out to the Salt Flats out there at another old ballroom called the Salt Palace that had since — literally — started to fall into the Salted Sea in the Great Salt Lake. In the 1940s, there was a dance hall out there. The lake shrank away and Bill thought it would be a great place to have pictures taken. So we were sitting on pier pylons and goofing around in the sand out there. You can imagine that the Salt Palace was a hell of a place, and it must have really rocked… The Lagoon was our Salt Palace.”

Okay, so his names are off (the Salt Palace is a convention center in downtown SLC and I’m not sure what he’s referring to with the “Salted Sea”), but it has been about 44 years.  His comparison of Saltair to Lagoon is interesting since the two resorts were fierce competitors until the former’s demise.  Lagoon had solid local appeal, but Saltair was a nationwide destination and was frequently dubbed the “Coney Island of the West.”  The pavilion’s ornate Moorish design and location nearly a mile offshore gave it grand, almost ethereal presence.   This setting, combined with the popularity of saltwater swimming and the resort’s massive dance hall, made Saltair THE concert destination.    Had The Beach Boys been around even a decade earlier, they would have certainly played Saltair.

But their rise in prominence coincided with the end of the Saltair era and the beginning of Lagoon’s heyday.  Lagoon, as Jardine aptly points out, was the Beach Boys’ Saltair.  How appropriate that they, thanks to Bill “Daddy-O” Hesterman, were able to visit both over the same weekend!

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Those same pylons today (photo by Clint Thomsen)

Click here for my previous stories about Saltair.

 

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The Beach Boys – Saltair Connection

The Beach Boys – Saltair Connection

Today marks the release of The Beach Boys’ 30th studio album, That’s Why God Made the Radio.  The band is currently playing their 50th anniversary reunion tour, which will bring them to BYU’s July 4 Stadium of Fire show in Provo.  Since I’ve got The Beach Boys on my mind, and since I’ve always got Saltair on my mind, it’s high time I address the Beach Boys – Saltair connection.

What do Saltair and The Beach Boys have in common?  The answer may surprise you.  Sure, one was a long-vanished resort in Utah, the other a rock band from California.  But think about it.  Both spark thoughts of sun, sand, and saltwater.  Both were arguably products of genius, their legacies unmistakable.  Both have rocky—even tragic—histories.  Both have persisted through the years in some incarnation or another.

Oh, and one other thing:  these icons of music and culture met each other one summer day in the late 1960’s.

If you’ve done much research into Saltair history, you may have come across a photo or two of the Boys posing and goofing around at the old Saltair site.  The most ubiquitous is a shot of the band standing alongside a Toyota Land Cruiser with the dilapidated Saltair pavilion in the distance.  This photo appeared on two separate album covers—a European EMI repackage of Today! and a bootleg album titled “Unsurpassed Masters, Vol. 19.”

Here’s the EMI album cover:

Photo by Clint Thomsen

The back features the same photo and a blurb by the late Dick Clark.  Saltair is instantly recognizable, as are The Beach Boys.  There’s Dennis with the beard, Carl in the denim shirt, Mike with the Newsie cap, Al with the wild red hair, and there’s Bruce on the right.  But Beach Boys fans and Saltair buffs alike continue to debate one question:

Who’s the guy standing with them?

Photo/Edit by Clint Thomsen

It’s no secret; it’s not well-known.  The online speculation is amusing.  He might be the Wilsons’ father, Murry.  Or Bruce’s father, or the band’s Mexican bus driver, or a Brazilian cabbie.  The truth makes a lot more sense and is actually quite interesting.  So who is that guy, and what brought The Beach Boys to Saltair in the first place?

Check back early next week for the answers to these questions and several other nice tidbits on The Beach Boys’ connection to Utah.

Or, since it’s already posted, just click here.

 

Ghost Towns: Lost Cities of the Old West out today!

Today is the official release of my book, Ghost Towns: Lost Cities of the Old West.  It is available direct from the publisher, most all online booksellers, in major bookstores, and at museums and national parks.  If your bookseller doesn’t carry it, they should be able to order it in.  Just give them ISBN # 0747810850.

If you’d like to order through my Amazon.com affiliate link, click here:
Ghost Towns: Lost Cities of the Old West (Shire Library)

Thanks to those who have already picked up a copy, and for the kind words from those who have already read it.  Thanks also to the Tooele Transcript Bulletin for the nice profile in last Thursday’s edition.  Enjoy the book and spread the word!

Clint

 
 

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Announcement – Ghost Towns: Lost Cities of the Old West

Dear Reader,

I’m ecstatic to announce the upcoming release of my first book, Ghost Towns: Lost Cities of the Old West, from Shire Publishing.  The book is available for pre-order now and will be released on April 17. An e-book version is expected to be released by June.

About the Book
“There comes a time in every rightly-constructed boy’s life when he has a raging desire to go somewhere and dig for hidden treasure.”

This quote from Chapter 25 of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer has captioned this website since its inception.  The raging desire of which Mr. Twain speaks came upon me early in life, and has sparked several passions.  Among them is the study of abandoned places.  My somewhere was the great American West.  My hidden treasure, ghost towns.

The dialog that follows the quote in Tom Sawyer is priceless.  It goes something like this:

Huck: Where’ll we dig?

Tom: Oh, most anywhere.

Huck: Why, is it hid all around?

Tom: No, indeed it ain’t. It’s hid in mighty particular places, Huck – sometimes on islands, sometimes in rotten chests under the end of a limb of an old dead tree, just where the shadow falls at midnight; but mostly under the floor in ha’nted houses.

Huck: Who hides it?

Tom: Why, robbers, of course…They always hide it and leave it there.

Huck: Don’t they come after it anymore?

Tom: No, they think they will, but they generally forget the marks, or else they die. Anyway, it lays there a long time and gets rusty; and by and by somebody finds an old yellow paper that tells how to find the marks – a paper that’s got to be ciphered over about a week because it’s mostly signs and hy’roglyphics.”

Like Tom’s treasure, ghost towns can be found most anywhere, especially in places that seem odd and secreted.  There they remain, mostly forgotten and in various states of decay, waiting for a couple adventurous kids with an old yellow paper.

There are many guide books available that list ghost towns by region.  This is not one of those books.  This book is a primer to the ghost town phenomenon and the ghost-towning hobby.  It’s the book you read before you pick up a guide book.  Ghost towns are best experienced with as much context as possible.  What exactly is a ghost town? How did they rise? Why did they fall? What can their remains tell us about the people that once called them home? And how can they be experienced today?

Ghost Towns: Lost Cities of the Old West answers these questions, and then some.

Pre-order yours today!

  • Pre-order direct from the publisher (this earns me highest royalties): Link [make sure to set your location to USA in the top corner]
 
 

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