Forest Service preserves remains of short-lived town in southern Rush Valley as ‘outside museum’
The following is part 1 of a more blog-friendly adaptation of a piece I wrote for the Tooele Transcript Bulletin last week on the ghost town of Benmore, UT. It originally appeared in the October 13, 2009 edition.
“Welcome to downtown Benmore!” exclaimed USDA Forest Service archaeologist Charmaine Thompson after parking her truck along a random-looking stretch of Forest Service Road 005, six miles south of Vernon. An autumn breeze swept across a vast, seemingly empty field of brush. Thompson smiled as she pointed to an area on the north side of the dirt road. “Right over here is the old schoolhouse.”
The building’s foundation became visible after a few steps into the sagebrush. Its footing was the size of a large shed. Scattered about were fragments of ceramic and rusted metal—some unidentifiable, some clearly embossed with the decorative markings of early twentieth century school desks.
The structure’s brick edifice was dismantled in 1932—a mere 18 years after it was constructed. Its materials were salvaged and reused somewhere else in the valley, leaving only the floor and strewn metal as a testament to the determined people who once called this place home.
It’s difficult to imagine now, but this schoolhouse was once the centerpiece of an organized and bustling community. Tucked at the southern end of Rush Valley in the shadow of the jagged Sheeprock Mountains, Benmore was an experiment in human tenacity.
Most of the town’s land is now managed by the Forest Service. Thompson is part of a team dedicated to preserving its remains as an outside museum.
“They came here to establish life,” Thompson said. “But if I’m responsible for these remains, something went horribly wrong, because they’ve reverted to public ownership.”
“But at the same time,” she qualified, “Since this is now public land, their stories become part of all of our history, and we can come and visit them.”
Benmore was the brainchild of Israel Bennion, whose family had settled the area in the 1860’s. Originally from Taylorsville, Utah, the Bennions were drawn to this clime by the prospect of free land under the Homestead Act, and the opportunity to escape what they considered an overcrowded Salt Lake Valley. Israel’s father, Samuel Bennion established a successful livestock ranch in 1863. He befriended the Goshute Indians, some of whom would winter next to his ranch.
To say that making a life in this harsh environment was tough is an understatement. Rainfall averaged about ten inches per year. Extreme weather only allowed a brief 130 day growing season. Water from the narrow Sheeprocks was scant, and was eventually threatened by overgrazing.
Yet the Bennions persisted, driven by dreams of a thriving, close-knit community. In 1905, Israel Bennion successfully lobbied to include the Sheeprock Range in the National Forest system. Later he convinced the county to adopt and maintain the road that would become the town’s main street. Bennion was serious enough about Benmore’s success that he would often give land, or sell it at reduced cost, to impoverished families.
“I want this waste place of Zion redeemed,” He wrote in his journal. “I want the poor Saints provided with homes. I want living here made tolerable now.” (emphasis Bennion’s)
The Bennions’ community-building effort was joined in 1905 by Charles H. Skidmore and family, who purchased 10,000 acres for a dry farming operation. The town’s name was created by combining the two surnames. The schoolhouse opened in 1914 and served 20 students from eight families. The Benmore Branch of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints became a ward the following year. During its brief existence, its records boasted 187 members, 20 births, three marriages, and four deaths. Benmore’s boon was hard work, resourcefulness, and a surge in wheat prices spurred by World War I.
Click here to read part 2.