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Beaver: Hometown of Butch Cassidy, Las Vegas stars and awesome kids

Published February 28, 2010 5:55 pm

I-15 may have passed the town by, but life has not.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2010, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

This is the second in a periodic series looking at small towns in Utah. The first one, on Helper, ran in January.

The freeway exits on the north and south end of town glow in the darkness like islands of light drawing Interstate 15 travelers like moths to gas stations and chain fast-food joints.

Most visitors quickly take care of their needs and move on, mistakenly believing little life exists between the exits.

Yet this town 212 miles south of Salt Lake City somehow has not only survived but thrived since the mid-1960s, when the freeway sucked the traffic away from its core. It's a mixture of longtime residents and newcomers with interesting pasts, a hodgepodge of historic homes and public buildings mixed with the modern. Beaver hardly noticed the recession because of a nearby hog farm and wind power developments.

Cary and Stevi LaSpina, once two of Las Vegas' brightest stars, settled in Beaver to make candles at an interesting Main Street boutique called Surewood Forest. She was the lead dancer for some of Vegas' biggest production shows. He performed for three presidents, choreographed for Sammy Davis Jr. and Ann-Margret and even helped the local high-school drill team, the B-Steps, win a state title.

Salt Lake transplant Clarence Pollard, who operates what he calls Utah's biggest gun store, Beaver Sport and Pawn, enjoys conversation with hunters, anglers and gun lovers who flock from all over the state to buy and trade firearms.

Bill's Steakhouse owner Bill Beck once cooked for John Wayne, The Beatles and Elvis. His restaurant is filled with signed John Wayne memorabilia mixed with trophy animals, some harvested in the nearby Tushar Mountains. When he has time to talk, he tells wonderful stories about catering for some of "The Duke's" biggest hit movies, offering insights as to what some of Hollywood's greatest stars were really like.

Beaver native Dell Hollingshead's family has operated Arshel's Cafe in the same location since the early 1930s. The cafe, named for his father, still serves homemade pies and soups. Hollingshead said that before the freeway skirted town, there were 17 service stations on Main Street. He can tell those who will listen about nearby Minersville's unlikely march to the 1928 state basketball title or about the time when California deer hunters took over the city each fall.

Alfred Marshall, the retired football coach who brought Beaver much notice by winning eight state titles and finishing second eight times during a heady run in the 1970s and 1980s, still comes to games in the stadium named after him. Locals talk fondly of his days as principal and coach of the school that stands in the heart of the city.

This is a town that celebrates its history in numerous ways. Go to the Butch Cassidy Inn and the owner will offer you information on the old outlaw himself, who was born in Beaver. A statue near the town's venerable courthouse honors native son Philo T. Farnsworth, the inventor of television. There is even a quilt shop in a rock structure that was once part of Fort Cameron, an Army outpost built here in 1873.

In the mood for some movie nostalgia? Scott and Jennifer Fotheringham have lovingly restored the 1930s vintage Firmage Theater, where locals know to pay $10 extra for a couch seat in the comfort of a spotless movie house or buy popcorn popped by a vintage Manley machine, one of only 18 working models in the world.

Beaver sports some unexpected industries as well.

Take the Cache Valley Cheese Outlet in the middle of town, a working factory that still processes 150,000 pounds of cheddar and curd each weeks, often using milk from five nearby dairy farms. It draws tourists off the interstate with clean restrooms, free samples, a small Utah-themed boutique and great ice-cream cones.

Or how about the Tushar Mountain Bottling Company? This is the brainchild of farmer Rowland Yardley, who built it to take advantage of the fact that a national organization voted Beaver as having the best-tasting water in America in 2006. Yardley bottles spring and well water from his land and sells it all over America.

Even Beaver's interstate exits provide tantalizing glimpses into the friendly and fascinating nature of the town of just over 2,500 residents.

On the south exit, Chevron service-station owner Leland Black or one of his employees surprises customers by offering to wash their vehicles' windows, fill up their tanks with gas and even check the oil and tires.

"I was taught that service is service," said Black. "If you didn't give service, you didn't have a job."

Nearby, Santiago Amzua owns and operates the Kan Kun Mexican restaurant. He once worked as a waiter and captain at the Beverly Hills Wilshire Hotel, where he served presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush, Princess Diana and a number of movie stars. He heard Donald Trump make a presentation about 20 years ago predicting that the stretch of road between Las Vegas and Salt Lake would be a growth area. So he bought the cafe and operates it with his family, occasionally even serving a former Beverly Hills client like Jack Nicholson, who Amzua said hates to fly.

There is a refreshing honesty here as well. Take Mayor Mark Yardley. Asked about his business interests in town, he refused to answer because on this day he was representing Beaver and not himself. He declined a salary. One of the main reasons he ran for office was a desire to serve a community that has treated his family so well.

In fact, whether talking to newcomers or longtime natives, what a visitor hears over and over again is that Beaver is a friendly, family-oriented place.

"We might not make a lot of money in this place," said native Malissa Anderson. "But it sure raises damn good kids."

Since the nearby Tushar Mountains offer alpine beauty and the town provides all sorts of festivals and recreation activities, it doesn't take long to realize that Beaver is more than simply a place between two freeway exits. It is a town worth taking some time to explore.

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Beaver history

Fathers Escalante and Dominguez stopped in Beaver in 1776, but the town was not settled until 1856. That's when George A. Smith, an LDS apostle from Parowan, noted that the area could potentially provide good pasturage for cattle. Simeon F. Howd led a group that divided the land into 16 10-acre lots in a town named for the abundant beavers in the area. In September 1873, the U.S. Army built a military barracks called Fort Cameron. It was later used as a private school called the Murdock Academy established by the LDS Church. While agriculture and farming were always two main industries, Beaver also served as an important retail business area. The town of around 6,100 residents is known as the birthplace of Philo T. Farnsworth, credited with inventing television, and the outlaw Butch Cassidy.

Source: Beaver Valley Chamber of Commerce

Beaver voices

"Beaver is the best-kept secret in America. I was fortunate to have been born and raised here. What makes it so special to me are the people. ... This is a small city with all the activities and amenities of a large city. We have a hospital, and I can't think of an activity we don't have. A goal of ours is to make people aware of what we have to offer in town and make Beaver a destination stop. We are already one of the greatest pit stops along I-15."

Beaver Mayor Mark Yardley

"Beaver is still a small town. You don't have to worry about your kids going next door, playing in the street or down the street. The kids have a place to go. They can be in the top 10 percent in school and not be a genius. You are lucky in big cities to be in one sport or activity. Here you can do many."

Jennifer Fotheringham, co-owner Firmage Theater

"I like the fact that I know everybody and everybody in this town is my friend and part of my life. I could not go back to Salt Lake anymore."

Clarence Pollard, owner Beaver Sport and Pawn

"It doesn't matter whether it's a joyous occasion or a funeral, you have a friend around the corner. The town pulls together. It's a close-knit community. When you go to the post office or the grocery store, people take time to visit. There is no better place to raise your kids."

Malissa Anderson, Tushar Mountain Bottling Company

"I like the small-town atmosphere, the people and the solitude. I didn't know much about Beaver, but I got involved with the community by teaching in a dance studio and teaching martial arts to the police. I coached the drill team, the B-Steps, and we took first in state."

Cary LaSpina, former Las Vegas jazz dancer and choreographer, co-owner of Surewood Forest Candle and Gift Company