Despite discouragement from some LDS Church leaders, hundreds of central Utah women worked in parachute factories during World War II

(Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune) A pajama top made out of parachute silk by Annie Jensen, who worked in a parachute factory in Manti during World War II, is seen at the Fort Douglas Military Museum on Feb. 6, 2019. Items like it were made after WWII in part because parachute factories in Manti led to Utahns having access to parachute silk and nylon; service members also brought parachutes home from overseas.

Manti • Annie Jensen had six sons and a son-in-law serving in the military: Four joined the Navy, two were in the Army and one served in the Marines. When she couldn’t find a flag to buy with enough stars to represent them all, she knitted her own and displayed it in her window.

While serving as president of her local Relief Society, the women’s organization in the LDS Church, she also supported the military by taking on a role far less typical for the time: working outside her home, as one of the hundreds of central Utah women who sewed parachutes from silk and later nylon.

“Nobody criticized her,” remembers her son Joe Jensen, 88, who worked on the family farm with his father and another brother after the six older Jensen sons joined the armed forces. “She wanted to do everything she could to support the war effort.”

One of the last reminders of the Manti’s parachute industry — staffed mostly by women — may soon disappear. Utah lawmakers will decide this session whether to approve $19 million to build a new 6th District courthouse on the site of one of the community’s former parachute factories, which has sat empty for years and would be demolished.

To help preserve that history, the Fort Douglas Museum in Salt Lake City is accepting clothing, quilts and other items made from parachutes sewn at the Manti plants, or from chutes brought home by returning service members.

“The museum is not just about soldiers, bullets, helmets and bombs, it’s about everyone who was impacted by the war — including those stateside supporting the troops overseas,” said museum director Beau Burgess. “The parachute plant tells a different side of the story, one that we can learn from and appreciate.”

Jensen and his wife, Gloria, affectionally known as Joe and Glo, had tucked away clothing Annie Jensen sewed from factory scrap material. The Riverton couple has donated to the museum the sole remaining top from three sets of red pajamas she made for her younger sons, along with a skirt.

‘Their work was crucial’

From April 1942 to July 1944, Standard Parachute Company of Utah employed hundreds of women in the buildings that may be torn down for a new courthouse in Manti, a city of 3,500 about 125 miles south of Salt Lake City.

Last year, state court officials purchased the 2.34 acre plot for $360,000. If a new courthouse is built, a warehouse and three narrow parachute production buildings will be razed.

The parachute industry began operations in the town’s armory but was expanded to four times the original size as production accelerated.

Initially, the factory was called the Fauntleroy Plant, after its flamboyant owner, Cedric Errol Fauntleroy, nicknamed the Colonel. He came to Utah from the parent plant in San Diego, the Standard Parachute Company of California. He had flown for France during World War I, later transferred to the U.S. 94th Hat-in-the-Ring Pursuit Squadron, and in 1920 had volunteered for Poland during a war with Russia.

Fauntleroy’s plant was part of a large defense industry that blossomed in Utah and surrounding western states during World War II. Women who worked in the parachute industry completed a factory shift only to return home for a so-called second shift of fixing dinner, ironing and other essential household chores.

Many of the women “realized that they were pretty good at their jobs other than domestic work, no matter how important that work was to their families,” said Matt Basso, associate professor of history at the University of Utah.

“The women at the plant knew their work was crucial,” he said. “They were empowered by the experience.”

Most of the women had come from farms and ranches, and were well acquainted with work. They applied out of a patriotic duty and for pay, Amanda Midgley Borneman wrote in a 2006 thesis for Brigham Young University. Many had husbands, family members and friends serving in the military, creating a deep sense that loved ones’ lives depended on their work.

Manti is named for a land in the Book of Mormon, a sacred text of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the dominant faith in the area. The church, through the Relief Society Magazine and statements by its leaders, urged women to stay home and raise their children, Borneman wrote.

But some women worked because of economic necessity; others were single or did not have children to attend to; some were inactive church members; and some worked regardless of all those factors, Borneman wrote.

‘We miss you’

Annie Jensen was independent, educated and interested in world events, her son remembers, and she had no qualms about working at the parachute factory. Joe Jensen remembers that a bus picked her up from their home in Mount Pleasant for the 20-mile ride to the factory. Other stops on the route were at Fountain Green, Fairview, Spring City and Chester, for an hourlong ride. One bus traveled as far away as Salina in neighboring Sevier County, about 30 miles away.

Annie Jensen was nearing 50 years old when she began sewing parachutes. Because of her age, she likely worked in the adjacent finishing factory, housed in the old Bishops Storehouse.

Standard managers cited liability concerns as a reason to turn away applicants over the age of 40. The Independent Parachute Company was formed by businesswoman Lila Keller to employ older women, who cut material, did handiwork and waxed webbing to keep parachute seams from fraying, Borneman wrote. Keller herself was often seen on the floor during the day and evening shifts, working 16 hours daily.

Borneman surveyed 27 plant workers, including Alice Fredricksen Clark, whose brother was shot down over Germany and sent to a prison camp where he nearly starved to death. Another was Wretha Peterson Nielsen, whose nephew and six classmates were killed in action. And LuElla Peterson Thorton, whose husband saw action in Africa and Italy, and was wounded twice. She and her small daughter lived with her sisters in Manti, where they took turns working different shifts and sharing child care duties.

Women worked 48 hours a week during the morning shift, from 6 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., or in the afternoon from 2:45 to 11:15 p.m., Borneman wrote. Top pay was $20 to $35 per week; the minimum wage was $19 per week, she found.

GIs on furlough sometimes toured the plant, became acquainted with some of the women and came back to marry them. Georgia Torgerson Jolley and Dora Price Fautin met their future husbands in this way, Borneman wrote.

In a 2014 interview, Fautin, then 91, told KSL-Channel 5 that she sometimes tucked notes in the parachutes, saying, “We were thinking about you and we miss you and we hope that this war will get over soon so you can get back home safely.”

Joe Jensen remembers as a boy running to the train that slowed to pick up letters his mother copied for all her sons during the war. The Jensen family was fortunate. All six sons, Charles, Thomas, Alvin, Robert, Lynn and Lambert, and son-in-law, Arthur Ford, returned home safely.

All of the family’s eight sons eventually attended college, becoming businessmen, teachers and a physician.

“There certainly were a lot of us,” said Joe Jensen, who wiped away a tear in noting that he is the family’s last survivor. Like his older brothers, he joined the military, serving during the Korean War.

The plant was sold after the war to different companies manufacturing sports clothing. But the workforce never matched that of the parachute factory.

Donating my family’s quilt

My family has a different connection to the parachutes of World War II.

After the war, Sarah Winder carefully cut 6-inch squares from a silk parachute that her son, Eliel, had brought home to southern Utah from the South Pacific. She stitched the squares together on her Singer sewing machine and tied the fabric into a quilt.

Eliel Crawford Winder had served in the Medical Corps, working in field hospitals as an orderly, guard and supply clerk in New Caledonia, New Hebrides, Marshall Islands, the Carolinas and Okinawa. The parachute he brought home was orange and white, used to air drop medical supplies, food and equipment. Paratroopers deployed white parachutes, which were not as easily spotted from the ground.

After his discharge from the U.S. Army, the Park Service took over his home in Springdale as part of an expansion of Zion National Park. Today a few gnarled nut and fruit trees are scattered throughout Watchman’s Campground, which once was the site of the family farm.

He would later move to Southern California and marry my mother, a widow with six unruly children.

Life wasn’t easy in Springdale after the war, long before Zion became one of the nation’s most visited parks. My step-grandparents worked tirelessly providing for their six children. Sarah Winder made many other quilts, often from scraps of old dresses, worn jeans and cloth feed sacks. She used the string from the sacks to tie her quilts.

My siblings and I loved our stepfather dearly, but like most children, we didn’t ask him about the war. However, the soft, silky parachute quilt was a family favorite, passed down through four generations.

We have donated it to the Fort Douglas Museum and it’s become part of the collection of items made from parachutes. Last fall, an unknown family donated another quilt, a white one made from silk from the parachute plant, to the city of Manti. City officials are asking the descendants to contact the city so their story can be recorded — just as ours has been.

Do you have family treasures made from a parachute or factory scraps?

Anyone wishing to donate clothing or other items made from vintage parachutes may contact the Fort Douglas Museum in Salt City. Call 801-581-1251 or email admin@fortdouglas.org

The items the museum has collected so far are being put on display. It is located at 32 Potter Street in the Historic Fort Douglas area on the upper campus of the University of Utah. It is open Tuesday through Saturday, noon to 5 p.m., and admission is free.

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