Torrey • The dilapidated wood cabin in southern Utah’s redrock country looked somewhat as it did when settlers built it in 1886: a one-room frontier outpost in a town once dubbed Poverty Flats. The cabin sits on a weed-infested lot in what is now Torrey, the gateway to Capitol Reef National Park. The landscape is a wonderland of colorful formations jetting out of a gigantic 100-mile upthrust in the Earth’s crust.

For nearly 50 years as the town grew, the cabin remained boarded up amid resorts, upscale restaurants and art galleries. When the lot was put up for sale, the board-and-batten cabin didn’t attract many buyers. Its rotted floors were dappled with sunlight beaming through gaping holes in the roof. The lean-to addition, built in 1950, took the brunt of the weather and was collapsing. That addition, however, had amenities other families living there had lacked: a flush toilet, bathtub and kitchen. The heirs discounted the 1/2-acre lot to compensate for hauling off the rotted planks or salvaging what could be saved as barn wood.

But after I purchased the lot three years ago, I began wondering who had built the cabin. That’s when I learned about the families who had lived in the house situated on the hardscrabble fringes of the Utah Territory.

Old-timers had forgotten about the original family, whose descendants had moved away generations ago. But townspeople fondly remembered an elderly widow named Dicey Chesnut, who lived in the cabin until she became ill shortly before her death in 1974.

Decades earlier, she had attracted the attention of the great Western writer Wallace Stegner when she and her husband ran a tiny store and gas pump in the nearby hamlet of Fruita. Stegner wrote in “American Places”:

The Chesnutts (sic) were living folklore, survivors of the frontier. I would go a good way to have one of Mother Chesnutt’s breakfasts again, with peaches and cream, hot biscuits, corned elk and eggs baked in the oven in a muffin tin.

Remembering Mother Chesnut, Stegner wrote that the land “is not complete without its human history and associations. Scenery by itself is pretty sterile.”

His observation is the only reason I can come up with to explain why I decided to restore the cabin, the oldest structure in Torrey and among the oldest houses in all of Wayne County.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) The board and batten frontier house, originally just one room, was dilapidated and boarded up and had sat vacant for 50 years, when Dawn House purchased the 1886 home in Torrey three years ago.

A life “down valley”

In 1886, five days before Christmas, George and Ethalinda Morrill and their five children moved into a 16-by-16-foot, one-room cabin at the foot of the Water Pocket Fold, a geologic barrier so formidable that it would keep the settlement isolated and impoverished until well into the next century.

Townspeople elsewhere considered Torrey “down valley,” whose residents were poverty stricken and well, inferior. One elderly resident described Torrey as the Telestial Kingdom, a Mormon designation for the lowest degree in heaven, while the county seat of Loa was the highest Celestial paradise. At least Hanksville, with its history of attracting more outlaws than had Torrey, was considered Outer Darkness. Some middle-aged residents remember attending separate high-school classes that segregated Torrey kids from the more affluent “up valley” students.

The Morrills, however, had a history that touched on some of the West’s greatest sagas. In 1879, six years before founding Torrey, George Morrill was part of the Mormon Hole-in-the Rock expedition, where pioneers blasted their way through a torturous shortcut through southeastern Utah.

The land was so wild that it would be the last place in the lower 48 states to be mapped, according to the 1996 presidential proclamation designating the area as the Grand Staircase National Monument. George and three other scouts in the expedition went four days without food, trudging through snow-packed canyon mazes before finding Bluff.

Earlier, George had met Ethalinda in the Provo settlement while she was grieving the loss of her outlaw husband, who had been killed in a breakout at the Utah Territorial Prison. Left with a young daughter, she soothed her deep grief by racing her horse Flo, her unbound hair blowing freely in the wind. This time, the young widow decided to wed in the St. George Temple, where only a devout Mormon man could take his bride.

As a teenager and eldest child, Ethalinda had driven teams of horses when her father settled the Big Muddy and several frontier outposts in southern Utah. She also did what she could for her mother, who, while bearing 12 children, had lived in some 35 houses, including a tent and a lean-to made of posts and willows.

In a photograph, one can see Ethalinda’s fierce frontier spirit as she gazes boldly into the camera, her wavy dark tresses flowing past her shoulders — unlike the severe bun many pioneer women favored.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ethalinda Jane Young Morrill. The one-room frontier house was dilapidated and boarded up and had sat vacant for 50 years, when Dawn House purchased the 1886 home in Torrey.
(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) George Drury Morrill,1857-1919. The one-room frontier house was dilapidated and boarded up and had sat vacant for 50 years, when Dawn House purchased the 1886 home in Torrey.

George and Ethalinda settled the rocky, windswept bench in Torrey with her parents, John and Margaret Young, and the Youngs’ 20-year-old son, Alma. The next spring in 1887, the men dug canals from Sand Creek, using the North Star to survey the land, and planted a crop of grains, alfalfa and vegetables.

Of the three houses the families had built, only the Morrill cabin survives. Within a few years, many settlers moved away when digging a canal stalled to the larger Fremont River. John Young also pulled up stakes in 1890, taking his second wife, a girl he had wed when she was 15 years old.

Margaret stayed behind in Torrey to raise their children and help her widowed son, Alma. She followed him to San Juan County, where she outlived him by 12 years, and then reared his youngest three children alone. At the end of her life, Margaret dared hope that despite her parents’ insistence that she marry John, who also was her first cousin, she might finally be with her childhood love in the eternities. A granddaughter wrote of Margaret’s longing: “With all of the hardships she had endured, she was entitled to a little consideration.”

Turning point for Torrey

In Torrey, 1890 was also a turning point for the struggling town. John Young had sold off his water shares to outside ranchers, threatening to turn the settlement into a ghost town, much like the neighboring hamlets of Aldridge, Caineville, Notom, Blue Valley, Clifton, Mesa and finally Fruita, a small orchard village that later would be absorbed into the national park.

But George, who had an interest in the water shares, stopped the buyout. Later that year, more bad times would come: the Morrills’ 3-year-old daughter and infant girl died of diphtheria. And just two months before, the the couple “lost” their daughter Leah — or so the family history says.

Leah, George’s adopted daughter from Ethalinda‘s first marriage, had run off with a neighbor. She supposedly was too young to marry, but records show that Leah eloped a day after her 18th birthday and moved into her husband’s home two blocks away from her parents. Perhaps it had been her choice of a groom that brought such heartache. Her husband, Walter, was the son of the infamous John D. Lee, executed for his role in the Mountain Meadows Massacre outside Cedar City. The Mormon militia had led the attack on a wagon train on its way to California in 1857. Some 120 men, women and children were fatally shot or bludgeoned to death.

Just before the ambush, George’s father, Laban Morrill, had attempted to stop the bloodshed, putting his own life in danger when fellow Mormons rebelled against what they believed were excesses of the federal government and godless outsiders.

Laban sent a runner to confirm so-called orders from Mormon prophet Brigham Young to kill the emigrants, but the rider arrived too late to stop the massacre. Laban wrote, “But do not our principles of right teach us to return good for evil and do good to those who despitefully use us? To fall upon [the wagon train] and destroy them was the work of savage monsters rather than that of civilized beings of our own enlightened time.”

George was born seven days after the massacre.

Whatever the Morrills’ objections were to their daughter’s marriage, Walter Lee helped take care of his mother-in-law during the 18 years Ethalinda remained a widow.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) The second 16-by-16-foot back room was added in 1896 and now serves as a bedroom.

Those early days eventually improved for the the founding family. In 1894, the Morrills built an identical “cell” to their original cabin, cutting a door between the two adjoining rooms.

They also installed a more efficient heating/cook stove, tore out the fireplace and patched the hole with fence planks. Ethalinda pasted newspapers to the walls to keep out some of the cold.

Family records say that her favorite periodical was Comfort, a magazine geared to farm women. Along with advertisements for “health” tonics and recipes were articles on politics and world leaders, offering a glimpse beyond the Western frontier, which Ethalinda shared with her children. George objected to his wife’s extravagance — 24 cents a year, which Ethalinda earned from selling eggs.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Dawn House saved the maps and newspapers that frontierswoman Ethalinda Morrill pasted to the walls of the 16-by-16-foot one-room house to keep out some of the cold.

In 1898, the town was named after Wyoming state Sen. Jay L. Torrey, who had called for a volunteer cavalry regiment made up of cowboys and stockmen to fight during the Spanish American War. The official name came when Torrey got its first post office.

About this time, decades of hardships eventually undermined the Morrills’ marriage. By the early 1900s, George moved to work on his son’s ranch. But he returned to Ethalinda after he became ill, and he died of dropsy in 1919 at the height of the Spanish flu worldwide pandemic. The Morrills’ pregnant daughter died of the deadly flu virus, leaving behind five young children. Family lore has it that George had opposed this marriage as well, until her intended promised to change his ways. After her death, however, the grieving son-in-law quit going to church and went back to cussing.

After Ethalinda died in 1933, heirs sold the cabin to her granddaughter Ila Morrill Clarke and her husband, Sidney. They lived in the two-room cabin with their five children throughout the Great Depression, but often had to leave to find work elsewhere.

Their son Miles Clarke, who was born in the cabin in 1933, described his family’s life there during an interview shortly before his death in 2015. Water came from a single spigot inside the second room, with a bucket placed underneath. During rainstorms, the water turned a muddy reddish color and had to be run through a wire mesh to catch the dirt. The Clarkes had no indoor plumbing and used an outhouse.

The family sold the cabin to the Chesnut family and moved into a modern rambler home in Salt Lake County in 1950. Sidney Clarke remembered the cabin as much more cozy than the family’s larger home, with its separate kitchen, three bedrooms, as many bathrooms and spacious basement. “I had a happy childhood,” said his son Miles. “We didn’t know we were poor.”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) The original 16-by-16-foot recently remodeled room of the 1886 cabin.

An accounting of every board

Because the Morrills are historical figures, their cabin qualifies for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

To be accepted on the register, research must be conducted, and the cabin must retain its historic character — i.e., would the builders see the cabin and recognize it as their own? Each board must be accounted for and replacement materials documented. My son Matthew Tracy provided detailed architectural drawings and oversaw construction in the restoration. Our application is pending.

The 1950s addition was in the worst condition, which helped protect the 19th-century rooms from the weather. Every board had to be removed and catalogued and usable planks reinstalled. New framing was installed and the stone cellar was shored up with rebar.

The two older rooms were stripped down to the original boards and replastered. Electrical wires were removed and replaced. My son also rebuilt the fireplace, which had been removed for a more efficient stove. He turned to family records saying the fireplace was sandstone and used planks that covered over the hole to determine its size. The rooms and roof were reframed, a ceiling installed, and cedar planks replaced the deteriorated roof.

Primary sources used for the application included “A History of Wayne County,” by Anne Snow; “Rainbow Views,” complied by Lasca Keele and Hilma Brinkerhoff; “Life Sketch of George Drury Morril,” by Joy Clarke and Sherry Smith; “Hole in the Rock: An Epic in the Colonization of the Great American West,” by David E. Miller; “History of John Young,” by Mildred Hill Jacobs: interviews with Morrill family members;; and

Contractors often asked why I wanted the cabin listed — which increased costs. Most contractors had the misperception that a historic designation mandates that the house can never be altered. But only local governments, not the feds, may impose restrictions. The designation hopefully is a protection in itself.

I hope to accommodate groups asking for a tour, and have opened the home to arts groups when dignitaries visit. Townspeople frequently ask if I am related to the Morrills. I say no, but joke that somebody in the family must have hijacked my brain. But seriously, I feel a kinship to the home, its history and the strong, good people who lived in what will be officially listed as the George and Ethalinda Morrill House.

Treasures in the walls

Cowboy spurs. A rusted toy gun. Four wooden chairs twisted and broken by years of rain falling through gaping holes in the roof. And dozens of 19th-century wire nails.

These were some of the items we found at a collapsing board-and-batten cabin I recently purchased in Torrey. But the most amazing treasures at the George and Ethalinda Morrill house were buried under plaster covering the walls. Rodents had chewed many pages into shreds of confetti but hadn’t gotten through to every inch of the cabin walls.

When we removed the plaster, I found scraps of newspapers, and sometimes an intact half- or quarter-page, used to insulate the cabin. The family had subscribed to the Mormon church-owned Deseret Evening News, then a weekly publication, and accumulated catalogs of women’s clothing advertisements. Curiously, we also discovered an entire four-page newsletter from the Southern States LDS Mission, where George had proselytized from 1887 to 1899.

The mystery was why the newsletter was placed underneath the floorboards and why rodents hadn’t gotten to it.

We also found a few pages of the American Home magazine, tightly rolled up in a door jamb. Subscribers could submit poems and stories for a chance at prizes. Researchers in August, Maine, a 19th-century publishing powerhouse, said they know of no extant copies.

Family histories say Ethalinda was a self-taught, avid reader, but make no mention of her writing manuscripts. She also subscribed to Comfort magazine, which she shared with her children before pasting its pages on the walls. The magazine featured stories on farming and the home, along with articles about the outside world. A sampling from entire magazines I purchased on eBay included an article about South African mining magnate Cecil Rhodes, Egyptian ruler Khedive Abbas II, the Spanish American War and the romantic parting of Josephine and Napoleon.

Another great find was part of an 1899 soils map published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Shortly after Congress created the USDA, the agency sent chemists to valleys in Utah, New Mexico, Maryland and Connecticut to scientifically analyze soils. The Utah map depicted the Salt Lake Valley, and somehow it found its way to the water-starved Torrey, where it ended up being used as insulation on the backroom wall.