How confused are newcomers to Utah about Pioneer Day?
“My oldest daughter was born on the Fourth of July,” Pam Anderson recalled after moving here, “and when I would say that, people would say, ‘So-and-so was born on the 24th.’ I’d be, like, ‘OK. And that’s important because?’”
Sarah Kennedy came here to do some house hunting a few years ago, only to discover that rental offices, real estate agents, even some restaurants were shut down for Pioneer Day — something Kennedy had “never heard of.”
“We had to stay an extra day because of this,” Kennedy said. “Nice fireworks with room service from our hotel, though.”
When James Bennett came to Utah from Mesa, Ariz., 22 years ago, he “had no idea July 24 was a holiday.” He had moved here to work at a grocery store at 200 South and 400 East in Salt Lake City.
“I only knew that when I showed up to work one day, I was having to chase people out of the parking lot,” he said — people who were headed to the Days of ‘47 Parade. “That was my introduction to the holiday, the hassle that it caused working in a retail shop along the parade route.”
Bennett later managed to convince a group of his co-workers that Pioneer Day is all about former Utah Jazz all-star Karl Malone — aka the Mailman — whose birthday really is on July 24. In response, one colleague asked if mail was coming that day.
“I remembered a story about when Karl Malone was first brought in to play for the Jazz, it was his birthday and he thought the parade was for him,” Bennett said. “So I’m, like, ‘Yeah, we’ll get mail today … because it’s in honor of Karl Malone, because he’s the Mailman. Utah decided to celebrate our greatest basketball treasure by having the mail delivered in his honor on a day we normally wouldn’t get it.’”
It worked. “They all believed me,” Bennett said. “So there are 15 people out in the world thinking that it was real. I kind of hope they’re still telling the story to this day.”
Here’s what you need to know
• Pioneer Day, July 24 and “the 24th” are exactly the same thing. It’s like Independence Day, July 4, the Fourth of July and “the fourth.”
• The Days of ‘47 is pretty much the same thing, but not exactly. That’s the official name of the nonprofit organization that sponsors major Pioneer Day activities — most notably, the Days of ‘47 Parade and the Days of ‘47 Rodeo. It’s sometimes used to mean Pioneer Day, but it’s not really interchangeable.
• And if you’re wondering what the heck Pie and Beer Day has to do with any of this, well, it’s kind of a joke; a play on Pioneer Day. But it’s become a way for Utahns who aren’t members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — more commonly known to Utah newcomers as Mormons — to celebrate July 24, which they’re getting as a holiday, anyway.
More on that below.
What are we celebrating?
Mily Dunbar said she “laughed my face off” about the only-in-Utah holiday when she came here for college. “One of my friends took umbrage and was, like, “But it’s, like, the FOUNDING of the state.”
Not really. Pioneer Day marks the anniversary of July 24, 1847, which was:
• Not the day Utah became a state. That was Jan. 4, 1896.
• Not the day that the Salt Lake Valley was “discovered.” Étienne Provost and Jim Bridger, the first white explorers believed to have found the valley’s salt lake, came upon it independently in 1824-25. And, of course, Native Americans — the Shoshone, Goshute, Ute, Paiute and Navajo tribes, and their ancestors — had been here for centuries before that.
• Not the day that Brigham Young, then the leader of the Latter-day Saints, and his party first saw the Salt Lake Valley — that was July 21, 1847, while Young & Co. were still in the mountains.
• Not the day that members of Young’s party first entered the Salt Lake Valley. That was also July 21, when Latter-day Saint apostles Orson Pratt and Erastus Snow rode in together on a single horse.
• Not the day that the pioneers began making themselves at home. They began plowing fields on July 23, 1847.
July 24, 1847, was the day that Young actually arrived in the Salt Lake Valley — when he reportedly said, “This is the right place.”
And, according to accounts from the time, the church’s second president wasn’t feeling well that day. He was still weak and ill from Colorado tick fever, which he had contracted in Wyoming en route to what would become Utah.
Where did he say it?
There is a large “This Is the Place” monument east of Sunnyside Avenue at the mouth of Emigration Canyon, commemorating the arrival of Brigham Young in the Salt Lake Valley.
It is not, however, the actual spot where Young is believed to have said, “This is the right place.”
That’s several hundred yards northeast of the huge monument — marked by a 10-foot-tall, white obelisk.
Both are located inside the This Is the Place Heritage Park, a Utah State Park. It’ll cost you $15.95 to get in — $13.95 for people 65 or older, and $11.95 for kids 3-11.
Is it a patriotic holiday?
“Mormon invasion day surprised me,” said Trevor Bryant, “especially since it’s more celebrated than Independence Day.”
That’s arguably true in Salt Lake City, which doesn’t have a big Fourth of July Parade. (Provo has the state’s biggest July 4 parade, and the Stadium of Fire concert and fireworks show that night.) And Pioneer Day celebrations look a lot like the Fourth of July, complete with parades, fireworks and lots of American flag waving.
However, Latter-day Saint pioneers came to Utah to escape the United States. After being driven out of Ohio, Missouri and Illinois, church members were seeking a place where they could practice their religion without the interference of state or federal governments.
When the pioneers arrived in 1847, Utah was still part of Mexico. It was annexed by the United States when the Mexican-American War ended about 6½ months later.
Never, never on a Sunday
Adding to the confusion for newcomers are years like this one, when Utah will celebrate July 24 on July 23. And the official state holiday is on July 25.
That’s because July 24 is a Sunday, and — owing to the state’s predominant religion — we don’t do big celebrations on the sabbath. In 1976, when Americans in the other 49 states were celebrating the nation’s bicentennial on the Fourth of July, Utah’s official observances were delayed until July 5 because the Fourth was a Sunday.
This year’s parade is set for Saturday, July 23, but it will still be a three-day holiday for most of us, who’ll get Monday off.
Don’t rain on our parade
Emily J. Hase was baffled by the campers.
Hase had “no idea” the Days of ‘47 parade even existed when she moved to Utah from Ohio about 22 years ago. “My first summer here, my apartment was on the parade route and I was just baffled at all the chairs and tents that started appearing on the street the morning of the 23rd, as well as how many people slept there overnight.”
The parade isn’t just about the parade itself, it’s a social event. Thousands of people camp out along the parade route the night before to save the best spots and party (responsibly, for the most part) with their friends and neighbors.
This year, the Days of ‘47 Parade begins Saturday, July 23, at 9 a.m. Floats, bands, horses (and horse riders) begin at the intersection of South Temple and State Street; travel one block east on South Temple; turn south and go nine blocks south on 200 East; turn east on 900 South; and travel four blocks to 600 East, the entrance to Liberty Park.
It generally runs about three hours. About 200,000 people usually attend. It’s often claimed to be the third-largest parade in America — trailing only the Rose Bowl Parade in Pasadena, Calif., and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City — but there’s some dispute as to whether it’s bigger than the Utah Pride Parade. (It depends on how you count — some years, the Pride parade apparently has more entries.)
One thing you can be certain of — traffic will be snarled. Locals are in the habit of avoiding Salt Lake City during the parade, but newcomers are not. “I’ve been here four years now and I forget and am surprised every year,” said KPCW news director Michelle Deininger.
And one thing you can be almost sure of is that it will be hot at the parade. According to the National Weather Service, the average high temperature on July 24 is 96. The average high on July 23 is also 96.
Over the past five years, the average highs on both dates was 96, ranging from a low of 92 on July 24, 2020, to a high of 101 on July 23, 2019.
It’s miserable. If you go, make sure you have lots of liquids and sunscreen.
And the rockets red glare ...
For dogs who are afraid of fireworks (and their owners), July in Utah is kind of a nightmare.
Mark Johnston said he first moved to Utah in 2004 and was unaware there was a second holiday in July, and “it seemed strange that fireworks continued every night until the 24th.”
That’s because lots of Utahns don’t pay attention to the laws that govern such things. Fireworks can only legally be discharged on July 2, 3, 4 and 5 and then again on July 22, 23, 24 and 25. And, in the midst of the current drought, many cities prohibit them or restrict where they can be set off.
But those restrictions are regularly ignored by fireworks enthusiasts, and their violations are regularly ignored by authorities.
There’s a price to pay
To balance the Pioneer Day holiday, Utah doesn’t observe Columbus Day, as 37 other states do. Schools will be open on Oct. 10 (the Monday this year when Columbus Day will be observed), even though the mail will not be delivered.
On July 25 (the Monday when Pioneer Day will be observed this year), a lot of places will be closed but the mail will be delivered.
There are parallels between the two holidays. Oct. 12 is the anniversary of the day Columbus landed in the Americas; July 24 is the anniversary of the day Brigham Young arrived in what is now Salt Lake City.
There are also unfortunate parallels between Christopher Columbus and Brigham Young, men who in the 21st century carry reputations as colonizers. In many parts of the country, Columbus Day has been replaced with Indigenous Peoples Day.
Native American Celebration in the Park
Utah does not recognize Indigenous Peoples Day in October, although Salt Lake City does.
And there’s a Native American component to Pioneer Day, albeit unofficial. “We are NOT affiliated with the Days of ‘47 festivities or any pioneer related activities,” the Native American Celebration in the Park home page says.
The 28th annual festival is set for July 23 at Liberty Park, 600 E. 1100 South, from noon-10 p.m. Ironically, that’s where Latter-day Saint pioneers began plowing fields exactly 175 years ago.
The festivities will include an intertribal contest powwow, tribal dancers and drum groups, food booths, arts and crafts booths, children’s activities and entertainment. A laser light show is scheduled for 8 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Tickets are $5 at the gate. Admission for children 3 and under and seniors 65 and older is free.
Pie and Beer Day
Marie Rodriguez said she “got on board with Pie and Beer Day quickly.” Several others said they “love” that holiday.
But what’s up with this sound-alike version, beyond the obvious similarity between “pioneer” and “pie-and-beer”?
It’s sort of an anti-holiday. Pioneer Day is closely linked to the LDS Church, and Latter-day Saints don’t drink beer. (They do eat a lot of pie, however.)
Actually, Pie and Beer Day has been both an actual event and a completely informal, counter-culture holiday. There are casual celebrations in backyards across the state — with no clearly defined pie associated with the day. Enjoy fruit pie, pizza, chicken pot pie, whatever. And, of course, whatever brand of beer you prefer.
The first official Pie and Beer Day is believed to have been observed in 2014, when Salt Lake City’s Beer Bar sponsored it as a charity fundraising event. That continued through 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic put the kibosh on it in 2020 and 2021.
However, it’s back this year — on Sunday, July 24, at The Gateway in Salt Lake City — sponsored by the Downtown Alliance. According to organizers, a couple dozen eateries will be on hand with more than 9,000 slices of pie, and two dozen brewers will be serving up the suds.
The event — dubbed Pie N Beer Day (as opposed to Pie and Beer Day or Pie & Beer Day) — is scheduled to run from noon to 6 p.m., and will include live music. Admission is free, but you’ll have to pay for the pie and beer.
As for the Mailman...
Bennett, who convinced his co-workers that the Jazz’s Malone thought a Days of ’47 parade was arranged for him, said, “I’m not sure if it’s an apocryphal story or not.”
Believe it or not … it’s not.
Malone’s first visit to Utah was in July 1985, and then-Jazz Coach Frank Layden invited him to ride on the team’s Days of ‘47 float — and told him that the parade was in his honor.
“That’s no urban legend,” the two-time NBA MVP told The Salt Lake Tribune in 2013. “If there were cellphones back then, I would have called my mom and said, ‘You won’t believe it. All of Utah is here for me.’”
Layden told him: “I can’t believe you fell for that one.”