St. George tour exposes tourists, newcomers to area’s rich and checkered history — sort of

Tour skips or skims over some of the less-flattering historical episodes.

(Mark Eddington | The Salt Lake Tribune) The historic Washington County Courthouse in St. George, Tuesday, June 13, 2023.

St. George • Few would likely equate St. George with Lake Wobegon, the fictional Minnesota town Garrison Keillor touted in his long-running radio variety show “A Prairie Home Companion.”

In other words, in St. George — nor anywhere else, for that matter — it simply isn’t true that “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.” Nonetheless, those studying the city’s earliest settlers know that as ordinary as they were, they accomplished some extraordinary things.

That’s one of the overriding themes of Historic St. George Live, the bus tour the city hosts Friday and Saturday mornings during the summer at a nominal cost of $5 for those 11 years of age or older and $3 for young children.

Michelle Graves, St. George’s deputy director for arts and events, said the two-hour bus tour — it’s usually too hot to walk — to the area’s historic hot spots tries to drive that point home. For example, one costumed actor portraying a pioneer woman tells tour members how she felt about Utah pioneer leader Brigham Young uprooting 309 families in Salt Lake City and sending them to settle in the St. George area in 1861.

“Her perspective is, ‘I didn’t want to leave the promised land. But they sent me to the barren land, and it was horrible,’” Graves said.

Death and hangings

(Mark Eddington | The Salt Lake Tribune) Bob Thornley, who is portraying pioneer colonizer and explorer Jacob Hamblin, speaks to tourists before leaving on the Historic St. George Live bus tour, Friday, June 16, 2023.

Indeed, life was hard for the hardiest of St. George’s early settlers. When they arrived in the area in December of that year, the land turned out to be more perdition than paradise. As the late St. George resident and author Roberta Blake Barnum recounted in a 2011 edition of St. George Magazine:

“It started raining Christmas night and didn’t stop for 40 days. Food was scarce, malnutrition was common, and the rains deluged settlers with floods and mosquitoes. Malaria, typhoid, and other diseases added to their misery, claiming 134 lives — 99 of them children under the age of 8 — over the next four years.”

Still, people who take the tour should expect only the basics. In other words, they won’t be hearing much about the more sordid chapters of the St. George area’s history. For example, visitors to the historic Washington County Courthouse likely won’t hear about how the cupola atop the building completed in 1876 was designed for hangings, although no actual hangings took place there.

They are equally unlikely to learn about the lynch mob in 1880 that hung a Silver Reef miner from a sturdy cottonwood tree in St. George for murdering his foreman, Michael Carbis, nor about the observation of an onlooker: “I have observed that tree growing there for the last 25 years. This is the first time I have ever seen it bearing fruit.” the man purportedly said.

That said, the tour doesn’t deliberately skip unflattering history so much as it just skims the surface. Two hours is not enough time to tell tour members everything, Graves said. In addition, the tour is designed to be suitable for adults and children. Finally, she said, the tour is aimed at acquainting people, many of whom are tourists or newcomers to the area, with an introduction to St. George and was never intended to provide them with an in-depth history.

A tour’s (relatively) long history

(Mark Eddington | The Salt Lake Tribune) The historic St. George Tabernacle in St. George, Tuesday, June 13, 2023.

Started 20 years ago, Historic St. George Live started on a shoestring budget and is still cobbled together from meager resources today. The city’s yearly budget for the bus tour is roughly $2,000, nearly all of which goes to host a luncheon for volunteers who act as narrators and actors and to clean their costumes. Even the tour bus was obtained on the cheap, having been decommissioned by SunTran, St. George’s public transit system.

“Just about everything we have is free, low cost or a hand-me-down,” Graves said. “We even have a volunteer bus driver, and volunteers run the program.”

All told, between 30 and 50 volunteers are available to staff the tours, each of which typically consists of the driver, a narrator and costumed actors portraying historical figures who played prominent roles in the founding of St. George. One of them is Bob Thornley, a retired Federal Aviation Administration electronics engineer who for the past two decades has been dressing up as Jacob Hamblin, a pioneer colonizer and explorer whose home still stands in nearby Santa Clara.

“He was a great man and has always been a hero of mine,” Thornley says about his pioneer alter ego who was head of the Indian Mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and was known for keeping the peace between settlers and the Indigenous tribes in southern Utah and northern Arizona.

Each tour begins at 10 a.m. at the historic St. George Arts Museum, where Thornley, dressed as Hamblin, talks about the prominent role he played in the area’s history. From there, tour members walk to the adjacent St. George Opera House, circa 1875, and are greeted by an actor clad as early Latter-day Saint apostle Orson Pratt, who regales listeners about the importance of the arts in the pioneer community.

Next, it is on to the historic St. George Tabernacle, where an actor portraying pioneer stalwart Erastus Snow, another church apostle who joined Pratt in leading the 309 families to St. George in 1861, talks about settling near Snow Canyon and his involvement in the town. That is followed by a visit with a Brigham Young look-alike at the pioneer leader’s historic St. George home. The tour wraps up at the historic courthouse at which visitors are introduced to a pioneer woman of the period and Judge John Menzies Macfarlane, who talks about the water thefts of the period, which was the quickest way for a thief to land in jail.

While some of the historical figures portrayed by volunteer actors are more regionally than nationally prominent, Steven E. Snow, an emeritus Latter-day Saint general authority and former church historian, said they are worth getting to know.

For example, he noted, Macfarlane was not only known for holding court but was also a talented musician who led the St. George Choir for 20 years. In fact, when Latter-day Saints in St. George offered permission for Catholics living in Silver Reef to celebrate Mass in the tabernacle, Macfarlane taught his choir members the music for the service.

“The choir sang for the Mass in the St. George Tabernacle,” said Snow, a descendant of Erastus Snow. “It’s probably the only LDS tabernacle that has ever had a Catholic Mass.”

Macfarlane, who practiced plural marriage, served as a territorial county judge from 1879 to 1883, at which point he could no longer carry out his judicial duties because he had fled to Mexico with his third wife to escape the clutches of federal marshals looking to jail polygamists.

Of course, that historical nugget probably won’t surface during the tour. The historical figures on the tour largely stick to a script, although Graves acknowledges some of them stray on occasion and tend to improvise or embellish a bit.

(Mark Eddington | The Salt Lake Tribune) Bob Thornley, who is portraying pioneer colonizer and explorer Jacob Hamblin, speaks to tourists before leaving on the Historic St. George Live bus tour, Friday, June 16, 2023.

“I had one lady [volunteer] tell me one time, ‘Yeah, we say to [tour members] that we don’t know everything but you can ask us anything. And what we don’t know, we’ll just make it up,’” Graves recalls her joking.

Generally, volunteers and their municipal overseers strive to be sticklers for accuracy. And for all they leave out about St. George’s history, Snow said the historical scraps they do impart are both edifying and important.

“It helps us understand a little bit where we came from,” he said, “and what we can accomplish.”

Tickets for Historic St. George, which runs now through Aug. 26, can be purchased in advance online or at the St. George Art Museum. People interested in volunteering can also sign up online.

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