Legendary outlaw Butch Cassidy, born with the name Robert Leroy Parker, grew up in the southern Utah town of Circleville, where the tiny cabin the Parkers called home in the 1870s has become a popular spot for travelers to visit while cruising along U.S. Highway 89.
To the dismay of leaders in Piute and Garfield counties, however, the historic home will not be among the first sites designated as state monuments under enabling legislation Gov. Gary Herbert signed this year.
Herbert, who happens to be a cousin to the Parkers, declined to include the site on a list of proposed monuments released Wednesday to the Legislature. Instead, the leading candidates are Danger Cave and Old Iron Town, both of which the Utah Division of State Parks already manages.
“We thought we would start with these sites because we already own and manage them and have signs and facilities in place,” State Parks boss Jeff Rasmussen told the Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Interim Committee.
The state monument proposals arose from legislation championed by Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy. HB14 passed this year after three years of failed efforts.
“It sets a pattern where Utah goes to local authorities for approval. This is from the ground up,” Eliason said. “The locals said, ‘Yes, we want this designated a state monument.’ They are confined to the smallest section of land needed to preserve these resources. I would consider this a down payment of future sites.”
Eliason named two additional places, which already see heavy visitation, he believes are worthy of monument status: Spiral Jetty, the rock structure artist Robert Smithson built into the bed of the Great Salt Lake; and Kanarraville Falls, a slot canyon hiking destination outside its eponymous Iron County town.
Both are on land owned by the state, giving them a leg up for inclusion as monuments, but more groundwork is to be done before they can be run by the Legislature and the governor for approval.
Rasmussen spelled out three criteria for a site’s consideration.
“It must be extraordinary,” he said. “We are hoping to confine these to a few extra-special sites instead of hundreds of them. We hope to limit monuments to sites that showcase the first, the last, the only, the most important, or best preserved element of its type.”
If a site falls short of these measures, then it must either make a major contribution to history or harbor “astounding” scenic values.
State Parks also requires that the proposed monument be financially self-sustaining, come with dedicated funding or have a long-term partner to cover costs; and have buy-in from area stakeholders and county officials.
According to Rasmussen, Danger Cave and Old Iron Town fully meet these criteria.
“Danger Cave is one of the most important and renowned archaeological sites in North America and was used to set a timeline for all Great Basin archaeology,” he said. “[The connected] Jukebox Cave also contains unusual black pictographs that show people riding horses and using weaponry."
Old Iron Town is a pioneer-era metalworking site, famed for its conical charcoal kilns, that is “symbolic of the Utah leadership’s efforts to remain independent of the United States’ economy by developing their own industrial centers," Rasmussen said.
Between 1868 and 1876, the town was a thriving community with a school, boardinghouse and post office. Iron produced there was used to build railways and to caste the 12 oxen that support the baptismal font in the St. George Temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“These state monument designations are going to bring significance to these sites and help drive tourism and the local economies,” Rasmussen said. “I think that’s pretty exciting.”
The next step is for the Legislature to pass resolutions to designate Danger Cave and Old Iron Town as state monuments.
State Parks will manage the new monuments in a category distinct from parks, which come with expectations of first-rate amenities and facilities — the kind of improvements that will not be available at state monuments.
Rasmussen hopes the public will regard the monuments as important destinations but will know not to expect much more than informational signs. Still, Eliason pushed back on the idea that the state should not provide any facilities at the monuments.
“If you make the drive to Danger Cave or Spiral Jetty and there are no facilities there whatsoever, it would not stop people from doing what they need to do and that could contribute to the degradation of the area,” the legislator told his colleagues.
"That's called fertilizer," one of the committee members interjected with a laugh.
As for Butch Cassidy’s boyhood home, there is not much there — other than the historic structure, which visitors can’t enter, and a picnic table.
Cassidy may have robbed banks and trains, but many considered him a folk hero for his ability to evade justice before fleeing to South America, where he is believed to have met his end in a shootout with Bolivian troops.
The Parker cabin met at least one of the criteria for monument status last month when the commissions of Piute and Garfield counties endorsed designating the spot. But Herbert isn’t ready to give his stamp of approval as required by HB14.
“Gov. Herbert has chosen to take a gradual approach to approving new state monuments," said spokeswoman Anna Lehnardt. "At the moment, our office is considering a number of monuments for potential recommendation. This is a new process, and we want to make sure we make these determinations carefully.”
The governor revealed his kinship to the outlaw at an Oct. 7 screening of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, staged by the Utah Film Commission to mark the movie’s 50th anniversary.
“He was kind of the person that they [Herbert’s family members] didn’t talk about too much when I was growing up — not that there was anything that they liked about Butch Cassidy,” Herbert said, recalling his grandfather’s response to the film, with Paul Newman starring as Cassidy, when it was released in 1969.
“My grandfather was about 90 years old, and they took him to a movie,” Herbert said. “They called my grandma and grandpa ‘Ma’ and ‘Pa.’ So he came out of the movie, they said, ‘Pa? What did you think about that movie about Butch?’ And he said, ‘You know, I knew Butch Cassidy. He was nothing but a damn crook.’”
Whether Cassidy is revered or reviled, he played a role in Utah history that is subject to much debate and conjecture. It may take some time before state leaders decide to enshrine his childhood home as a monument, but, in the meantime, anyone can pay a visit.
Tribune reporter Sean Means contributed to this story.