BYU project makes those unknown historic sites we just drive by come to life

Intermountain Histories website shares Western stories of atomic weapons, environmental disasters and immigrants in readable, relatable chunks.

(Utah State Historical Society) A woman works with scrap metal during World War II. The Utah Minute Women helped with aid during the war effort, and they are highlighted in a story published through the Intermountain Histories project.

Aubrey Glazier wanted to understand what daily life felt like for Utahns during World War II, so as part of her research, she asked someone who lived through it: her grandma.

Rowena Glazier told her granddaughter about how when women had to ration their silk and nylon stockings — because the material was needed to make military parachutes — some “would paint their legs to make them look like they were wearing nylons.”

“They would even take an eyebrow pencil and draw a ‘seam’ on the back to make the effect more convincing,” Aubrey Glazier writes of the Utah Minute Women, who organized aid during the war, in an article for the Intermountain Histories project when she was a student at Brigham Young University.

Brenden Rensink, who teaches history and is the associate director at BYU’s Charles Redd Center for Western Studies, launched Intermountain Histories in 2017, to help people learn about and explore lesser-known history of the Intermountain West. There are now 400-plus stories on the project’s website and free app — with more on the way.

“I’m hoping that people will realize that in their own backyard, there are all kinds of rich historical narratives and stories that they just simply never even heard of,” says Rensink, or “that they’ve heard a little bit about, but they haven’t really dug into much.”

By making these stories accessible, Rensink says his goal is “to spark curiosity.”

Take his daughter’s Orem school, for example. Rensink told her, “Oh, you’ve got to tell your history teacher” that Canyon View Junior High School sits near the site of a former World War II labor camp.

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, Japanese Americans were forced to live in prison camps across the U.S., including at the Topaz Relocation Center near Delta. Some of them worked at a labor camp at 950 N. 800 East in Orem, harvesting crops in the orchards there, according to an Intermountain Histories article.

(The National Archives) Topaz Japanese internment camp from World War II.

At a nearby camp in Provo, “anti-Japanese sentiments ... among many Utah residents” turned violent. On Oct. 3, 1943, five white youths armed with shotguns and rifles “gathered and opened fire on the Provo labor camp and on local Japanese homes,” the article states. While “no one was seriously injured,” the authors write, “the attack had been the third of the week.”

“The War Relocation board threatened to remove the works, and thereby their desperately needed labor, if Provo residents could not tolerate and protect Japanese workers,” the story explains. “The residents chose to protect the workers and keep their labor,” and “the five youths were later arrested for their attack.”

Today, there’s a plaque near Canyon View Junior High that “commemorates Japanese workers and the labor contributions they made to WWII-era agricultural efforts,” the article adds.

“We drive around in our cars” past “historic sites all the time without realizing it,” Rensink says. “... I kind of hope that the app helps people reconnect with all that history that’s around us, but that we generally just ignore or are too busy to pay attention to.”

Short on words, long on interest

The stories on Intermountain Histories are written by students at universities from across the region, spanning topics in Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, Nevada, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico.

While students are pretty free to write about whatever they are interested in, Rensink tries to steer them to empty areas of the map and “to stories that haven’t been told ad nauseam, a million times over.”

The stories are grouped into “tours” by topic. In addition to her series on life in Utah during World War II, Aubrey Glazier, who’s now a social studies teacher for Canyons School District, covers desegregation at Lagoon Amusement Park in the 1940s.

Other tours explore, for example, the removal of Native Americans from national parks, environmental tragedies across the West, female homesteaders, atomic history in the West, and “Utah’s Forgotten Immigrant Communities.”

(Library of Congress) Members of 11th AB Division kneel on the ground as they watch the mushroom cloud of atomic bomb test at Frenchman Flat in Nevada in 1951. The Intermountain Histories project tells about the testing of nuclear weapons in the West.

Each piece is about 300 to 500 words, which Rensink says can be tricky to do.

“It’s really hard to write something that grandma would find interesting,” he adds, “but also that a history buff or a researcher would not find too oversimplified.”

For Glazier, it posed a fun challenge.

“A lot of the research papers that I wrote in college, like, no one’s ever going to want to read them,” Glazier laughs. Those were written for a professor for a grade.

But with Intermountain Histories, “I got to find topics that I thought people would actually be interested in, and that were relatable and close to home, for me.”

Reading through the site, Glazier says, “I learned so much that I didn’t know about the place that I’d lived my whole life.”

Making ‘history come to life’

Each story includes photos and a bibliography, Rensink says, so that people can “dig a little further” on their own.

(Charles A. Libby, Jr. | Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture) Salish men stand by tepees in 1903 on Flathead Reservation in Montana. A series of stories published through the Intermountain Histories project explore the history of removal of Native Americans from lands to create national parks.

A lot of historical societies and libraries are making historical documents more accessible by publishing them online, according to Rensink. Or, he says, Utahns could go to the special collections at the University of Utah library, fill out a request form and read through diaries and letters themselves.

“I don’t know if the public realizes,” Rensink notes, “that these primary documents, these old dusty documents, they’re carefully preserved and kept under lock and key so that they’re preserved for the public to come in and look at them and learn from them.”

As for Intermountain Histories, Rensink imagines that the project could “go on indefinitely.”

Says Glazier: “It just really makes history come to life.”