Mormon Corridor Traditions and the Pioneers Who Started Them
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Utah Mormon Culture is often blamed for a lot of the problems in the Church as a whole.
I don’t say this to elicit comments about an overgeneralization on my part (which I am more than willing to claim it is), but to point out that from my experience, this blame exists. Many Utahans have left Utah in a huff, pointing out that the saturation of culture into the religion itself was no longer desirable, or for those not LDS, the Mormon culture was too entrenched in public life. Others who move to Utah complain about this pervasive culture, even to the point of making sweeping accusations and leading changes where they can.
Rather than focus on whether or not these people are justified in their actions, I would like to focus on where that pervasive Utah Mormon Culture came from: our Mormon Pioneers.
I grew up in the Mormon Corridor. Geographically speaking, it began in Utah and then as Pioneers moved (due to prophetic request), it spread north through Idaho and Wyoming, into parts of Montana and up into Alberta, Canada. Going south, it spread through parts of Nevada, but mostly through Arizona and even into the colonies in Juarez, Mexico. But for the sake of simplicity, I will focus on Arizona to Idaho as the Mormon Corridor. These are the areas that still practice a lot of the Utah Mormon Culture simply because of their traditions, large Mormon populations, and history.
I feel I have a keen understanding of these traditions. I grew up in Idaho and now live in Utah, but it goes further back than that. All four sets of my great-grandparents emigrated to Alberta, Canada from Utah. They took with them into Canada their Mormon pioneer traditions, many of them being sons/daughters or grandchildren of first generation pioneers, those who emigrated to Utah from Sweden, Denmark, Scotland, Wales, England, and Eastern Canada. My parents brought many of those traditions with them to Idaho, but truthfully, they didn’t have to. Southeastern Idaho already had the same Mormon traditions.
What are those traditions? How have they been passed down? What did they represent?
I don’t think it’s possible to list all of the traditions passed down from the pioneers. The reason for this is because many of the pioneers during the last few decades of handcarts and such came from Europe; in fact, all of Utah (original native inhabitants aside) was settled by immigrants from either New England, the South, or Europe. In the Utah History Encyclopedia it says:
The decades of Mormon immigration to Utah that commenced in 1847 brought to the region new cultural elements from New England, the Midwest, England, Scotland, Ireland, and Scandinavia. The result was a complex of folkways, some specific to particular immigrant groups, some contributory to the distinctive Mormon folk culture that grew up in the years before the railroad, a culture animated by infusions of religious doctrine and elaborated by the experiences of building the Mormon state in an unfamiliar landscape and climate.
With the passage of time, all of these separate cultures kind of merged into one.
Here are a few examples — from my own personal experience — that represent what some of these unique cultural traditions include:
Quilts at weddings:
At our wedding reception, we displayed three quilts. One was handmade by my paternal grandmother and her quilting group (in Alberta). Another was made by my mother’s best friend, and another was given to us by my parents (store bought, but vintage looking). My husband’s family, although descended from pioneers, were from California. They found this practice… strange. For us in colder climates, however, quilts had always been one of the most important things a newly married couple could receive.
Quilts represent a time when people had to sew all of their own clothing and linens. They represented community and familial time together at quilting bees, as well as showing the same community that a couple had come together to begin a family, to share the same bed.
Displaying them at weddings was also representative of the bride’s trousseau; it was a physical example of her readiness to be married.
Food storage has always been a big part of our religion. Self-reliance has been born and bred out of pioneer grit and determination. Theirs wasn’t a challenge to be the best canner in the state, but rather one of survival. Gardens were simply a staple and a must, and if they were to have food through the winter months, canning was also a necessity.
I believe that gardening and canning has been passed down as a simple but effective way to store food economically. I will be the first person to admit that I lack many skills in this area, but I admire those who still take the opportunity to learn how to garden and can their own food.
Food at social gatherings:
Quite often I will hear the moans and laughter about how our Church — as a culture — is obsessive about food. Some of those moanings are coming from me! Theories include how our people, instead of being addicted to smoking and alcohol, are addicted to sugar and carbs. Whether or not this is true, we need to remember that pioneers started this trend and it has carried on as tradition.
Gathering together to eat was the most important part of the day for pioneers. They worked really hard physically, and they worked very hard for their food. Women would be cooking most of the day, men would have been working in the fields, with animals, or — if they were more schooled — they would have been working in offices. Doctors would have been making house calls, and lawyers would have been handwriting briefs (typewriters weren’t invented until 1868). Children would have been helping their respective parents or attending school. All of that hard work would mean hungry folks! Pioneers would gather together, pray, talk about their days, and eat wholesome, homegrown food.
If there was a barn-raising, they brought food. After Church? Food. Traveling to Conference? Food. Dances? Food. My great-grandmother, Sarah Lovina Williams Stringam, once told a story about a Mutual dance she went to where her future husband asked if he could court her. An interesting part is that it didn’t start until 9PM because of ranching chores, and they ate their lunch at midnight. They danced until 4AM and that was when my great-grandfather offered to walk her home. (Imagine allowing the young adults to dance until 4AM now, eh? But I digress…)
Most of these instances of food were out of necessity: there were no fast-food restaurants. Taking the time to fix a meal didn’t take 15 minutes, it took hours. Pioneers rarely ate out, not only because there were not many restaurants in the Snake River valley of southeastern Idaho, but because they couldn’t afford it even if they wanted to. Thus, potlucks were common. There weren’t churches on every block, therefore staying at church and eating their meals afterward was common practice, also a familiar activity brought from their former religions (Lutheran, Methodist, Anglican, Protestant, etc).
And we’ve kept it up. Of course, now our foods are a lot less healthy and probably should be kept at home, but that’s for another discussion…
One of the biggest complaints I’ve heard about the Utah Mormon Culture is the saturation of cutesy crafts and scrapbooking. Crafting seems to have been a part of Relief Society for as long as it has existed. Sewing and quilting, too.
The truth is, this has simply come out of a tradition of needing to make everything one owns. Not every pioneer could afford to order furniture or linens, let alone clothing!
Crafting can be traced back to European roots of weaving and needlework, especially in the United Kingdom. From hats to tablecloths, women in the UK learned to sew at a very young age. Handiwork was a sign of talent and status, a tradition passed down to each generation. This was integrated with pottery, woodworking, and other household decorating from many countries.
Women also took the time to incorporate their religion into the crafting and sewing that they did. The beehive, scriptural phrases, and LDS temple symbols all found their way into many home decorations and clothing, as well as needlework, artwork, and even smaller items, like jewelry or bookmarks. In other words, the first wooden painted memes to grace the walls of a pioneer home was probably a cross-stitch under glass.
Language: the funny way Corridor Mormons speak:
This one is actually really easy. People have made fun of the way Utahans may speak, but the truth is, they are actually making fun of the Scandinavian dialect. Many of the ways words are inflected, or how vowels are changed, are a direct result of Scandinavian pioneers. As with any culture or geographic area (Texas, the South, New Jersey, Boston, Canada), the dialect of speech is unique.
Whether or not these cultural practices are accepted by all Mormons really doesn’t matter. We are a worldwide Church, full of all kinds of traditions and cultures! Should it be a surprise, then, that our Pioneer ancestors established a unique culture in the mountains of Utah?
We are to take the good of our ethnic and geographical cultures and use them, as long as they are in accordance to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Elder Scott stated:
Increasingly the world is being divided into groups of individuals who seek earnestly to preserve their ethnic, cultural, or national heritages. These efforts are generally motivated by sincere appreciation for what forebears have done, often under the most extenuating circumstances. Appreciation for ethnic, cultural, or national heritage can be very wholesome and beneficial, but it can also perpetuate patterns of life that should be set aside by a devoted Latter-day Saint. (General Conference, April 1998)
Perhaps it would be helpful to learn why a Mormon Corridor tradition exists, especially if it seems arbitrary or silly (although not against doctrine). The historical significance behind it might be surprising, and could help as we establish and create our own family traditions.
- Do you have any Pioneer traditions you still practice in your family?
- What cultural traditions have you inherited from your ancestors?
About CherylCheryl has been blogging for many years about --but not limited to --her children (there are six), her husband (there is one), her depression (not fun), her travels (very fun!), her religion (loves it), and anything else that strikes her fancy. Right now she's probably reading a book or changing a diaper, maybe at the same time...
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