Mormon Corridor Traditions and the Pioneers Who Started Them

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by Cheryl

This essay is part of our Questions and Insight section. We welcome guest submissions for this ongoing series. If you would like to submit an essay, or if you have a question about whether something is culture, policy, or doctrine and would like us to discuss, please visit our Contact or Submit page.

Filipino PotluckUtah 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.

image3 handcartI 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.

image4 quiltQuilts 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.

Gardens/Canning:
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.

image stoveGathering 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.

image2 china setIf 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…

Sewing/Crafting:
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.

image spinning wheelThe 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?
photo by: glenmcbethlaw

About Cheryl

Cheryl 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...

15 Responses to Mormon Corridor Traditions and the Pioneers Who Started Them

  1. Julia says:

    I’ll admit, Utah has never been some place I wanted to love, and my 4 months there only confirmed a lot of the negative part of Utah culture I had grown up hearing. My parents are both the “pioneers” in my family, and I grew up in Oregon, which gets its fair number of Utah/Idaho refugees. Other than the stories taught in Primary or Sunday School, I didn’t know much about Mormon pioneers beyond that. I knew my aunt, (married to my father’s twin) was a descendent from Wilford Woodruff, and that for some reason she, and her kids, made them think they were better than the rest of the cousin’s on our convert side of the family.

    Those opinions stayed pretty fixed through my siblings attended BYU campuses, my mom remarrying and getting a new set of cousins with “pioneer ancestors” on their mother’s side of the family. It is only in discovering Keepapitchinin.org in the last year have I been able to start connecting a little more to Utah pioneers, through their stories and contemporary writings. I still wish we had more lessons about modern day pioneers in other countries in our lessons.

    • Cheryl says:

      My initial thought is that as time goes by, there will be more worldwide notice of different regional pioneer stories. But I think it’s already starting. Many times in General Conference, our leaders are teaching us about pioneers in Africa and South America, in the Philippines and Japan. Those stories are there!

      Also, I truly believe that the reason we speak so much about the Utah Pioneers is because to our Dispensation, they are our Exodus –our Moses, if you will. They were the first. It started when the Saints left New York for Ohio; it continues today as people gather to the Stakes of Zion. I don’t say that to be trite or to overlook the many struggles of people worldwide (the stories of conversion in difficult circumstances), but to point out *why* our leader focus a lot of attention. We learn about them to remember. We remember so we can understand.

      I’m sorry your extended family felt they were better than you for being descended from “pioneer stock” (I always hated that word –we’re not cows, you know?). Obviously, that wasn’t kind (nor correct). But I’m glad you are finding more understanding and connection through Ardis’ blog!

    • Debby Elliott says:

      I am a convert and married someone who has a long history in the church. I understand the pride in coming from a line of people who we read about in church history, but the truth is, we live in America now and in America, your pedigree shouldn’t matter. It is what you make of your own life that matters. I often think of the aristocracy of Europe and how those people gave that up to come and be Americans. They left behind the aristocracy that dictates how important they are as society dictates, to move to a place where we make our own destiny.
      About a month ago at a relief society birthday party, we had pictures of all the former relief society presidents that we were suppose to name if we could. You got a point for every one you could name and an extra point if you were related to them. How do you think that made converts feel? We are every bit as active, participatory, and faithful as those people but we don’t earn as many points in a stupid game because of our ancestry? That’s not the way it works in America. Maybe we should get extra points because we fought the odds and family members and alienation from friends to become members of the church because it is true, not because we were lucky enough to be born into it.

      • Paul says:

        “Maybe we should get extra points because we fought the odds and family members and alienation from friends to become members of the church because it is true, not because we were lucky enough to be born into it.”

        Indeed!

  2. templegoer says:

    I love the humour of Garrison Keillor, and have often seen the paralels with mormon culture as he describes the Lutheran descendants of nordic immigrants. In particular there is a short story about the orchestra, describing all the ways that proficiency in any individual instrument can lead to sin. It’s hilarious and very representative of the mormon culture that I grew up in.
    As a Brit and an unfortunately deracinated daughter of the industrial revolution, I have never been able to identify with the obsession with handicrafts, particularly where the outlay was greater than the benefit. My mother was our pioneer in joining the church in the 60’s and was always a little nonplussed by the RS world of crafting having worked full time from the age of 17, and I grew up with a view of crafts as those things done by the elderly and infirm, embarrassing to receive. Of course I deeply regret this now, and dearly wish that I’d learnt to crochet at my grandmother’s knee rather than through youtube, something about the repetition is really quite zen, and I now see it as an authentic expression of the creativity of those whose opportunity for self expression was limited by poverty. I’m hoping to develop myself in these areas.
    I do keep a vegetable garden but freeze rather than can, and run a tight budget. Any crafting I do will be strictly with found materials, so it should be providential, and my husband is great in the house. I’d love to see more training done for the young men around household management. Ideally, homemaking involves equally committed parents.

    • Cheryl says:

      I, too, am beginning to regret not learning more sewing skills as a young woman. But first, I’ve got to figure out the gardening and canning… ;)

  3. Bonnie says:

    I spent the first forty years of my life outside of Utah, in what we sarcastically called “the mission field” (because visiting Utah Mormons called it that) and was deeply immersed in the anti-Utah culture prevalent there. The collective opinion where I grew up was that people who live in Utah were largely cultural Mormons, with little grit to stand the real storms of a real world with real faith. I moved to Utah and was immediately embarrassed by the unfairness of that attitude. True, I had a flat tire in my minivan loaded to the gills with children and stuff and pulling a trailer – on the BYU campus as nicely dressed people streamed by and stared at me on their way to Church – but for the most part I found the most generous people I’ve ever met on Earth. I have heard others talk about terrible Utah attitudes, but I’ve never lived in a ward that has them. People are kind, friendly to everyone, and nonjudgmental, and in my present ward, consecrated in a way that makes me never want to live anywhere else. There is no discussion of “the mission field” unless we’re talking about a missionary who is truly on a mission. People pronounced creek crik, but then that’s something I grew up with in the midwest. Some people do crafts and some people are glad to call them for help when they need something like that. For the most part, I’ve found people with the same pioneer spirit that I grew up with as a descendant of non-LDS Kansas pioneers. I have to say, I’ve been more embarrassed by the anti-Utah feeling directed at saints from saints where I formerly lived than by anything I found in the Mormon Corridor. But perhaps my experience has been unique.

  4. I rather enjoyed showing others my non-traditional-ness by making a wedding quilt for my wife for our wedding, and have been collecting scraps of our childrens worn clothing for an anniversary quilt to come.

    My wife had grown up on stories of how horrid living in Utah would be (growing up in Arizona), and was genuinely worried about how she would handle the “Utah Mormons” when we were told to move here. Thankfully, the openness and frendlieness of our first Ward, even though we were only there for a month, helped dispel those stories.

  5. Paul says:

    I smiled as I read your list. My convert father was of non-Mormon pioneer stock, and my convert mother from an old Kentucky family. Yet they quilted, canned and gardened with the best of them.

    Our impression of “Utah Mormons” came from transplants to our western Pennsylvania branch, then ward, who carried with them the experience of how things “should be done,” much to the suprise of my mother who was a capable Relief Society teacher and presidency member most of her years in the church. My mother noted with irony and some horror that when she and my father retired to North Carolina, after twenty years in the church in Pennsylvania, that she moved into their small branch and quickly behaved as those “Utah Mormons” had in her home ward.

    As for myself, I spent my first years at BYU mocking “Utah Mormons,” but after more than half a decade and two degrees later, I found myself quite sad at leaving the Wasatch Front to head east for more graduate school. My wife (also a non-Utah native, but from the Pacific Northwest, though she was of Mormon pioneer stock) and I had grown to love our first home together and the friends that made it what it was.

    One of the cultural markers you miss in your list, however, is the set of unwritten behavioral rules for members of the church in that high concentration of church members. It seems to many that there is an expectation of uniformity that is stifling and rather unforgiving to those who may not conform. Whether that expectation really exists is another matter.

    • Jendoop says:

      Paul, I would say that those two things are my biggest associations with Utah Mormons also. The belief that everything should be done like they do it in Utah, because of course they do everything the right way and it should apply universally throughout the world, is especially frustrating when a priesthood leader holds those ideas and doesn’t distinguish well between culture and doctrine. An example is mandating that before anyone can receive church welfare they must plant a garden – it doesn’t go over well with families living in cramped spaces in the inner city without a bare spot of ground in sight, let alone a garden center within walking distance (few had cars). It is a learning experience for that leader as he visits those families and sees for himself that he’s not in “Zion” anymore.

      The judgement is another issue, and one which prevents me from ever wanting to live in Utah. From snide remarks about who mowed their lawn without a shirt on to whether or not a divorced woman should be a Relief Society president, I don’t have great memories of my Utah wards. A recent visit to my parent’s ward re-confirmed that feeling. I’ll stop at that.

      There are pros and cons to being LDS in the Mormon corridor, it makes sense that with the close proximity to temples, more social support and seeing General Authorities regularly there is a counter balance of not so pleasant things. It is not the charming odd cultural practices like those mentioned in the OP that lead me to stereotyping Utah Mormons (I come from that pioneer stock too; I garden, can whip up a fantastic Halloween costume, and had quilts at my wedding reception), it’s the ill-informed, counter productive cultural practices perpetuated by the rationalization that “my last ward did it that way,” or “my bishop’s wife said it was okay,” that make me happy to live among the heathens.

      • Paul says:

        I’ve said it before: the inner city church is not like any other. Those who have not experienced it just don’t get it. It took forever for us finally to get a chapel in the city I grew up in that was actually near a bus line. I think as a church we’re getting way better at this as The Church gains experience, but individuals who are new to situations will need to learn as they go.

        And the judging? It stinks no matter where you are, I guess.

        • Cheryl says:

          I agree that the judging is wrong. I’m sorry, Jen, that you’ve had bad experiences with “Utah Mormons,” but I think Paul has a point –in fact, we lived in Utah for years and then left for California. We were gone for only ONE year and even came back to the same ward –but I was so apt on showing everyone here how much better it was “in our ward in California.” I was actually doing what others had accused Utah Mormons of doing. It was eye-opening for me.

  6. MSKeller says:

    I was born in Idaho, but I’ve been a ‘California Mormon’ since I was seven. I always felt that there was a difference between the cultures. To my own chagrin, I was judgmental and critical at times as well. I did have some experiences that supported my criticisms. Yet, I also know some amazing folks that live in Utah.

    My ancestry goes back on both sides as far as the church does. I’m a Daughter of the Utah Pioneers, so I do have some experience with the traditions and history. I’ve found that at least in the communities I’ve lived in (San Francisco bay area and Sacramento greater Valley) people are as Bonnie said, “eople are kind, friendly to everyone, and nonjudgmental, and in my present ward, consecrated in a way that makes me never want to live anywhere else. ” – So perhaps it isn’t that there is a ‘Utah culture’ as much as a church culture.

    Perhaps it is the concentration of that culture that bleeds into the general society that makes it so unique. Here, I rarely see anyone from my ward ‘out and about’ at stores and in the community. I am with all sorts of people from all walks of life. Races, cultures mix with ease (for the most part) and Californians are pretty accepting individuals overall.

    My personal culture is unique in this setting, and much of that comes from my heritage (as notated markedly well above Cheryl) my religious culture and my personal preferences. I’m a ‘peculiar person’ and I’m fine with that.

    • Cheryl says:

      Yes, absolutely, it is the concentration! Any time there is a large number of any groups of people (religious, ethnic), there will always be more expectation of culture.

      What I find ironic, however, is how harsh Mormons have judged the Mormon Corridor (“Utah Mormons”) culture themselves. If they lived in predominantly Jewish, or Baptist, or Chinese, or Latino neighborhoods, they would see the same thing –unique cultures bleeding into all facets of life.

  7. h_nu says:

    Claiming that “Utah culture” or “Mormon culture” holds a trademark on judgmentalism is to deny reality. Judgment is a human trait, endemic to Christians, Muslims, Jews, atheists, homosexuals and others. And BTW, that goes for everything else on your list too.

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