Adobe and Brigham Young’s Farmhouse: A Material Culture Puzzle

So, I’m going to take a slightly different approach this time around.

As part of my internship, I am doing research on Brigham Young’s Forest Farmhouse. In addition, as the park looks to grow business with domestic and international touring companies, we have decided to apply for the National Register.  In other words, my research is going hand in hand with my work. Brad Westwood, the Director of State History in Utah is an old associate of mine, and happens to be on the park’s Board of Trustees. We are going to meet to discuss both my research and the register, hopefully within the coming week.

As you all might remember, part of my research into the Farmhouse has to do with the thick walls in the central portion of the home.  Accounts from Brigham’s daughters state that the house is balloon-framed. While that may be true, why would the walls be so thick at the center of the home? Could the central dining room be in whole or part, the original adobe farmhouse that sat on the farm before the balloon-framed home was constructed? Needless to say, I excitedly visited the home so as to pound on the walls (thank you Dr. Small) to see if they were hollow.  Sadly, they are hollow.

With that knowledge, the wind was ‘taken from my sails’ so to speak, until I had an amazing idea…”What about other adobe houses from the period?”

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With that as a foundation, lets discuss adobe.

Adobe structures are fairly common here in the great basin, especially in the areas settled by Mormons. In fact, one of the first things “harvested” on Brigham Young’s farm was clay for adobe bricks. Pioneer homes, civic structures, meetinghouses…all have been known to be constructed with adobe bricks in the Salt Lake Valley. In fact, three original adobe structures were moved to the park after Brigham’s Farmhouse.  So…I went and took a look.

House #1: Mary Fielding Smith’s home

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This small, one-room home, built in 1850 was home of Mary Fielding Smith, wife of Hyrum Smith, the brother of Mormonism’s founder Joseph Smith Jun. (Sorry, that might have been confusing). Since this home also served as a farmhouse situated on 40 acres, and was built around the same time Brigham’s adobe farmhouse would have been built, I felt it would be an interesting comparison. So I measured the thickness of the walls: approx. 13″ thick.

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Mary Fielding Smith’s home was built with adobe brick. The walls measure approximately 13″ thick.

House #2: Charles C. Rich Home

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Charles C. Rich, 1875

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This house was built in the early 1850s in Centerville UT by Charles Rich, a leader in the Mormon Church and polygamist. While it has out of necessity had some reconstructive preservation work (moving an adobe structure is a nightmare) it still proves as an interesting comparison. Once again I measured the depth of the walls: approx. 11.5-12″ thick.

Also built of adobe brick, Charles C. Rich's home has walls 11.5-12" thick.

Also built of adobe brick, Charles C. Rich’s home has walls 11.5-12″ thick.

Home #3: John Fairbanks Home

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Built in the mid-1850s, the John Fairbanks home is another example of an early adobe structure, though this home was built about a 60 miles south of Salt Lake City. The Fairbanks home has also had preservation and restorative work completed over the years, so i need to take that into consideration. A few years ago, the Fairbanks family paid to have the outside re-finished with a stucco that covered the adobe brick. Keeping that in mind however, I still wanted to get a general idea of the thickness of the wall:

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The adobe walls of the Fairbanks home exceed 17″ in thickness.

As you can see, even taking into consideration the restoration work carried out on the home, the walls are over 17″ thick.

So What?

After my little experiment, I once again went back down to the Brigham Young Home to measure the walls of the central room.  What did I find?

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Brigham Young’s Forest farmhouse has 17.5″ thick walls in the central dining room.

ABNORMALLY THICK WALLS FOR A BALLOON-FRAMED HOUSE.

So what does it mean? I’m not sure just yet, but it may be evidence of Brigham Young’s frugality in building a home on the same foundation? Or, perhaps when the home was moved the Adobe had deteriorated and they figured it wasn’t worth the effort to restore it? I have yet to locate any construction notes on the home, but hopefully with the help of the Utah Historical Society I can solve this mystery.

The 1950 Sanborn maps of Salt Lake City (before the house was moved) shows a totally wooden structure.  However, once solved, what might the construction of the home tell us about Brigham Young and the Mormon built environment? I mean to find out…

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Brigham Young’s Forest Farmhouse pre-1970.

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Brigham Young’s Forest Farmhouse, fall 2014 (Courtesy Kelly Gubler Photography)

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