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?”


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

  IMG_2895         IMG_2892

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.


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

House #2: Charles C. Rich Home


Charles C. Rich, 1875


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


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:


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?


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


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…


Brigham Young’s Forest Farmhouse pre-1970.


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


Go West Young Man…


Back in the Rocky Mountains…and the beauty of the great Basin.

Perched on the mountainside at the mouth of Emigration Canyon in Salt Lake City Utah, sits a Gothic revival cross-gabled Farmhouse, built in 1863 by frontiersman and Mormon leader Brigham Young. As one of many buildings making up This is the Place Heritage Park, this home has been on my mind for several months now.  Shortly after arriving back in the Salt Lake area, I couldn’t wait to see it in person as if for the first time. In fact, driving the 45 minutes through Salt Lake City on my way to the park and Farmhouse, I couldn’t help but feel a peaked curiosity and anticipation of the opportunities before me. As I drove through the historic streets, passing excellent specimens of vernacular architecture, I saw stylistic elements and evidence of material cultural trends that only ten months ago would have escaped my notice.  What opportunities await me here at the crossroads of the west?

Upon arrival at This is the Place Heritage Park, I met with my supervisors and discussed what I will be doing for the next six months.  Over the following days, through various meetings, it was decided that I will be leading, building, and marketing Youth programming, assisting with reaching out to and developing programming for Touring companies, and serving in a consulting and somewhat supervisory role with the animal husbandry portions of daily programming. My focus will be marketing and developing the youth programming and tour programs.  I am especially looking forward to working with the youth programs.

After my meeting that first day, I met up with an old colleague and fellow tinsmith, and we walked down to Brigham Young’s Farmhouse… It was so exciting to cross over the threshold into the “central dining room,” and then explore the home with new eyes.  I followed Dr. Small’s example and began pounding (firmly but gently) on the walls of the dining room, hoping to determine by the sound if they might be adobe within. Surprisingly…they sounded hollow. This goes against my theory that the central portion might be made of adobe.  However…I’m not done yet. Sanborn maps, historic preservation documents, and journals await me in the LDS Church Library and Archives, as well as among the archives of the Utah State Historical Society. This research will continue, and thankfully with the blessing of my supervisors. Stay tuned for updates…046

….So all of this was within the first day.  Since then, I have participated in two youth programs, including as assistant trail boss on a handcart trek reenactment. Working with teenagers is difficult, especially when asking them to do difficult things.  We took 250 youth and adults 2.5 miles up the mountainside pulling and pushing handcarts laden with food, water, and other supplies for the day. Along the trail and throughout the day (an overall 4-5 mile journey) first person interpreters and participatory experiences in historical vignettes offered the youth opportunities to consider various moments in history of westward expansion and in many cases relating to their own personal heritage. What a powerful, affective experience. Tangible elements, addressing the intangible provide all participants with an opportunity to learn and appreciate their personal, as well as collective history.  I look forward to continuing as the new trail-boss for future treks.


Needless to say, these past few weeks have been quite the adventure. Research, youth programming, even some good old animal husbandry and horsback rides, coupled with a free admission day(6585 guests) and Day Care Appreciation Day (2100 kids)…I’m looking forward to Sunday…

To Be Continued…