Alder, “Dixie Saints: Laborers in the Field” (reviewed by Dallas Robbins)


Title: Dixie Saints: Laborers in the Field
Author: Douglas Alder
Publisher: Deseret Book / Religious Studies Center
Genre: History
2017, 373p, trade paper, $21.99.

Reviewed by Dallas Robbins for the Association for Mormon Letters.

Douglas Alder is the expert on the history of Southern Utah, primarily around the Washington County area, and in his latest work, Dixie Saints, he has brought together a tremendous social history of that region seen through the eyes of those born after the late 1800s and grew up when St. George and its environs were still a fairly isolated agricultural region.

When Douglas Alder was president of Dixie State College (now Dixie State University), a gentleman by the name of Melvin Blomquist brought him a trove of oral history recordings and wondered if they would like to be archived with the college. Alder was enthusiastic, to say the least. This oral history project was the work of Fielding H. Harris, a piano tuner. When he moved to St. George in 1965, he found that his work as a tuner would not be enough to support his family. Blomquist, a successful accountant in California and Harris’s brother-in-law, wished to help out his family, and between them both planned and financed an oral history project that is now known as the Voices of Remembrance collection.

The idea was for Harris to conduct interviews with people born after the pioneer period and who grew up in the region referred to as Utah’s “Dixie.” Over the course of three years, Harris conducted and compiled 425 recordings,

“…from Panguitch in the north to Bunkerville and Mesquite, Nevada in the south; from Panaca in southeastern Nevada to Kanab in Kane County, Utah; from Orderville in Long Valley, Utah, to Mount Trumbull in northern Arizona; from Enterprise, Utah to Washington, Utah; and all the little towns in between…” (v-vi)

The subjects of the interviews were with people we usually don’t hear from in the history books: teachers, farmers, ranchers, laborers, midwives, mothers, gardeners, choir singers, band players – the everyday people we pass in the street, the “common folk” (ix) as Alder describes them, giving us a ground-eyed view of life in that region from roughly 1890 to 1950. In the introduction, Alder provides an excellent overview of how Mormon communities, particularly its village system, were organized and how they were different from other Western US communities built on the homestead system, and how that affected the social relationships that grew out of such systems. He provides a brief overview and nod to the social history work of Nels Anderson, Lowry Nelson, Dean May, Howard Bahr, among others, in establishing the importance of this type of history in understanding Mormon culture and life.

Alder does a commendable job in collecting and highlighting excerpts that are intrinsically valuable but also open the door for further discovery. The chapters are divided into the following subjects: 1. Family Life, Childhood, Teenage Years; 2. Schools; 3. Youth and Adults at Work; 4. Health and Sickness; 5. Mormon Colonists of Mexico Who Moved to the US; 6. American Indians; and 7. Service – Military, Church, and Civic Efforts. Each chapter begins with a nice overview, often reviewing the secondary literature done by historians that really provides a nice foundation to a general reader not all that familiar with church history. Though not the most scholarly documentary history I’ve read, the book does an excellent job in providing those with a more scholarly bent some good content to digest and consider, while being geared more towards a general Mormon reader sitting in the pew. With that being that case, Alder implores at the end that “hopefully the reader has employed historical skills, reading these statements critically” (288).

Though I appreciate and understand why the book is organized by subjects, once I started reading it, I became just as interested in the biographies of the people as much as what they revealed about the social topics themselves. It becomes apparent very fast that each of these interview subjects could be the focus of their own biography apart from a social history analysis, either in article or possibly book form in a few cases. For example, let’s take one of the first stories the reader will encounter, from Emma Lucinda Nelson Larson (b. 1891) from the family life chapter:

“About the earliest [event] I remember was [when] my mother had a little baby. I think I was about four years old. When the baby [Charles Nelson] was about a month old, it died [from] pneumonia. I remember my father making a little casket to bury the baby in. Then about a year later they took my mother to [the Utah State] Mental Hospital in Provo where she remained for fifteen years” (6).

Emma goes on to describe her life at home after this, mostly keeping her memories focused on her childhood and life without a mother around. But for the rest of the book no more excerpts are included from Emma, so I’m left to wonder what else is in her oral history interview? What happened to her mother? Nothing is explained to any satisfaction. So even though Emma’s contribution to the chapter subject is valuable, I simply wanted to know more of her biography itself. But despite this personal bias of mine, the interviews themselves are a tremendous resource and provide wonderful insights into the day to day business of living, working, and navigating the harsh environment these people were rooted in.

Another highlight is the chapter on health and sickness which tells of the story of Virginia Mae Isom Gifford (b. 1894) who became a nurse, and while traveling to Salt Lake for some training, then returned to Hurricane carrying the flu virus during the epidemic of 1918:

“I had the flu and had to assist the doctors [while they] were operating on this man. Brother [David] Dave Hirschi. Dr. Wilkinson came down with the flu. We had to put him to bed. Oh, I was sick! I was sick the next day. The doctor’s wife was in bed. She had a new baby [and] was in bed” (157).

Gifford goes on to describe the spread of the flu in her community that she likely brought to this small corner of the West. It provides a little micro-history of a patient zero in an area of the country that, being quite isolated, still was touched by this deadly pandemic.

Another fascinating chapter is the American Indians section. Alder provides a decently fair overview of the Mountain Meadows Massacre and some of the Paiute scapegoating that occurred. In addition, he reviews the secondary literature on the Mormons’ relationship with the indigenous populations, beginning with Juanita Brooks’ article “Indian Relations on the Mormon Frontier,” in addition to the work of John Alton Peterson, Sondra Jones, R. Paul Reeve, and Todd Compton. But when it comes to the excerpts from the oral history project, nothing about the massacre is referenced, which I found unfortunate. Despite that, we do get some interesting excerpts, one from the story of Frederick Cheney Van Buren (b. 1883) about his father’s involvement in the Blackhawk War:

“My father fought all through the Blackhawk Indian War. He was not only a good farmer; he was a good Indian fighter. He had a code all his own.” (229)

Of course, we do get the typical racist stereotypes, as recounted by Joseph Aurelius Haslem (b. 1902):

“I can remember at times the Indians would get drunk and go on a rampage. They didn’t do any harm to the white people, but they sometimes would get in a fight among themselves and hurt some of them” (230).

There are other excerpts that counter and round out these perceptions, some dealing with Paiute children being raised or hidden in Mormon households to keep them away from the Navajo child slave trade. As Alder states, “The Mormon settlers had both a fear and a fondness for American Indians” (234). This is a chapter I definitely recommend reading critically as Alder implores us to do.

I suppose I could go on and on, quoting fascinating stories and insights that have been left behind in these oral histories – like I said, it is a treasure trove that I hope will lead researchers to dive even deeper in the archived transcripts. To see this period of Mormon history from the ground up is an excellent approach that often is underserved and this book does a nice job in providing many avenues of research and ideas, not just for historians, but also writers of family history and historical fiction.

If there is anything I could fault the book for, it is the title itself – Dixie Saints. As a nickname representative of the failed Confederacy of the American south built on the economics of slavery, “Dixie” is a term that is troubling to say the least. I don’t wish to recount the history of this word in Southern Utah, but honestly, I don’t understand the continued use of it in this manner today. Certainly I’m not against using the term in a historical context of how individuals referred to it themselves, but as the title of the book, it just seems a little off to me. Even among the various oral histories included, the term “Dixie” is a rare occurrence. I’m curious if Alder himself preferred this title or whether it was simply the decision of a marketing department. It would have been just as easy to title the book “Redrock Saints,” “Mojave Saints,” or “Children of the Pioneers.” Oh well, such is the way in these parts it seems. Despite this unfortunate title choice, I hope readers who may be turned off by it will look beyond it to find the valuable stories of individuals found within these pages.

One Thought on “Alder, “Dixie Saints: Laborers in the Field” (reviewed by Dallas Robbins)

  1. Fred Larson on January 26, 2018 at 11:06 am said:

    My grandmother was Emma Lucinda Nelson Larson. My father was Elmer Larson.
    He was born in 1912 in Bloomington, Utah. He had 3 sisters Ruth, Edna and Roma.
    They had a ranch at Beaver Dam Wash.
    If this is of any value to you or you have any questions I can be reached at(208) 539-9528.
    Thank you
    Fred Elmer Larson

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