This article originally appeared in Vol.55, No.1 (2008) of Pioneer Magazine.
by Booth Maycock, 2008 SUP President
Throughout the history of the Sons of Utah Pioneers, treks have been an important part of both the National Office and the individual chapters. Each chapter usually sponsors several one-day treks each year to historic sites, monuments, and cultural events. Treks sponsored by the National Organization are usually included in the annual encampment and feature special sites along the way.
However, one notable exception was the reenactment of 1947, the centennial of the original pioneer trek from Nauvoo to Salt Lake basin. In 1946, R. H. Wooten, a former national president, Wendell J. Ashton, and the executive board formulated apian. Seventy-two automobiles were covered with framework and canvas to appear as covered wagons, replica wheels, and a pair of oxen. One hundred forty-three men, three women, and two children were selected from the many applicants. These numbers including the number of wagons corresponded to Brigham Young’s original group.
Chairman Willard R. Smith was given the formidable task of designing the covered wagon tops, which needed to be able to withstand the elements and not require modification of the cars. All cars should be new enough to stand the rigors of the long trip.
Other items organized included areas appropriate for “circling the wagons,” adequate firewood, and appetizing, inexpensive menus. Game meat including buffalo was specified in some of the meals.
To select the 72 participants, each chapter was given a quota based on the number of paid-up members. The Daughters of Utah Pioneers supplied one sister; Dorothy Kimball Keddington, the great-granddaughter of Heber C. Kimball; Brother Darger chose the third; and the two boys were the outstanding Boy Scouts in the state.
John P. Giles, familiar with the Mormon Trail, worked out the itinerary. Brother Giles’s son, Parley P. Giles, had done extensive research on pioneer clothing and issued suggestions, including illustrations showing clothing that should be made for the trek by participants.
The specific route was carefully planned. Civic leaders from cities and towns along the way often presented a ceremony upon the trekkers, arrival at their respective towns. A theatrical group was organized and a portable stage transported along with the trek to present dramatizations of Mormon history.
A special invited guest on the trek was Elder Spencer W. Kimball and his wife, Camilla (pictured on page 19). Both won undying devotion of the trekkers by being “one with us in work and play.” Elder Kimball, as a representative of the Church on the trek, gave impromptu talks at many of the communities along the route.
The trek began in Nauvoo July 14, 1947. The old Nauvoo Temple site was the scene of frantic industry, where wagon tops were assembled and installed.
On the eve of the treks departure, a special program was held on an impromptu stage, made of hay wagons side by side. Honored guests included Elder and Mrs. Spencer W. Kimball; Senator T. Mac Downing, of the Illinois State Legislature, and Mrs. Downing; Mayor and Mrs. Lowell F. Horton, of Nauvoo; and President George P. Anton, of the Nauvoo Chamber of Commerce. A speech, long to be remembered by the audience of two to three thousand, was given by Senator Downing in which he contrasted the treatment of the Mormons one hundred years before to the reception they received today Comments by Elder Kimball included the joy and happiness about the privilege of seeing the historical spots of Mormonism, especially his grandfathers (Heber C. Kimball) home.
Finally the time of departure came. With Fox Movietone News filming, both from the ground and from an airplane overhead, the soundtrack announced, “Start your engines.”
Unfortunately, Brother Ashton, driving car number one, suddenly realized he couldn’t start his engine because his keys were in a shirt locked in the trunk. After a few anxious minutes, a husky highway patrolman grabbed the trunk handle and forced it open and the trek was able to start.
Most of the trek traveled over paved roads with police escort minimizing the hazards. Occasionally it was necessary to go on dirt roads to visit historical points originally traveled by the pioneers. In these instances, it was discovered the “modern wagons” didn’t have the same clearance as the old covered wagons.
Throughout the entire trek, the caravan was greeted by enthusiastic crowds. With vehicles spaced out, they occupied more than two miles of the highway.
One of the most memorable events of the trek took place soon after they crossed into Utah. Two figures, standing alongside the road, waved the caravan to a stop. One was dressed in a Scouter’s uniform— George Albert Smith, President of the LDS church. The other was Herbert B. Maw, governor of the State of Utah, both anxiously awaiting the arrival of the trek.
The conclusion of the trek was not without drama. At the last minute it was decided to change the route from East Canyon to Parley’s and over the ridge to Immigration Canyon. What the trekkers did not know was that dozens of boys, dressed as Indians, were waiting in East Canyon to make a mock attack on the trek.
As the trek neared the end of the 10-day odyssey, thousands at “This Is the Place Monument” greeted them. The caravan moved on to Sugar House with the streets lined with well-wishers. After a brief ceremony they proceeded down to the Brigham Young monument in downtown Salt Lake City, where the First Presidency of the Church, Mayor Earl J. Glade, and thousands of cheering onlookers met them at the trek’s end.