Cooperative Community in the North: Brigham City, Utah

by Leonard J. Arrington, former Church Historian

The first important Mormon community to organize itself under a system later incorporated in the of 1874 was Brigham City, Utah. Functioning for more than 15 years, the cooperative city exerted profound influence on the history of Utah and surrounding areas. Brigham Young followed its essential structure in establishing the first United Order at St. George, which was then the model for most organizations later that year. Finally, the promoter and leader of the Brigham City cooperative, Lorenzo Snow, later became President of the Church and was to exert a lasting influence on its policies.

Brigham City is situated on Box Elder Creek at the base of the Wasatch Mountains, 60 miles north of Salt Lake City. The town was founded in 1851 and consisted of some six families until 1854–55, when Lorenzo Snow, called to preside over the Latter-day Saints in that region, moved to Brigham City with 50 additional families.1 The families to settle Brigham City were selected with special care and included a schoolteacher, mason, carpenters, blacksmiths, and other skilled tradesmen. Brigham Young instructed the group to produce all that they consumed.

With a city of almost 1,600 inhabitants to provide for, Apostle Snow supervised the organization in 1864 of a cooperative general store. He intended to use this mercantile cooperative as the basis for the organization of the entire economic life and self-sufficiency of the community.2 Snow explained the origin of the movement in a letter to Brigham Young:

“Some ten years ago and upwards, a number of small mercantile establishments were located in our city, owned principally by speculators, who possessed no interest in common with the people. I proposed to such as were inclined to do so, to unite on some co-operative system for the general welfare and interest of the community. Some consented, whereupon we organized the Brigham City Co-operative Association, giving all an opportunity of taking stock and enjoying equal rights and privileges.”3

This original association was nothing more than a joint-stock enterprise. It was an immediate success, however, and other stockholders were attracted to the endeavor, though some had concerns. As Snow later related:

“It required some effort on the part of our stockholders to reconcile their feelings with a knowledge of their duty and obligations as elders of Israel and servants of God. A good spirit, however, prevailed, and a desire to build up the kingdom of God and work for the interest of the people, outweighed all selfish considerations; hence, consent was granted by all the stockholders to establish home industries and draw dividends in the kinds produced.”4

Eventually, the association was to sponsor the development of virtually every industry in the city. Utilizing the labor of the community, the group built a two-story tannery building. Nearly all worked for capital stock, although one-fourth wages were paid out to “those who needed it.”5 The leather produced at the tannery was reputed to be “equal in quality to the best Eastern oaked tanned leather.”6 The tannery was expanded to meet all the leather needs of the community, and some leather products were sold for cash.7


After incorporating these enterprises in 1870,8 the group constructed a woolen factory.9 The factory did business in yarns, blankets, men’s and women’s wear, and similar products. 

Simultaneously, the association began to build up the sheep herd. In this way a “dependable supply of wool” for the factory was provided. By 1879 the herd had grown to well above 10,000. Soon afterward, another herd of a thousand animals was established to an association meat market.10

By 1874, virtually the entire economic life of this community of 400 families was owned and directed by the cooperative association. Each household obtained its food, clothing, and other necessities from the 40 community departments.11 Almost complete self-sufficiency had been attained, and some products were “exportedto other northern Utah settlements.12

Food enterprises included a dairy consisting of 500 milk cows. Established in 1871, it was reputed to be the first “commercial” dairy in Utah. Some 100 hogs were raised in connection with the dairy. A butcher department prepared the meat for “sale.” Several molasses mills and a number of farms were operated by the agricultural department. A horticultural department planted flowers, shrubs, vines, and orchards. The group also maintained an “Indian Farm” upon which Indians in the vicinity were established and taught the art of agriculture.13

Construction enterprises included three sawmills; brick and adobe shops; a lime kiln; a blacksmith shop; a furniture shop; a two-story factory for wood turning; architect, carpentry, mason, and painting departments; and more. A public works department built roads, bridges, dams, canals, and public buildings.

By 1874 the cooperative mercantile establishment was doing $30,000’s worth of business annually. It was the only store in the city. According to Apostle Snow,

“Several parties have set up stores at various times since the organization of our Cooperative, and entered into competition but could not obtain sufficient patronage to make it a success, and while they received the sad experience of disappointment the city treasury received the benefit of their licenses. All the business men and the majority of the people have more or less interest in this co-operative association, and the profits arising from their patronage . . . goes to support home institutions; therefore, the people generally feel to sustain their own mercantile establishment.”14

The Brigham City business became so profitable that they contemplated opening a branch house in Logan,15 but this would have come in competition with the Logan Branch of ZCMI and with the Logan U. O. store, which dissuaded officials.

Other enterprises included a tin shop, rope factory, pottery shop, broom factory, cooperage, greenhouse and nursery, brush factory, and a wagon and carriage repair shop. An education department supervised the school and seminary. There was also a “tramp department,” which utilized the labor of tramps through chopping wood and other odd jobs.16

Each department had clearly delineated responsibilities and was operated under the supervision of an overseer or superintendent. A general superintendent (Lorenzo Snow) was in charge of the operations of all departments.

Superintendents and workers alike were paid wages which were commensurate with those being paid elsewhere in the nation. The general superintendent, Lorenzo Snow, reported himself as working “for nothing.” Snow added:

“I have labored to inspire the overseers of the various departments with a proper sense of their obligations to the people, to be satisfied with a reasonable wage, and be willing that their abilities should be employed, to a certain extent, for the building up of Zion. I endeavor to influence all our laboring hands not to be greedy for high wages, and also those who furnish the capital, to be satisfied with reasonable dividends, and thus work together in harmony on principles of equal justice, that the Lord may take cognizance of our works, and bestow blessings of prosperity and salvation in the hour of necessity.”17

Ecclesiastical influence was strong throughout the Brigham City cooperative, and the motto in business transactions was said to be “as with the Priest, so with the people.”18

In 1874, at the climax of the drive to organize United Orders throughout Utah, a delegation of members of the First Presidency and Quorum of Twelve Apostles of the Church attended a stake conference in Brigham City and asked the people to reorganize under the United Order. The reorganization was made without any difficulty or great change. As Brigham Young said, “Brother Snow has led the people along, and got them into the United Order without their knowing it.”19

Each member was made a steward over all his possessions. A man saved by accumulating credits or certificates of indebtedness. One observer noted that:

“If [any Brigham City] brethren should be so unfortunate as to have any of their property destroyed by fire, or otherwise, the U. O. will rebuild or replace such property for them. When these brethren, or any other members of the U. O., die, the directors become the guardians of the family, caring for the interests and inheritances of the deceased for the benefit and maintenance of  the wives and children, and when the sons are married, giving them a house and stewardship as the father would have done for them. Like care will be taken of their interests if they are sent on missions, or are taken sick.”20

Co-op officials attempted to provide suitable work for every person desiring employment. Because virtually the entire town worked for the cooperative, working hours were uniformly regulated by the ringing of a bell in the courthouse tower.21

All in all, the town must have been a hive of industry. One correspondent to the Deseret News reported:

“I did not see a loafer, or an idle man, boy, woman, or girl during my visit; industry, prosperity and contentment seemed to characterize the entire community.”22

Publicity concerning the Brigham City Order even reached England, as Edward Tullidge wrote:

“It was in review of just such a social problem as that which this apostle [Lorenzo Snow] brought to a promising issue [at Brigham City] which caused the learned socialist, Brontier O’Brian, a quarter of a century ago, to proclaim to his class in Europe that the Mormons had ‘created a soul under the rib of death.’ . . . At that time the attention of the socialists of England was attracted to the social problems of the Mormon people. Reynolds, Bradlaugh, Holyoak, Barker, O’Brian and others held the Mormons up to admiration…”23

Most observers of the system thought the chief advantage to the city was the promotion of “home industry.” One correspondent wrote to the Salt Lake Herald in 1876 that

“If the example of the inhabitants of this town was more generally followed, Utah would be far more prosperous and her people much better off. Our present suicidal policy of exporting raw materials and importing manufactured articles would be stopped, we would be far more independent of our sister states and territories; the financial panics of the east or west would not affect us; our people would all have good homes and enjoy more of the comforts of life than they can hope for under present regulations; and our children would stand a much better chance of receiving good educations and becoming useful members of a society.”24

Nevertheless, Brigham Young’s successor as President of the Church, John Taylor, did not want to put the final stamp of approval on the Brigham City organization. Said President Taylor:

“There are some things that Brother Lorenzo Snow is doing that are very creditable; but it is not the United Order. He is working with the people something after the same principle that our sisters teach the little ones to walk. They stand them in a sort of chair which rolls along, and the babies appear delighted; they think they are walking. But we have not learned how to walk yet….”25

The Brigham City Order seemed to be functioning beautifully in 1877; it was attracting widespread attention in Utah and elsewhere. But it was apparent that further growth would bring incalculable management problems. An 1877 letter from Apostle Snow to Brigham Young indicates that Church leaders were aware of the problems. In his letter, Apostle Snow revealed the anxieties which plagued him and provided a glimpse of the behind-the-scenes reflections of a wise man.26

“In working up to the principles we call the United Order we have shouldered very serious responsibilities. Over one thousand persons, little and big are depending entirely upon the Institution for all their supplies, for their food, their clothing, and all their comforts and conveniences. Over one thousand more living in our City are more or less dependent upon this Institution….

“We give a very few families, in harvest time, their supplies of breadstuff for the year…. Two-thirds of this, or more, we have to purchase by our home manufactures, and more or less outside of our county. This considerably encroaches upon our requirements for our manufactured goods to raise cash to assist in defraying our money expenses which average at least one hundred dollars per day….

“Nothing satisfies the seller but cash articles of which at our present stage of progress we have difficulty in producing a sufficiency to meet these two heavy demands, the cash and breadstuff. These two demands coming upon us at once constitute our one serious source of difficulty or fear of future embarrassment. We can very well meet either one alone but it requires more faith and financiering ability to meet them both than I like to assume….

“We have been now twelve years engaged in this business, striving to unite the people in their business affairs, classifying and assigning them severally to such departments of industry as would best promote individual and general interest and of building up the Kingdom of God.

“I guard against adopting the principles faster than the virtue, faith and intelligence of the people will sustain them lest I be left alone, and I think I move quite as fast as can be done with safety. I try to keep two objects in view — to amalgamate the feelings of the people and to establish a financial system in which everybody can secure necessaries and conveniences of life through their labour and be preserved from the evils and corruption of outside influences.

“These two objects have already been achieved to some extent and the prospects for the future are very encouraging; but the care, the anxiety and the excessive mental toil and labor are quite sufficient to subdue any feeling of pride and vanity if any such existed for any outside applause.

“When Israel left their leeks and onions by the direction of Moses they looked to him for their supplies, and became very quarrelsome and troublesome whenever they failed. This is a feature in the United Order which I contemplate with no small degree of anxiety…. 

“I confess, in the solemn silence of the night, that I have sometimes inquired of myself, where are we drifting, in following this untrodden path for many generations, and in sailing upon a sea so little known and unexplored? Is there not danger of getting an elephant on our hands (to use a common phrase) that our wisdom and ability cannot manage or support? In other words, may we not drift into responsibilities that would be difficult or even impossible to discharge?…

“We have gradually, imperceptibly, and without calculation or previous design, drifted into possession of all the principle channels, and main arteries of business, trades, manufacture, and all industries which are carried on in Brigham City and in many of the surrounding settlements…. But this amalgamation, absorption, monopolizing and gathering into one, and centralizing of all our industries, thrown upon myself, is a responsibility that I should never dared to have assumed. In fact I never anticipated such a result, though I have felt it gradually approaching, but yet could not see how to escape and be justified.”

It was during these months of introspection that a series of disasters befell the Order. Once again, the difficulties are best described by Apostle Snow, writing in 1879 to Franklin D. Richards two years after the misfortunes began:

“Two years ago today, about two o’clock in the morning, we were aroused from our slumbers by the ringing of bells and startling cries of fire! fire! fire! Our woolen factory was all in flames, and in less than thirty minutes, the whole establishment with its entire contents of machinery, wool, warps and cloth lay in ashes.

“This involved a cash loss of over $30,000. While viewing the building, as it was rapidly consuming, my mind became agitated with painful thoughts and reflections, whether the people could sustain the severe pressure which would bear upon them through this unforseen calamity, or lose heart and courage in supporting our principles of union. These misgivings, however, were unfounded; for the people resolved, at once, to try again….

“But this involved us in a large indebtedness…. We engaged a large contract [and everything was] moving along prosperously: when, suddenly, through the influence of apostates, aided by a mobocratic judge, a raid was made upon our camps, thirty or forty of our workmen were arrested and imprisoned and our operations stopped.27  And, although the embargo on our business was withdrawn and the men liberated,…  it came too late, so we were compelled to abandon this enterprise….

“The following July [1878], a tax of $10,200 was levied on our scrip, by O. J. Hollister, U.S. Assessor and Collector of Internal Revenue. Though illegal, unjust and highly absurd, the payment could not be avoided.28 Through these and other unfortunate occurrences we became greatly embarrassed in our business. This embarrassment… has been brought about, through a succession of calamities, unparalleled in the experience of any business firm in this or any other Territory….

“There appeared now but one course left for us to pursue, viz: curtail our business, close several of our departments, lessen the business of others, and dispose of such property as will assist in discharging our cash obligations….

“Accordingly, we have labored faithfully to this end, and… we are now nearly out of debt….

“Notwithstanding our severe reverses and the fiery ordeal through which we have passed, the confidence of the people in our principles of union has been preserved and they feel that we have worked earnestly and unselfishly to secure their interests and promote their general welfare.”29

Brigham City leaders decided to permit private individuals to establish business houses and thus to return to a system of semi-private property. This tendency was never reversed. In 1885 Lorenzo Snow was indicted on a charge of unlawful cohabitation and served 11 months in the Utah Penitentiary before his conviction was set aside. Continued federal prosecution further hampered the activities of community and ecclesiastical leaders. Finally, as the result of the depression of the 1890s, the cooperative store went bankrupt. The cooperative store building and grounds were taken over by the Deseret Savings Bank.30

The experience of the Brigham City cooperative is perhaps best summarized by the last entry in the minute book, which attributes to Lorenzo Snow these words:

“Because of many losses and disasters . . . we have discontinued some of our enterprises and curtailed others. Yet for a period of fifteen years, our union has prevented division in mercantile business; say nothing about many other things which have been done by our union, and I have nothing to regret of all we have accomplished. We have kept out our enemies, and in all these matters we did them by common consent.”31

This article originally appeared in Vol.59 No.1 of Pioneer Magazine.

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  1. See “Journal History” (Church History Library, Salt Lake City; hereafter cited as CHL), Oct. 7, 1853; Deseret News (Salt Lake City), Oct. 15, 1853.
  2. The primary source material on the Brigham City cooperative and United Order includes (a) Letters of Lorenzo Snow to Brigham Young, Bishop Henry Lunt, and Franklin D. Richards, as published in the Deseret Evening News, Aug. 20, 1873; Edward W. Tullidge, ed., Tullidge’s Quarterly Magazine, 2 (Jan., 1883), 400–407 (hereafter cited as T.Q.M.); and Eliza Roxey Snow Smith, Biography and Family Record of Lorenzo Snow . . . (Salt Lake City, 1884), 291–96; (b) The manuscript “History of Box Elder Stake” (CHL); (c) The “Journal History” entries between 1864 and 1880; (d) “Scribbling Book” of Brigham City, containing copies of letters by Lorenzo Snow; (e) Minute and account books of Brigham City cooperative enterprises (CHL). Secondary source material: “United Order of Northern Utah,” Heart Throbs of the West (1936), 1:53–56; Daughters of Utah Pioneers of Box Elder County, comp., History of Box Elder County (Brigham City, [1937]); and Edward W. Tullidge, “Box Elder County,” Tullidge’s Histories . . . 2 vols. (Salt Lake City, 1889), 2:289–304; Feramorz Y. Fox, “Experiments in Cooperation and Social Security among the Mormons” (CHL), Chap. 6; Edward J. Allen, The Second United Order among the Mormons (New York, 1936); and Arden B. Olsen, “The History of Mormon Mercantile Cooperation in Utah” (Ph.D. diss., Univ. of California, Berkeley, 1935), esp. 109–17.
  3. Lorenzo Snow to Brigham Young, Aug. 6, 1873, Deseret Evening News (Salt Lake City), Aug. 20, 1873.
  4. Lorenzo Snow to Bishop Henry Lunt, Oct., 1876, T.Q.M., 2 (Jan. 1883): 401.
  5. Snow to Lunt, 401–2.
  6. “History of Box Elder Stake,” July 12, 1872. “History of Box Elder Stake,” Oct. 28, 1877; Snow to Lunt, T.Q.M., 2 (Jan. 1883): 401–2; Snow to Young, Deseret Evening News, Aug. 20, 1873.
  7. The articles of incorporation are in the Box Elder County Courthouse, Brigham City, Utah.
  8. Snow to Lunt, T.Q.M., 2 (Jan. 1883): 402; Snow to Young, Deseret Evening News, Aug. 20, 1873.
  9. Snow to Lunt, T.Q.M., 2 (Jan. 1883): 402; Snow to Young, Deseret Evening News, Aug. 20, 1873.
  10. “History of Box Elder Stake,” July 12, 1872; Oct. 28, 1877; Apr. 28, 1878.
  11. Correspondent John R. Morgan, writing to the Deseret News under date of July 12, 1872.
  12. Snow to Lunt, T.Q.M., 2 (Jan. 1883): 402; D.U.P., History of Box Elder County, 49.
  13. Snow to Young, Deseret Evening News, Aug. 20, 1873; “The United Order Minutes,” of July 20, 1880, cited in Fox, “Experiments in Cooperation,” chap. 6, p. 12 fn. 2.
  14. Salt Lake Herald, Oct. 25, 1876.
  15. “History of Box Elder Stake,” Oct. 28, 1877.
  16. Snow to Young, Deseret Evening News, Aug. 20, 1873.
  17. The Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star, 38 (Liverpool, 1876): 695.
  18. Sermon of Apr. 21, 1878, Journal of Discourses, 26 vols. (Liverpool, 1854–1886), 19:345.
  19. Deseret News, Aug. 31, 1875.
  20. D.U.P., History of Box Elder County, 110.
  21. Deseret News, Aug. 31, 1875.
  22. T.Q.M., 2 (Jan. 1883): 400.
  23. “Successful Co-operation,” Salt Lake Herald, Oct. 25, 1876.
  24. Sermon of John Taylor, Aug. 4, 1878, Journal of Discourses, 20:44–45. See also Leonard J. Arrington, Orderville, Utah: A Pioneer Mormon Experiment in Economic Organization (Logan, 1954), 27–36.
  25. Letter found in “Scribbling Book.”
  26. The charge against the Brigham City workmen was cutting United States timber reserves. The Mormons believed, as Snow intimated, that the charge was unfair and was motivated by the desire to hamper their economic growth.
  27. Federal agents in Utah in the late 1870s and 1880’s were not only hostile to the Mormons, but to cooperative enterprises as well. They found in the thriving Brigham City and similar orders a threat to the establishment and growth of non-Mormon capitalistic enterprises; hence a number of fines, court actions, and other harassments.
  28. Lorenzo Snow to Franklin D. Richards, Nov. 1, 1879, T.Q.M., 2 (Jan. 1883): 403–5.
  29. D.U.P., History of Box Elder County, 117–18.
  30. “United Order Minutes,” MS, (CHL), July 20, 1880.

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