Orderville: The Experiment in Communal Living

by Martha Sonntag Bradley, University of Utah professor

Mormon church leaders Brigham Young, Orson Pratt and others designed a religious economic order they called the “ of Enoch.” Traveling throughout Utah Territory, Young organized settlers—in some places as wards and in other places as towns—into united orders, saying:

“Our object is to labor for the benefit of the whole; to retrench in our expenditures, to be prudent and economical, to study well the necessities of the community and to pass by its many useless wants, to study to secure life, health, wealth and union.”1 

At a General Conference held on May 9, 1874, in Salt Lake City—which had been postponed so that Brigham Young could personally explain the policies and procedures of the order—church leaders detailed how members would contribute their property and jointly manage businesses. Ideally, all property would be held in common except houses and residential lots, although each united order established its own rules. Kane County became the site of the most complete experiment with the united order and communal living: Orderville. 

via utahhumanities.org

With its isolated location, remote from population centers or major transportation routes, Orderville provided a good setting for the independent social experiment. Situated approximately 70 miles east of St. George and 22 miles northwest of Kanab, Orderville residents took advantage of the area’s natural resources. Land was fertile in places, and the surrounding grazing land was ideal for raising stock. Extensive timber in the nearby mountains provided fuel and lumber. The Virgin River supplied water for irrigation and culinary purposes. 

The Orderville United Order was officially organized on July 14, 1875. A board of nine directors was elected and given the responsibility of organizing and supervising labor and resources. The directors made some decisions independent of the group, but most business transactions were brought before a meeting of the entire order for approval or disapproval. The order was incorporated for a period of 25 years, with a maximum capitalization of $100,000—which consisted of 10,000 shares at 10 dollars each. Each donor received book credit for capital stock in the corporation according to the value of his or her contribution. It was formally agreed that such stock did not entitle the “owner” to dividends or to any share of the corporation’s assets.2 

Because the order was a religious effort above all else, members were re-baptized when it was first organized in an effort to rededicate themselves to the work of the Lord. They were placed under a solemn covenant to obey certain rules set forth by Brigham Young. Numerous accounts of the order show that its members believed they were working for the Kingdom of God, and the objectives of the order reflected the religious concepts adhered to by the Mormons. 

All economic efforts organized under the umbrella of the united order were managed by a board composed of a president, two vice presidents, a secretary, a treasurer and four directors. Yearly elections allowed many to serve in these roles. The nine officers supervised property purchases and administration, directed the labor force, invested surplus funds, borrowed for investments and regulated daily affairs of the group. Furthermore, the order consisted of 33 different departments, each with department heads and assigned duties of workers. Departments included blacksmithing, wagon repair, boarding house, board of appraisers, board of sisters, cabinet and carpentry, canal, commissary, coopering, cotton farm, farming, freighting, gardening, gristmill, poultry, home improvement, knitting, livestock, dairy, midwifery, millinery, public works, sawmill, schools, sheep, shoe shop, soap and broom, stock feeding, tailoring, tannery, telegraph and tin shop. Members were assigned to be assistants in the departments.  

Membership qualifications for the Orderville United Order included membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and a general judgment of an individual’s moral and religious character—rather than his or her economic status. Applicants answered questions about their expectations, why they wanted to enter the order and what they were willing to give up. Generally, nearly everyone who applied to join was admitted.  

In Orderville there would be no private property and it was agreed that among the participants all “things shall be done by common consent.”3 When people were interviewed by ecclesiastical leaders before being admitted to the order, they were asked an extensive list of questions about their character, their devotion to the idea of cooperation and their willingness to sacrifice for the work of God. 

Initially, all members were required to deed their property, both real and personal, to the order; therefore, all wealth became common. Individuals were made stewards over their own personal effects such as clothing, books, furniture and jewelry. And, although it is true that there were no rich or poor, it is more accurate to say that all were relatively poor. Strict accounts recorded wages and transactions. Men received $1.50 credit for a day’s work; boys 11 to 17 years old worked for credit of 75 cents per day. Girls from 10 to 13 worked each day for 25 cents; those under 10 worked for half that amount. Adults were charged 50 dollars a year for rent on their living spaces. The typical shanty home had a living room 12 feet square and an adjoining bedroom that was eight feet by twelve feet. Annual clothing charges were $17.50 for men and $16.50 for women. Children’s clothing ranged from one-half to three-fourths of the adult costs.

Howard Spencer via findagrave.com

Howard Spencer was chosen to be the original president of the Orderville United Order; however, within two years he stepped down to let Thomas Chamberlain become president. Chamberlain is usually given credit for the success of the venture. His expert managerial skills and generally affable personality made him a most suitable leader for the group. As bishop of the Orderville LDS Ward, Chamberlain orchestrated both the temporal and spiritual welfare of his ward members. In addition to the core group who had learned to work together in the Muddy River Mission, Brigham Young also sent to Orderville emigrants from Great Britain and Scandinavia. 

***

The fact that Orderville was established a few years after the towns of Winsor (Mt. Carmel) and Berryville (Glendale) was an advantage to the new settlers, who could obtain lumber from existing sawmills and build faster than those in the older towns. In the fall of 1874, the same year the first united order was started, a water-driven pit sawmill was purchased, and with this mill Jonathan Heaton and Allen Frost produced the lumber used to construct the order’s first generation of frame buildings. Thomas Chamberlain and Christopher Heaton cut the timber in a nearby canyon, while Henry W. and John J. Esplin hauled logs to the mill. Soon a second mill, a steam-powered sawmill, was purchased; it was run by B. H. Williams and Isaiah Bowers. Throughout the order’s history, nearly all of its buildings were frame structures made with lumber from these local mills. The order also purchased a flour mill from a farmer in Glendale for $3,000. 

Upon selecting the location of the town, a survey was made, centered on a public block. In the middle of the block, a frame community dining hall, 25 by 40 feet, was built. Adjoining it were a kitchen and a bakery with a large brick oven and large troughs for bread mixing. To the northeast, a fort-like complex was built of rows of shanties erected in sections of eight. These housed families, and the high sides of these shed-roofed cabins, together with the tall board fences that connected them, constituted the outside walls of the “fort.” 

A two-story “Big House” with an upstairs porch running around it contained many small rooms to house the families of the order’s board of directors and other leaders. Thomas Chamberlain and his five wives lived in the Big House. Buildings were arranged in a square, and the south side of the square was enclosed by a board fence with a gate. The entries to the shanties faced the interior courtyard of the square, and a wooden boardwalk ran along the fronts of the buildings. Trees and flowers were planted to beautify the compound and a flagpole was placed in front of the dining hall. The American flag added to the appearance of a military encampment. In fact, a bugler or martial band announced the beginning of the work day each morning at 5:00 a.m., breakfast at 7:00 a.m., lunch at 12:00 noon, dinner at 6:30 p.m. and curfew at 9:00 p.m.

As the population grew, more buildings were constructed. A Relief Society hall went up inside the square near the Big House. The residential sections were connected by fences and gates. Running the length of the shanties and fences were broad plank sidewalks lined with flowers, tamarisks and box elder trees. Until the Relief Society hall was constructed, public gatherings were held in the dining room.

After its organization, the Orderville United Order began purchasing equipment and creating businesses to provide services and produce income for the group. The town’s tannery produced a high grade of leather, which was made into boots, shoes, harnesses and saddles at a leather shop. In 1879, for instance, the tannery produced 717 pairs of shoes and boots and repaired 674 pairs of shoes.4

Furniture, spinning wheels and cabinets produced at the cabinet shop rivaled the best in the region. The cooper’s shop produced buckets, tubs and barrels. A dairy farm located 11 miles outside of town produced cheese and butter for sale. An order-owned farm in Moccasin Springs, Arizona produced large quantities of molasses. In 1876, the group purchased capital stock in the Rio Virgin Manufacturing Company in Washington County, Utah. They exchanged wool for cloth and produced woolen goods at this mill. They also purchased a farm one mile south of town. A new town, Enterprise, sprang up around this particular farm, which included a cotton gin, spinning wheels and looms to convert cotton into cloth. 

From 1881 to 1883, the order’s members built a woolen factory above Glendale at a cost of $8,500. Because the order was on the decline at this time, this venture failed not long after its organization. 

The woolen factory was a major enterprise, producing the types of clothing needed by the community. But because secondhand machinery was installed, the quality of the cloth was somewhat poor. The factory was a large, three-level, wooden structure with rows of dormers across the gabled roof. A flume brought water from a nearby creek to the waterwheel. Joseph Hopkins of Glendale eventually installed a new metal turbine. The building was so large that there was enough open space to hold meetings and dances there. Workers lived in a row of frame shanties northwest of the factory, where a blacksmith shop was also located. A small community developed there, complete with a branch of the LDS church.  

Allen Frost and his family joined the Orderville United Order after 1874. There he worked at a variety of jobs—at the sawmill, doing carpenter work and masonry, bookkeeping and teaching school.5 In 1877 Hattie Esplin’s family moved to Long Valley and joined the people at Orderville. She reported later, “They sold all they had and turned into the common fund. They lived in the fort in a lumber cabin in the northwest corner of the fort where the Tithing Lot was.”6

The Charles N. Carroll family joined the Orderville United Order in 1878. Daughter Emma Carroll wrote a memoir published in 1939 of her life there as a child. She wrote in part: “Perhaps the most unique thing among us was community eating. It excited more curiosity, incited more ridicule and brought more aspersions upon us than any other one thing and much more than was warranted. The dining hall was in the center of the enclosed square, with the kitchen to the north and bakery in the basement immediately under it. About three hundred pounds of flour was made into bread each day, mixed in a large wooden mixer seven feet long by two and one-half feet wide. Occasionally a few children lingered to watch the bread mixing process, which was usually left until the last thing before closing up at night. Vegetables such as potatoes, squash, etc., were baked in large quantities, as well as meats and occasionally pies, cookies and puddings; these were a real treat, however, as they did not come often. The kitchen was a large room, the west side of which was partitioned off for the furnaces. There were three standing side by side, made of brick, on which were three immense boilers. A good-sized log of wood was none too much for each furnace. How would you like to see three bushels of potatoes cooked in a great boiler and a corresponding quantity of meat and vegetables in another and a third full of gravy—water gravy? It required one whole boiler of hulled corn or hominy for supper.”7

Groups of six women cooks took turns in the kitchen, each having time off periodically. Between their work cooking for the order they took care of their chores at home and other types of community work. Emma Carroll’s mother preferred not to eat in the community dining hall, so Emma brought her meals to her in their own home. When the order eventually allowed families to sit together in groups, she joined the family group at dinner. 

Three rows of tables ran the length of the dining hall. Three older and three younger girls served meals for a week at a time. These girls set the tables, served the food, cleared the dishes when the meal was over, and brought them back to the kitchen to be washed. Sometimes they helped wash the dishes. Because the group did not have tablecloths, the table tops were scrubbed thoroughly after every meal and the benches were also washed to keep the dining area as clean as possible. 

Emma Carroll remembered special friendships that grew between younger and older girls as they worked together in the dining hall: “At the age of about eleven or twelve, a girl was eligible to appointment as a junior waiter; thus privileged she had reached the acme of her desires. The thrill of partnership with a senior waiter aroused emotions almost bewildering. It was a supreme moment; a real affection grew up between senior and junior girls. As a junior waiter I was placed with Lucy Spencer, pretty, jolly and very kind to me. We had the center row of tables as our charge.

“I have heard my sister Kezia say that she with the other senior girls would often in summer time arise early, before the time for duty at the dining room, and gather the wild roses from the creek bank, placing a twig with a single rose bud under each plate. It required several hundred. The fragrance of the flowers was noticeable on entering the room.”8

When the Orderville United Order first began, the adults sat at one set of tables and the children at another, but eventually families sat together. The members of the community ate in two shifts, which required the entire process of setting the tables and serving the food to be done twice. Usually the food was simple, but on special occasions it included fried pork, mashed potatoes, vegetables, pickled beets or fresh-baked molasses cookies. After community dining was discontinued altogether due to the destruction of the dining hall by a flood in 1880, produce was parceled out to families according to need. 

Because it sought to establish a self-sufficient society, the Orderville United Order attempted to provide for its community’s every need without importing goods from the outside world. Thus there were diverse buildings, more so than in other Mormon communities of comparable size. The people were resourceful, utilitarian and not given to excess. Their buildings were plain, vernacular structures. Their rapid construction using lumber rather than masonry helps account for the fact that none of the united order buildings have survived to the present. Buildings were constructed for dairies, silkworm production, a woolen factory, animal shelters, food storage, a shoe shop, a tannery, a gristmill, a bakery, a cotton factory and a small industrial center consisting of a “blacksmith shop, cabinet and carpenter shop, broom and bucket factories and other industrial facilities.”9 Orderville residents were able to export lumber to St. George for the construction of the LDS temple there, as well as provide laborers for the building of the Manti Temple.  

Some of the united order buildings were used for multiple purposes. All religious meetings and socials were held in the dining hall for a time. After the Relief Society hall was erected, it was used for those purposes, as well as for school classes. The first schoolhouse was a small structure, only 14 by 16 feet, built east of the dining hall. Due to its limited size, school classes also were held in the “garret” of the Big House. In the late 1880s a more substantial, two-story schoolhouse was constructed, although an attempt to build it using brick failed because the brick contained too much lime. Orderville’s young children attended school three months of the year. The older children worked year-round, receiving educational instruction only at church meetings. Children were viewed primarily as a resource for building up the community and as full contributors in terms of time and energy. 

To the east of the town, 20 acres of vegetable gardens and orchards provided food for community members. Women and girls rotated work in the gardens and tended hot beds that provided early vegetables, a flower garden, a grove of mulberry trees for silkworms and a few beehives. South of the square, a blacksmith shop, carpentry and cabinet shops and other industries lined the street. Other food to support the community was produced on 400 acres of land located on the periphery of town. In 1879 this land produced 4,006 bushels of wheat, 3,178 pounds of pork, 22,691 pounds of mutton, 18,256 pounds of beef, 10,456 gallons of milk, 3,745 pounds of butter, 136 pounds of cheese, 1,485 gallons of molasses, 1,888 bushels of melons, 14,000 pounds of cabbage and 7,165 bushels of potatoes, onions, radishes, beets, cucumbers, carrots, parsnips, turnips, tomatoes, peas and beans.10 The group was virtually self-sufficient, and so the changing prices of goods elsewhere had little effect on them.

The board of directors assigned duties according to skills. Besides their own household work, women took turns working in the kitchen and waiting on tables. Each day six attendants and five or six cooks prepared and served the community’s food. When the first meal was served on July 24, 1875, 15 families were present, totaling fewer than 100 individuals. By 1877, Orderville had 370 members of the order. In 1882, the population had increased to 602, of which 259 were children under eight years of age. Each day two elderly men turned a 150-pound bag of flour into bread to be baked in a large brick oven. Preserves and bottled fruit were also produced. Lunch was the main meal. Dinner usually consisted of corn meal mush, milk and johnny cake served with butter. Because there were so many people to feed, the kitchen routine had to be carefully organized.

The storage and distribution of resources centered in the storehouse under the charge of the bishop and the president of the order. Each department or business managed by the order had its offices there. For the first two years, supplies were scarce and a committee of three women was assigned the task “to learn the necessities of the people and to decide who needed things most and issue orders on the store when things were to be given out,” in order to help conserve.11 

As was true of much of Kane County, the area surrounding Orderville was used for grazing. Cattle and sheep raising were logical businesses for the group, and they quickly gained control over local watering places in the area. Their ranches included parts of Arizona and Utah, including House Rock, Jacob’s Pools, Cane Springs, Castle Ranch, Elk Ranch and a 150-acre ranch on the Pahreah (Paria) River. By 1881, the Orderville United Order was paying taxes on 5,000 head of sheep, and its cattle herds had increased to 10 times their original size. 

For a time, Mary Fowler’s mother was the supervisor of the dairy. She brought her children along while she worked. Family members braided straw hats or sewed clothes from home-woven cloth. Their days seemed to be devoted to gospel work; other work stopped periodically for family prayers or group meetings. “The atmosphere and proceedings of these meetings were the same pattern whether concerned with civil or ecclesiastical matters,” a relative of Fowler wrote.12 

The members of the order joined together for social activities as well as for work. The religious auxiliaries provided the backdrop for dances, parties and educational activities. The local Young Men and Young Ladies Mutual Improvement Associations began when the order was first organized. The women’s Relief Society published its own weekly newspaper, with such articles or regular columns as “Our Interest,” “Home Composition,” “The Pearl,” “The Clipper” and “The Mutual Star.” Every Saturday the Young Men’s organization published the Honey Bee, a 16-page broadside.13

Demise of the Orderville United Order

Ironically, when the economy of southern Utah improved during the 1880s, the Orderville United Order began its decline. Even so, it has been considered the most successful of all the efforts at creating united orders throughout the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Most failed within six months, and few lasted more than a year. Some other successful variants, such as that of Brigham City in northern Utah, did not include the rigorous communal living arrangements of Orderville. 

The dedication of Orderville residents well suited the establishment of a relatively isolated community in a region where most residents practiced little more than subsistence economies. As towns and enterprises developed, however, and as new technologies such as the railroad and the telegraph came to the region with their promise (and threat) of outside goods and increased trade, the more exacting united order concept came under siege—a siege compounded after Brigham Young died in 1877 and other Church leaders became less committed to the ideal. At the same time, the troubles facing the Mormon Church and all its members due to the practice of plural marriage left little leisure to devote to the united order or any other principle that needed reinforcement from the pulpit. 

In the 1870s, Orderville was among the most successful settlements in the territory. By the 1880s, however, other communities in Kane County began to challenge Orderville’s success at farming, mining and stock producing. Additionally, the practitioners of the order maintained their relatively simple lifestyle, which in comparison to other settlements began to seem backward and socially unprogressive.

As perhaps a sign of the trend toward individualism and independence, the town’s policy of communal dining was discontinued in 1880 after a flood destroyed the dining hall. This had an immediate and serious impact on the communal atmosphere of the order. Three years later, with the prodding of apostle Erastus Snow, a wage system was differentiated to reflect diverse levels of talent, skill and education. Thus the original leveling effect of cooperation and communalism was tempered or weakened by a growing emphasis on differences.

It was also significant that by the 1880s, Orderville’s chief outside supporter had died. During his lifetime, Brigham Young had done much to aid the town’s efforts. He visited the town on occasion, advising and blessing the members’ labors. On January 17, 1877, he wrote to the president of the order and urged him to keep careful accounts and to set specific day rates for all work done: “A little girl can take account of the time and enter each day’s credit under the respective names of the workers. This record can be taken, say every evening about supper or prayer time.” He further wrote: “Credit a man for what he does. It is a true principle that every person shall be rewarded for the labor he performs; that is, he shall be credited for all good he does, but the fruits of his labors must be added to the general fund of the United Order.”14 

Apostle Erastus Snow, the regional church leader, did not view the Orderville United Order’s efforts as favorably as did Brigham Young, and after the president’s death, Snow assumed more direct responsibility for Orderville. It is clear in hindsight that changes in the state’s economy as well as the attitude of church leaders toward the order greatly influenced its outcome. 

Orderville suffered the blow of losing the support of Mormon church leaders at the same time that many of its leading polygamist members went into hiding to avoid arrest under the provisions of the federal Edmunds Act. Because so many Orderville residents were polygamists, the community was seriously affected by the prosecution of polygamists by the United States government. Men like Thomas Chamberlain spent months in hiding and were eventually apprehended, prosecuted and imprisoned. Without effective leadership, the order weakened. Church leaders urged revisions to the original system, such as allowing personal luxuries and encouraging plans to share the stock with the rising generation—a shortcoming of the original plans that had somewhat alienated the youth of the order. Some church leaders also favored the dissolution of the order to help reduce Mormonism’s peculiarities in the eyes of the federal authorities they were trying to placate. 

A committee was appointed to come up with a plan for the dissolution of the order. “After exercising all the we could and calling for Divine aid,” one member wrote, “we evolved the following plan. We had the Secretary go over the capital stock, and list everything that had been put in at inventory price. After that was done, teams, land, etc., being named so that we knew what and where it was, we held an auction sale in 1885 of all the community belongings.” The men sat through the auction waiting to get their own property back. Payment was made with credits that the order’s members had accumulated. The order retained ownership of three entities: the tannery, the woolen factory and the sheep enterprise, which were leased out to individuals who managed them. By 1900, when the original charter of the order expired, the Orderville United Order had effectively ceased to exist. 

The Orderville United Order had lasted for more than a decade and was the most successful example of the communal mode of living among the Mormon pioneers. Andrew Jenson visited Orderville in 1892 with the intention of writing a history of the town. He concluded: “The good Saints of Orderville gained an experience that will never be forgotten by those who passed through it and I was assured by several of the brethren who stuck to it till the last that they never felt happier in their lives than they did when the Order was in complete running order and they were devoting their entire time, talent and strength for the common good. Good feelings, brotherly love and unselfish motives characterized most of those who were members until the last.”15 

Many contemporarily written reminiscences detail life under the order, making frequent mention of the spirit of true communalism that existed there. Henry Fowler remembered: “I have lived in Utah, Arizona, California, Idaho and in many different towns and I never was so much attached to a people, I never experienced greater joy nor had better times than during the period of time I was connected with the United Order in Orderville.”16 

Although the Orderville experiment in communal living was relatively short-lived, it provided a unique example of both the benefits and the pitfalls of living cooperatively. While requiring the sacrifice of its members, the community’s strong bonds spanned generations and family divisions, and facilitated the people’s efforts to tame the wilderness and make a living.  

LeGrande Heaton summarized what had become of the physical town first known as Order City: “Gradually the old houses have been replaced until today, there are 95 quite modern homes…. Some of them appear old, but all have been built or added to since 1890. None of the original buildings remain, except a replica of the old stone house, rebuilt with the original rock by the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers.”17 Heaton’s assessment may not have been entirely correct, as it appears that several dwellings from the 1870s and 1880s remain. One may be a tall, two-level frame building in the middle of the commercial district on the east side of U.S. Highway 89. Featuring a cornice trimmed with 19 pairs of ornamental brackets, this building appears in old photographs of Orderville and may be the former co-op or some other store of that era. Still, Orderville today bears little resemblance to its appearance during the united order years of the 1870s and 1880s, or even to its turn-of-the-century look. Gone are the united order buildings: the rock school, the church and the social hall so proudly erected.


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

Sources

Excerpts from Martha Sonntag Bradley, A History of Kane County, Utah Centennial County History Series (Salt Lake City, Ut.: Utah State Historical Society, 1999).

Andrew Jenson (1850-1941) was a historian, author, assistant LDS Church Historian and president of the Utah State Historical Society.

1 Brigham Young, quoted in Mark A. Pendleton, “The Orderville United Order of Zion,” Utah Historical Quarterly 7 (Oct. 1939): 144. 

2 The original “Articles of Incorporation” are in the Bleak Manuscript Collection, Huntington Library, San Marino, Calif. See Deseret News, 1 Oct. 1875. 

3 Pendleton, 146. 

4 “Partial List of Products and Manufactures of O.U.O. for 1879,” Bleak Manuscript Collection, copy at Utah State Historical Society Library. 

5 Sibyl Frost Mendenhall, “Biographical Sketch of Allen Frost,” 10, Utah State Historical Society. 

6 Hattie Esplin, Life Sketch, 4, Utah State Historical Society. 

7 Emma Carroll Seegmiller, “Personal Memories of the United Order of Orderville, Utah,” Utah Historical Quarterly (1939): 33. 

8 Seegmiller, 33 

9 Adonis Findlay Robinson, History of Kane County, 318 

10 “Partial List of Products and Manufactures.” 

11 Kate Carter, ed., Heart Throbs of the West (Salt Lake City: Daughters of Utah Pioneers, 1936–51), 4:28. 

12 Fred M. Fowler, “Mary Fowler: A child of Pioneers,” 8, Utah State Historical Society. 

13 Fowler, 194. 

14 Brigham Young, quoted in Pendleton, 155. 

15 Deseret News, 4 Mar. 1892. 

16 Henry Fowler, in Carter, Heart Throbs, 1:59. 

17 Quoted in Robinson, 391.O

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