What life was like in Kanab, Utah in 1883

Vignettes of Southern Utah: Kanab

This article originally appeared in Vol.51, No.4 (2004) of Pioneer Magazine.

by Gerald R. Sherratt

Excerpts from his talk given at 2004 National Encampment in Kanab, Utah:

What life was like in Kanab, Utah in 1883

It’s Sunday, July 29th, 1883, in Kanab Utah. With most of the town’s population, we’re in church. The worship service is interrupted with the sound of loud claps of thunder. Not long afterwards, we hear the roar of rushing water. We run outside and see a wall of water ten feet high stretching clear across the canyon. The raging waters sweep everything before it, bringing with it uprooted trees, boulders, and other debris that serves as a battering ram against everything in its path. It destroys the city dam, drowns cattle, and cuts the channel of the creek an additional forty feet deep. The face of the canyon is altered and buildings are swept away. The flood waters hit the gristmill, break the mill’s door, and deposit two feet of debris and sand in the mill’s lower floor. The waters inundate the grain fields, covering the shocks of grain with sand. About 1300 bushels of grain are lost in but an hour.

This flood is but one of many with which the Kanab pioneers had to contend. Two years later a larger, 25 foot dam was built, only to have it destroyed by another flood five years later. Still another dam was built in 1891 at a different site. It was 201 feet long, 200 feet wide, and 40 feet in breadth. Nine years later, in 1900, it too was washed away by a flood. For the next nine years, until yet another dam was finished, culinary water was hauled from a water source 1.5 miles away in barrels that moved on log sleds that carried them along the bumpy roads. When the water was delivered, it was thick with red sand, which required that it sit for a while so the sand could settle and the semi-clear water at the barrel’s top could be scooped out for use in bathing or washing. Clothing washed in the water took on the characteristic pink of the hills that surrounded the valley.

Orderville, Utah

We’re in Orderville in 1878. We’re part of a family that is living the United Order, organized here three years earlier. When we first joined, we accepted the conditions of membership. We obeyed the Law of Consecration and Stewardship. We agreed we would give all we possessed to the Order and be governed by the Board of Management; in this way everything became owned in common. We said we would not use tobacco, tea, or coffee, or drink alcoholic beverages. Nor would we steal, lie, or backbite; swear or use profane or vulgar language; abuse dumb animals, quarrel, or exhibit bad temper. We would always be cheerful—not sullen—and we would not use tools, or implements, or other property of the Order without first getting permission. And we promised to do our best to maintain the peace and prosperity of the Order and to deal honestly, impartially and justly in all our transactions with others. To symbolize our commitment to the Order and that we were rededicating ourselves to the work of the Lord, we were re-baptized.

We spent today laboring in one of thirty-three “departments” of the Order that include such areas as blacksmithing, cabinet-making and carpentry, coopering, farming, freighting, livestock, dairy, poultry, teaching school, applying soap and broom, kitchen service, and the like. The men receive $1.50 credit for a day’s work, boys eleven to seventeen receive 75 cents, girls ten to thirteen receive 25 cents. We live in a shanty home that is 12 feet wide and 20 feet long, divided into two rooms: a living room and bedroom, for the use of which we pay $50 a year in rent. There are no rich and poor in Orderville: in truth, we are all poor.

Tire enclosed town is laid out surrounding a public square containing the community dining hall. There are rows of shanties in groups of eight, their outer walls helping form the outside walls of the fort-like community. There is one “Big House,” a two-story structure that houses President Thomas Chamberlain, his five wives and family. The buildings are all arranged in an enclosed square with an entrance to the compound on the south side.

We got up this morning at 5:00 a.m. to the tune of a bugler, had breakfast at 7:00, worked until noon, had lunch, and worked until 6:30 p.m. It’s supper time and we’re hungry after a full day’s labor, so we wander over to the dining hall early to see what’s for supper. The dining hall is a big building 25 by 40 feet with a kitchen adjoining it to the north and a bakery under the kitchen. In the dining hall there are three rows of tables running the length of the room. It is still not enough to accommodate all the residents, so meals are served in two shifts.

The meals are prepared by six women cooks. The tables are set and the meal served by six girls, three older and three younger. The girls must also clear the dishes and sometimes help with washing them and scrubbing down the tables between each meal. Tonight we’re lucky—the meal consists of boiled meat, hulled com, mashed potatoes and gravy, and pickled beets, with molasses cookies, hot out of the downstairs bakery, for dessert. The meal is being prepared in the kitchen, the west side of which consists of three brick furnaces standing side by side and holding three huge boilers. Three bushels of potatoes are being prepared in one boiler, the meat and vegetables in another, and the third contains the gravy. The bread, which accompanies every meal, is prepared earlier in the bakery, where 300 pounds of flour are used every day, mixed in a large wooden vessel seven feet long and two and a half feet wide, and set out to rise before being baked the next morning.

I take a place at the table with my family, devour the meal, and return home to our family shanty for a few hours relaxation. By nine o’clock I’ll be in my bed asleep.

We’re in Kanab on election day in 1911, The outcome is not in doubt as there is only one slate of candidates. When the date arrived for filing for mayor and city council, some of what the future mayor called “loafers on the ditch bank” dreamed up the most unlikely ticket they could imagine as a joke and filed the names—never dreaming no one else would decide to run and the slate would actually be elected. The five people they nominated were equally appalled. It is unprecedented, they said, done without their permission, and they threatened not to serve even if elected. Then the candidates received a visit from the mayoral nominee’s father, who urged them, to take the election seriously, to get in and do a good job.

And so it was that on election night, in 1911, the city of Kanab elected the second woman to serve as mayor of a city in the United States, and four more women to join her on the city council. It was indeed unprecedented, audacious, and absolutely wonderful.

“The rest of the story,” as Paul Harvey would say, is this: The women served with distinction. Under Mayor Mary Elizabeth Woolley Howard’s direction, the city council sponsored a clean-up campaign, canceled horse races and ball games on Sunday, passed an ordinance prohibiting gambling and another regulating the consumption of liquor (effectively making Kanab a “dry city”), built bridges over the town’s ditches, laid out and improved the town cemetery, declared a “Stink Weed” day with cash prizes for the best neighborhood clean-up project, and barred the peddlers traveling through town (which was received with great enthusiasm by the local merchants). The latter issue is still in the news some ninety-three years later, as many of you might have read last week that St. George and Cedar City were being sued by the Kirby Vacuum Cleaner company for having similar city ordinances on their books.

The mayor and each of the four councilwomen were married and each had a minimum of two children and one had as many as seven. And three of the women gave birth while in office. Alas, the men of the community, who had seen many of their favorite vices disappear during the two years of Mayor Howard’s term, saw to it that there were plenty of male candidates at the next election; and the Kanab mayor and city council once again fell under the control of the community’s men. But Mayor Howard and her cohorts made history in 1911 and, in the process, demonstrated that women could, as the mayor’s father had advised, get in and do a good job. 


  1. Martha Sonntag Bradley, A History of Kane County, Utah Centennial County History Series (Salt Lake City; Utah State Historical Society; [Kanab, Utah]: Kane County Commission, 1999), inside dust jacket.
  2. Ibid. t 2.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid, 3.
  5. Ibid., II.
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