Utah Manufacturing History

Barry L. Bartlett and Paul Olsen, MEP-Utah (October, 2008)


Ancient Beginnings

The prehistoric Anasazi people (“the ancient ones”) who lived in the San Juan River region of Utah at the time of Christ grew from a basket-making people to become accomplished irrigation system farmers and masons. After a.d. 750, the Anasazi rapidly developed pottery-making, house building, agricultural tools and various simple manufacturing skills. The Fremont culture also appeared in what is now central Utah about a.d. 500, likewise developed construction and goods-making abilities. Both cultures disappeared around a.d. 1300, possibly due to a severe decades-long drought. But they left a rich legacy of sustainable cultures built in harmony with nature, fine hand-made goods, and evidence of relatively peaceful, harmonious lifestyles, well-integrated to their environmental surroundings.


Early Explorers and Immigrants

There is little evidence that early Spanish visitors, other Great Basin explorers like John C. Fremont, and most mountain men did more than pass through Utah. From 1840 to 1860, immigrants heading west to Oregon and California largely regarded Utah as a place to avoid. The exception was the Mormons who began immigrating into the Salt Lake Valley in July 1847. These industrious settlers, including new converts from Europe, brought with them significant manufacturing technologies, skills and a built-in economic demand for well-manufactured products to support a refined life-style that they had already created in other migration stops on their way west.

As both colonizer and Church president, Brigham Young lost no time in organizing work crews to plow and plant, survey, build fences and fell trees. The day after their arrival Young set out the basic settlement philosophy, “No man shall buy or sell land. Every man … might till it as he pleased, but he should be industrious and take care of it.” There would be no private ownership of streams, wood, or timber. Exploration parties set out in all directions. Almost immediately they found they were truly isolated, and that irrigation was vital to survival. By December an adobe fort was constructed, a blacksmith shop and whipsaw were in operation and other basic manufacturing facilities were built.

Manufacturing Gains a Foothold

Lack of easy access to eastern society, or new west coast ports, forced Utah’s isolated pioneers to build most of what they needed themselves. Within 3 years of arrival, nearly all the arable land in Utah had been located and claimed for Mormon occupation. Mormon Battalion leaders soon returned to Utah from their march into southern California. These men noted areas suitable for future settlement, and found minerals and other resources. Iron deposits in the Cedar City area lead to its establishment in 1851 because such resources would sustain a much needed iron-producing effort. Dozens of similar small towns and colonies sprang up to address specific economic needs.

Mormons were particularly well organized and experienced in Missouri and Illinois at founding communities and developing self-sustaining agricultural and manufacturing entities. Volunteers to found communities in the west were solicited and, if the settlement company was insufficient or lacked essential trades and crafts, “missionary calls” were extended to the appropriately skilled. Colonists often left in the fall so the company could arrive, build mills, erect a meetinghouse, finish homes and complete irrigation systems before spring planting. By the turn of the century, over 500 such colonized communities stretched from Alberta, Canada into Mexico. In almost every case, self-sufficiency was the goal; basic agriculture and local manufacturing were emphasized. In contrast to earlier experiences before coming west, manufacturing for export beyond sister intermountain communities was not a primary motivation for early Mormon manufacturing operations. And unlike most other western cities  founded on mining, Mormon communities emphasized agriculture first, with manufacturing to meet community needs a companion economic activity.

Unique Dual Focus on Agriculture and Manufacturing

While in Nauvoo, Illinois, the Mormons had been very focused on both agriculture and manufacturing and the economic blessings these activities could bring to their extremely cash-strapped community. They created an Agricultural and Manufacturing Association to plan, build and operate a pottery factory for both domestic need and product export. While that factory enterprise did not fare well, the commitment of Mormons to industry continued. There were many skilled craftsmen willing and anxious for industrial employment, particularly new converts from England, the most industrialized nation on earth at the time. Many of these same artisans went west with the Saints, and took the tools with them necessary to build new albeit relatively primitive manufacturing facilities in Utah.

There, on January 17, 1856, the territorial Legislature formed the Deseret Agricultural and Manufacturing Society (D.A.M.S.) to experiment and promote the arts of domestic industry, and to encourage using native elements in the Utah Territory to produce a variety of needed items. According to Mormon historian Leonard J. Arrington, Mormons felt that agricultural and industrial activities were “…acts of religious devotion fully equal in God’s sight to prayer and worship.” In 1907 D.A.M.S.’s name was changed to the Utah State Fair Association, and unfortunately, state governmental emphasis on and support for manufacturing thereafter waned.

Early Industrialization Challenges Require Church Involvement

In addition to the logistical difficulties and cost for Utah Mormons of accessing east coast goods, a series of both communal and national events encouraged an increase in western manufacturing. As Mormons paid tithing in various forms, increased wealth held by Church leaders enabled them to offer immigrants ready employment through Church-organized public works. A Superintendent of Public Works was established in January, 1850 and it employed 200 to 500 men into the 1860s. These men worked in various enterprises such as: carpentry, painting, stone cutting, blacksmithing, brick making, a paper mill and a sugar factory. Not all were successful and most needed much Church subsidization to continue. But the importance of including manufacturing in the regional economy was established.

Part of the solution to keep hard cash in Utah was to build up manufacturing. LDS Church President Brigham Young often preached, “The Kingdom of God cannot rise independent of the gentile nations until we produce, manufacture, and make very article of use, convenience or necessity among our own people.” Thus the Mormon Church continually encouraged Utah’s internal manufacturing growth.

The story of trying to develop a sugar processing plant in Utah illustrates the many challenges early settlers and the Church encountered as they worked on industrializing such a remote area. Raising sufficient capital to purchase refining machinery was very difficult, and getting the machinery shipped to Utah from England was even more challenging. While in Europe, LDS Apostle John Taylor became convinced a sugar beet industry could succeed in Utah. He formed The Deseret Manufacturing Company in 1852, secured 1200 pounds of excellent French sugar beet seeds, raised enough money to purchase wrought iron processing equipment from Liverpool, and arranged for its shipment to Utah. Costs rose in getting the equipment to and unloaded in New Orleans, put on heavy Santa Fe schooners and finally delivered across the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains to Utah…where no one knew how to assemble and operate the machinery. Delays in getting a factory built, and pressure from eastern creditors for debt payments, forced Brigham Young to assume obligations and include the enterprise in the Church’s public works. By 1855 beet raising and processing efforts were suspended and then abandoned in 1856. Ironically, in 1890 the Utah Sugar Company (Church owned) established a sugar beet industry in Lehi that soon became one of Utah’s leading regional manufacturing operations.

Manufacturing Gradually Spreads in the Great Basin

As Utah’s territorial settlement began, the U.S. was pushing westward into and through the Louisiana Purchase. The 1849 Gold Rush immigrants into California and the Sierra created a large cash market for Utah produce. The Utah War (1857-58) brought in new technologies and more hard U.S. currency. The Pony Express passed through Utah in 1860-61. Transcontinental telegraph lines met in Utah in October, 1861, and then came the marriage of the first transcontinental railroad in 1869 at Promontory Point, Utah. Getting heavy industrial equipment into Utah became much easier, and manufacturing operations began to spread. More importantly, Utah was able to export anything it could produce to the rest of the country and overseas. While some industries declined due to increased competition (shoe and leather products, textile and apparels, and furniture), others increased in importance. Diversity soon became an important part of Utah’s regional manufacturing strategy.

Early Utah manufacturing initiatives including pottery, furniture, nails, silk, tanned leather and woolen and cotton textiles. In 1863, a 240-spindle mill was operated in the mouth of Big Cottonwood Canyon. It was later sent to Washington near St. George, housed in a stone mill, and continued operations until 1910. The Provo Woolen Mills began operations in 1873 as part of a cooperative, and continued until the Great Depression. Other small mills produced cloth and other products for local markets.

Utah’s Manufacturing History a Key to Current Prosperity

While Utah’s manufacturing employment during the 19th century varied between 54-65% of the national average, Utah consistently had higher manufacturing employment than surrounding intermountain states. That numerical advantage eventually disappeared, but Utah’s continued commitment to manufacturing has kept its independently-minded economy viable.

At the conclusion of World War II, Utah manufacturing employees only earned 27% of the national wage rate and manufacturing comprised only 9% of total state earnings. But WWII spawned a huge expansion of manufacturing throughout the West. From 1946 to 1962 manufacturing employment in Utah went from 13.8% to its highest point at 18.3%.

In recent years, manufacturing employment has declined back to 10.3%, but it still generates 11.7% of the Utah’s gross domestic product value. Utah’s future will continue to depend on maintaining a strong manufacturing base, just as its historical development benefitted from that focus and support.