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Founding of the Utah Historical Society

The Founding of the Utah State Historical Society

The following text comes verbatim from Glen M. Leonard’s “The Utah State Historical Society, 1897 – 1972” (Utah Historical Quarterly, Volume 40, Number 4, Fall 1972) and Gary Topping’s “One Hundred Years at the Utah State Historical Society” (Utah Historical Quarterly, Volume 65, Number 3, Summer 1972).

[On July 14, 1897, the Deseret Evening News carried] a “Historical Society Call” addressed to the people of Utah and inviting all interested persons to an organizational meeting at the Templeton Hotel on July 22 to form a Utah State Historical Society.[1]

The resulting call of Governor Heber M. Wells brought twenty-seven persons together at the Templeton Hotel on Thursday, July 22, 1987. The Utah State Historical Society was on its way exactly fifty years after the vanguard of pioneer wagons entered the Salt Lake Valley.[2]

Why form a historical society at all and why at that particular time? There is an obvious and simple answer in the interest in history naturally aroused by the pioneer Golden Jubilee. That emotional impetus, the organizers hoped, could be carried through to institutional expression. The “Historical Society Call” began by recognizing that “the ‘Jubilee celebration’ of the advent of the Pioneers [is] an appropriate time for the founding of a society.”[3]

Governor [Heber M.] Wells called the July 22 meeting to order, recognized the fact that the organization was the brainchild of Jerrold R. Letcher, and appointed him chairman.[4]

Letcher’s stated goals for the organization in the “Historical Society Call” have a familiarly modern ring to them, for they anticipate, at least in embryonic form, some of the … major programs in our own day: … the exploration and investigation of aboriginal monuments and remains” (thus anticipating the Antiquities Section); collection and preservation of “manuscripts, documents, papers, and tracts of value” (anticipating the Library); and dissemination of historical information and “inter-change of views and criticisms” through scheduled meetings (anticipating the annual meetings … and perhaps even the Publications Section). Little imagination is required to foresee the Historic Preservation Section developing as an extension into the historical period of the concern for aboriginal sites (though historically the Historic Preservation Section would slightly precede the Antiquities Section).[5]

Participating in the founding rites were the key figures of Utah’s new government, civic leaders, and prominent religious hierarchs. In the slate of thirteen names proposed as officers and board of the initial organization one senses a careful balancing of sectarian, political, suffragist, and geographic interests.[6]

The Society’s earliest annual meetings were lively affairs featuring both music and intellectual stimulation. The first one took place in the Theosophical Hall on West Temple on the evening of January 17, 1898.[7]

[Jerrold R. Letcher] kept the minutes faithfully for eighteen years and provided a thread of continuity during that first period of the Society’s history. These were years in which the officers served as little more than a caretaker government for an organization which everyone agreed had ample reason to exist but no sizeable treasury from which to operate. The only visible activity from 1897 to 1916 was the meeting convened annually on the third Monday of January, often in the Deseret National Bank. … [The] sole purpose of many of those small gatherings was the constitutionally required election of officers.[8]

After the 1918, 1919, and 1920 annual meetings which featured addresses (though only the 1918 meeting included music), the tradition was completely abandoned except for the perfunctory elections, until 1930.[9]

The Society’s hard times following World War I are graphically symbolized by the board minutes themselves. Handsomely typewritten on ledger sheets during Jerrold Letcher’s tenure as recording secretary, they rapidly declined in both content and appearance. When Letcher resigned in 1920 to fill a state position …, his successors sometimes penciled their minutes on odd chunks of scratch paper, and in three instances merely on 3-by-5 index cards.[10]

The Society achieved the status of a state agency in 1917 and received its first state appropriation in that year—two hundred dollars to care for the artifacts from the Hall of Relics. It is hard to overestimate the importance of that achievement. … Becoming a state agency laid the groundwork for shifting the Society’s base of support from a tiny group—wealthy and influential though they were—to the people of Utah themselves. It was the beginning of the democratization of the Society, and that democratic support has been the Society’s greatest strength.[11]

It was obvious from the beginning that if the Society were to fulfill any part of its ambitious goals of assembling a library and manuscript collection and curation of the Hall of Relics artifacts and other material objects, some kind of office or museum space would be required. With both the governor and the secretary of state of Utah present on the Society’s board, it was natural that the possibility of rooms in the future State Capitol, then under discussion, would be considered.[12]

Thus, even though the minutes laconically mention the Society’s first meeting in its new room in the basement of the Capitol on January 17, 1916, the event must have been the occasion for considerable rejoicing. At last, cramped and isolated as its new quarters were, the Society could begin its full role as initially planned.[13]

The Society in the early 1920s was searching for an identity within the halls of government where it had been provided with a tiny, first floor Capitol office and minimal expenses. It found itself—and inaugurated a new period of significant accomplishment—after almost fading into disorganization. During several years of inattention to the details of staggered terms, the board of control, traditionally elected by the general membership, had come up short two members. Society leaders decided the solution was appointment by the governor; Governor Charles R. Mabey, a friend of history, liked the idea. It would strengthen state control over the policy-making board and tie the Society closer to state government. The change was authorized by the 1925 legislature.[14]

[Starting in 1927 J. Cecil Alter began] the transformation of the Society into a vigorous organization with authentic scholarly standards fulfilling a vitally important function in Utah cultural life. [Encouraged by the businessman-scholar Herbert S. Auerbach, aided by the tireless secretary-manager Marguerite L. Sinclair, and supported by the remarkable self-made historian Dale L. Morgan], Alter started the Utah Historical Quarterly [in 1928], began assembling a serious Utah history library, and secured the first regular appropriation from the state legislature. The modern Historical Society had begun to emerge.[15]

This thirty-two page [Utah Historical Quarterly] fulfilled the Society’s longing to disseminate historical information in a more permanent format than was possible through letters or sporadic lecture meetings.[16]

The Great Depression had so constricted state revenues by 1933 that the legislature was forced to cut the Society’s budget deeply enough to kill the young Quarterly. … In 1939, the legislature was able to appropriate $5,000 for the next biennium, and the Quarterly was resurrected.[17]

The Society … [from 1936 to 1948] moved through three overlapping phases. The creation of a small research library with a generous gift of books from Alter and revival of the Quarterly in 1939, accompanied by a consistent membership effort by Sinclair established the Society on its modern foundation.[18]

Marguerite Sinclair’s office from the early 1940s fulfilled numerous requests to proofread inscriptions written for state highway markers and some inquiries from private history groups seeking verification of their proposed historical markers.[19]

[F]or several years after 1941 the Society was transformed into a historical records office. It chronicled Utah’s participation in World War II, an assignment which diverted it from other planned activities. In the late 1940s an awareness born of New Deal records surveys turned the Society toward its obligation to preserve noncurrent state and county records. An archives program was the hope of board member William R. Palmer, but more pressing challenges faced officers as first J. Cecil Alter moved and then Miss Sinclair married and both resigned.[20]

The first goal of Utah State University history professor Joel E. Ricks when he began an eight-year term as president in 1949 was to find a qualified editor for Society publications. … From a field of a half-dozen candidates, the board selected A. Russell Mortensen. … He was hired September 1, 1950, as an executive secretary-editor, a position renamed “director” midway in his tenure to reflect his strengthened administrative role.[21]

[A. R. Mortensen] was not only the first Ph.D. to lead the Society but also the first person with any academic training in history at all to have been involved in management of the organization.[22]

The task of building a research library was entrusted to John W. James, Jr., librarian from 1952 to 1971. … Professional direction for the library attracted numerous gifts of all kinds and provided a valuable service for Utah historians. Another major program inaugurated during this period was the archives. Despite inadequate funding and substandard housing, Everett L. Cooley charted a solid path for implementing records management and archival programs as state archivist from 1954 to 1960.[23]

The introduction of professionals as administrator, librarian, and archivist created a new image for the Society. Professional advice had been available to the Society for years from historians serving as part-time, unpaid board members; their determination to introduce trained specialists was made possible through a swelling of financial support from the state. The increase was threefold during the Mortensen years. [24]

[In the early 1950s] the library and manuscript collection were extremely modest; the library consisted of about 1,5000 volumes occupying three glass-front bookcases … and the manuscript collection was little more than the WPA Historical Records Survey materials. … Obviously the Historical Society had reached a limit on its growth and would have to move if it were to expand.[25]

The Society’s most critical physical need in the early 1950s was solved … when Dr. Mortensen obtained the Governor’s Mansion.[26]

Occupant Governor J. Bracken Lee … was known to dislike the home’s lack of privacy. … In February 1957, the staff unpacked Society belongings at 603 East South Temple to begin a new era of growth for the Society on its sixtieth anniversary.[27]

The Society by then was already basking in an aura of new popularity. Professionalizing it had brought new respectability in the academic world. Interestingly enough this had also increased acceptance generally among history buffs. Under Dr. Mortensen’s personable leadership, a well-attended annual dinner and bimonthly lecture series were attracting new members and the public; a redesigned Utah Historical Quarterly with its special summer issues helped boost membership threefold to more than eleven hundred by 1958; and generous publicity and an involved board greatly extended public awareness of the Society.[28]

The original bylaws of the Society allowed for the presentation of certificates of honor. The first were granted when Dr. Mortensen introduced the Fellow and Honorary Life Membership awards in 1960. Since that time other award categories have been added to recognize significant contributions in teaching, scholarship, and service.[29]

The Mansion heralded in 1957 as a cure-all for Society space needs swiftly became crowded as archival work multiplied. … A make-shift records center established in four basement rooms of the Capitol in September 1961 expanded the division’s records management services to more state agencies, while the archives itself began filling available corners in the Mansion’s cellar. With the need for an environmentally-controlled building greater than ever in the mid-1960s, state officials worked with the Society in planning for an appropriate solution.[30]

The State Archives ceased to be a part of the Historical Society’s program in 1968 as a result of recommendations made by the so-called Littler Hoover Commission of 1965.[31]

[The Historical Society] retained its traditional functions and has since moved toward an expansion of activities under the legislative mandate to collect, preserve, and publish Utah’s history.[32]

In the 1967 legislation, the Historical Society is “authorized to solicit memberships” and “authorized to receive bequests, gifts, and endowments of money or property.”[33]

That same year [1967], a Division of State History was created as one of seven units under a Department of Development Services.[34]

Housed within the Division of State History, the Historical Society is now a sister program to entities such as the State Historic Preservation Office, the Antiquities program, and Utah History Day. Today, the Utah State Historical Society continues to serve the people of Utah by publishing the Utah Historical Quarterly, hosting the annual history conference and other events, and serving as a vehicle to obtain and preserve artifacts for the state’s collection.

[1] Topping, Gary, “One Hundred Years at the Utah State Historical Society,” Utah Historical Quarterly, Volume 65, Number 3, Summer 1972, pages 203 – 204.

[2] Leonard, Glen M., “The Utah State Historical Society, 1897 – 1972,” Utah Historical Quarterly, Volume 40, Number 4, Fall 1972, page 301.

[3] Topping, “One Hundred Years at the Utah State Historical Society,” 206.

[4] Ibid, 210.

[5] Ibid, 209-210.

[6] Leonard, “The Utah State Historical Society, 1897-1972,” 301.

[7] Topping, “One Hundred Years at the Utah State Historical Society,” 213-214.

[8] Leonard, “The Utah State Historical Society, 1897-1972,” 304.

[9] Topping, “One Hundred Years at the Utah State Historical Society,” 218-219.

[10] Ibid, 219.

[11] Ibid, 219.

[12] Ibid, 219-220.

[13] Ibid, 220.

[14] Leonard, “The Utah State Historical Society, 1897 – 1972,” 304.

[15] Topping, “One Hundred Years at the Utah State Historical Society,” 224.

[16] Leonard, “The Utah State Historical Society, 1897 – 1972,” 304-305.

[17] Topping, “One Hundred Years at the Utah State Historical Society,” 226.

[18] Leonard, “The Utah State Historical Society, 1897 – 1972,” 317.

[19] Ibid, 315.

[20] Ibid, 307.

[21] Ibid, 307 – 308.

[22] Topping, “One Hundred Years at the Utah State Historical Society, 1897 – 1972,” 239.

[23] Leonard, “The Utah State Historical Society, 1897 – 1972,” 308

[24] Ibid, 308.

[25] Topping, “One Hundred Years at the Utah State Historical Society, 1897 – 1972,” 242.

[26] Leonard, “The Utah State Historical Society, 1897 – 1972,” 308.

[27] Ibid, 309.

[28] Ibid, 309.

[29] Ibid, 318.

[30] Ibid, 311.

[31] Topping, “One Hundred Years at the Utah State Historical Society,” 261.

[32] Leonard, “The Utah State Historical Society, 1897 – 1972,” 334.

[33] “Laws of the State of Utah,” 12th Regular Session of the Legislature of the State of Utah, Jan. 8 to March 8, 1917, 478.

[34] Leonard, “The Utah State Historical Society, 1897 – 1972,” 311.