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S. George Ellsworth: Interview with Robert Parson

Editors’ Note: The following is a transcript of our interview with Bob Parson, author of the anchor article in the fall 2015 Utah Historical Quarterly. The conversation elaborates on themes addressed in the article, in particular Ellsworth’s career and legacy.


Jedediah Rogers: Welcome to another edition of the Utah Historical Quarterly author’s conversations. My name is Jedediah Rogers. I am one of the managing editors of the Utah Historical Quarterly and I’m really pleased today to be joined by Robert Parson. He is University Archivist at Utah State University. His most recent piece of scholarship is published in the winter 2015 issue of the Quarterly entitled “Neither Poet nor Prophet: S. George Ellsworth and the History of Utah.” And today I’m sitting down with Robert in Special Collections at Utah State University, and we just want to have a conversation about Ellsworth and his place among Utah historians. First I’d like to hear a little bit about you and your career, and then maybe talk to us about how you got started on this particular research project.

Robert Parson: Okay, thank you, Jed. Call me Bob.Everybody does. Well, I became interested in Ellsworth mostly from the standpoint of the history of this institution and as university archivist.That’s really what my research interests are and my emphasis is, and Ellsworth played a very key role in a lot of things that developed at this institution from 1954 when he got here as a junior faculty member in history until his retirement in, I think, about 1983 or ’84. And he was an integral part of not just the history department but of the library.And so as I research more about his place within that mix I’ve come to really appreciate his contribution building collections—to not necessarily use those collections for his own purposes but to build collections for the benefit of students who would study Utah history.

JR: So, if we may, why don’t we start by characterizing Ellsworth’s legacy as a Utah historian?Where does he fit in among his contemporaries, historians before and since?And maybe begin with this.Why is Ellsworth not very well known as a Utah historian even among historians but certainly among the general public?

RP: Well he did not publish very much in comparison to a lot of other historians whose major contribution was research and writing.I think George’s major publications took place after his retirement. There were things that he worked on for thirty years, but he was a perfectionist and he was a very busy man.He taught a lot of classes.So the consequence I think was he was not as well known as his contemporaries.The obvious one here is Leonard Arrington who wrote dozens and dozens of articles and collaborative books. George was not a collaborator.So I think that’s one reason why he is not as well known. I think he’s very well respected amongst his peers of that time period.He was very well respected.

JR: What would you say is his major legacy or contribution to our state’s history?

RP: Well I think he’s one of those individuals that came along at about the same time period. I won’t say all of them, but a lot of them came out of that Berkeley tradition and were trained at Berkeley. I’m thinking of Everett Cooley for one, George Ellsworth, Richard Poll. History departments by and large at that time were primarily teaching departments.And Ellsworth began at a time at this institution when history departments began to look more into research. The institution began to put modest sums of money into research, into the social sciences and humanities.Before that time at this institution it was a land grant institution and all of the research dollars went towards agriculture. So they had a lot of research funds coming into experiment stations and some were for federal collaborative projects. There was really no money that went into to do social science research and  Ellsworth and Arrington really got that rolling in the 1950s and convinced the institution to begin to put research dollars in. That’s where Ellsworth’s original idea for the book Utah’s Heritage comes from—that modest sum of money that the institution put in to help him with [the textbook]. And so I think that’s really kind of the beginning of where history faculty get a lot of opportunity to do something more than just teach.

The other contribution that he made was in collections.He brought a lot of collections into this library.He begins to go out and to gather things, a lot of microfilm projects and things like that, that really were the beginnings of what we would call today Special Collections. The same thing might could be said about Everett Cooley.He did the same thing at the Historical Society first, but later at the University of Utah.

JR: Well I think we want to touch on each of those contributions in our short conversation.Why don’t we start with Ellsworth’s affinity for bibliography or collecting materials?And my understanding is that he developed a real interest in this perhaps during his graduate student days at Berkeley where he was diving into some of the collections that they had and some of the rich collections that Bancroft had collected in the late nineteenth century pertaining to Utah. Maybe talk to us a little bit about his time at Berkeley and then what skillset he brought to Utah State University and how he began to build up the collections at this institution.

RP: Well his mantra was “no documents, no history.”And I presume that when he got to Berkeley he saw a wealth of primary sources that he really never encountered before and came to understand that a lot of those had not been mined very deeply. Bancroft’s collections were put together to do the book in the 1890s and, of course, that’s the topic of a couple of UHQ articles that [Ellsworth] wrote. And beyond that his affinity for bibliography I think goes to teaching.He puts things together.You make them known. You make them accessible and then you have the opportunity for students to look at these things. At this institution that’s really the beginning of most of the graduate work in history is from Ellsworth’s writing given one or two but Ellsworth chaired a lot of graduate students and directed students towards Utah topics. There are a lot of them that he had gathered from Bancroft and from sources.

JR: What would you say are some of the richest, most interesting materials that he gathered there and are now housed in special collections?

RP: Well, interestingly a lot of those things still haven’t been mined very deeply, but from my perspective the local history stuff that he gathered during the publication of the old History of the Valley book is absolutely incredible. Unfortunately, it’s in a medium now that is not very popular—microfilm.

JR: Microfilm.

RP: Right.And it was a microfilm project that was done in house, so some of it is not that well done.So it makes it difficult to use the other things that are fairly widely available now or things that he convinced the institution to purchase from the Library of Congress or from the National Archives. And I’m always amazed to look at those records that still are not looked at very deeply because they’re hard.It’s difficult research work to look through hours and hours of microfilm, but they’re some of the richest sources.That’s not to discount sources in Ellsworth’s collection itself that came in in the late 1990s.There’s a lot of great stuff there.

JR: In your article in the UHQ, you have a delightful little section where you talk about visiting his second home where much of his material would be housed and noticing that the work area looked chaotic with piles of papers and bundles of notecards everywhere.

RP: Not unlike this table right here.

JR: Not unlike this.Maybe that’s standard for most archivists and historians.

RP: Yeah, yeah.You know, I recognized what was going on at that table immediately when I walked in.And historians’ offices are not particularly tidy most of the time, because they’ve got a lot of things that they’re working on.

JR: You write that he rarely threw anything away.No document was dispensable, no scrap or bit of information was unessential.Both the weighty and the trivial, the eminent and ephemeral—all had significance in documenting the past.” Talk to us about that. Why do you think that was? Was that just a quirk of his personality that he kept every little scrap of information that came his way, or does that reveal his broader approach to doing history?

RP: I think it reveals his bent toward archives. That’s the thing we struggle with the most in the profession—the weeding process.What do you discard?You could have rough guidelines, but it comes down to really the instinct and just making a judgment call and sometimes that judgment call is wrong. You might think something is not worth the effort to keep and come to find out later on that it was.Ellsworth I think skirted that problem by simply not throwing anything away. And it’s in hindsight now the stuff that he kept from committee meetings and from little clubs and things that he was involved with on campus is absolute gold because nobody keeps that kind of stuff. It’s so ordinary, but he did.He kept it all and so the documents are a little niche of the university’s history that otherwise would be lost. So I’m glad he did keep all that stuff.But I think what it does say is that he had an appreciation for documents—and not just how he might use those documents, but how the documents would pass on for somebody else’s interest or for the institution’s necessity to maintain its memory.

JR: Did he also have a role in organizing the materials that he gathered and collected, or did he simply turn them over to other archivists like you?

RP: Well, like I said at the beginning I did not know George until towards the end of his life.I wish I would have.I wish I would have had classes from him.By the time he finally decided to relinquish these materials, he was probably beyond the point of being able to organize them himself. They were well organized to begin with.Now if George would have turned these over ten or fifteen years before, he would have probably been the one that organized his collection.Whether he would have ever got it done in the ten or fifteen years he had left in life is another story. But he was very focused on the arrangement, the organization, and he did have a lot of suggestions as we took stuff out of his second home and brought it up here.He definitely had some suggestions as to how he wanted things organized.

JR: Yeah.Well speaking of ten or fifteen years, his major contribution or one of his major contributions was writing the seventh-grade history of Utah textbook.But for whatever reason—and maybe you can talk to us a little bit about that—it took him so long to complete this project. You mentioned earlier that above all he was a teacher, and so it seems natural that he would write an official school textbook in Utah history. But maybe talk to us a little bit about how he came to that project and why it took him so long to write.

RP: Well his intention was to write [a high school] freshman history text and his hope was to simultaneously write a text that could be used for college level—in other words, dumb it down just enough for ninth graders.And the curriculum committee made the decision to keep Utah history in the seventh grade.That was, I think, a huge blow to his plans, because seventh graders were simply not able to—he couldn’t take the text he had envisioned as a college text and simplify that down to the level of a seventh grader.He found it excruciatingly hard. And so over the years that he worked on that, I think what Ellsworth finally decided was to start to just write a book for seventh-grade level students, and not to try to write the college-level text simultaneously. . . . He was methodical and some may say plodding in his writing, and so it took him a long time to finish it.

JR: Yeah that textbook was published in 1972.Is that correct?

RP: Yes. Interestingly one of the comments that a lot of the teachers made about Utah’s Heritage was that it was still over the head of most seventh graders. They all loved the book, its layout and everything. They hated the binding because it fell apart. But a lot of them felt thought it was still too advanced for seventh graders.

JR: I’ve heard that and I heard that a slightly revised edition published in the mid-1980s was a simplified version of the original ’72 text. Is that correct?

RP: I think they tried to simplify it as much as they could, but he was always very responsive to comments and teachers and went out of his way both he and his publisher to have the books evaluated by social studies teachers.

JR: Can you comment at all on how Ellsworth’s school text compares to other textbooks?

RP: I’m not too familiar with them.I know Ellsworth did not think that they were adequate and so that was his pitch to the office of research here on campus, that there needed to be another book.Most teachers thought so. As I mentioned in the article, he took a lot of direction from Ward Roylance’s, I think, master’s thesis that he wrote at the University of Utah. And he came to the conclusion that teachers needed a new history textbook.

JR: Yeah, yeah.Okay.So in 1972 at the time of the textbook’s publication or around that same time Ellsworth became editor of the Western Historical Quarterly. Can you walk us through that process?How was it that Ellsworth was involved in the process of bringing the Western Historical Quarterly to Logan, Utah—to Utah State University?

RP: Well, I think there was a proposal sent out by the Western History Association looking for a home for the Quarterly and Ellsworth and Leonard Arrington and others on campus were involved in that.Ellsworth took the lead.There was no question about that.And I think this begins in about 1968. And at the time the Chase administration was nearing the end of its tenure here and they were not very receptive to the idea.And so when the new administration comes in of Glen Taggert, they pitch again to Taggert and to Garth Hansen, the provost, and they’re more receptive and agree to support the Quarterly with office space and staff and also to give Ellsworth and Arrington release time from their teaching responsibilities to be editor and coeditor. I think Ellsworth always recognized that he was not as well known as Leonard because he had published so much (even though [Arrington] was not a historian per se—he was an economist—but he had published widely on the economic history in the Mountain West and Utah.) And so he was better known, so Leonard became the editor first until he left [to become LDS Church Historian], and then George moved into that slot.

JR: So by 1969 it was approved that the Quarterly would be housed here in Logan and for several years Arrington was head editor with Ellsworth as associate editor and then he became—

RP: And then he became coeditor.I don’t know exactly how that worked but he was associate editor. But George was really a workaholic.I mean there’s no question about that, and he did the bulk of the work in the Quarterly, the editing and everything.If you go back and look at his papers, you’ll see he was a draftsman as well.And so he was very—I mean he designed the cover, what it would look like and the lettering and I mean he had it all planned out.Planning was his thing. And he kept all that stuff by the way.Every little note that he took on the founding of the Quarterly—he kept all of that stuff.

JR: Interesting.Maybe you can talk to us a little bit about—what I find really interesting in your article and with speaking with others about Ellsworth and reading Leonard Arrington’s autobiography, as well as the biography written by Gary Topping, is this kind of very collegial yet strained relationship between the two men, Ellsworth and Arrington. Of course, they worked together on the Western Historical Quarterly.Can you talk to us a little bit how the two men’s approach to history deferred and maybe coincided?I mean, how did Ellsworth’s approach to scholarship and publishing differ from Arrington’s, for example?

RP: Oh, 359 degrees.George had particular things that he laid claim to and things that he worked on from the time he got here until they were eventually published sometime between about 1987 until his death.The Addison Pratt stuff, Samuel Claridge stuff and not to discount Leonard at all, but Leonard was more scatter gun in his approach to what he researched and wrote and put his name on. And he was also very much involved in getting little chunks of money here and there and putting students to work on projects and usually Leonard’s name went on finished products, along with the student’s name. He was always giving credit where it was due, but he was always out there.He referred to himself as an entrepreneurial historian. Leonard did. He was always out there looking for little projects that he could do and he could put students to work on.He was just very active like that. George, on the other hand, was a loner.That’s how he did [his work].As far as I know, until later on, he did not collaborate much with anyone on his projects.

JR: You provided me a copy of Leonard Arrington’s diary dated March 22, 1973, and in it he talks about sort of the establishing of the WHQ at USU, and he mentions that Arrington was instrumental in helping Ellsworth become full editor of the Quarterly. But Arrington writes that in that change of editorship the only thing that “stung as far as I was concerned was George’s refusal to have me listed as a member of the Board of Editors of the Western Historical Quarterly. Why do you think that was?

RP: That whole episode with the Quarterly’s founding, with Leonard’s selection to be [LDS] Church Historian,I think it fractured the relationship between the two men.I can find no evidence that George ever said anything [about it]. But I think if you read that, you can get the idea that there was an estrangement there at that point in time between the two men. And before that, like you said, they were very close colleagues, and I think that Leonard acknowledges that George really helped him understand the difference between an economist and a historian.

JR: But you feel that that relationship was strained when Arrington was appointed as Church Historian.

RP: I don’t think Ellsworth held that against Leonard at all.I think he was happy for his friend. . . . Like I said, George never said much, you know, or at least he didn’t leave any paper trail. But I think if you look at what went on there [at the editorial office of WHQ], most of the work was done by George and most of the credit was given to Leonard.And so that strained the relationship.

JR: Interesting.You mention in your article this 1972 article published in the Utah Historical Quarterly in which Ellsworth sort of scans and surveys Utah historiography, Utah history. In it, he makes a couple of interesting comments and then talks about what yet needs to be done in the field.And one thing that I found really interesting that Ellsworth does is he decried scholars who rushed to publication, that present half-baked ideas and presents “his one idea in two or three forms and palms those variations off to editors.” Maybe he’s speaking of Arrington there?

RP: Well he could be speaking of two or three of his contemporaries there. But I wouldn’t want to speculate.

JR: Sure.But, you know, what he really seems to be doing in his article is calling for more contemplative, definitive productions. I mean, you’ve sort of mentioned that Ellsworth himself was sort of a perfectionist of sorts. What do you make of that comment of his comment in his article particularly in light of Ellsworth’s reputation as a careful but not particularly productive scholar?

RP: Well I think you could read it two ways.One is that he viewed some of his contemporary’s publications as less than contemplative.The other thing is maybe it’s apologetic for himself not being as productive as he should have been, because he was being careful and making sure everything was right before things were published. I don’t know.It’s hard to speculate, but I think there is some room to read between the lines on that.

JR: Well, another thing he mentions in his article is that “the queen of Utah history” is Juanita Brooks, but then he says “there is no king.”And is that just because there are too many hands, you know, in the honey jar, so to speak, or is he really making a larger comment on . . .

RP: He was gracious in what he said about all historians.But I think George had the idea early in his career that he would write that definitive history. And I think he hoped at the beginning of that would be the concurrent publication of a high school history text and a college history text and that then that research would then go into a major history of Utah. And, of course, it was something that he never did do, he never could do, and so, yeah, there’s no king that Ellsworth would crown.

JR: Well, maybe we can wrap this up by reflecting on Ellsworth’s place among Utah historians, his legacy is his contribution.I mean certainly a lot of years, 40 years has passed since his the seventh grade history textbook and that’s no longer really in use. And by and large he—let’s see he passed away in the ‘90s.

RP: ‘97

JR: ‘97. So it’s been almost twenty years since he passed away.How do you think it would be appropriate for folks to remember Ellsworth?Is he a figure of worth remembering?

RP: Oh yeah.

JR: What kind of a contribution did he make, then, to the state of Utah?

RP: Well I think Ellsworth trained a whole generation of history scholars that worked under him.They worked under Leonard as well.Tom Alexander for one. And I think his major contribution is as a teacher.I really do.And a lot of people that got graduate degrees here went on to do things in the field of history, but they also received a great education.

JR: Are there any Ellsworth stories that you came across in your research that maybe you’d like to share but maybe didn’t make it into your article?

RP: I don’t think I have any that I would like to share.It could be, from what I understand—he had a tendency to shoot from the lip on occasion.But you’ll never find any nasty letters in George’s correspondence. So what he may have said in private to somebody, he would never put that in writing. So, as I said, I did not know the man well.There’s a lot of people that did and a lot of people that I showed this article to before I sent it in to you guys.They told me stories about George, you know.

JR: Yeah.

RP: But he was very gracious when he turned his material over to us.

JR: So all the material or the George Ellsworth Papers are housed here in special collections here at USU?

RP: They are.Some of the primary documents he felt would be better at the LDS Church Archives, but all of those things there are copies in this collection. Some of the journals and the stuff that he worked on are with the church because they dealt with Mormon missionaries and establishing of missions in the South Seas.

JR: Well, thank you for taking the time to—

RP: Well I hope I’ve said something that’s enjoyable.

JR: And thank you, too, for your delightful little piece that’s published in the recent issue of the Quarterly.

RP: You know, I think there’s a lot of historians in Utah that probably deserve a similar little piece that may not have the appeal of a Leonard Arrington or a Juanita Brooks or others that have had major biographies done of them, but they all played a very big role in their institutions themselves. So maybe somebody that knows some of these other people [will] contribute another article on them.

JR: I hope so.

RP: Yeah.

JR: All right, well thank you.

RP: Thank you, appreciate it.