Mud Made Utah’s Wilderness Blossom as the Rose
(in the Color of “Dull Leaden Blue”, pictured above).
by Brad Westwood, Director, Utah State History
captions by Randall Dixon
Do you live in a Utah adobe home or do you know someone who does?
Pioneer Necessity and Sustainability
Mormon pioneers engaged in a herculean effort when they migrated en masse and settled on the western edge of the Rocky Mountains. Paramount among their needs was finding a place that was relatively isolated, yet with enough water, space, and arable land. Besides this, they needed building materials for thousands of anticipated settlers—hardly a simple thing in the semi-arid West.
Timber was the obvious choice for immediate defense and home construction; however, the best timber stands existed in Utah’s upper elevations, required much labor to harvest, and were inaccessible during the long winters. In addition to these difficulties, wood supplied the primary fuel for cooking and heating during the early settlement period. The pioneers had to build hundreds and, soon thereafter, thousands of residences and outbuildings in their ever-expanding communities, quickly and economically.
What truly allowed pioneer Utah (1847–1868) to grow, letting the “desert bloom as the rose,” was mud.
Stone construction was used in scattered settlements where masons and good stone cropping were at hand. In many areas, milled lumber became available less than a year after founding. Yet Church leaders quickly determined that lumber required judicious management (at least in principle) and should be used mostly for barns, fences, load-bearing interiors, and finish work. Thousands or tens of thousands of homes built of lumber would not have been possible. Utah’s pioneers needed a cheap, sustainable, and accessible building material. Adobe met this need.
The Southwest Connection
In 1848–1849, soldiers from the “Mormon Battalion”—having lived and traveled throughout Spanish California, Santa Fe, and the Southwest—returned to Utah, bringing with them the experience and knowhow to build with the adobe brick, a long-held southwestern tradition. Just in the nick of time—a year after the pioneers arrived—the stock of construction materials expanded with the introduction of relatively cheap and accessible mud. Through the application of lime and sand stucco (often decades after a structure was built), adobe could endure well Utah’s intense summers and winters.
If you live, or once lived, in an adobe home, you know how surprisingly insulated (either cool or warm) these homes can be. Do you have a memory regarding the comfort level in such a home?
The Mormons had some knowledge of adobe and sod housing in the East, prior to their migration; however, the Mormon Battalion made a rapid adoption of this material and technology possible. In his 1862 book City of the Saints, the world explorer Richard Burton described his first view of the predominately adobe Salt Lake City thus:
The city revealed itself as we approached from behind its the inclined terraces of the upper table land and at last it stretched before us as upon a map. At a little distance the aspect was somewhat Oriental. . . . The material thick sun dried adobe common to all parts of the Eastern world was of a dull leaden blue deepened by the atmosphere a gray like the shingles of the roofs.
By the late 1840s and early 1850s, Utahns made pervasive use of adobe throughout the territory for residences, meetinghouses, commercial buildings, and town walls. For a time, even the plans for the Salt Lake Temple were drawn up with the idea that it would be built in sun-dried mud brick.
As first, Utahns did not entirely appreciate the flexibility and strength of the material; many settlers built modest residences that emulated their prior log cabins in size and scale, thus these homes received the name adobe cabins. Typically these buildings (small rectangular structures with one or two rooms) were unadorned, without milled soffits or eves; had relatively low roofs; and often had “lean-to” additions in the rear.
Not long after Utah builders understood the full possibilities of adobe, they became very adept at constructing large homes, barns, and outbuildings with expanded footprints, heights, and floors. Soon after the early 1850s, anything that had been previously built of lumber, kiln-dried brick, or stone was made of adobe.
The small, first-generation adobe cabins were often razed and replaced or added to, in some cases becoming entirely surrounded by new additions. Utah still has many adobe homes (although scores of them are torn down annually); however, most Utahns have not come to appreciate these seemingly insignificant and unheralded pioneer structures.
Utahns used their once-ubiquitous adobe brick as a building material into the 1890s and as an interior, load-bearing material (behind kiln-dried brick and wood) into the depression years. Sometimes hard to identify, adobe buildings are typically found covered in stucco, are somewhat boxy in appearance, and have very thick walls evident from deep set windows and door frames.
Are there any adobe cabins in your town or city? If so tell us about them and their location.
Provo: A Case Study
Settled on April 1, 1849, Provo was first known as Fort Utah. When the settlers needed to move beyond the fort, they built log cabins close to the Provo River and what was called Fort Field. In 1850, William Lemon and Peter Conover platted farther to the east, and adobe brick became the building material of choice. Provo’s second fort, on what is now North Park (Fifth West and Fifth North), included an adobe yard where diverted mill water was used to produce the sun-dried brick. An area next to the fort was platted out and allotted to number of citizens who set up adobe production yards.
When Brigham Young told the Provo settlers to “fort up” during the Walker War (1853–1856), they built (but did not entirely complete) an adobe “Spanish Wall.” Another early use of the technology in Provo occurred when James Loveless constructed his adobe cabin (see adjacent photos) on the town plat, just inside the so-called Spanish Wall. Though the people of Provo did have a few early log cabins, adobe carried them through the pioneering years before the arrival of the railroad and the introduction of kiln-dried brick-making in the settlement (a process that was firmly established there by the late 1860s).
More than fifty years ago, many Utah County pioneer log cabins became part of the Provo Pioneer Village. Now the village, which is managed by the Brigham Young Chapter of the Sons of Utah Pioneers, is working hard to save and move the Loveless cabin—one of Utah’s remaining adobe cabins—to the village. The village is located at Fifth North and Fifth West, less than two hundred yards from the site of the afore-mentioned adobe brick yards. The organization wishes to tell the story of the pioneer James Loveless—who served as a mayor of Provo and a bishop in the LDS church—as well as the story of the essential role of adobe in the settlement of Utah. We commend the Provo Pioneer Village and its’ honorary mayor Steve Nelson, for gathering community support for the preservation of this humble cabin.
Read more about Utah’s historic adobe homes in this recent article from the Provo Daily Herald, “Provo’s Oldest Home Saved With the Help of LDS Church,” published December 13, 2013 by Caleb Warnock.