Thomas G. Alexander
Utah, the Right Place
Condensed by Brittany Nelson
Utah men, to prove their loyalty to the nation, were particularly active in volunteering for both World War I and World War II. When World War I started, Utah’s citizens responded to the call for men and more than 21,000 were enlisted in the land troops and almost 3,500 for the Navy and Marines. Utahns put to rest the old canard that they were disloyal—in fact, more than half of those serving in the war were volunteers rather than draftees. The citizens on the home front also proved their loyalty by oversubscribing to the Liberty Bond drives, five of which were held in the state.
As in other parts of the nation, Utah prospered economically during the war, since its copper, coal, and steel were needed, and the fruits, sugar, vegetables, and meat it produced were also important for sustaining both the armed forces and the civilian citizenry.
Utah’s cities enjoyed relative prosperity during the 1920s—the growth of manufacturing, administration, business service, and transportation caused people to feel prosperous times were here. The farmers and the miners were exceptions—farm prices bottomed out and prices for metals fluctuated. It was a difficult time for farm families who had invested in fruit trees or in sugar beets—both earlier considered “sure bets.” On the other hand, new areas of interest, such as dairying, became more important to the state’s economy. Products included various cheese and evaporated milk. By 1915, Utah had built a number of canneries and ranked fifth in the nation in producing canned fruits and vegetables. With Ogden leading the way, meat-dressing and packing facilities appeared before the end of the century and afterward in Salt Lake City, adding another industry to Utah’s roster.
During the 1920s, one of the major issues before Utahns was the question of public lands. Since the federal government owned almost 70 percent of the state, the issues were real for local citizens, who were irked that all of this land escaped local taxation. They were also concerned about the difficulty of raising matching funds for federal dollars to participate in the new federal highway-building program. One bright spot was the Jones Act of 1927, passed with the support of Governor George Dern, which declared the transfer of mineral rights to the states (opposed by federal bureaucrats) from federal lands as a matter of public policy. Thus the state recovered mineral rights in areas such as school and sections.
Unfortunately, Utah was not well positioned for the events of the 1930s. The national Depression adversely affected the state. Thousands of farm, mining, and manufacturing workers were put on furlough. One bright spot was that although farmers’ incomes were lower than in the 1920s, many Utahns kept farm animals, such as chickens, pigs, and cows, which helped families make ends meet. Thus it was no surprise that when presidential elections were held, this Republican state supported Franklin D. Roosevelt and turned out longtime Senator Reed Smoot, in spite of the fact that the Mormon hierarchy unofficially supported the GOP.
Utah, as many other western states, benefited from conservation programs enacted by the New Deal as well as public works projects of the WPA and other federal agencies. Conservation and irrigation projects received a boost and the highway program continued so hard surface roads linked Utah. The number of Utah farms peaked by 1935, at 35,000, showing that finally a maximum amount of land was in use and there was no room for further pension. After that date, a slow decline set in the state that has never been reversed, especially in light of the increasing urbanization of the state. Only by the end of the 1930s did the economy begin to swing upward. On the horizon was the coming to Utah of the federal government, in terms of air bases, supply depots, Army and Navy facilities, and related defense manufacturing, which would change the state forever in the next decade.