Newlyweds George and Kate Wenner arrived in Salt Lake City in 1880 to start a family and launch his legal career. They built a home on Brigham Street, today's South Temple, and by 1883 they had a son, George Jr., and a newborn daughter, Blanche. The governor named Wenner judge of Salt Lake's probate court. In their spare time, the young family fell in love with the haunting beauty of the Great Salt Lake.
Billboards and an interstate highway now hide the lake's natural loveliness, but then, as now, a select few appreciated the secrets of this gem of the desert. The view to the west from the lake's seven main islands looks into another world, where an inland sea meets an enchanted desert. The lake can be as captivating as a siren's song, and it captured the Wenners.
Judge Wenner contracted consumption in 1885 and his doctor advised him to take up a life in the sunshine and open air. Instead of retreating to a sanitarium, the judge and his family struck out on a great adventure. They bought part of Fremont Island from Union Pacific and decided to spend the summer beneath the craggy peak that lies between Antelope Island and Promontory Point. John "Pathfinder" Fremont thought so little of the place that he named it Desolation Island, but here the Wenners found a home. After a twenty-mile voyage that took three days, they pitched their tents on the south shore, close to the shack where grave-robber Jean Baptiste lived after Brigham Young banished him in 1861. When their rented "Ark" sailed away, the family and their hired help were alone on the island.
A month later, the Ark returned loaded with lumber and provisions and left with the family maid, who could not stand life without a looking glass. The judge's health improved dramatically and the children thought they had moved to paradise. George imported horses, pigs, chickens and purebred sheep to the island and brought enough lumber to roof and trim a two-story rock house they named The Hut. Kate lined the house with books and European paintings and made it a home. Friends wrote to insist they return to civilization, but Kate recalled: "We learned to know ourselves, and enjoy ourselves, children and books." She devoured the monthly mail and newspapers, a "part of life we never gave up."
After two years on the island, Kate and the children, along with their pet pelican and horned toads, left to bring another Wenner into the world in Illinois. George Jr. and Blanche had never been sick a single day on the island, but they met a whooping cough epidemic in the Midwest. Their concerned grandfather asked, "Children, have you had it?" The precocious Blanche assured him, "Grandpa, I think we had all the diseases but polygamy before we went to the island."
Three months later, Kate brought a new baby, Lincoln, back home to Fremont Island. Judge Wenner greeted his children with two Shetland ponies, a goat with its own wagon and harness, and a shepherd dog. He added ducks and turkeys to the island menagerie. They christened the old boat they bought the "Argo" and carved a ram's head for the bow. Their garden and orchard did not do well, but the children and animals thrived.
In the summer, after a dip in the lake, their father put the children to bed with a lullaby: "Down falls a golden dream for thee, sleep, baby, sleep."
"There was so much to do," Kate Wenner remembered five decades later, and "so much to think about in this new life."
Part two of story
Bagley is a Utah historian and author.