Life Was Precarious in Turn-of-the-Century Utah

Becky Bartholomew
History Blazer, August 1996

The autobiography of Florence Thompson reveals how precarious life could be for citizens of rural Utah at the turn of the century. Florence was born in 1891 near Lawrence, a tiny community a few miles north of Castle Dale, Emery County. Her first brush with death came at age seven when she contracted typhoid pneumonia. Her recovery was slow. That winter her father had to carry her to the LDS ward Christmas party. “On the Christmas tree was the most beautiful doll—I could not keep my eyes off it. You can imagine my happiness when Santa held it up and called my name,” she recalled.

Florence’s parents, Peter Alvin Johnson and Hettie Mina Staker, had been “called” by Mormon leaders to relocate from Mount Pleasant to across the mountains in Castle Valley. Florence’s father farmed the bottomlands surrounding Lawrence, obtaining a bountiful crop the first year. But irrigating caused the alkali to leach up from the subsoil so that the next summer his crops all died.

To support his family he took a job in the Scofield coal mine and moved his family the 30 miles from Lawrence so as not to be separated from them during the week. Florence and her sister Hazel attended the mining camp school that winter.

One day Florence, eight years old, was playing with a box of cloth scraps someone had given her. She scratched her head and a bug fell onto the cloth.

“Mother, what kind of bug is this?” she asked.

“Where did it come from?”

“I scratched my head and the bug fell in my box.”

“Come here—let me see.”

Her mother discovered lice in Florence’s thick hair. Sister Hazel was sent to the store for a fine comb used to painstakingly comb out the mature lice, after which Florence’s hair and scalp were washed with coal oil to kill the unhatched eggs. It seems she caught the lice from a motherless girl who sat with her at school.

After a year Florence’s father was offered a raise and a better position at the mouth of the mine. But her mother was uneasy and constantly coaxed him to find another living. Finally he obtained a contract to cut and haul timber props for the mine. He hired some help, bought several tents, and moved the family into the mountains for the summer.

It was a glorious vacation for the Johnson children. But one day Florence ran to her mother with a painful, egg-sized lump under her arm. Mrs. Johnson flagged down a passing wagon which carried them to camp atop a load of logs. The doctor lanced the lump, but the next day Florence broke out in boils all over her body. Fortunately, she overcame this uncomfortable and frightening ailment.

That winter Florence’s father managed a sawmill in Sunnyside, 40 miles east. Here Hazel contracted scarlet fever. The following spring, after she had recovered, Hazel and Florence took to packing a lunch and spending their days “in the timber.”

Nearby lived a woman eight of whose nine children had perished from diphtheria. She would invite the Johnson girls into her cottage and give them cookies, scones, and donuts. “She seemed to like us,” Florence recalled, “and enjoyed giving us goodies.”

One night their mother had a dream in which a lady all in white appeared and just stood by her bed. Mrs. Johnson shook her husband awake.

“Alvin, did you see that?”


“A lady standing by the bed. She was here to tell me something. If I had only spoken to her.”

The next morning Mrs. Johnson told the girls they were not to go into the forest any more. She believed “the spirit lady” had come to tell her the girls were in danger—from mountain lions, bears, or something else. “Thus ended our joyful trips into the forest—beautiful forest.”

In 1900 the family was farming, again in Lawrence, when news came that a terrible explosion had rocked the Scofield mine. Their friend Robert Wilstead and his son Willie were among the dead. The body of the man who had replaced Florence’s father had been blown clear across the canyon.

In 1904 the Johnsons moved to Idaho where relatives were having success dry-farming. The trip took a month because on the way Hazel came down with a serious case of the mumps.

Source: Autobiography of Florence Elizabeth Johnson Thompson, 1974, photocopy of typescript in possession of Becky Bartholomew.