Some Meanings of Utah History

Thomas G. Alexander
Utah Historical Quarterly 64 Number 2

Since 1847 Utah’s economy seems to have passed through four phases. The first phase was the Mormon Kingdom, which lasted until the 1880s. The Mormons tried to promote a relatively high degree of economic self-sufficiency, and they were relatively successful for about twenty years. Some vestiges of that Kingdom remain in the settlements scattered throughout the Mountain West. In the second phase, which I will call the Old Colonial Society, Utah became a colony of Wall Street. The Old Colonial Society reigned supreme until the 1930s when the third phase, the New Colonial Society, began to develop. During the Great Depression the federal government began to invest heavily in Utah. This trend continued into World War II and afterward until federal installations became the largest businesses in Utah. In the process, management of Utah’s economy shifted from New York to Washington, D.C. Like the Old Colonial Society, the New Colonial Society was extremely important to the state.

Then, during the 1980s, conditions began to change. More and more, the largest businesses in the state came to be owned and/or managed in Utah rather than outside. By the late 1980s Utah had become a true commonwealth. It was no longer a colony. Both the Old and New Colonial Society economies diminished in importance. During the 1960s Utah received a great deal more money from the federal government than the average state. By 1984 it ranked slightly below the average. In 1984 the average American state received $2,962 per capita from the federal government while Utah got $2,930 per capita. In 1993, however, Utah ranked forty-fourth among the states in per capita income from federal payments at $4,011. The average state got $4,814.

Significantly, both the Old Colonial Society and the New Colonial Society diminished as the Commonwealth Society came to dominate Utah. If, for instance, you compare employment in the twenty-five largest businesses in the state in 1992, the overwhelming majority of people worked for businesses that were owned and managed locally. Of the twenty-five largest businesses in Utah measured by total employees in that year, those from the Old Colonial Society employed 19,200 people. Those from the New Colonial Society employed 27,300 people. The largest businesses in the Commonwealth Society employed 94,400 people, more than twice as many as employment in the vestiges of the Old and New Colonial Societies combined.

During the two colonial societies with their outside domination, the focus of power in the arts and humanities shifted to places outside Utah. Increasingly, artists and literary figures moved from Utah to ply their professions. Utah managed to promote some local enterprises especially in music during the New Colonial Society, such as the Utah Symphony and the Tabernacle Choir, but many of Utah’s best artists and writers who did not have university appointments found it prudent to leave the state to earn a satisfactory living. Thus we had a sizeable Utah community on the East Coast that included such people as Mahonri Young, Cyrus Dallin, Bernard De Voto, Virginia Sorensen, and May Swenson; and in California such people as Fawn Brodie and Wallace Stegner in literature and John Willard Clawson and Mary Teasdel in painting.

In many ways, the arts and humanities led the way into the Commonwealth Society, and the economy and politics followed. Because of musicians like Maurice Abravanel, dancers like Willam Christensen, and theater impresarios like Fred Adams, together with patrons like Glenn Walker Wallace, Wendell Ashton, and Obert Tanner, the Utah Symphony, Ballet West, and the Utah Shakespearean Festival became national institutions long before most of the largest businesses in Utah were locally owned or managed. Moreover, by the 1980s Utah had artists colonies in Utah County, in Salt Lake City, and elsewhere with nationally renowned artists like Marilee Campbell, Jeanne L. Lundberg Clarke, Lee Deffebach, Gary Smith, Dennis Smith, James Christensen, and Randall Lake.

Malone is the best known African American in Utah. He is very good at what he does, and he has identified with the community by supporting such charitable enterprises as the Special Olympics.

Politics followed the same trend. The shift to Republican party domination in Utah began during the mid-1970s at the same time that a similar shift was taking place in other states throughout the American West. It was not something that took place in Utah alone, but the Beehive State followed the same trend as Wyoming, Idaho, Arizona, New Mexico, and Nevada.

The economic development that led to the Commonwealth Society really took place during the late 1970s and 1980s. ZCMI expanded its operations by opening outlets throughout the state, and a number of important high-tech companies like WordPerfect, Novell, and Iomega established themselves in Utah while reaching out to capture markets beyond the state. A group of Utahns headed by Joseph Cannon bought Geneva Steel and transferred its management to Utah. First Security Bank became an Intermountain financial power. Moreover, it is not at all surprising that a Utahn, Larry H. Miller, should have purchased the Utah Jazz.

By the late 1980s Utah had become a true commonwealth. The Beehive State was no longer a kingdom or a colony. Perhaps the success in convincing the International Olympic Committee that the 2002 Winter Olympics ought to be held in Salt Lake City is the best symbol of that commonwealth status.

What does it really mean to be a Utahn? Some people who do not know much about the state insist that in order to be a real Utahn you have to be a Mormon. Frankly, I find this absolute nonsense. I suspect, for instance, that two of the best known Utahns in our recent past are Maurice Abravanel, a European-born musician, and Frank Layden, a Brooklyn-born basketball executive.

But, you say, they are immigrants to Utah. That is true, but what we often forget is that Brigham Young, Eliza R. Snow, Martha Hughes Cannon, and Leonard Arrington were all immigrants to Utah as well. That they were Mormons is undoubtedly relevant to their religious life, but it does not by itself make them Utahns.

What is it that makes one a Utahn? Let me take the example of Maurice Abravanel. The Utah Symphony hired him as director in 1947. In 1949 he had an offer to go to Houston at a higher salary. That same year, J. Bracken Lee vetoed a bill that would have granted state funds to the Utah Symphony. That made Abravanel angry, but instead of throwing in the towel and moving to Houston he decided to stay and fight. In doing so, he cast his lot with Utah and he made the Utah Symphony into one of the nation’s great musical organizations.

I would suggest that it is an act of will that brings someone to love Utah and its people enough to work and fight for it the way that both Brigham Young and Maurice Abravanel did. Becoming a Utahn is not a matter of place of birth, religious persuasion, ethnic background, economic status, or any such thing. It is a matter of the heart. We become Utahns because we love the state and because we understand that it is still the right place.