Utah State Historical Society

Glen M. Leonard
Utah History Encyclopedia, 1994

Denver & Rio Grande Depot, Salt Lake City

On 22 July 1897, in response to a call from Utah’s first state governor, twenty-seven citizens led by journalist-lawyer Jerrold Letcher organized the Utah Historical Society in Salt Lake City, with Franklin D. Richards as president and Letcher as recording secretary (1897–1915). Created on the fiftieth anniversary of Mormon arrival, the society set forth to encourage historical research, collect and maintain a library, and disseminate information on Utah’s prehistoric and historic past.

During its first twenty years, the society did little more than hold annual meetings and elections. In 1917, with state funding and an office in the new capitol, the society attempted unsuccessfully to write a history of Utahns in World War I. J. Cecil Alter, as secretary-treasurer, librarian, and editor from 1927 to 1946, launched a new phase of growth when he began a library with his own collection and published six volumes of Utah Historical Quarterly (1928–33) before state funding ended. Alter was joined in 1937 by President Herbert S. Auerbach and Secretary Marguerite L. Sinclair in a decade of effective political action (including obtaining revived state funding), revitalization of publications with a focus on presettlement history, and expansion of membership. As a historical war records office beginning in 1941, the society chronicled Utah’s participation in World War II and encouraged the preservation of county and manuscript collections.

After Alter and Sinclair resigned, president Joel E. Ricks led a search for a professionally trained historian and hired A. Russell Mortensen in 1950 as director-editor. Mortensen organized five local chapters and hired John W. James, Jr., as librarian (1952–71) and Everett L. Cooley as the first state records manager and archivist (1954–60). In 1957 the Historical Society moved to the Kearns Mansion, at 603 East South Temple in Salt Lake, to launch a decade of increased public service. Mortensen added an annual awards dinner and lecture series to the society’s offerings, launched a newsletter, and added special summer theme issues to a redesigned Quarterly. Membership increased threefold to more than 1,100 by 1958.

President J. Grant Iverson and Director Everett L. Cooley (1961–69) further popularized society activities with media features, summer history workshops, an enlarged format for the magazine, historic site treks, a Statehood Day observance, all-day annual meetings, and centennial observances. Manuscript and photograph collections grew rapidly. The society helped organize the independent Utah Heritage Foundation in 1966 to encourage historic preservation. A reorganization of government in 1967 created the Division of State History under the Department of Development Services (Department of Community and Economic Development after 1974) and transferred the archives elsewhere. The Division thereafter used its “Society” name for membership services functions.

With the support of State Board of History Chairman Milton C. Abrams (1969–85), Director Charles S. Peterson (1969–71) was able to attract various federal and private grants to study the Mormon Battalion Trail and a proposed pioneer village, and to publish books, conduct a statewide historic sites survey, and broaden Society involvement in community history education and technical assistance to local historical organizations. Annual meetings expanded to include sessions on folklore, archaeology, and historic preservation, while the Quarterly featured theme issues on women’s, ethnic, and conservation history.

During Melvin J. Smith’s tenure as director (1971–86), the Society relocated to the renovated Rio Grande Depot. There it launched a changing museum exhibit and museum services program and welcomed local museum associations as chapters. Statehood Day celebrations moved to a different city each year. The society published a dozen books, launched the annual student magazine Beehive History and built membership to 3,250. In 1985 it accepted co-sponsorship of the Utah History Fair. The focus in historic preservation expanded to preservation planning, technical assistance, and a local government certification program. The library added microcopies and tape recordings.

A longstanding interest in presettlement history gained emphasis with appointment in 1973 of a state archaeologist to inventory sites, prepare environmental impact studies, and conduct salvage digs. A state paleontologist was added in 1977, and publication of an antiquities monograph series began the next year. Director Max Evans (1986– ) has built upon efforts to bring the Society to local communities by involving volunteer special interest groups in planning annual meetings.

In 1988 the Society started monthly historic sites tours and began a computerized guide to manuscript holdings in Utah. A program manager promotes the use of society collections, while a Utah Centennial Commission is planning a statehood observance and new histories for 1996. The library contains more than 43,000 books, periodicals, pamphlets, and maps as well as 3,000 linear feet of manuscripts, 28,000 photographs, and 3,000 rolls of microfilm. The Utah State History Museum holds 3,500 artifacts and an art collection.

See: Glen M. Leonard, “The Utah State Historical Society, 1897–1972,” Utah Historical Quarterly 40 (Fall 1972); A. R. Mortensen, ed., “Utah State Historical Society” Sixty Years of Organized History,” Utah Historical Quarterly 25 (July 1957); and Miriam B. Murphy, “J. Cecil Alter: Founding Editor of Utah Historical Quarterly,” Utah Historical Quarterly 46 (Winter 1978).