The Wenner Family Enjoyed Life on Fremont Island

Yvette D. Ison
History Blazer, May 1995

When Kate and Uriah James Wenner arrived in Salt Lake City in 1880 they expected to establish permanent residence in the city. The newlyweds built a home on East South Temple, and Wenner opened a law office. The couple soon became prominent members of Salt Lake society. In 1883 Wenner was appointed as a probate judge in Salt Lake County. Kate became involved in social functions and in raising the two children—George and Blanche.

All seemed to be going well for the family until Wenner became seriously ill with tuberculosis. Doctors suggested that a change of climate and exposure to open air would improve his health. After careful consideration the family decided to spend the entire summer on uninhabited Fremont Island in the Great Salt Lake. Though friends and relatives thought they were crazy, the isolated life and adventure appealed to the family. In 1886 the Wenners purchased part of the island from the Union Pacific and agreed to homestead the rest. Hearing that the island was perfect grazing land, the Wenners purchased sheep to be sent to Fremont Island. On the designated date of departure the family of four, two greyhound dogs, and a hired maid piled into an old sailboat to undertake the 20-mile journey. Kate later recorded that stormy weather made the voyage almost unbearable. It required almost three days to reach the island; and by then the crew was wet and exhausted. Kate spent an entire day ironing out heavy wrinkles in their salt-water-soaked clothes.

The Wenner’s first summer on Fremont Island was full of adventures and new discoveries. Kate, raised by a wealthy eastern family and educated at prestigious schools, recorded that she “felt like a real frontier woman to begin homesteading our first acres.” The children spent long hours exploring the island and playing on the beach. The family had brought with them a copy of explorer John C. Fremont’s book that recounted early discoveries on the island long before the Mormon settlers arrived in the Salt Lake Valley. They read the book often, trying to imagine what events had taken place on their island. When the children found flint arrowheads, the story of the island’s early days expanded to include Native Americans.

The summer stay on Fremont Island proved so enjoyable that the Wenners decided to take up permanent residence on the island. They built a small brick house to replace the camping tent that had been used most of the summer. Their sheep herd was healthy from summer grazing on the island. The Wenners purchased a boat called the Argo to transport the fleeces and lambs to market in Salt Lake City. They hired a man to sail the Argo back to the island to bring mail and books to the family. Meanwhile, life on the Island became more stable and permanent. The children had to complete daily lessons before they could play or swim. The farm gradually increased to include horses, cows, and other domestic animals. As small as their community was, they celebrated most holidays. Kate recorded that on one memorable July 4th the cows were so frightened by the fireworks that they jumped into the lake!

After two years of isolation on the island, Kate left with her children to visit her parents in Illinois and give birth to a new baby. Kate humorously recalled that the three must have looked peculiar when they got off the boat and walked down the streets of Ogden to board the train. Kate was wearing clothes that appeared old-fashioned, George was being followed by his pet pelican, and Blanche held a box of horned toads in her hands. Naturally, the family was viewed as a novelty throughout their journey and especially by their relatives in Illinois. Kate and the children happily returned to Fremont Island at the end of the summer.

By 1889 the Wenners’ peaceful life on Fremont Island began to shatter. Judge Wenner’s health was gradually deteriorating. When he became too weak to ride a horse, Kate’s chores became burdensome. For two years, though, she took care of all the household duties, tended the livestock, taught her children, and nursed her husband. Despite her efforts, on September 16, 1891, Wenner died of a hemorrhage of the lungs. On the day of his death, the family dug a grave and carefully placed pebbles on the spot to spell “LOVE.” Later, an iron fence was built around the grave and the pebbles secured in cement. The grave can still be seen on Fremont Island today.

After the death of Judge Wenner, the family’s blissful island life abruptly came to a halt. Kate took her children to California where she eventually remarried. She retained possession of the island for ten years, renting it out to livestock owners. Even after the island was sold, the Wenner family never forgot about the years they spent there. Before her death in 1942, Kate Wenner wrote an account of their life on Fremont Island; upon her death, at her request, she was buried beside Judge Wenner on their former island home.

See David E. Miller, “Kate Wenner Noble’s Story,” Utah Historical Quarterly 33 (1965); Dale L. Morgan, The Great Salt Lake (New York, 1947), pp. 319–37.