Culture and Amusement Before the Co-op
From Brigham City History Project
Early Day Cultural Activities
Settlers brought the music, dance and culture of their pre-pioneer life with them, as noted in the enjoyment of violins played for dancing in the early forts. As more musicians and instruments came into the community, more formal music groups were formed.
Almost as soon as Lars Christensen arrived in Brigham City in 1856, he began mending watches, musical instruments and clocks. Shortly after his arrival he made a violin, carving it with a pocket knife. For many years he played his violin for dances and was a member of the first orchestra, and later the leader. His sons Christian, Fredrick, Moses and Lars Peter, as very young boys, played with their father, starting a several-generation family musical heritage that spread throughout the West.
Music teacher Stephen Wight and family arrived in 1861, and President Snow soon hired him to come to his home and teach both vocal and instrumental music to his children. Snow had one of the first pianos in the city due to the efforts of Abraham Hunsaker, who in the early 1860s ordered two pianos from Missouri, one for his own home and one for President Snow. Following creation of the Territorial Militia in the Utah War of 1858, a military band was formed to participate for the annual encampment of the Brigham City division. This became an important group in local celebrations, including the processions planned to welcome President Young whenever he visited the city. In the early 1860s this group was under the leadership of James N. Christensen. An orchestra led by Wight played at dramatic performances during the 1960s, employing many of the same musicians as in the military band.
English convert and singer Robert L. Fishburn was Brigham City’s most well-known choral musician. He formed both a popular mixed quartet and was called to lead the Box Elder Ward choir in the 1860s. An early member of the choir, Charles W. Nibley, wrote in his memoirs:
“My wife and I both belonged to Fishburn's choir at Brigham City, Which was a rather noted musical organization of that day. We were singers a long time, both before and after our marriage. In (1867), before our marriage, President Young had invited the Fishburn Choir to attend the general conference at Salt Lake City in the new Tabernacle which was just then about completed and was being used for conference purposes. I recollect that we were all invited to the Bee Hive House by President Young and treated in a very complementary and courteous way.”
As was Brigham Young, Lorenzo Snow was a believer in providing cultural pursuits, including dance, music and entertainment for the people, as well as opportunities for local people to share their talents. Even as they had in the fort days, settlers enjoyed dancing to music provided by those who had brought instruments with them.
Drama and Literary Groups
What began in Snow’s living room in the winter of 1855-56 grew into a dramatic society, so popular that it quickly outgrew that venue and moved into the unfinished courthouse while it was still housed in the covered-over basement.
Alexander Baird had come to Box Elder in 1863 and helped lead an amateur theater group in Perry, which also played in the lower part of the courthouse, with a couple of wagon covers for curtains. Among those present was Lorenzo Snow, who contacted the young Scottish convert when he came to work at the woolen mill in Brigham City in 1864. Baird wrote:
“Well, just as soon as I got to Brigham, Brother Snow wanted me to start a theater. So we went to work to get up a dramatic troupe . . . This was in the spring of 1864. He, Brother Snow, gave me the names of the ones he wanted in the troupe . . . We started and practiced well. I worked in the mill all day and studied and rehersed (sic) at night. I did well in the mill all summer and fall. We played short dramas and farces, once a week on Saturday evenings.”
Baird recalled the first troupe members as Alexander Baird, Elijah Box, Chester Southworth, Peter Madsen, Peter Baird, Elias Snow, Miss Herritia Smith, and Mrs. Levina Nicholes. This formed the troupe -- with a few extras. William L. Watkins acted as prompter. He copied parts for all the actors and attended the usual four rehearsals a week.
The courthouse basement was the venue, with scenery painted directly on the rear wall by Porter Squires and Andrew J. Caggie, with traces still visible when the courthouse was remodeled in the 1970s. Tailor Ola Stohl made costumes for productions. When the theater moved upstairs is not known, but Baird indicated it was about the time of the railroad coming in the meager record of the Brigham City Dramatic Association. The stage itself was 45 feet wide and 18 feet deep, with 45x47 feet available for seating. A balcony in the west end was where small boys would hide in the afternoon preceding plays to escape paying 25 cents admission, which was 50 cents for adults. Seating capacity is not known, but with the balcony there could have been from 300 to 500 seats. The stage was lighted by candles placed with tin reflectors between the audience and the stage, and later coal-oil lamps were used as footlights. Brackets were used to suspend lights from the ceiling or place them on walls. The lighting system almost resulted in tragedy when an actor tipped over a coal-oil lamp and a fire burst out on stage, but it was quickly extinguished.
Most of the plays had first been presented on the Salt Lake stage and local actors would attend and laboriously transcribe the play for local use. Well over 50 local individuals participated as actors. Productions in the courthouse were enhanced by an orchestra under direction of Stephen Wight. Other buildings were used for plays during this period, including the upstairs of the store erected in 1866 by Morris Rosenbaum.
Performances were popular not only with Brighamites, but neighboring communities, including Corinne, as the Corinne Daily Mail reported in 1875:
“A crowd from town went to Brigham Saturday night to attend the regular Saturday night performance in the court house there. The play was “The Sergeant’s Wife” and the building was packed with saints and saintesses, making it about an even thing to squeeze in.”
When the city was divided in to four LDS wards in 1877, meeting houses were constructed for each ward and used by ward drama societies, attracting some of the amateur actors. But the Dramatic Association remained active up until the 1890s when government offices replaced its upper Court House venue.
A Polysophical Society was organized in 1876 by Lorenzo Snow to encourage cultural pursuits. Meetings included band music, songs, literary readings, and original essays by the young people who were encouraged to attend, many of whom were Snows. President Snow presided and Elijah A. Box was secretary of the group, which met in the social hall.
The Social Hall
As near as can be determined, the Social Hall was built by the Cooperative building department in the early 1870s on the corner of Forest Street and First West to serve a dual purpose, as the Brigham City Cooperative mercantile store on the lower floor, and for public use on the second floor. It was well-used, with reports of many community and social events listing the venue as the Social Hall for the next 20 years. A Co-op Report of 1877 noted the building department had built 46 houses in two years, and that the Social Hall, Machinery Hall, Boot and Shoe Shop and the Stake Tabernacle were among buildings erected by that department, although it does not give construction dates.
Whether it was in the Social Hall or another location, “the store” is listed among enterprises by Lorenzo Snow in an 1873 progress report on the Cooperative to Brigham Young. In another notation, Forsgren lists men and women who were clerks in the store from 1864 to 1877, then those in the “new home” on Main Street, adding “most of clerks from the Social Hall continued to serve until the store closed”. The two-story building was later renovated into an opera house.
Home reading was promoted, as well, with the first library established in 1870 by the Sunday School presidency composed of Justin C. Wixom, James Bywater and Adolph Madsen. In Wixom’s words:
“We then went among the people, from house to house, soliciting donations by which we collected quite a sum of money, our first funds, for which we purchased for those times, a tolerably good supply of books, such as Bibles, Testaments, music books, and a few National Primers and First Readers, also a small library of historical books to loan to the children during the week, as home, and return on the following Sunday.”
Other Amusement & Sports
Music, drama and literature weren't the only public amusements, with dances held almost every weekend during the winter and on summer holidays, mostly with violin or accordion accompaniment but sometimes a larger musical group for special events. Such events began in the old schoolhouse by the fort and progressed to the Court House, Social Hall and various ward schoolhouses.
Home arts turned into social events as women gathered to tear worn fabrics into strips to make rugs, or gathered around a frame to tie a quilt. Either the hostess would prepare a meal or a “potluck” lunch made it a festive occasion. Another custom was “peach cuttings” where young people gathered in the evening by lantern-light to halve peaches and put them on racks for drying, after which the hostess served a picnic. Often this was followed by “night games” like "blind man’s bluff," or a room would be cleared for dancing.
Threshing could be a social occasion, with women and girls cooking while farmers, neighbors, and hired hands cut and pitched bundles into the thresher, stacked straw, hauled wheat, and performed other tasks. Tables were set up in the shade and loaded with food, including pies and cakes and puddings for all participants.
Baseball was a popular sport, with boys and men gathering for "town ball" every Saturday, and later arranging games between various towns. Brigham City’s first team has the usual family names: E.H. Peirce, E. A. Box, Carl and Heber Loveland, Charles Forsgren, Charles Valentine, Joseph and Jacob Jensen, and Reese Richards. Later, a second team was organized, of which Forsgren noted, "Since Mr. Box was principle of the 'Academy' at this time, and most of the team either were or had been his pupils, the team was a very united one and has prestige."
Although early social life was organized by the LDS Church, and much still was, community organizations such as the drama troupes, military bands, orchestras and baseball teams had taken on a life of their own as Brigham City grew from a church colony to a thriving little city in its first two decades.
The emerging business and trade community would take another turn, however, as most local mercantile businesses were absorbed into the Brigham City Cooperative Association, which initially began with mercantile business and then expanded into manufacturing. Business owners who did not comply were soon out of customers, who were warned to only patronize the Cooperative. By 1873, Lorenzo Snow reported to President Young: "Our mercantile department ... at present is the only store in the city."
- Lydia Walker Forsgren, History of Box Elder County, (Brigham City: Daughters of Utah Pioneers, 1937), 178, 181.
- Ibid., 180.
- Charles W. Nibley, Reminiscences of Charles W. Nibley, Till We Get to Adam, online accessed Sept. 2008.
- Rue C. Johnson, "Theatre in Zion - The Brigham City Dramatic Association," Utah Historical Quarterly Vol. 33, No. 3 Summer, (Salt Lake City: 1965), 189.
- Ibid., 187-197.
- Ibid., 196.
- Lydia Walker Forsgren, History of Box Elder County, (Brigham City: Daughters of Utah Pioneers, 1937), 188.
- Ibid., 116.
- Ibid., 107.
- Ibid., 111.
- Ibid., 159-160.
- Ibid., 183.
- Ibid., 184.
- Ibid., 107.