Sketches of Life in the Uintah Basin

Alice Woolf

Alice Bartlett Woolf, 1916-1997

Alice Bartlett Woolf, a painter, writer, master teacher, horse breaker, and story teller, was also a dear friend of my mother. While working on scanning my mother’s papers, I came across an article that Alice had submitted to the Utah Humanities Review for their first edition in October of 1947. I found it delightful, and thought it worth sharing here. I have provided a PDF version of the article for anyone who wants to download it. The essay gives a homey, affectionate and impartial look at Mormon communities in the first half of the 20th century; there is much to be envied in the lifestyle of these simple and sincere people.


SKETCHES OF LIFE IN THE UINTAH BASIN

Woolf, Alice B.
Utah Humanities Review
1 (October1947): 313–319.

 Expecting the mode of life and the people to be much changed, I was going “home” for a vacation in the red sand hills of northeastern Utah. As I turned my car north from U.S. highway 40, I was delighted to see again the small farms on either side of a very muddy and rutted road. Of course, I reasoned, the very structure of the farms, with outbuildings, Jackson-fork hay derricks, stackyards, and straw-covered. sheds couldn’t have all disappeared in the space of fifteen years. But what of the people? Had the innovation of elec­tric lights, radios and refrigerators changed their way of life? Did they still refer to a journey to Salt Lake, or some place other than the Uintah Basin as “outside”? Had the oil boom in the nearby town of Vernal urbanized them?

Woolf1

SUNDAY MORNING – Alice Woolf

 After several weeks in Uintah and Duchesne counties I concluded that life in general was much the same as it had been when I was a child of the sagebrush, happily riding my pony between prairie dog holes.

Of course, one may wonder why anyone should hope that small communities of people would not change; and after some thought, I decided that the people in the farm area to the south of the Uintah Mountains are, by and large, the happiest group I have ever known. I had been worried lest the “finer things” of civilization had made them unhappy with their lot, for to the casual observer the small farmer in the Uintah Basin has so many natural odds against him that it seems incredible that the country has ever been popu­lated. He has a constant battle with wind, sand, drouth, and grasshoppers. Getting water to the land has been a major problem since the land was homesteaded, and even today everyone donates time to the building of canals and ditches, in an effort to fight the desert dryness.

Main Street

MAIN STREET – Alice Woolf

 The main factor in this happiness the people enjoy, it seems to me, is the complete social integration of all members of the community. From birth, children go through the same experiences as their elders. They work or: the farms, go to church, visit the stores, listen to conversations, attend dances and all public social functions. Most of their parents did the same. Thus the group becomes tightly knit. Everyone in our own particular community (the nucleus of each community being the church, school, store, and post office) knows whether you were quiet or fiendish in church, how well you did your lessons in school, when you had your first date, how much a dozen you are getting for your eggs now that you are grown and farming for yourself.

One finds the people themselves tolerant and understanding with members of their own community, or of com­munities they would consider neighboring. They discuss the faults and failings of friends, as well as their good qualities, with joyous abandon. However, this ready acceptance extends only to the group. A stranger entering their midst – let’s say someone from “outside, ” perhaps Colorado or Wyoming – would receive a very reserved welcome from everyone, and it would take considerable good-will on the stranger’s part to draw any attention but the rather austere courtesy that is far from impolite, but leaves the atmosphere a little frigid.

Farm methods have improved somewhat in the last few years. There are more tractors and less broken-down teams. Nearly everyone has a car, and there are actually people in the farming district who are getting running water.

In dress the people are utilitarian rather than stylish. The men wear overalls and work shirts, and the women effect the typical “Utah” house dress and apron.

Country Store

COUNTRY STORE – Alice Woolf

 In the series of sketches, I chose several pictures which depict the life of the people. The one entitled “Main Street” is actually a typical thoroughfare in rural life. The barbed wire fence in the background encloses a pasture that lies between the store and the school house. l would like to call attention again to the children, who, even though small, are becoming used to grown-up talk, and the exigencies of grown­up life.

I have chosen two other sketches dealing with social pleasure. One is the interior of a typical rural store, where the people come partly to buy and partly to visit. There is nearly always a family or two in the store, the men, of course, discussing weather and crops, and the women doing exactly what visiting women have always done talking a mile a minute. The second sketch concerns a dance. This one happens to be at a Gold-and-Green Ball, but is a scene that might be sketched at any country’ dance. Unlike dances in the city, this one is not selective; everyone comes. Many come as “lookers-on.” They simply choose a scat and tend children and visit. The young women, both married and unmarried, come in delightful confections of pink and blue tulle, as “formal” as can be. Older children slick up in their Sunday best and dance or not as they feel inclined. The charm of the whole occasion is that everyone has a good time, the dancers dancing, the onlookers speculating about any new romances, and the children just being children. At midnight the three or four-piece orchestra plays “Home Sweet Home, ” and the hall is vacated, except for a few older boys who stay to put the chairs up for church next morning.

Gold and Green Ball

GOLD AND GREEN BALL – Alice Woolf

 When someone in the community dies, friends of the family build the coffin. This is looked on not so much as a distasteful task as a last kindly gesture toward the de­ceased, and even though neighboring towns have undertak­ing parlors, it is rare indeed that the dead are not cared for by their own friends.

Making coffins

MAKING COFFINS  – Alice Woolf

Sunday morning finds nearly everyone at church. If chores or housework keep people until past the starting time, they come late, expecting everyone to understand. Here again we see ail ages amalgamated together in the large general assembly. No one minds the general hubbub caused by the small children, least of all the people conducting the church service, who are very likely tending children of their own. Somehow everyone comes away from the church up­lifted spiritually, although an outsider might find the whole atmosphere confusing.

Last but not least is the sketch called “Saturday Night.” Never, in my return visit, did I fail to feel nostalgic as I walked into a warm kitchen and saw the tub on the floor and warm towels on the down-turned open door. If there is one thing above others that seems to cement family solidarity, it is the Saturday night bath. By the time everyone has par­ticipated in chopping wood and carrying water in prepara­tion, and has emerged clean and shining from a tin tub, all seems right with the world.

Saturday Night

SATURDAY NIGHT – Alice Woolf

 After spending several months in such an area, it is a little difficult to return even to the modestly urban life of Salt Lake City, as it is always hard to leave a peaceful life among happy people for a life that is more hectic and far less happy. Struggling with wood-chopping, water-carrying, and a cow-to-you milk supply is incidental when one has a joyful life. If one makes the slightest attempt to live within the group mores and customs his life can be an open book – ­read and accepted by all, good and bad alike; and he can of course help in accepting his acquaintances, good and bad alike. With such community solidarity, as long as one stays in the community, security and contentment are forever present.


Two prints of artwork by Alice WoolfAlice Woolfe Print 1 Alice Woolfe Print 2Alice and my mother were born in the same year; Alice passed five years before mother did, but they were lifelong friends, and I recall hearing many stories about her as I was growing up. I’m pleased to share this bit of Utah history which, thanks to Alice’s insights, has been preserved.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

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One response to “Sketches of Life in the Uintah Basin

  1. Thank you so much for that lovely piece. Our culture has changed so much since then, could there still be places like that in this country? Hard to imagine.

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