Spring City Heritage Day

We always traveled to Brigham City on Memorial Day, or Decoration Day, as some of the aunts called it.  The cousins played in the irrigation ditches, hid behind the lilac bushes, and practiced not stepping on the graves.  We lolled on the grass under a bright blue sky with a sense of purposelessness — naive to death — while our mothers performed their yearly memorial rituals.  They brought peonies and iris from their gardens and plunked them into coffee cans dressed up in aluminum foil, and weighted down with rocks.  I watched my mother pay homage to something I could barely comprehend but that I would unpack from my memory when I got to be her age – the Scandinavian history of her ancestors written on headstones, her father’s gravesite, the passage of time, the connection to her sisters.

We prowled around the neighborhood, untethered, because this was the 50s and 60s.  Without knowing it, I was banking sensory information that also unpacks itself at certain times of year. Like the smell of lilacs, the invitation of water rushing through a ditch, the way iris smell surprisingly of licorice, the coo of mourning doves, and the cry of flickers from the tops of the poplars.

That must have been all the stuff that came rushing back to me when I visited Spring City, a rural farm village in Central Utah.  This town is removed from I-15, hidden from the scenic route Highway 89, and off on a little road all its own — so there’s is no happening upon it by chance.  But the first time I went there I recognized it.


This is how I ended up there. On Memorial Day twenty-five years ago we moved into an old home on two acres in the woods south of Salt Lake City.  In poking around, I learned that it was built in 1923 by a Norwegian immigrant, Paul Paulsen.  The next phone call was to Boston to ask our friend, Randy Paulsen (a Utah native) if he was related to Paul Paulsen. Yes, he said, that was his grandfather.  What are the chances that our best friend’s grandfather had built our house? The next time Randy came to Utah, he invited his cousin, Craig Paulsen, third generation Paulsen Construction, to come see the house their grandfather built, and tell us what we didn’t know about it.

Craig obliged, and brought M’Lisa and their three children to our home for dinner.  They had moved down to Spring City from Salt Lake in the early 1970s and started their never-ending process of restoring a home.  When we bought our never-ending project there were windowpanes falling out of the attic windows, some knob-and-tube electrical still in use, Cellutec wall covering in some rooms (the kind you can gouge with your fingernails), and a copper roof that was so thin the wild peacocks used to stick their talons through it. It had irrigation ditches, lilac bushes, a chicken coop, a tiny horse stable, and traces of an old vegetable garden.  It felt like something from another century, not a mere 65 years old. Craig proceeded to walk around the house and identify elements of his grandfather’s construction methods he recognized, like three-brick-thick construction, raked plaster walls, and a Norwegian staircase to the attic.


Shortly after that he invited us to Spring City to see his home of the same vintage, plus other homes which were built as early as 1860 by the Scandinavian craftsmen who settled the town.  Coincidentally it was in the 1860s, in the aftermath of the Civil War, that the first-known observances of a Memorial Day were recorded.



We spent the first of many weekends in Spring City. During these outings, Craig took us around town in his horse-drawn carriage and pulled up to several of the dozens of houses that he and his son, Jon, had renovated. Half the time the owner, who wasn’t expecting us, met us at the door and invited us in for a complete tour of their property. One German woman graciously played the harpsichord for us.




We toured grand two-story stone homes, flat-pitched adobe cottages, huge barns, and log cabins. We looked at a lot of art too, as painters began to move to Spring City to restore old buildings for their studios.  Everyone welcomed Craig, and we were welcomed into the bargain.

Spring City is the sort of place I thought existed only in memory. Because of its location off any major throughway, it missed all of the obnoxious chain stores that degraded many of our small towns during the last few decades. The Scandinavian craftsmen had an eye for proportion and design, and built their homes to last. Spring City has a dignified sense of scale. The homes are human-sized, and there is ample land around the houses for pastures, outbuildings, orchards, and gardens. The town was well-conceived, and was preserved in the nick of time by people like Craig and his friend Tom Carter, an expert on American vernacular architecture, who researched and applied for the National Register Historic District the town received in 1981. As a result, the tearing down of structures slowed to a trickle and the houses, barns, outbuildings, and cabins got restored rather than yanked down. (Some of them fell down, but that’s a different issue).  Though many wonderful structures were lost before 1981, Craig still feels that Spring City reads as Utah’s best example of a rural Utah farming community.


During these visits my childhood memories of Memorial Days began kicking in.  The irrigation ditches that percolated through the fields, the lilac bushes, the smell of the soil, supper in the kitchen around a big table, people welcoming one another as if they were family, and the lambs cavorting in the front yards. Actually, the bit about the lambs was novel, but I folded them right in to my memories of childhood — memories which hadn’t registered as being that pleasant at the time, but clearly are in the remembering (and mis-remembering).

Over the decades I’ve visited Spring City nearly every year.  I’ve stayed in guest rooms, a log cabin, slept on the floor of the old Endowment House during an artist’s weekend (whatever that means), stayed at a ranch house, and last year I stayed in the Osborne Inn pictured above.

I keep trying to get a room in the Spring City Inn pictured here, but I always call for a room during a festival when they’re booked.

We’ve hiked in the foothills, searched for hot springs, cut our Christmas tree in the mountains then had a memorable meal at the café in town (currently closed), bought cowboy boots, tasted fruit wine from a local vintner, attended mutton roasts, bought local art, eaten rhubarb pie, and taken more carriage rides around town to meet a few of the eccentric characters.  There is even a drive-in movie you can go to in the next town, Mt. Pleasant.

Spring City has its detractors.  One friend called the town boring.  Years ago, he drove around looking at the beautiful homes, saw no one, then drove the two hours back to Salt Lake City. But various groups of people (including every member of the Paulsen family) have organized home tours, art auctions, antique sales, plein air competitions, studio tours, bluegrass festivals, bike races, and farmer’s markets which provide ample opportunity to absorb the flavor of the town. And if you can get a room at an inn you don’t have to drive home at sundown through Spanish Fork Canyon when the deer are prone to dart across the road.

The Saturday of the Memorial Day weekend is my favorite time to visit. They serve breakfast and lunch in the bowery adjacent to the old Spring City School pictured above.


Both professional and new painters provide a large selection of artwork for the auction —

and there is a great antique sale to fundraise for the renovation of the school.

On Main Street next to Horseshoe Mountain Pottery, they sell local high-quality crafts like hand-made furniture, custom-made boots, and woven rugs.

The tour of the Pioneer homes lasts all day.  It’s pleasant just to stroll down the sidewalk under the bright blue sky, watching all the other contented people poking in and out of houses as if they’re trick-or-treating in May.  I take in the lilacs, the lambs, and the homemade rhubarb pie  — in other words, I indulge in the pleasures of my childhood.  And I think about how Memorial Day, which is set aside to encourage us think about those who have died, actually sends me searching for remnants of a time that is still alive.






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2 Responses to “Spring City Heritage Day”

  1. Sally Bowie March 31, 2012 4:02 pm

    What a beautiful, moving, poetic article. Loved every morsel and the pictures are fantastic. I recommend this to anyone who has a heart and a soul, who is interested in memory, in architecture, in Utah. Bravo !

  2. Randy Paulsen April 2, 2012 12:48 pm

    I love the memories evoked by these words and pictures. Now I know there’s a wonderful celebration in Spring City on Decoraation Day. Beautiful piece.

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