When I was a wee, baby, barely-adult person, I wrote a silly story called “Mormon the Explorer” about the exploits of Mormon and his bestie monkey, Manywives, and their attempts to thwart the evil Logic the Fox who was always trying to explain away their religious beliefs (“Logic, no explaining! Logic, no explaining!”). Of course, there was an accompanying song, set to the tune of the Dora the Explorer theme, that contained memorable lyrical gems such as “Grab your ten speed, let’s go!” Not my most shining literary moment, probably. Later on in life, I met actual Mormons, who are mostly pretty cool people. Or, maybe I should say that I met some pretty cool people who are also Mormon. Like, I’m not an actual fan of the Mormon belief system, or any organized religion (especially ones that consider LGBTQIA+ people to be sinners), but I’m definitely interested in Mormon history – both large picture and small. And I’m lucky enough to live in an area (Las Vegas) near the Western frontier of Mormon settlement.
A couple years ago I read Recollections of a Handcart Pioneer of 1860: A Woman’s Life on the Mormon Frontier by Mary Ann Hafen. It’s a really short read chronicling Mary Ann’s life as a child in Switzerland, her family’s conversion to the LDS faith and subsequent immigration to the US, their journey across the plains in one of the last waves of handcart pioneers, and her life on the Mormon frontier, first in St. George, Utah and then in Bunkerville, Nevada. She wrote the book with the help of her son, LeRoy Hafen, who was a well-known historian and a professor at BYU. Mary Ann’s granddaughter was Juanita Brooks, another notable Mormon historian who is one of my history crushes. She was the first Mormon historian to write extensively about the Mountain Meadows Massacre, which caused a lot of tension between her and the church. She feared she would be excommunicated for the book, but she chose to tell the story anyway.
If you’re interested, this is a really interesting paper about LeRoy Hafen and Juanita Brooks. It’s really long, though. I also recommend this biography about Juanita, I’m reading through it right now. I currently have a quote from that book as my Facebook cover picture.
Anyhoo, when I first read Recollections, I noticed that Mary Ann married a guy named John Reber (he died a couple days after their wedding in a tragic carriage accident). It just so happens that my bestie Crazypants Clems is a Reber by birth and comes from that area, so I got all excited about that connection (she’s descended from John’s brother, Samuel). Whenever I visit her, she indulges in my insane thirst for the history that she probably gets tired of hearing old people talk about at family reunions and whatever. I’m very lucky to have friends that put up with my insane passions. And hopefully blog readers that put up with them as well because I’m gonna be writing about this stuff a lot cos I have several trips planned this summer to do some Mormon the Exploring.
It just so happens that I went to Mesquite on Wednesday to see Crazypants Clems and the entire Clems family (minus the eldest child who is fucking married already wheredidthetimego???). She took me out to lunch at Peggy Sue’s, showed me the new Mesquite Library, and took me for delicious cookies and soda at The Splash Pad. But, just in case I doubted how much she really loved me, she also took me to the Virgin Valley Heritage Museum in Mesquite. She really does love me.
I highly recommend visiting it if you’re ever in the area. 10/10 would recommend. Not only was the museum pretty cool, but the museum administrator was super-nice and willing to answer all of our questions. Even the ones we didn’t ask.
One of the first things that the Clems kid noticed was that there were pictures of her ancestor, Samuel Reber, hanging up by the door. One of the first things I noticed was that there was a freaking whiskey still in the very first display. It surprised me because I don’t know a single Mormon that drinks (do they even exist?).
The first room of the museum housed a collection of items that were used by pioneers and early settlers, mostly arranged in glass cases. Along the back wall was a cowboy exhibit with pictures of the Bundys and other (in)famous area ranchers. The museum used to be a hospital, and there was a cool exhibit of medical stuff, including a list of babies that had been born there. Crazypants knew half of the people on the list (and is probably related to half of the people she recognized). We also noticed a smallish exhibit of Native artifacts, but I’m planning a trip to the Lost City Museum very soon so I’ll learn more about Native culture there. There was also a really cool film projector that had come from the old movie theater, as well.
I’m just gonna do a photo dump.
We saw a lot of cool things. We also saw some not-so-cool things.
I guess blackface was a popular design motif in Mormon pioneer culture. And contemporary white culture in general, if we’re gonna really be honest.
We got to see a picture of Mary Ann Hafen’s family, as well as an antimacassar that Mary Ann (or her daughter, Mary, it wasn’t clear) crocheted.
There were probably 40 photos along the wall of life in the Virgin Valley from pioneer times through the 1940’s or so. I found this awesome picture of Juanita Brooks among them. I had a historygasm when I saw it.
Behind the main room were several rooms that were set up like rooms in a pioneer home – a kitchen, a bedroom, and a sitting room. The sitting room was where I found the antimacassar. It was on a couch near a record player that played these thick, hard rubber records. The lady working in the museum (I didn’t get her name but she was really very awesome) even played one for us. Behind the museum was a little outdoor area with a family outhouse that had three seats, including a small seat for little booties. A path led to a shed-type building that housed exhibits on ranching history and military service.
Of course, my favorite room in the museum was the library/archives, so I wanna talk about that for a minute. It was just a tiny room with a few books and a whole lotta binders of stuff. Two filing cabinets in the corner caught my eye because they were labelled “to be digitized” or something like that. When I asked about them, I was informed that the majority of their collection was digitized online and accessible to the public. Be still my fucking heart. That’s not the norm for museums here, and certainly not the norm for these kinds of small-town museums, so I was pretty surprised. Oral histories are my jam, and those of you who don’t do much historical research have no idea what a fucking pain in the ass it is to deal with them sometimes. It takes hours to listen to something that you could read in literally minutes. And transcribing them – well, I’m fairly certain that’s the punishment in one of the levels of hell. There’s something Sisyphean about the constant cycle of listening, typing, and rewinding with no end in sight. So I’m always super fucking stoked when I find oral history transcripts online.
You can check out their archives here. Their larger website is here. While you’re at it, like their Facebook page here. They post mystery items every week, and it’s fun to guess what the stuff is.
I’m gonna come back to this museum later in the month. My platonic polycule is letting me take them on a Mormon history trip, and we’re gonna start in Bunkerville with Mary Ann Hafen’s grave, see the Dudley Leavitt monument, hit the Virgin Valley Museum, and then head up to St. George for the Brigham Young Winter House and Juanita Brooks’ grave. We’ll top it off with a visit to the Mountain Meadows Massacre site.
Oh yeah, you can read my other post about Mormon History here: First! And Mormons and Stuff..