By Greg Bennett and Dave Blackhurst
The first faces to love living in Utah Valley pitched tepees near Utah Lake and enjoyed the same views of Mount Timpanogos we do today as they made arrowheads and fished for dinner.
New faces began sprinkling down through the canyons and from Salt Lake Valley with pioneering ideas of all kinds that began to expand our economy, culture and communities.
Skip ahead to today, and we still thrive on the life-giving water that flows from the four major rivers in Utah Valley.
Join our look back at the faces, dates, pieces and peacemakers who have made our valley a great place to work, play and live.
Before Utah Valley was dotted with homes and churches, two religious men from New Mexico discovered a vast valley sloping from the mountains to Utah Lake and a friendly people living on the banks. Trappers and other explorers would follow before the first permanent European settlers came in 1849.
- Local tribes
By the early 1800s three tribes were living in Utah Valley. Ironically, Utes were the most numerous. Paiutes were located to the west of the lake, and hunting parties of Shoshones would also pass through. When early settlers came to the valley, local tribes continued to fight for their land. After years of conflict, the Ute tribe was driven to the reservations in the Uinta Basin. Even with the conflict between settlers and Indians, many Native Americans played an important roll in helping pioneers survive their new Deseret home.
- Fremont freedom Long before Escalante (next page) gazed out on the valley, a culture thrived along Utah Lake’s shores. The Fremonts lived here from A.D. 500 to around A.D. 1400. This society tamed the land by planting corn, squash and beans. They also fished the lake and hunted local mountains for game.Not much was left behind by this intriguing culture. Local BYU archaeologists continue to learn about Fremonts with excavations along the lake shores and surrounding areas. Archaeologists are trying to put together the story of these mysterious and ancient Utah Valley residents with only a few artifacts and rock art discovered so far.
- Mormon settlers Not long after settling the Salt Lake Valley, Brigham Young sent a party of 30 men to establish a fort in Utah Valley in 1849. Initially the pioneers settled on the Provo River, but periodic flooding and other problems forced the group to relocate in 1850 to a new fort they established on the site of North Park in Provo (about 500 N. 500 West).
Just a few weeks after the United States issued its Declaration of Independence, a group of 11 men — headed by Fray Francisco Atanasio Domínguez and Silvestre Vélez de Escalante — left Santa Fe, N.M., in search of an overland passage to the California coast.
The Dominguez-Escalante expedition never reached California, but the group became the first Europeans in Utah Valley when they entered through Spanish Fork Canyon on Sept. 23, 1776.
Led by a pair of Native American guides — Silvestre and Jouquin — the group immediately noticed the “curb appeal” that current residents still enjoy, including water from four mountain-fed rivers pouring into Utah Lake in the middle of the valley. Utah Lake was full of fish and offered plenty to eat for the Timpanog Ute tribe living on its shores.
The expedition was only in Utah Valley for a few days, but it wasn’t forgotten. “Spanish” became the name of the canyon and accompanying river in honor of the group, and trappers and explorers continued to call it that until white settlers came around 1850. The name stuck as the first homes were built, and Spanish Fork City was incorporated in 1855.
A prominent monument in Spanish Fork’s City Park celebrates the group and outlines details from the trek. A large white cross is also visible near the mouth of Spanish Fork Canyon as another memorial of the historic visit.
The 50 years following the Mormon settlement in Utah Valley saw rapid growth and expansion. Utah Valley residents had a big part to play in the development of a state government in preparation for acceptance into the union. This period paved the way for future growth into the 20th Century.
- Party politics In the early days of Utah Valley politics, most residents considered themselves Democrats. Shortly after Utah was granted statehood, residents voted in the 1896 U.S. presidential election, and the majority of residents supported Democrat William Jennings Bryant. However, he ultimately lost to William McKinley, the Republican candidate.
- Open for business Early settlement by Mormon pioneers was focused on survival, so fishing and farming were among the first industries to develop. By the 1870s, a solid livestock industry was found in the area thanks to the introduction of the railroad.Early on, Utah Valley was already showing its strength as an economic powerhouse in the state. Utah’s first large factory (Utah Woolen Mills) opened in Provo in 1872.By the turn of the century, the county benefited from financial institutions, mines and other professional services that helped the area evolve into a more sophisticated and broadened economy.
- Joining the union Nearly 50 years after the first white settlers entered the Salt Lake Valley, Utah was granted statehood. Utah County residents welcomed the day — Jan. 4, 1896 — with patriotism and nationalism. Two years later, the Spanish-American War broke out, and many Utahns served in the military campaign against Spain.
Early educator and mentor Karl G. Maeser wasn’t the first principal at Brigham Young Academy, but he was the leader who turned it into the academic center that would eventually become BYU.
Karl was a skilled educator and had a tremendous effect on a number of students who would go on to be influential. Among these students were George Sutherland (a senator from Utah and justice on the U.S. Supreme Court), Reed Smoot (a senator from Utah) and James E. Talmage (geologist and LDS Church apostle).
Karl built the academic standard of the institution during a time of great financial crisis. In fact, there was a year when faculty worked for no pay and tuition had to be paid primarily in produce from the students’ families.
While the institution didn’t become a university on Maeser’s watch, he did set many of the standards that led to the university’s future success. He understood that the school was about the people — not any building.
After the Academy (located then on the corner of Center Street and 300 West in Provo) burned down in 1884, Karl was approached by a young Reed Smoot who said to him, “Brother Maeser, I am sorry to know that Brigham Young Academy is burned.”
Karl’s reply: “No, Brother Smoot, only the building is burned.”
Two days later, space had been rented and classes continued.
The early 20th Century saw Utah Valley develop into a major player nationally, housing two United States senators, a gold medal Olympian and one of the largest steel-producing plants in the country. With improved communication and technology, Utah Valley was winning a place in the world.
- The grocery giversAfter World War II, Utah County cities became known for specific agricultural majesty.• Canning tomatoes (Orem)• Onions (Payson)• Strawberries (Pleasant Grove)• Poultry (American Fork)• Roller mills (Lehi)
- Wheel and steel In 1943, the Geneva Steel plant (on the banks of Utah Lake near Orem) opened its doors and began producing much-needed, wartime steel.During World War II, the plant employed 4,200 workers. Even after the war, the plant continued to be one of the major steel-producing entities in the West.Another economic engine from the early 1900s is still on track today: Bank of American Fork, founded in 1913. The bank is still headquartered in — you guessed it — American Fork.
- Funding for the arts During the Great Depression, Arthur V. Watkins — a prominent attorney and legislator — helped form SCERA to offer recreation to the downtrodden in Orem and surrounding areas. The SCERA has continued its mission to provide quality entertainment to Utah Valley for 80 years.
Apostle politician Imagine if Dallin H. Oaks decided to run for the United States Senate from Utah.
While this might sound unusual in today’s LDS Church leadership philosophy, that’s what it was like when LDS Church apostle Reed Smoot was elected to the United States Senate in 1902 — two years after being ordained an apostle.
He was a graduate of Brigham Young Academy (where he was taught by Karl G. Maeser) and eventually became involved in a number of Utah Valley business ventures. He worked in banking, mining, livestock raising and manufacturing of woolen goods. He was the president of Provo Commercial & Savings Bank and the Smoot Investment Company.
He — along with BYA classmate and fellow Senator George Sutherland — brought national attention to the county. Senator Smoot was a driving force in getting then-United States president William Howard Taft to visit Provo in 1909.
Smoot served for 10 years (1923-1933) as chair of the powerful Senate Finance Committee and also served on the Senate Appropriations Committee.
In 1932, after 30 years in the Senate, Smoot was defeated by Democrat Elbert D. Thomas.
Following his defeat, he returned to Utah to concentrate on his calling as an apostle. In 1941, he died while on a trip to Florida. He is buried in the Provo City Cemetery.
Modern-day pioneers have continued to make Utah Valley the right place to work, live and play. Business leaders, athletic pioneers and strong governmental oversight continue to push Provo and its neighbors to the top of liveability lists.
- A road never traveled In 1957, the state of Utah announced plans to participate in the federal highway program that led to the construction of I-15, which continues to be the main thoroughfare linking Lehi on the north to Santaquin on the south of Utah County.Initially, decision-makers leaned toward a route west of Utah Lake because it offered a more direct line from Salt Lake City to Nephi.
- Entrepreneurs in town While Utah Valley’s economy continued to be driven by Geneva Steel for much of the late 20th Century, the growth of the county brought a more complex business environment. BYU and UVU (in various incarnations) incubated a number of entrepreneurial outgrowths, especially in the fields of technology and software (see Alan Ashton at right).With its proximity to the Salt Lake City Airport and abundance of local talent, international business thrives in the county — including one bright industry of network marketing, led by Nu Skin in Provo.
- Expanding Y The era led to a building boom on the campus of BYU. The completion of the Harris Fine Arts Center in 1964 was especially important to the local community as it brought first-class concert facilities, which brought world-class productions and touring groups.
Father of innovation The Wasatch Front earned its nickname of “Silicon Slopes” due to the influx of international software and hardware companies (Novell, IM Flash, Adobe). The lineage of our technology hub can be traced back to one company — WordPerfect.
BYU professor Alan Ashton, along with student Bruce Bastian, started the company that would become WordPerfect in 1979. By 1987, the company was doing $100 million in sales and had become the world leader in word processing software.
The innovative giant — and its iconic campus just off of 1600 North in Orem — brought and kept talented engineers and entrepreneurs in Utah Valley. In turn, other software, hardware and technology companies flourished as the “grandchildren” of WordPerfect.
Meanwhile, Alan and his wife, Karen, have raised their own 11 children and dozens of grandchildren in Utah Valley, along with pioneering a number of iconic Utah Valley institutions. The Ashtons started Thanksgiving Point and have significantly helped the growth of the Timpanogos Storytelling Festival.
Alan has served the local LDS Church community as a stake president, bishop and will be the next temple president of the Provo Utah Temple. Karen served on the General Young Women Board.
Last but not least, Karen was the first cover story of Utah Valley Magazine and Alan graced the first issue of our sister publication, Utah Valley BusinessQ.