Historical society visits Ghost Towns of Emery County
The Emery County Historical Society met Saturday June 1, 2013 at the Cleveland City Park and went on a tour of two Ghost Towns and the restored ghost town buildings in Cleveland Utah. Ed Geary an Emery County Historian led off the tour by relating some of the history of Victor as found in his book "A History Of Emery County."
On this tour there were a few people that had lived in Desert Lake and Victor as children. To get to the old town sites of Desert Lake and Victor the tour took a dirt road north of Cleveland and south of Elmo and traveled east through the Desert Lake Wildlife Refuge where a large alkali patch and three or four ponds reflecting the sky are located behind the Desert Lake Dam. Desert Lake and Victor are east of the dam. At one time homesteads dotted the landscape there.
Geary said, "In 1885, when the pioneers began to be interested in settling the region along the Cleveland canal, a group of people looked farther east and settled in a natural, hollow near the base of Cedar Mountain. At the time there was a major Indian Trail through the area. In the early days, that is where the Gunnison party came across. In later years. A lot of the people in Ferron who had grazing land at 9 mile used this land as part of their cattle trail. The open valley and grass looked pretty good to the settlers. The natural flow of water flowed east from Cleveland toward the hollow. The settlers tried bringing water farther down from the Cleveland canal to develop the land and with teams and scrapers built a dam between two benches or low hills. This dam was to store water for the winter and for summer irrigation. That is where the name Desert Lake comes from. Their hope was to get a canal so they could use some winter water from the creek and some high water to fill up the dam.
"They tried several things such as extending a branch of the Cleveland canal, an extension of the Huntington North ditch. Their problems with the ditch or canal and the problems with water rights created difficulties for them. They were rarely able to get any fresh water. What they got instead was the waters that ran off the farms farther up. They got by with that alkaline water for a while. But every year, things got a little worse. These farmers farmed a lot of acres in this fertile valley and grew wheat, corn, hay and even sugar beets.
"Then in 1896 their dam broke which did a lot of flood damage to the people living below the dam. This, of course, deprived them of their irrigation water. The community got together and started raising money to rebuild the dam. The LDS church contributed money to help hire people to come and rebuild the dam. They tried to engineer the dam better and it took them a year or more to rebuild the dam. Because of alkali in the water, the ground became less productive from year-to-year. Then in 1908 some of the people decided if we move north to higher ground, perhaps we would have better ground. They then moved to the town site of Victor. There they brought water from Price River to land north of Victor. Some people remained in Desert Lake, but the center of the population gradually moved to Victor.
"At Victor, they built a school out of concrete blocks made locally. That became the main building in Victor and was used for school, church and community activities. In 1914, the church organization in Desert Lake formally moved to Victor and continued until 1935. By the mid 1930s in the midst of a multiyear drought there was no good water to be had. Not only was there no water for the land. There was no good water for the people to drink.
Ed Geary said, I think it was the improvement of transportation that led to the end of Victor. The distance from the farm to Elmo was quite a deterrent if you had to get to your farm by horse and wagon. But if you had a Model T, then you could live in Elmo and have good water to drink and not be far from your farm. By the mid-1930s, most people had moved off the land to live in town. North of Victor, there was some land that was irrigated from the Price River and people lived on those farms," said Geary.
The names of the people that lived in Desert Lake and Victor are familiar names in Emery County. Even though these are ghost towns there are living people who trace their roots here. Such as the Wells family, the Powell family, Winder family, the Pillings family, and the Mills family.
Massa Blackburn came to the community as a schoolteacher and was a leader in the community for several years before he moved on. Visiting Desert Lake and Victor is a tradition that lives on in a lot of families in the area. Even though there's not much active life going on where those homesteads once stood.
After leaving the highway and traveling east on unimproved dirt roads. The Historical Society came to the Desert Lake waterfowl management area and stopped on a hill overlooking the valley that had been settled by pioneers in the community of Desert Lake. On this hill stood a monument erected in 1981 in memory of Charles William," Bill" Winder and Caroline Elizabeth Mills. This monument listed some of the genealogy of that family.
Ed Geary then led the group to the town site of Desert Lake. At Desert Lake Theora Pillings Worley told of living as a child four years at the Pillings homestead. She pointed out where the house had stood. She and her sister were born at that homestead. Theora was born in 1925. In 1929 the whole family moved to Big Spring Ranch.
Theora said, they started a dairy at Desert Lake and built a cement vat in the ground to keep the milk cold. Her grandfather and some of the boys built a 9-foot deep cistern lined with cement. They had an old pump in the house to pump water from the cistern into the house. Theora said her uncle Monte would deliver milk to Price every day and bring back big blocks of ice to put in the vat to keep the milk cool.
The Pillings raised hay, grain and sugar beets on the farm. One day when her father had all of his grain standing in chocks along came a "whirly" wind and scattered the grain over the valley and that ended his farming of grain. So they started the dairy.
Theora Pillings Worley had photos of what the homestead looked like and passed those around.
The Historical Society saw the Pillings dugout that had caved in and was partially fallen apart. There appeared to have been nearby a large storage cellar at Desert Lake. Only the deep depression in the hillside remained, with steps leading down in the front and a rock wall at the far end.
Darrel Oliver also once lived at Desert Lake and pointed out where his home had been from 1921 to 1945 on a distant side of the valley. The field there is still being irrigated. His father plowed a ditch around Desert Lake to irrigate his crops. The water was fresh and was utilized for farming. The ditch may still be in use.
Darrel said, Most of the houses were still standing at Desert Lake when the Fish and Game took over. The residents had moved away. One winter morning at 4 a.m. the Fish and Game burned all the houses left in Desert Lake.
The Historical Society then visited the graveyards at Desert Lake and at Victor to view the names of these hardy pioneers. The graveyards were still sporting the decorations from Memorial Day. Many of the graves from Desert Lake had been moved to the Victor Graveyard on higher ground.
After leaving the Victor Cemetery the group traveled to Cleveland Utah to view the exciting pioneer village buildings from around the county that were being restored by Owen Olsen. Olsen had bottles of water and cookies for everyone and a story about Jasper the Little Red Fire Truck. Olsen had written a children's book about the Cleveland Fire Truck that the city had given him for his museum. He built a fire station for that fire truck.
As the group visited each building they reminisced about homes they had lived in.
The pioneer buildings Owen Olsen restored were carefully numbered by him. Each piece had a number before he took the building apart. He then put the building back together with each numbered piece in its place. The chinking between the logs that make up the walls was mixed with straw to keep the chinking from cracking and falling out.
Olsen has found and restored several old pioneer homestead buildings. One of those is an old school house with a steeple and a bell. Another is an old home. Owen also has a collection of old farm machinery in Cleveland.