Today's strips of fast food joints, new hotels and outlet malls hardly suggest the struggle St. George's first residents faced to make a livable place out of this hot redrock desert. Just years after its 1861 settling, the original inhabitants of St. George, sent here by Mormon church leadership in Salt Lake City, were ready to leave. It was hot, very dry and the Santa Clara and Virgin Rivers, which provided the area its only water supply, were both flood-prone and nearly unmanageable. Sensing the need for St. George to endure, both for its geographic importance and its warm-weather climate, Brigham Young, then-president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, instigated a public works project to help residents. In a food-for-labor program, Young set St. George residents to work on public works projects and northern Utah residents donated or tithed food and living supplies to workers. Over a 13-year period, settlers constructed St. George's tabernacle, courthouse and Mormon temple. When Brigham Young himself moved into the James Chesney home in 1869, the community's destiny was sealed.
Brigham Young, as the locals say, was St. George's first snowbird. As Young aged and began suffering from arthritis, he found that St. George's warm, dry and snowless winters eased his discomfort. The original portion of his home was begun in 1869 and completed in 1871. The front addition—what most would call the main part of the house—was completed in 1873. Made from adobe, plaster and local rock, the two-story home is indicative of homebuilding in Utah at the time, when homes had large wrap-around front porches, thick insulating walls, a vegetable storage room in the basement, and three or more bedrooms. Young's home also had a detached office with telegraph station, and a large office-style master bedroom upstairs. The home also has an ingenious ventilation system where warm air flows out through the ceiling into the attic and out of the house. Orchards and gardens surrounded the home on three sides.
Subsequent to Young's death, the Brigham Young Winter Home passed through several ownerships before it was purchased by the Mormon Church and opened to the public as a museum, with free guided tours. Because of the changes in ownership, many of the original pieces of furniture were lost. Some original pieces are still with the home, however, and in some cases replications have been introduced.
Securing materials for the building of the home and its subsequent additions showed the ingenuity and perseverance of early Mormon settlers. Baking adobe from local mud and hauling logs first from the Pine Valley Mountains then from Mount Trumbull—several days' journey to the south—local building materials tended to be a mix of happenstance and scientific experimentation. Even today, visitors to the Young home can see where the adobe bricks contain the outlines of the sagebrush used to stabilize it, as opposed to the typical straw. What could not be made locally had to be shipped in from outside the region, and sometimes even from the East Coast. Young, himself a hobbyist furniture maker, constructed some fine examples of pioneer-era rockers and chairs. Other items, such as the bulwark piano in the first floor sitting room, were brought across the Plains in wagons.
And in some cases, the Mormon settlers had the materials they could use but not the ones they wanted to use. Raised on the hardwood lumber common to the eastern half of the country, Mormon carpenters were often unhappy with the way the local softwoods took stains. Yet rather than import hardwoods halfway across the country, Mormon carpenters instead actually painted grains simulating hardwoods onto the indigenous pine used to construct almost everything in the house. This astounding (though nearly dead) art can still be seen on many of the doors, window sills and tables in the Young home.
The Brigham Young Winter Home sits in a neighborhood of pioneer homes, many of them wonderfully restored. Some homes are open to the public, others offer tours, and some are not open to the public. A few, such as the Seven Wives Inn (diagonally across from the Young home), are businesses. More than two-dozen of St. George's finest historic homes and buildings can be seen on a walking tour of the downtown area. The Brigham Young Winter Home is located at the southeast corner of 200 North and 100 West. It is open for tours daily from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. (until 7:00 p.m. in spring and until 8:00 p.m. in summer). For more information call (435) 673-5181.