Mt. Carmel day; two gems named ‘Thunderbird’ on Zion’s east side

White cliffs rise to the east of the Maynard Dixon home and studio in Mt. Carmel, Utah, date unspecified. Lower left is the Maynard Dixon Home and to the lower right is the Thunderbird Restaurant sign | Top photo courtesy of Dan Bingham, lower photos by Reuben Wadsworth, St. George News

FEATURE — While Springdale gets most of the action when it comes to Zion tourism, those who head east to Mount Carmel and Mount Carmel Junction for their Zion base camp will be rewarded. 

The Thunderbird Restaurant’s exterior is in the Southwestern style, Mt. Carmel Junction, Utah, May 29, 2020 | Photo by Reuben Wadsworth, St. George News

They will see fewer crowds, picturesque, majestic white cliffs and two historic gems that share the same name as Southern Utah University’s mascot: the Thunderbird Restaurant and Lodge in Mount Carmel Junction and the Maynard Dixon Home and Studio in Mount Carmel, which is operated by the Thunderbird Foundation named for Dixon,’s famous Thunderbird insignia. 

Thunderbird Restaurant and Lodge

The history of the Thunderbird Restaurant and Lodge reads much like its counterpart to the south in Northern Arizona: Jacob Lake. Both began as businesses started by enterprising young families who saw the potential to offer services to tourists traveling through to see the nearby national parks. Both started as gas stations, then branched out to include restaurants and overnight accommodations. And thankfully, both remain in the hands of descendants of the original operators.

The Thunderbird’s founders were Jack and Fern Morrison.

This historic photo of Thunderbird Restaurant and Lodge founder Jack Morrison hangs in the entryway between the restaurant and gift shop, Mt. Carmel Junction, Utah, May 29, 2020 | Photo by Reuben Wadsworth, St. George News

Jack Morrison was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1891. His mother died when he was only 8 years old. It was a difficult time for Morrison’s family. While still a young man, Morrison caught a train to Wyoming to work in the coal mines there. Coal mining, not surprisingly, was a dangerous profession – digging tunnels and laying track for mine cars, among other duties. 

In 1917, he was drafted into the army to fight in Europe after the United States’ entry into World War I. In the army, he learned about building roads and rail lines. 

Fern Hanson was born in 1907 to Danish immigrants in Bear River City, Utah, growing up the oldest of nine children living in a two-room log cabin heated by a cast-iron wood-burning stove. She was a miniature mother to her siblings and did a lot of chores around her family’s farm, from milking the cows to building the fires on which they would cook. Her family later moved to Soldier Summit, and then Springville where she secured employment as a model for J.C. Penney. 

It was also in Springville where one of her friends set her up on a blind date with Jack Morrison, which was a “scandalous adventure,” according to a video biography of the Morrisons available on YouTube

After the date, her friend asked what she thought of Mr. Morrison, to which she smiled and let out a loud laugh, saying “I was plum disgusted with him,” as quoted in the video.

However, after the date, it seemed that wherever she was, Jack was there, too. After a three-month courtship, the pair were married in October 1926.

It is unclear what brought the couple down Highway 89 in Jack’s Model T, the video notes. It could have been the scenery or just the sense of adventure. During the late 1920s, better roads were being constructed to make a loop connecting three national parks: Zion, Bryce Canyon and the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. 

Jack foresaw the road “creating supply lines,” the video remarks. The story goes that Jack tied a tree to his Model T to prevent the automobile from careening off the steep road still under construction between Highway 89 and what would be the Zion Tunnel. Using his veteran benefits, he decided to homestead 160 acres right where the new road (known as the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway) would connect with Highway 89. 

This historic photo of Thunderbird Restaurant and Lodge founder Fern Morrison and her four children hangs in the entryway between the restaurant and gift shop, Mt. Carmel Junction, Utah, May 29, 2020 | Photo by Reuben Wadsworth, St. George News

It was a risky proposition, but Jack and Fern built a small cabin just east of Highway 89 near the Virgin River. They started their family and began to improve the property to gain ownership.

Developing the land was a challenge at first as the road washed out whenever the river flooded, the video explained. Ingenious Jack utilized the silt runoff to the family’s advantage, building it up to help stabilize the area. Soon, the Morrisons built a gas station across the road in front of their home to service the travelers along Highway 89 and the new state Route 9 into Zion National Park. 

“Fern baked fruit-filled pies and treated the truck drivers to a slice when they stopped in,” the video remarked. “Soon she was selling pies to a regular crowd of truck drivers.”

In 1940, the couple decided to build the Thunderbird Cafe and Restaurant, complete with a horseshoe counter. Starting another business was yet another risk and Jack had to take a job with the railroad to help the family get by.

On July 27, 1942, tragedy struck when the couple’s oldest daughter, Joyce, got stuck in the strong undertow of the Virgin River and her younger brother, Jackie, dove in to save her. Both children drowned. 

Fern soldiered on in running the business and attending to their two younger children in Jack’s absence. In order to survive during World War II, Jack sold off parts of the family’s land and took a job as an electrical engineer at Hoover Dam for a time as well as an engineer for the Union Pacific Railroad. The couple added on to the restaurant and gas station as profits allowed. The more customers they had, the more improvements they made, including adding restrooms and a curio shop.

It was during this time that Jack came up with the famous “pie girl” icon, modeled after his sweetheart. On the sign adorned by this female pie-holding beauty, the name was changed from the correctly-spelled “homemade” to “ho-made” because wood was scarce during the war and there wasn’t enough room on the sign for the extra two letters. 

“Being out in the country, the folksier-sounding, shortened version was a winner,” the video noted of the misspelled name. “These days the family embraces the controversy of that shortened sign as a fun part of their heritage.”

This historic photo of the gas station in its early days hangs in the entryway between the restaurant and gift shop at the Thunderbird Restaurant and Lodge, Mt. Carmel Junction, Utah, May 29, 2020 | Photo by Reuben Wadsworth, St. George News

In the late 1950s, Jack was diagnosed with cancer, most likely brought on from his days working in the coal mines. He passed away in 1961. At the time of his death, Fern was only 54 years old.

“The plans they had made together barely started,” the video noted. “With the loss of her husband, Fern could have easily given up and sold everything but she was a strong and hardworking woman with a keen business sense.”

When her water rights were threatened, not wanting to raise cattle or grow crops, she built a nine-hole golf course behind the gas station and restaurant. Later, realizing that she could attract overnight visitors, she built hotel rooms.

Before her death in 1993, she remodeled the restaurant, gas station and gift shop and also added more motel rooms. She kept Jack’s memory alive by keeping the original buildings and building around them. For instance, the East Zion Riverside Lodge across the street from the restaurant and motel was built around their original homestead cabin where Fern gave birth to her children.

The Morrisons’ posterity still own and operate the restaurant, lodge and golf course

“The Thunderbird Resort is a monument to Jack’s foresight and Fern’s courage and determination,” the video attests.

It is clear to any customer that the restaurant owners revere the resort’s heritage as pictures of Jack and Fern and what the property looked like in its early days adorn the walls as visitors enter. The decor inside the restaurant is laden with nostalgia: relics from bygone eras, especially model cars. It also features adornments that clearly display its location and geography with old highway signs such as one showing the mileage to Springdale and the direction to go towards Kanab.

The property still includes a gas station, the very business that started it all.

Maynard Dixon was a renowned artist known best for his paintings of Western landscapes, date unspecified | Photo courtesy of the Thunderbird Foundation, St. George News

Maynard Dixon the artist

Maynard Dixon is a famous western artist who found inspiration and peace in Southern Utah and made his part-time home there for the last seven years of his life.

Born in 1875 in Fresno, California to a ranching family, the “broad, open vistas of the largely unsettled San Joaquin Valley of his youth would affect his artistic expression,” the National Historic Register Form for his home and studio explained.

“No doubt these flat scenes have influenced my work,” Dixon is quoted in the form as saying. “I have always felt my boyhood impressions are responsible for my weakness for horizontal lines.”

The bio of Dixon on the Thunderbird Foundation Website explained that Dixon knew from an early age that he wanted be an illustrator and sent some of his early drawings to the famed Western illustrator Frederic Remington and even received encouragement from Remington in reply. He studied at the California School of Design in San Francisco and exhibited “tremendous natural artistic talent,” the bio notes.

Even though illustrators were a dime a dozen in the early 20th century, Dixon landed work from the Overland Monthly and several San Francisco newspapers at a young age. Additionally, some of his work appeared in Clarence Mulford’s books about Hopalong Cassidy, the website bio noted. One thing from these early years became a staple of his later artwork: Western themes.

Dixon is best known, however, as an acclaimed painter. At first, he painted in a style that romanticized the West, but then he eventually “rebelled against portraying romantic notions about the West that he considered unrealistic,” the Historic Register Form explained. He painted in many different styles and his work does not fit into one major movement, although they show Impressionist, Modernist, Cubist and Realist influences.

“My work, outside the limits of illustration, is not the regulation ‘Wild West’ type of painting,” Dixon once said of his work. “It aims rather to interpret the vastness, the loneliness, and the sense of freedom this country inspires. I want to make my paintings show the people as a part of that.”

Dixon met portrait photographer Dorothea Lange in 1919. Lange, an easterner, came west seeking a new life and she found a major part of it with Dixon as the two married in 1920. Lange became famous in her own right as a photographer who took one of the most famous Depression-era photos, entitled “Migrant Mother” during her time working for the Resettlement Administration.

Dixon and his family spent the summer of 1933 in Zion National Park and Mt. Carmel, Utah and fell in love with the area. Two years later, he and Lange divorced and in 1937 he married Edith Hamlin, a well-known San Francisco muralist, the foundation bio notes.

“The couple left San Francisco two years later for Southern Utah, the source of some of Dixon’s greatest art,” the bio explains. “He had returned to the inspiration of the land where the spirit moved him and gave him the peace he sought.”

The bio goes on to note that Dixon “found new friends and became reacquainted with the earth” in Mt. Carmel. “He lived near the cottonwood trees along an old irrigation ditch and took short hikes to a plateau where he loved the quiet.”

Dixon split time between Mount Carmel and Tucson, his winter home, the rest of his life. He died in Tucson in 1946.

The Maynard Dixon Home and Studio is a living history museum showing the life of a famous Western artist, not an art gallery, Mt. Carmel, Utah, date unspecified | Photo courtesy of Dan Bingham, St. George News

Maynard Dixon Home and Studio

The Maynard Dixon House and Studio and their adjacent structures were built between 1939 and 1948 by Dixon and his wife, Edith Hamlin. The other buildings on the site include a garage, a bunkhouse, fruit cellar and an outhouse. All of the buildings are fashioned of native materials: log, lumber and stone. 

A large stone east of the studio which bears Dixon’s initials was his “favorite place of repose,” The National Register of Historic Places Form said. A larger stone, farther up the hill, is where his ashes were scattered, and which bears a memorial plaque placed in 1947, the year after his death. 

Hamlin didn’t complete the studio until 1948. After her husband’s death, she still split her time between Mt. Carmel and Tucson but returned to San Francisco in 1953 after remarrying, where she lived until her death in 1992 at the age of 89.

The home is a 1.5 story log building with a steep-pitched gable roof and a tall, narrow stone chimney on a stone foundation. The living room features a full-height vaulted ceiling with exposed log rafters and a large stone fireplace on the north wall. The kitchen and bathroom were updated in the 1970s.

The garage was the first building on the property and served as the living quarters during the first year until the house was finished. 

A large Thunderbird insignia sign and restored Volkswagen Karmann Ghia sit out front of the Maynard Dixon Home and Studio in Mt. Carmel, Utah, May 29, 2020 | Photo by Reuben Wadsworth, St. George News

It served as their summer home for the last seven years of Dixon’s life, “during which he remained very active in his career as a painter and even completed some of his best-known work,” the form noted.

“Dixon is regarded as one of the most distinctive and accomplished early 20th century American painters of Western scenes,” the form said.

The home is operated by the Thunderbird Foundation, founded by Paul and Susan Bingham. Paul Bingham had a close association with Dixon’s widow, Edith Hamlin as an art dealer and started the Foundation in 1999 to preserve the property, purchasing it from its previous owner.

The Dixon home and studio are a living history museum, designed to give a glimpse into the life of one of the West’s most renowned artists, the Foundation’s website explains. There are examples of Dixon’s art throughout the buildings, they are “very fine reproductions” and not original works.

For more information about the home and studio, please visit its website.

Visiting Mt. Carmel and Mt. Carmel Junction

Mt. Carmel Junction (Thunderbird Restaurant and Lodge) and Mt. Carmel (Maynard Dixon Home and Studio) are approximately an hour and a half drive east of St. George via I-15 and SR 9. One will drive through the Zion Tunnel and the scenery of East Zion on the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway, to get there.

It is only 17 miles north of Kanab on U.S. Highway 89.

There is more to see there than the two places mentioned in this story, including a historic church and school built in 1880 and, of course, the picturesque white cliffs to the east.

For more information about Mt. Carmel, visit the Kane County Tourism website.

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About the series “Days”

“Days” is a series of stories about people and places, industry and history in and surrounding the region of southwestern Utah.

“I write stories to help residents of southwestern Utah enjoy the region’s history as much as its scenery,” St. George News contributor Reuben Wadsworth said.

For previews on Days Series stories, insights on local history and information on upcoming historical presentations, please “like” Wadsworth’s author Facebook page.

Wadsworth has also released a book compilation of many of the historical features written about Washington County as well as a second volume containing stories about other places in Southern Utah, Northern Arizona and Southern Nevada.

Read more: See all of the features in the “Days” series.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @STGnews

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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