Panguitch day; today’s tourist hub built on a faithful foundation

A statue in the Quilt Walk Park commemorates the brave men who forged through the snow to procure much-needed sustenance for the earliest settlers, Panguitch, Utah, June 4, 2021 | Photo by Reuben Wadsworth, St. George News

FEATURE — Southern Utah University and Panguitch have one major thing in common. They both have a faith-promoting story related to their establishment that still holds a prominent place on their respective landscapes with statues commemorating them. Both stories reflect the struggles of brave men facing the obstacles of winter: the cold and the snow.

For SUU, it is the story of Old Sorrell, a horse who would not quit in bringing lumber to build the first structure on campus. For Panguitch, it is the story of the Quilt Walk, when seven brave men saved the community from starvation.

The first settlement

Due to decreases in the town’s wheat crop, several men from Parowan explored along the Sevier River approximately 40 miles due east of town and reported having found “an excellent valley capable of sustaining as large a number of inhabitants as Parowan Valley with good and abundant facilities for a thrifty settlement,” Parowan residents W.H. Dame and C.C. Pendleton wrote to Latter-day Saint apostle George A. Smith on February 16, 1864.

Within a month after the two men wrote the letter, 54 families from Parowan and Beaver led by Jens Nielson traversed about the same route as today’s state Route 20 between Interstate 15 and U.S. 89 into the valley at the confluence of Panguitch Creek and the Sevier River to build a new community, wrote Linda K. Newell and Vivian L. Talbot in their book “A History of Garfield County,” which was part of the Utah Centennial County History Series. Newell and Talbot report in their volume that the first settlers built “brush shanties and cellars” as their first residences until more substantial homes could be built. Residents also built a fort for protection from Native Americans.

Panguitch welcome signs reflect the date of the first iteration of settlement – 1864. After abandoning the settlement because of Indian hostilities in 1866, it was re-settled in 1871, Panguitch, Utah, June 4, 2021 | Photo by Reuben Wadsworth, St. George News

The community was first known as Fairview but was changed to Panguitch, which means “big fish” in both the Paiute and Goshute languages. The name was first given to the lake 18 miles south of town and the creek that flows from it. Apparently at one time, trout were so abundant in the lake that the local Native Americans could walk along the shore and spear them to have a plentiful supply, Newell and Talbot wrote. 

These first settlers divided the land into 40-acre fields and dug a canal to irrigate them. Unfortunately, they learned a hard lesson that first year as they did not plant crops early enough to give them time to adequately mature at the new settlement’s high altitude (just over 6,600 feet) before colder temperatures set in. 

“The residents of Panguitch would forever be at the mercy of short growing seasons and harsh winters,” Newell and Talbot wrote. “The winter of 1864-65 was exceptionally cold and snowy–and it came early.” 

Deep drifts closed the passes before townspeople could get their meager wheat harvest to the closest flour mills in Gunnison or Parowan. To grind their own flour, the townswomen used coffee mills and metate stones similar to those Native Americans used. The men caught a few fish and occasionally shot some small game, but it was not enough to sustain the community for the winter. 

A statue in the Quilt Walk Park commemorates the brave men who forged through the snow to procure much-needed sustenance for the earliest settlers, Panguitch, Utah, June 4, 2021 | Photo by Reuben Wadsworth, St. George News

In the face of this hunger, seven men left for Parowan to get much-needed food and supplies. The one wagon pulled by two oxen got bogged down in the snow, leaving them on foot to make the foreboding journey. Breaking a trail through the deep snow proved impossible, so after holding a prayer circle, the men felt inspired to constantly lay quilts down in front of them to gain traction and not sink into the snow. 

“In this way (laying quilts as they went) we made our way over the deep crusted snow to Parowan,” one of the men, Alexander Matheson, recorded later, as quoted in Newell and Talbot’s book. “The return trip was harder with the weight of the flour, but we finally made it to our wagon and oxen and on home.”

The other brave men who made the trek were Thomas Adair, John Butler, Jessie Louder, Thomas Richards, John Paul Smith and William Talbot.

This faith-promoting event, known as the Quilt Walk, plays a major role in the town even today, as mentioned earlier, with a park that features a statue dedicated to these courageous men as well as an annual Quilt Walk Festival during the second week of June.

In the weeks leading up to the Quilt Walk Festival, quilts like this one are put on display in places around town, Panguitch, Utah, June 4, 2021 | Photo by Reuben Wadsworth, St. George News

Due to these men’s efforts, the townspeople survived that first winter and were able to celebrate the first anniversary of their arrival in the valley with a party on March 16, 1865, with plenty of things to eat, from chicken to molasses cakes to service-berry pies. 

This first iteration of Panguitch, however, was short lived due to Indian hostilities that became known as the Black Hawk War, named after a Ute chief of the same name. This trouble with the Native Americans was largely motivated by the local tribes’ pending starvation. In addition, cultural misunderstandings and misguided targets of revenge fueled the antagonism. 

For better protection against the Indians, in early 1866 Iron County militiamen erected Fort Sanford, named for their commanding officer, 7 miles north of Panguitch, Newell and Talbot explained. 

On May 1, 1866, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints President Brigham Young ordered all residents of Sanpete County as well as those along the Sevier River to gather into groups of at least 150 men to protect their families and livestock against the Indians. That order, as well as a few scuffles with Indians within the Panguitch Valley, led to the settlement’s abandonment.

“Leaving crops in the ground, new homes, corrals, and the unfinished fort with all its buildings, the pioneers of Panguitch packed up their wagons that same month,” Newell and Talbot explained.

Some took refuge in Fort Sanford for a time until it was evacuated. Most went to Parowan and Kanosh. By June 1866, all settlements from Gunnison to Kanab were abandoned. 

 The resettlement

Interest in reestablishing Panguitch never waned since its abandonment. In March 1871, a group led by George W. Sevy of New Harmony arrived and found it practically the same as when its original residents left nearly five years before. Approximately 120 men and their families resettled the town with very few of the original inhabitants among them. However, those who did return were entitled to their former property or could sell it, Newell and Talbot wrote. Land and dwellings were divided among the newcomers, including some of the cabins still within the walls of the fort.

The Kate Lublin Alexander cabin is on display at a park near the Garfield County Fairgrounds, Panguitch, Utah, June 4, 2021 | Photo by Reuben Wadsworth, St. George News

Just like the original settlers, the first year of the second iteration, crops were sparse so the new residents had to butcher some of their cattle and again send men to Parowan for flour to make it through the winter.

They formed the Panguitch Cooperative Mercantile modeled after the Zion’s Cooperative Mercantile in Salt Lake City. They also learned by trial and error that potatoes, grain, meadow grass and alfalfa were the best crops at their high elevation. Stock raising became the dominant occupation. James Dickenson operated a gristmill along Panguitch Creek which provided the community much-needed flour. Children were baptized in the mill race and the mill or the nearby Dickenson home served as the venue for confirmations.

John D. Lee, infamous for his role in the Mountain Meadows Massacre, is buried in the Panguitch Cemetery, Panguitch, Utah, date unspecified | Photo courtesy of Southern Utah University Special Collections, St. George News

On November 7, 1874, U.S. marshals came to Panguitch to apprehend John D. Lee, who was visiting his fourth wife, for his role in the infamous Mountain Meadows Massacre. They found him huddled in a hog’s pen. Lee eventually received the death sentence, which was carried out on March 23, 1877, by firing squad at the massacre site. His family buried him in the Panguitch cemetery.

Local LDS stake president Joseph Young organized the Panguitch United Order just over a month after Lee’s apprehension. Much like the more successful attempt at it in Orderville, 45 miles south, the Panguitch order’s enterprises included dairying, freighting, milling and stock raising, among others. It only lasted two years, however, as frequent disagreement and dissension of those in the order caused many to question its value. One participant said the order took “thrifty, energetic men and made lazy men out of them,” Newell and Talbot quoted.

In its early days, Panguitch had an active trading and bartering system such as when early settler Mary Heywood cultivated yeast, trading a cup of it for a cup of flour. Hard currency was difficult to come by – the best source for it being selling commodities to the Nevada mining camps, such as Pioche.

Within a few years of resettlement, townspeople developed lime and brick kilns, leading to the construction of many brick homes. Quite a few early settlers actually had two homes – one in town and one on their farm or ranch property that they primarily used in the summer.

Until 1882, Panguitch was in Iron County, but requested to be in its own county. At first this new county was to be named Snow County after Erastus Snow, but the governor favored Garfield County after the recently assassinated President James Garfield (September 19, 1881), which stuck. 

Even in those early years leisure time was important. Dances and theatrical productions were a staple as well as a large town 4th of July celebration. 

Panguitch Lake

Nearby Panguitch Lake, also a center for dairy enterprises, became an important summer activity hub and recreational center. It was a favorite spot for Silver Reef miners and became known as “Little Silver Reef.” James Montague built a 7-room hotel on the south shore of the lake and later added a dance hall that extended over the water. Vacationers from Silver Reef regularly camped on Montague’s property. The lake also became a popular place for 4th and 24th of July celebrations. Paiutes also took part in these festivities, staging games and dances of their own.

This historic photo shows cabins at Panguitch Lake, Utah, 1938 | Photo courtesy of Southern Utah University Special Collections, St. George News

In the early 1880s, the LDS church organized a ward at the lake. An entrepreneur from Beaver established a horse racetrack as part of a resort near the Montague property.

“The track attracted racing enthusiasts from throughout the territory and surrounding states,” Newell and Talbot wrote. “Vacationers also attended foot races, prize fights and wrestling matches.”

In the early 1890s, a group of prominent men from Panguitch formed a company that built a circular racetrack with a grandstand and stables as well as a dance pavilion. It was reputed to be the largest dance hall south of Salt Lake City. In addition to dances, the pavilion became a venue for plays and other entertainment, including some presented by traveling stock companies.

The popularity of Panguitch Lake as a recreation destination ended in the late 1890s when, after Utah achieved statehood in 1896, it passed a law prohibiting horse racing and its associated gambling. Another reason interest in the lake waned was when the Utah Fish and Game Commission, fearing that the native trout had been overharvested, restocked the lake with chubs, which ruined trout fishing.

Today, Panguitch Lake is again a popular recreation destination. Horse races and dances are a thing of the past, but fishing and ATVing are as popular as ever.

Panguitch in the 20th century

The Garfield County Courthouse was finished in 1908, Panguitch, Utah, date unspecified | Photo courtesy of Southern Utah University Special Collections, St. George News

The early 20th century brought growth and progress, signaled by a new library and county courthouse as well as the installation of electricity and phone lines. It also brought tragedy, chief among them the Hatchtown Flood in 1914, which caused a 10-foot-high wall of water that carried away houses and outbuildings down the river’s path. It also ruined crops, ditches and canals and left some buildings damaged and abandoned. 

During the Great Depression, like many other Utah towns, Panguitch residents returned to the pioneer practice of trading and bartering. After years of growth, World War II saw the town lose population. After the war, tourism started to become the leading industry and farmers had to take on other jobs due to the outmigration of their children, Newell and Talbot explained.

In the mid 1950s, Croft Sawmills began operations in Panguitch and were later bought out by the Kaibab Lumber Company which then operated the mill in Panguitch that at its peak employed 400 people. The mill closed because of reduced timber allotments by the Forest Service, pressure from environmentalists and from homeowners living close to cut areas, as well as foreign competition. Other mills have cropped up but are extremely small operations compared to the Kaibab mill.

Downtown Panguitch is the gateway to both Panguitch Lake to the south and Bryce Canyon National Park to the east, Panguitch, Utah, June 4, 2021 | Photo by Reuben Wadsworth, St. George News

In the last few decades, efforts have been made to revitalize Panguitch’s Main Street and preserve its historical structures. Within 150 miles of three national parks and other scenic gems, Panguitch today is primarily a tourist hub with a variety of accommodations for travelers seeking outdoor recreation in nearby destinations such as Panguitch Lake, Red Canyon, Bryce Canyon National Park, Kodachrome Basin State Park and others.

Panguitch is approximately two hours from St. George, reached via northbound Interstate 15 and by heading east on either SR-14 from Cedar City or SR-20 north of Paragonah to access U.S. Highway 89, which runs through the town.

For more information, visit the Panguitch City 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.

To keep up on Wadsworth’s adventures, “like” his author Facebook page, follow his Instagram account or subscribe to his YouTube channel.

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

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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