Paper Drapes That Looked Like Silk
June 1997

“Paper Drapes That Looked Like Silk,” Ensign, June 1997, 19

Faith in Every Footstep 1847–1997

Paper Drapes That Looked Like Silk

Resourcefulness is not only an essential survival skill, it is also a key element in the spiritual and temporal development of an individual and the community.

Following the devastating bombing of Dresden, Germany, in 1945, eight Relief Society sisters, two deacons, and two older brethren, sometimes aided by others, labored to remove heavy rubble and remodel part of an old army barracks for a meeting place. “We built new benches for the classrooms,” recalled Edith Schade Krause. “There was no way to buy curtains or drapes, so we took leftover rolls of newsprint which one of the sisters decorated with roses. She was a porcelain painter, and the paper drapes looked like they were made of silk.”1

Resourcefulness is often born of necessity, but for many Latter-day Saints it also grows out of a commitment to the gospel. The Savior’s parable of the talents underscores the importance of creatively employing and multiplying resources or talents in honor of the Lord, who gave them (see Matt. 25:14–29). Examples of resourcefulness from the lives of hardworking Saints, past and present, can inspire us to develop this virtue in our lives.

Makeshift and Make Do

The westward trek of the Latter-day Saint pioneers tapped wellsprings of ingenuity. Traveling without road maps and mileage charts, the vanguard pioneer company under President Brigham Young understood the importance of keeping a careful log of their journey, for thousands more would be following, quite literally, in their footsteps.

William Clayton, known for authoring the great pioneer hymn “Come, Come, Ye Saints,” took upon himself the task of devising a mechanism that would compute the mileage of the journey west. He first suggested the idea to Elder Orson Pratt on 12 April, who agreed that “it could be easily done.”2 William first measured the circumference of one of the wheels on Elder Heber C. Kimball’s wagon and found that it made 360 revolutions to the mile. He then attached a red flannel rag on a spoke of the wheel and walked by the side of the wagon for an entire day, counting the number of revolutions the rag made. Elder Pratt then designed the mechanism, which the mechanical skill of fellow pioneer Appleton Harmon turned into a workable odometer, attaching wooden cogs to a wheel to measure miles as well as revolutions. According to Elder Pratt, it was constructed on “the principle of the endless screw.”3 William then relayed the information to the companies that followed by writing crude mileage charts on cedar posts (and even buffalo skulls) at strategic points along the trail.4 From this experimental beginning, William Clayton compiled an emigrant’s guide that proved invaluable for western travelers. Inventiveness is often nothing more than confronting a dilemma or a problem and coming up with a workable solution.

The western trail and frontier settlements became a limitless testing ground for innovative and resourceful thinking and doing. Despite the disastrous experiences of the Willie and Martin Companies, the handcart experiment proved to be an innovative plan to assist “poor Saints” to gather with the Church and brought to Zion several thousand devoted members who otherwise could not have come. “Makeshift” and “make do” were keys to survival on the long journey across the plains of Nebraska and mountains of Wyoming. Sarah Burbank found that buffalo chips baked her bread just as well as firewood, and that saleratus, a form of bicarbonate of soda distilled from alkali springs, proved to be a useful substitute for yeast in leavening bread and biscuits. Jostling wagons churned butter even better than the arduous hand churning.

As the Latter-day Saints established farms and towns and cities in the western United States, they survived and even prospered because of their ingenuity. From each problem, large or small, sprang a solution as pioneers drew from the physical resources about them. They lived in wagon boxes, tents, and dugouts until they could construct log or adobe homes. When there was no straw, they made their mattresses fluffy by stuffing them with cattails. As children wore out or grew out of shoes, men shaped new ones from the tops of their own worn-out boots. Women made sugar by boiling down beets, squash, or carrots. Lucy Meserve Smith recalled that one spring and summer Provo settlers “were very destitute of sweet, so the Good Provider sent Honey Dew on to the Cottonwood and Willow leaves.” She and three friends cut leafy branches from the trees, “washed the sugar flakes into tubs,” and then strained and processed the sap as Lucy had seen her mother “manufacture sugar from the Maple sap” in New England.5

Turning Poverty into Self-Sufficiency

Resourcefulness also includes maximizing the use of available physical, social, and spiritual resources. Thomas Briggs and his wife, Ann, reached Utah in 1864 with almost nothing but their team and wagon. They and their four children moved north to Bountiful and lived in their wagon until they could rent a small, unfurnished house. At first they used their traveling trunk for a table and slept on the floor.

Thomas husked corn for a neighbor in exchange for corn so his own family could eat the typical winter supper of cornmeal mush and milk. By hauling load after load of wood from the mountains, he earned enough money to rent pieces of land from various neighbors. He planted onions, beets, and carrots, and cane to make molasses. By the fall of 1865, despite a continuing struggle with a severely damaged knee and leg, Thomas was delighted his crops were growing, his two pigs were fat, and “everything looked prosperous.” He wrote, “We rejoiced to think that we had been blessed so much.”

But the hard-won prosperity was short lived. One day after Thomas and his 11-year-old son Ephraim had started for a load of wood, he recalled, “When we were about a mile from home Brother Prescott stopped us, and said, ‘Brother Briggs, I am very sorry to tell you, but all of your stuff is burned up, your stable, and all that you had in the corral is gone.’ I asked him if everyone at home was all right and he said they were. I told him that last fall I came to Utah with nothing, and I had nothing now, and that I always dedicated everything to the Lord and if he thought fit to make a burnt offering of it, well and good. When I arrived home everything looked pretty bad. I comforted my wife the best I could. I then went to work with a stronger will than ever. I asked my Heavenly Father to give me strength of body, and prayed that He would help me through as He had many times before.”6

Thomas and Ann started over again and obtained what was needed to survive. Later, Brother Briggs’s experience in poverty became one of his most important resources. With faith and great care, he helped collect and distribute necessities to the widows and the poor. Resourcefulness is not only an essential survival skill; it is a critical component of individual and community development.

Inspiration and Innovation

Magnifying one’s calling as a disciple of the Savior is another form of resourcefulness. It springs from a desire to express one’s faith through service in the kingdom and to go beyond the minimum expectations of an assignment. By striving to “be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will,” Latter-day Saints have been able to “bring to pass much righteousness” (D&C 58:27).

Following months of study and prayer, Jens Weibye was baptized in northern Denmark in April 1854. He immediately began visiting in the homes of Latter-day Saints as well as the homes of those of other faiths to expound the scriptures and hold prayer meetings. A tailor by trade, Jens had developed and published his own laborsaving method for making patterns and cutting material. Combining his clever tailoring with his commitment to spreading the gospel, he sent to every tailor in Hjørring, the largest town in the area, a copy of his tailoring instructions along with a pamphlet entitled “Invitation to the Kingdom of God.” The capacities he developed during seven years of full-time Church service in Denmark enabled Jens to preside over the company of 210 Saints with whom he and his wife and daughter immigrated to the Rocky Mountains. He not only kept records and handled money for the company but also employed his skill as a tailor in cutting the material for tents, suitcases, and sleeping-bag covers the immigrants sewed together during their sea voyage in preparation for the rest of the journey west.7

While resourcefulness is a quality of the individual, its consequences can touch the lives of many. In 1878, worrying about the unruliness of the children in her ward in Farmington, Utah, Aurelia Spencer Rogers originated a plan to help keep the children close to the Church, and with the approval of priesthood leaders and the supportive efforts of the Relief Society sisters, the first Primary Association came into being. Church leaders adopted the plan in every ward.

For Sister Rogers, the plan to help the children came as a spiritual prompting that deeply affected her. “While thinking about what was to be done for the best good of the children,” she recalled, “I seemed to be carried away in the spirit, or at least I experienced a feeling of untold happiness which lasted three days and nights. During that time nothing could worry or irritate me; if my little ones were fretful, or the work went wrong, I had patience, and control in kindness, and managed my household affairs easily. This was a testimony to me that what was being done was from God.”8

Kernel by Kernel

When Emmeline B. Wells was assigned by President Brigham Young in 1877 to head a grain-saving program, she used her skills and her position as co-editor of the Woman’s Exponent to write editorials urging the women throughout the Church to accumulate a reserve supply of grain.

“We began that very year,” Sister Wells wrote, “and though we were laughed at, we did buy grain.” Ward by ward, women became aware of resources they could utilize. Some women used their Sunday egg money (earned from the sale of eggs laid on Sunday) to buy surplus wheat; some saved wheat from their own supply; others went into the fields after harvest and gleaned the fallen shafts. The bishop of the Gunnison, Utah, ward became a faithful supporter of the program and called for volunteers among the brethren to take their teams and transport the sisters to the field and home again.

In time, the growing stores of grain necessitated the building of granaries. By developing an awareness of possible resources and by carefully evaluating and utilizing them, dozens of ward Relief Societies, with the support of their priesthood leaders, built and supervised their own granaries.

At the Jubilee conference of the Church in 1880, the sisters voted to lend their wheat to the bishops for relief of the poor. Relief Society sisters felt that the grain-saving mission was an inspired responsibility and an important trust, and they used their energies and resourcefulness to prove themselves worthy of it. They distributed the wheat when it was needed as part of their charitable mission, and collectively stored the grain the community might need in a time of famine. The sisters’ resourcefulness strengthened Zion and simultaneously enlarged their individual and collective talents as they devised ways to gather grain and supervise granaries.

Emmeline Wells believed her half-century of grain-saving work to be a fulfillment of a blessing she had been given as a young woman in which she was told she had a great work to perform “that has never been done by any woman.” The work done in saving grain, she wrote years later, “is unusual and unique for women. Joseph in Egypt was the only one that saved and stored grain for a great people.”9

Discovering Hidden Resources

Resourcefulness means finding new ways to perform familiar tasks, new ideas for old materials, new methods for teaching eager minds, and new avenues for reaching yearning hearts. It is seeking outside oneself for the best available resources and within oneself for the strength and capabilities that often lie hidden there. The resourceful spirit so characteristic of early generations of Latter-day Saints has animated Church members in other times and places and is very much alive today.

Brother Otakar Vojkuvka, a member of the Church in Czechoslovakia, found an acceptable way to transcend communism and bring, quite literally, the light of the gospel to students. Unable to teach any religious ideas openly, Brother Vojkuvka opened a summer yoga camp where he gave seven principles for a more abundant life: admiration for good things, self-respect, interest in life, joy in living, gratitude, love for others, and enthusiasm.

“The purpose of these principles was to help the youth build meaningful relationships with others and to bring them to a more spiritual life,” explained one of his students, Olga Kovárová (her married name is now Campora).10 Searching for higher truths, Olga learned the gospel from Brother Vojkuvka, joined the Church, and assisted him in teaching at the yoga camp. She also edited a newsletter called The Art of Living, which reinforced the seven principles for a more abundant life. The courage, commitment, and resourcefulness of Otakar and Olga brought more than 47 people into the Church and helped prepare the way for the missionaries when the country was opened for proselytizing.

Building Zion requires of men and women not only their time, means, and obedience but all their imagination, innovation, and resourcefulness. The Lord encourages us to be resourceful when he says, “It is not meet that I should command in all things” and “for the power is in them, wherein they are agents unto themselves” (D&C 58:26, 28). The strength of the Church rests upon the commitment of its members. To express that commitment in the diverse and challenging circumstances of today’s world, Latter-day Saints can find resources within themselves and in their own corner of the world.

Like the Latter-day Saints of the past, who built new homesteads on the ashes of the old, picked up kernels of wheat, and painted roses on paper drapes, Latter-day Saints on the edge of this new century can also use their talents, skills, and resources in furthering the work of the Lord.


  1. Garold N. Davis and Norma S. Davis, comp., Behind the Iron Curtain: Recollections of Latter-day Saints in East Germany, 1945–1989 (1996), 14.

  2. William Clayton’s Journal (1921), 83.

  3. B. H. Roberts, History of the Mormon Church (1909–15), 3:596–97; see also Norman E. Wright, “Odometers, Distance Measurement on Western Emigrant Trails,” Overland Journal 13 (fall 1995): 14–24.

  4. Wallace Stegner, The Gathering of Zion: The Story of the Mormon Trail (1964), 132–35.

  5. Kenneth W. Godfrey, Audrey M. Godfrey, and Jill Mulvay Derr, eds., Women’s Voices: An Untold History of the Latter-day Saints (1982), 264.

  6. “The Diary and Journal of Thomas Briggs,” Our Pioneer Heritage, comp. Kate B. Carter, 20 vols. (1958–77), 3:285.

  7. Richard Jensen, “From Denmark to Manti: One Man’s Experience,” Ensign, Jan. 1980, 15.

  8. Aurelia Spencer Rogers, Life Sketches of Orson Spencer and Others, and History of Primary Work (1898), 212.

  9. Relief Society Magazine 2 (Feb. 1915): 49.

  10. Olga Kovárová Campora, “Fruits of Faithfulness: The Saints of Czechoslovakia,” Women Steadfast in Christ, ed. Dawn Anderson and Marie Cornwall (1991), 145–46.

  • Carol Cornwall Madsen, a professor of history at BYU and a research professor at BYU’s Joseph Fielding Smith Institute, serves as ward choir director in the Arlington Hills Ward, Salt Lake Emigration Stake.

  • Jill Mulvay Derr, a research historian at BYU’s Joseph Fielding Smith Institute, serves as a visiting teacher in the Alpine 11th Ward, Alpine Utah Stake.

Detail from Sunflowers and Buffalo Chips, by Gary L. Kapp; courtesy of Museum of Church History and Art

Odometer based on original odometer built in 1847; courtesy of Museum of Church History and Art

Left: On 25 August 1878, the first Primary meeting was held in Farmington, Utah. (Detail from The First Meeting of the Primary Association, by Gordon Nicholas Cope.) Above. Danish tailor Jens Weibye used his skills during the sea voyage to America to help Latter-day Saint immigrants make tents and suitcases. (Illustrated by Bruce Martin.) Below: Emmeline B. Wells headed the grain-saving program.