Looking Back

“Looking Back,” New Era, July 1990, 44

Looking Back

A Mormon ghost town may sound mysterious and even a little eerie, but one ward’s youth found it fascinating as they spent a day on a service project to help preserve Chesterfield, Idaho.

In the history of the world, one hundred years isn’t that long. But in quiet Gem Valley in southern Idaho, one hundred years was all it took for the little Mormon community of Chesterfield to grow up and then fade into a ghost town. The old chapel stands by itself on a rise of ground. The school is down the road, falling into disrepair. The old tithing office, across a field, is boarded up. There are only bits and pieces left of the town. But it is a ghost town that is still cherished by the descendants of those who once lived and worshipped there.

On a recent sunny summer day, the noise and excitement that 75 young people can generate brought life back to the area. The youth and leaders of the Highland Utah Ninth Ward came to help clean, fix, paint, weed, clear wood, scrub, and repair what they could of the old town. They wanted to participate in a service project that really meant something. Their bishop, LaMar Hatch was born in Gem Valley. He knew that the history foundation working to preserve the Mormon ghost town of Chesterfield needed a lot of donated muscle power, so he suggested the project to the Young Men and Young Women class presidents. They loved the idea.

As the caravan of cars and vans pulled into the valley, loaded with youth and leaders ready to work, the group was a little surprised by what they saw. Somehow they imagined a ghost town like they saw in the movies with swirling dust blowing tumbleweeds down the streets. On this day, the valley was lush and green with alfalfa to feed the cattle that are still grazed in the area. More than one person described it as looking like a big, green golf course.

The group scattered among the old buildings doing things some of them had never tried before. Several girls were enthusiastically sloshing white paint on themselves and on the outhouse behind the old chapel. After lunch the same group, with the paint thoroughly dried on their clothes, was dusting all the old framed photographs lining the back wall of the chapel.

Heather Nelson was fascinated by the faces she saw in the black-and-white photos of the people who once attended church here. “This is more fun than painting, and I had a blast painting.”

Some of the young men helped pour new concrete steps in front of the school. It was the first time they had ever tried their hand at pouring concrete. Of course, they had plenty of expert supervision, and they weren’t shy about getting into it up to their elbows when holes needed to be filled or excess moved from one place to another.

Many of the jobs that needed to be done were just plain hard work, like clearing dead wood away from old houses. But you didn’t hear many complaints. Everyone was busy.

While resting for a minute after lunch, Scott Sheffield said, “I thought we’d come up here and no one would be working. I thought we might end up destroying the ghost town instead of fixing it up.” But as they started clearing away the weeds, it almost immediately started looking better.

When the group was gathered on the benches inside the little one-room chapel, they couldn’t help noticing how some things about the Church were very much the same as they were one hundred years ago.

A hundred years ago, the young people would push back the benches and hold a dance after working hard all day. Today, this group was looking forward to the dance that evening hosted by the Chesterfield Ward. A hundred years ago, the youth might get together for ice cream after sending a wagon covered with canvas into the mountains to bring back snow to use in the ice cream freezers. Today, the youth would cool off with ice cream from the drive-in and a swim in the big outdoor pool at nearby Lava Hot Springs.

And one hundred years ago, young people gathered in their chapel to be taught about a Heavenly Father who loves them and the way to return to him. Today, the Highland Ninth Ward enjoyed being together to learn about those same gospel truths.

Although the youth in this group don’t really consider themselves pioneers, they are in much the same way that the residents of old Chesterfield were. By living the gospel and in turn teaching their children to stay close to the Lord, they can influence dozens and maybe hundreds of people. By looking back at the example set by teenagers a hundred years ago, maybe the youth of Highland Ninth Ward can know that they live their lives not just for themselves but for all those who come after.

Photography by Janet Thomas and courtesy of the Daughters of Utah Pioneers, Camp Squaw Creek

Imagine collecting so much tithing it needed a whole building to store it in. That was common in Chesterfield’s heyday, when tithes were paid “in kind.” The bishop distributed eggs, vegetables, etc. to the poor, and sold the rest to raise cash for the needy.

It was amazing how good the wood trim on the old meetinghouse and on the other buildings looked, considering how much fun the painters had and how much paint they got on themselves.

Starting from scratch, the Chesterfield Saints built a kiln and baked their own bricks for their meetinghouse. They also handpainted grain on plain wood. Their work was well worth preserving.

“You couldn’t pay me enough to work this hard,” said some of the youth assigned to clear out old, dead trees. They were right. The work wasn’t for pay, but given as true service. Even though most of it was just plain hard physical labor, they took pride in doing their best.

New skills, like the art of concrete pouring, were learned while helping to replace the steps of the old schoolhouse. First concrete was shoveled into forms: then it was distributed evenly for the finishers to complete. Knowledgeable adults supervised.

Paul Hatch, the last bishop to hold meetings in Chesterfield, had the chance to tell his granddaughters, who helped with the restoration, stories about the way things used to be. He said Chester Call was the first settler to graze horses in the valley, and he resented the town’s being named Chesterfield because he didn’t want people to think it was named after him. The town actually took its name from a city in England.

The old general store stands as a reminder that the little town was once prosperous. A combination of harsh weather resulting in the loss of crops and livestock and the Great Depression caused several of the stalwart families to leave the area, and the town declined. The valley is still occupied and farmed, but the town of Chesterfield, Idaho, is now just a memory.