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The History of Brigham City

Early Settlement

"The scattering of early settlers to places of their own choosing was apparently a common practice and was a cause of serious concern to church officials during periods of Indian difficulty." -- Wayne L. Wahlquist, Historian

William Davis was the first white man to make his home in Shoshone Indian country near Box Elder Creek. He came in 1850 to explore the area, and in March 1851 he returned to stay. He brought his family and a few friends with him and the small group set to work building a fort for winter shelter and protection from Indian attacks. Eight families spent that winter in the crudely-constructed fort which soon became infested with insects. In the spring of 1852 they moved out of the fort onto farm plots.

By 1853, 24 Mormon immigrants were living along Box Elder Creek. Sarah Peters, who moved as a child to the Box Elder settlement in the spring of 1853, remembered the hostility of the Indians. One night when Sarah's mother was home alone, she heard someone trying to open the door. As she approached, an Indian shoved his arm through the doorway. Pushing a table against the door, she grabbed a butcher knife and ran the back edge of it along the arm. The intruder withdrew his arm and then left the premises as the woman screamed for her husband, even though she knew he was nowhere near the home.

As Indian threats continued, the settlers were instructed to form a second fort for protection. They started building it in July of 1853. Individual houses were joined close together to form a block about an acre square. Openings at the north and south ends had to be guarded.


"When I arrived, I found the location where Brigham City now flourishes in a very unprosperous condition. Whether its change from a primitive condition should be called improvement, whether it was better or worse for what had been done on the premises, would puzzle an antiquarian. Even the log meeting house, with its ground floor and earth roof, was more extensively patronized as a receptacle for bed bugs than for the assemblage of saints." -- Lorenzo Snow, Colonizer of Brigham City

In October of 1853, Mormon Church President Brigham Young gave Apostle Lorenzo Snow a special assignment. He was to choose 50 families to take with him to live in Box Elder. There he would organize a system of cooperative living in which the people would produce everything they consumed. Snow selected tradesmen with various skills important to the development of a pioneer community.

The newcomers began arriving in the spring of 1854 and joined the settlers already living near Box Elder Creek. Many of those who came in 1855 spent their first winter in dugouts. The men dug cellars in the ground and covered them with roofs made of poles, willows and dirt. Small openings were left in the makeshift roofs for light and for fireplace chimneys. These dugouts provided immediate shelter until more permanent log houses could be built over the cellars.

The only meat eaten that winter came from animals that had frozen or starved to death. In the early spring, people found sego lilies and a few wild tomatoes. For two months many had nothing to else to eat. Those fortunate enough to have a little flour made a thickening to put over the boiled segoes. Others ate them raw.

A Salt Lake City resident sent the Box Elder settlers a cow to add milk to their sparse diet. The cow ate a poisonous weed and died, and the people didn't know what to do. They were starved for meat, but afraid to eat it because of the poison. Jensine Christensen fried a piece and fed it to her cat. the next day the cat was feeling fine so the people divided the meat, cooked it, and enjoyed it immensely.

By the summer of 1855 Lorenzo Snow, his family, and all those he had chosen to bring with him had arrived. This influx of settlers transformed the small settlement to a sizable town which was renamed Brigham City in honor of Brigham Young.

Apostle Snow became the first political and religious leader of the community. He had the town surveyed and families selected lots and built permanent homes. The Snow family home became the stopping place for Brigham Young and his company of tourists whenever he visited the northern settlements. The Snow family often entertained as many as forty guests at once.

The men began clearing the land, tilling the soil, planting crops, and driving away grasshoppers "when those insects came in swarms like large clouds hiding the sun and devouring crops." They also dug ditches, built roads and worked on public buildings.

Small businesses established during the 1850s included a cabinet shop, a water-powered saw mill, a tanyard and a grist mill built in 1855-57 to produce flour and meal. The Box Elder County Courthouse, begun in 1855 and completed in 1857, was used for city and county business, theatrical productions, religious meetings and school.

Children attended school only when there was no farm work to be done, so most of them had little schooling. Many were taught to read and write by their parents or older siblings.

Very young children were given important responsibilities. As soon as Minnie Lund and her sister were large enough to hold an axe, they chopped all the wood, milked sixteen cows morning and night, and cleaned stables. When she was nine, she was sent out on the hillside to herd the family's sheep. She taught herself to crochet lace, to braid straw, and to make straw hats for her family and friends. Before her twelfth birthday, she went to Honeyville to work for an aunt. By the time she returned home, her father had four polygamous wives, and she went from one to the other to assist with house and farm work. At age 14 she cared for a lady who had just given birth. She said, "I never had any childhood. It was work, work, work."

All the people were poor and worked hard, but they found time for rest and recreation. The young girls made games involving their work, such as competition between neighbors to see who could produce the whitest laundry. They organized spinning clubs where each girl would bring her wheel and yarn and visit while she worked.

The women also mingled work with play as they gathered husks to fill mattresses and held quilting and rag bees where everyone quilted or sewed carpet rags for homemade carpets. These work socials often ended with dancing and singing.

Lars Mortensen frequently invited neighbors and friends to the two largest rooms in his home for dancing. Parents would bring their babies and tuck them away on top of clothes in closets while they danced. Lars Christensen played his fiddle, and refreshments were always home-made root beer and molasses cookies. Tickets were bought with a few potatoes, corn or other produce.

When Lorenzo Snow learned that two brothers, Peter and Alexander Baird, had organized a dramatic association in Perry, he asked them to come to Brigham City to play and entertain people. They did this during the winter seasons for many years.

The Co-op

"I try to keep two objects in view - to amalgamate the feelings of the people and to establish a financial system in which everybody can secure necessaries and conveniences of life through their labour and be preserved from the evils and corruption of outside influence." -- Lorenzo Snow, founder of the Brigham City Co-op

In 1865, Lorenzo Snow asked all the Brigham City merchants to unite their businesses for the common interest of the community. The purpose was to provide jobs for everyone and to make the people self-sustaining. Most supported the request, and on December 7, 1865, the cooperative enterprise was formed.

Lorenzo Snow, Samuel Smith, William Thomas and Alvin Nichols were the first stockholders. Stock was sold at $5 a share, and produce and labor as well as cash, were accepted. The first business was a mercantile Co-op Brush Factory circa 1885. Located in westend ground floor of Boot, Shoe & Hat Departmentsstore. When the store had made enough money, the association established its first industry, a tannery.

To comply with the Territorial Incorporation Act of 1870, the cooperative was incorporated December 15, 1870 and became the Brigham City Mercantile and Manufacturing Association, commonly known as the Brigham City Co-op. Almost every resident of the community was involved in some way.

The cooperative grew quickly during the 1870s adding such departments as a woolen factory, planing mill, boot and shoe shop, farms, harness shop, carpentry department, butchery, saw mill, adobe and brick yards, and a dairy.

Not all Co-op enterprises were in Brigham City. For example, the dairy was established in Collinston, about 20 miles north of Brigham City. Christian Hansen managed the dairy. His wife Elizabeth, who had made cheese in her native Denmark, supervised the dairy's cheese production. They asked farmers to give the dairy use of their cows in the summertime in return for cheese and butter. Between 300 and 700 cows were left there each summer.

Brigham City's Pioneer Days celebration in 1875 featured displays from 29 cooperative departments. The Brigham City Co-op became a model for other Mormon settlements to follow.

The Co-op maintained a high level of success until the late 1870s when a series of disasters occurred. Some of the problems were crop failures due to drought and grasshoppers, destruction of the woolen mill by fire and loss of the saw mill to the federal government. In 1878 a federal tax was levied on local currency used for trade, and $10,200 had to be borrowed to pay the assessment.

The combined losses were so great that after 1878 only the mercantile business remained in operation. In 1884 the federal government returned some of the tax money, and the new Brigham City Mercantile and Manufacturing store was built and opened in 1891. It continued to operate until the Co-op closed down in 1895.


"We were startled by the marshals making a raid on our town and arresting Apostle Snow. It created quite a stir and cast a gloom over the hearts of the people to stand by and see our leader dragged off to prison because he dare serve the Lord" -- Charles Holmes Davis, Brigham City Resident

From 1852 until 1890, leaders of the LDS Church encouraged male church members, especially those in leadership positions, to marry more than one wife. Following the Old Testament precedent of plural wives, church members had the option, but not the requirement, of plural marriages. They believed they were protected in this practice by the freedom of religion clause in the Bill of Rights. Because of widespread negative reaction, however, Congress enacted legislation in 1882 which made polygamy a felony punishable by five years in prison and a $500 fine.

Although many were imprisoned, Mormon men continued in polygamy until the practice was officially abolished in 1890 by Church President Wilford Woodruff. By 1904, any man marrying more than one wife was excommunicated from the Church. Since Mormon polygamy was practiced for a relatively short time and no known official records of plural marriages were kept, it is impossible to determine precisely what percentage of Mormon men were polygamous. Among the men living in Brigham City between 1850 and 1880, however, at least 17% were polygamists. The more prominent and prosperous men of the community tended to have larger numbers of wives.

Retail businesses sprang up around Brigham City. Mercantile stores and blacksmith shops were operated by many merchants, and a few young women were sent away to receive training in nursing and midwifery. By 1901, Alma Jane Compton moved their growing photography business into its new Main Street location which would house three generations of Compton photographers.

North on Main Street circa 1906

The fruit growing business in Box Elder County was thriving in the 1890s. It had been initiated in 1855 when Wiliam Wrighton went to Salt Lake City, bought 100 peach stones for $1.00 and planted them in Brigham City. Peach production was so successful that the annual harvest celebration, started in 1904, was named Peach Days.

Many men grew fruit on their own property and sold it to supplement other income. William Knudsen, however, raised and sold fruit as his major source of income. He discovered early on that the Brigham City area was particularly adapted for peaches, berries and small fruits. He established a successful fruit growing and shipping business which sustained his family members for generations to come.

The first sugar beets were planted in 1891, and dairy and creamery operations were successful. Prospecting began in the 1890s, and Brigham City's first newspaper The Bugler started printing in 1890. In 1892 the city's water and electricity systems were installed.

By 1910 Brigham City's population was 4,000, and its industries included the new cement plant north of town, Anderson Knitting factory and the Jensen Brothers Milling and Elevatory (changed to Big J Mill in 1946). Retail businesses sold such merchandise as ladies' fashions, motor cars, furniture and medicine. Hotels, cafes, saloons, shoe repair shops, and a wagon and machine company were among the local businesses.

In 1911, Lorenzo Smith, grandson of Samuel Smith who helped colonize Brigham City and organize the Co-op, opened a family grocery store on Main Street. Typical of the time, the store was more than a source of groceries. To many it was a social center for gossiping and keeping up with events of the day. Lorenzo's son, Dee Smith, later took over the business and eventually expanded it to a chain of 110 stores throughout the western states.

In the 20s and 30s, Brigham City remained a small agricultural town specializing in fruit production. At the time it was still predominately Mormon. Although many local men had seen active duty in World War I, the impact of the war on townspeople was small compared to what they would experience during World War II.

Population Changes

"Everybody had to open their homes to the influx of people that came, even when they were building Bushnell Hospital. It was a different atmosphere, and nobody regretted anything that they were doing to help the boys. It was something that I hope will never be repeated, but I think a hundred percent of the people in Brigham opened up their homes to them." -- Verabel Call Knudson, Brigham City Resident

Bushnell General Hospital, built in 1942 to treat soldiers wounded in WWII, brought some drastic changes to the quiet community. The 60-building facility constructed on 235 acres brought a major boost to the economy. From the beginning of its construction until its closure in 1946, Bushnell provided new jobs for many local people. Also, farmers sold produce to the hospital, and business on Main Street increased with the inundation of hospital staff, patients and their families. People from various backgrounds came to work or to be treated at Bushnell, then stayed in Brigham City and merged with the descendants of the Mormon settlers.

After Bushnell closed, the facility housed the Intermountain Indian School from 1950 until 1984, with its staff and students adding more cultural diversity to the citizenry.

Brigham City's growth rate increased rapidly with the construction in 1957 of Thiokol Chemical Corporation's Wasatch Division, the largest manufacturing enterprise in Box Elder County's history. With its initial workforce of 150 growing to 1,425 by 1959, housing construction in Brigham City boomed. A total of 187 homes were built in 1958, twice the number built the previous year.

Bushnell Hospital - later Intermountain Indian School circa 1950

Brigham City's population of 6,790 in 1950 increased to 11,720 in 1960, to 14,000 in 1970 and to 15,596 in 1980 as Thiokol's sold-fuel motor production and number of employees expanded. By 1984, Thiokol's Wasatch Division was the largest private employer in Utah with 5,750 employees. In 1990 the population of Brigham City was 16,000.

Bushnell, Intermountain, and Thiokol all brought new residents with a diversity of religious preferences so that 14 denominations now have worship services in Brigham City and the business community and public services continue to grow to meet the demands of the larger population.