Poverty Flat

Ethalinda Jane Young

Adus F. Dorsey II 

    There are only a handful of old pioneer houses and buildings left still standing around Torrey, the George D. Morrill cabin stands out as the oldest and the lot it sits on is the genesis of Torrey. It was on one of those pleasant Saturday afternoons while sitting around the kitchen table with Coral and Mary Jean at the old red rock Lee house on Main Street that I first heard the story of Ethalinda and how she and the growing Morrill family came to Poverty Flat. 

    Ethalinda Jane Young was born on March 27, 1854 in Provo, Utah her parents John and Ethalinda Margret Young always called her Janey. John Young was a good builder and when Janey was four years old Brigham Young sent the John Young family to Santa Clara to build a gristmill and teach the people there how to operate it. As fate would have it while in Santa Clara John Young became friends with Jacob Hamblin and sometimes accompanied him on Indian missionary trips. Hamblin recalls the big flood of 1861 when John Young saved him for future Mormon exploits with a loop of rope from being washed away. “There was one chance in a thousand of my being saved and John Young was there to do it” said Hamblin.

     The John Young family was called on to help settle many communities in and around Utah. At one point the family landed in Kanab, Kane County when Janey was sixteen years old and while there she met and married who on the surface seemed to be fine young man named William Washington Phelps. On August 5th1872, Leah Malinda Phelps was born to Will and Jane. Will met an untimely death five years after they were married (See Part II, William Washington Phelps.) The loss of her dear husband nearly did young Jane in, who was not very strong and for weeks shuffled between life and death but little Malinda needed her mother and Jane in her darkest moments finally found the strength to carry on.

    Times were hard and Jane worked at any job she could find. At one point, she found herself working long hours in a dairy milking twenty cows twice a day by hand, churning butter and performing various other duties. It was not a very satisfying life for either her or daughter Malinda, as Jane was often ill. Jane was repeatedly haunted by a recurring dream that she might be taken from this world and sweet Malinda would be left alone. It was in late l877, when George D. Morrill of Junction, Piute County, Utah pressed Jane to marry him, she eventually accepted, she was 23 and George had just turned 20. George D, Morrill was the son of Laban Morrill and Permelia Drury, both early-day pioneers to Utah. George was born in Cedar City l8 Sept., 1857. Together Jane and George made the arduous winter trip to the St. George Temple where they were married for all time and eternity on December 5, 1877. 

  Soon after their marriage, George and Jane moved to Johnson’s Fort in Iron County, Utah. It was here that their first son, George William, was born 30 Aug., 1878, just a month after her parents last child, Willis James, was born in Junction, Piute County. Their next move was to City Creek, Piute County, where a daughter, Alice Jane, came to them on the ninth day of March, 1881. From there, they moved to Loa in what would in 1892 become Wayne County to be near her parents, there Jane bore two more children, Margaret Permelia on 18 Oct., 1883 and Alfred Laban on April 6, 1886. Malinda was almost fourteen then and was a great help to her mother who devoutly hoped their moving days were over. George D. the ever dreamer had other plans.  

    Alarmed at the prospect of losing their free cattle range to homesteaders the people of Teasdale sought to discourage prospective newcomers by dubbing the bench land northeast of Teasdale, Poverty Flat. This unsavory name stuck for several years, but it didn’t discourage John William Young and George D. Morrill. Neither did the sometimes bitter winter weather. They were of hardy pioneer stock and just before Christmas, on December 21, 1886, they moved onto their newly homesteaded land – Poverty Flat. Eventually they bought a water right from Peter Brown, who owned land on Sand Creek, a few miles farther north and as soon as the ground thawed in the spring of 87’ John and George set about the business of farming. 

     The single roomed cabin they built was of one thickness of boards, held together by cut nails and the only studding being in the corners and midsections. There was a crosspiece at ceiling level, one halfway down and another where the boards were attached on the outside. The cracks between the boards were “battened” (covered) with narrow strips of board nailed over them. There was a fireplace made of sandstone on one wall, but no ceiling of any kind. The cabin was bitter cold in winter and hot as smoke house in the summer, but there was no way of improving or adding to it for several years due to the remote location and the scarcity of good building materials. 

     The Young’s moved again about three years later but Jane and George remained on Poverty Flat. In the winters George would go to Junction where his brother owned a general store and he would work for him in return for clothing, household goods, tools, seeds and such other things as they could use. Alone, Jane braved the bitter winter cold on Poverty Flat and lovingly cared for her children. 

      On their homestead they planted alfalfa, corn and potatoes. They also started an orchard from seeds and seedlings that they had obtained from Fruita in exchange for work done there. It would be two long lean years before the orchard trees bore fruit. Jane and George also planted a small vegetable garden where they raised carrots, onions, shallots, sage and squash. 

    Life was hard and they did everything they could to help themselves. The garden sage was picked every few weeks, washed, dried and sold. Jane knitted hoods, stockings and mittens for other people by daylight and for her own family at night, in the dark… candles were scarce and were hoarded for times of greater need. Jane also braided hats of straw and exchanged them for saplings of poplar trees which they planted for a windbreak. They planted a golden willow on each side of the rusty front gate. A water barrel stood under each of these willows in which they kept water softened with wood ashes. This water was used for washing and provided them with clear water to use after a rainstorm when all the local streams would be muddy. 

     On the 22 of April, 1889, not quite two and a half-years after their last move,little Viva Rose came to complete the family circle. That made eight of them living in one room. Hard as life was, they still had their family and the gospel and they were very grateful. However, greater trials were yet to come and their faith in the gospel would be the only thing that would bear them up and strengthen them to carry on. Viva was a year and a half old that October of 1890, when the dread disease Diphtheria struck. Little Margaret, just barely turned seven was the first to get it, she passed away on the 27th and before she could be laid away, tiny Viva followed her footsteps to heaven on Oct. 30. 

     In 1889 Jane and George Morrill of Poverty Flat had just lost three little ones to diphtheria. In the interim Sarah Caroline Lee, fourth wife of John D. Lee shows up on Poverty Flat with her brood of kids, one in particular was named Walter Bingham Lee and as time progressed Walt had eyes for Malinda. On Malinda’s eighteenth birthday Walt and Malinda got married. So within three months in 1889, George and Jane Morrill had in essence lost four daughters. This was particularly tough on their little daughter Alice who was deprived of her sisters.

      Somehow the Morrill’s made it through the winter and before the next winter would come they knew a corner in their emptiness would be filled with another little one. On the morning of December 5ththirteen-year-old William made the three-mile trip to Teasdale by horseback in nine minutes to bring back a midwife. They arrived back at the Morrill home in time to usher in a tiny baby girl and Jane named her Violet. William always said that was the fastest and coldest ride he ever had made.

     Christmas in those days was very simple. The Morrill’s always killed a pig, the fat was rendered and Jane spent most of the night Christmas eve making minced pies and a big pan full of “twisters”, which was yeast dough, sweetened, twisted and fried in strips about four inches long. Oh, how the children loved them.

     They never had room for a tree in the tiny house but the children hung up their stockings and in the morning found a polished red apple in the toe, a bit of candy and a few peanuts. All was good in the Morrill’s house on Poverty Flat that Christmas morning of 1889.

     It was much later that the little settlement that the church records called the Sand Creek Branch of the Teasdale ward acquired a name and a post office. It was through the exploits of a Colonel in what would have been part Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, a man named J.L.Torrey that Torrey took his name.

     About this time the church called upon George D. Morrill to fill a mission in the southern states. During the time he was gone it was decided that a Church meetinghouse should be erected in Torrey, the log building would also be used as a schoolhouse. This was a big step forward and the Morrill family decided it was best that they be ones to donate the land. Now there was no need to move to Teasdale for the winter, so the Morrill Teasdale home was moved to Torrey for daughter Alice and her husband Dave to live in.

      With George gone on his mission William assumed the role of provider for the family. During the “mission years” the apple trees started to bare fruit. Some of the first fruit was bulberries, gooseberries and black currants. These were made into jam and stored in earthenware jars for the winter. 

     The next dozen years were both eventful and heart breaking for Jane but she was the idol of thirty adoring grand children. Then came the fall of 1918, when the dreaded Spanish influenza struck claiming a high toll across the nation. William’s little son Verl was first to go on November 7th. Two weeks later Alice passed a way shortly before her baby would have been born. Jane’s husband George D. escaped the flu but died of dropsy on January 20, 1919.

      Years past and even though Jane was frail she did her best to care for the orchard and fruit and stay active in the church. In her little Center street yard was a thick stand of yellow roses and lilac bushes close to the house.

     New grand children were welcomed until forty-two had joined the family, thirty-two of whom were still living in 1926. Bit by bit Jane sold parts of her land and water rights. By 1931, Jane was no longer able to stay alone and Myrtle’s oldest daughter Joy came to stay with her. It was there that Jane’s grand daughters learned to mix bread and piece quilts – many of them – on the old treadle type Singer sewing machine.

      By the fall of 1933, Jane had developed such a severe heart condition that the few steps from her bed to the living room table left her exhausted. By the fifteenth of October, Jane could no longer leave her bed, at ten o’clock October 18th, 1933 Jane’s staunch spirit took flight leaving a posterity of four living children, thirty two living grand children and several great grand children.

     Ethalinda Jane Young Morrill is peacefully resting next to her husband George D. Morrill in the Torrey cemetery. Her sweet memory and good deeds linger on in our minds and in our hearts. The old Morrill home on Center Street in Torrey is being resurrected and scheduled for completion sometime in the fall of 2016. Ethalinda Jane would be proud.

Part II – A walk on the dark side – William Washington Phelps

Times were tough in the 1870’s. Some local outlaws would have liked to think that they were tougher, big surprise to them, they weren’t.

Many polygamous men came to Escalante because it was an isolated country, and they hoped that federal officers would not harass them too often. Some plural wives of men who lived elsewhere were here ‘on the underground.’ Caroline Lee, fourth wife of John D. Lee, was here along with W. O. Lee and Mary Elizabeth Lee. John D. Lee, who was being held in the Sugar House prison in Salt Lake City for his role in the Mountain Meadow massacre, and wrote in his journal that there were three young men brought in from Provo during the winter of 1875. They were Levi Vawn (Vaughn), Joe Smith (a cousin of Lot Smith of Paria), and W. W. Phelps, none of who could read or write. Guilty or not, they were charged with horse stealing and like a bad case of pinion pine tar, the trumped up charges stuck. 

William Washington Phelps was the first husband of Ethalinda Jane Young of Torrey — daughter of John William and Ethalinda Margaret Young. Being a known horse stealer was about the worse thing a person could be in the 1870’s, not a fact to brag about or even mention at the feed store, and young Ethalinda, decidedly chose to remain rather tight-lipped about W.W.

During William Washington Phelps first week in prison, young Phelps asked John Doyle Lee to teach him to write and to read, to which Lee answered that he would be glad to help him or any of the others who might like to try to improve their minds and grammar skills. This generous offer by John Doyle Lee quickly grew in popularity and became a favorite morning activity at the Sugar House prison and turned into regular daily lessons with classes held every day, including competitive and sometimes rather rowdy spelling bees on Sunday.

The following spring, on 14 Mar 1876, at about three o’clock, John D. Lee Lee was aroused from a pleasant afternoon nap by screams and yells and a commotion below his prison cell window. Hurrying to the window, he hesitantly peered out to see a man lying on his face in a growing puddle of blood, while downstairs a hired washerwoman shrieked in utter terror. The sound of running feet, crashing furniture and curses and grunts told of complete chaos and crazed men in mortal struggle. 

It was Phelps and John Doyle Lee’s other English students fighting prison guards to gain access to guns and the keys to the iron prison gate. Each escaping prisoner had armed himself with as large a stone as he could force into the toe of a heavy wool prison issue sock, and swinging this stone filled sock, with full force had attacked Burgher, the warden, striking him nine times over the head and on the bridge of his nose and knocking him down unconscious. Seven men escaped. It soon became clear that Warden Burgher was mortally wounded. He died at three a.m., just twelve hours after the attack.

The following day, on 15 Mar 1876, William Washington Phelps was shot through his body by police officer in Holliday. In the long hours of his dying had remained conscious, saying over and over that he did not resist the officer, that he was unarmed, that he had done nothing except to try to escape the Prison in Salt Lake where he was being held for unknown charges. Phelps was buried in the old Sugar House Prison Yard, 18 Mar 1876. 

References; Memories of My Grand Mother Ethalinda Jane Young Morrill as compiled by Joy Huntsman Clark. William Washington Phelps, Sugar House Prison


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