The Winter Quilt Walk

For months now I’ve followed on the heels of the Mormons. Their footprints across the Southwest are as indelible yet as easy to overlook as Mormon tea, a common, spiky desert bush that is their namesake. For the purposes of this blog, I picked a few leaves along a trail and brewed myself some Mormon tea.  It was delicious–kind of smoky tasting. And I still feel pretty good.

Despite the peculiarities of faith that caused their westward migration, the Mormons brought with them a stolid ethic of hard work, ingenuity, and reliance on community that turned arid lands into orchards and dotted a swath of the western U.S. with prosperous little towns. Zion Canyon, Bryce Canyon, and Capitol Reef are all national parks that were originally settled by Mormons.


the Mormon Corridor

It’s called the “Morrmon Corridor” or, more recently, the “Jello-O Belt.” (In 2001, Jell-O was designated the official snack food of Utah.)  In the last half of the 1800s, Brigham Young “called” churchmen to take their families and settle in areas his scouts had identified as being suitable for farming, mining, or ranching. Some of these towns still exist; others have disappeared. At one time, there were hundreds of them scattered throughout the corridor.

Pangiutch (pronounced PANG-witch) is one that remains. Just northwest of Bryce Canyon National Park in south-central Utah, Panguitch is enough off the tourist treadmill to have kept its innocence, even while it lost the economic cachet that tourists bring.

What I noticed first about Panguitch were its tidy red brick homes. They aren’t the sprawling mansions of the East, but brick houses of any sort are rare in the West, where frame, adobe, or aluminum single-wides are the building materials of choice.

Apparently, the Mormon settlers in Panguitch constructed a kiln and made bricks from the red clay they were living on. A century later, that legacy endures. Another Panguitch story concerns the Sheriff, James Pace, who used to live on Main Street. When federal agents snuck into town at night in search of polygamists, the sheriff’s wife would put a lamp in the window warning the menfolk to go into hiding.

But Panguitch has another story, more peculiar and compelling than brick buildings or nightime signals, and that is the story of the Winter Quilt Walk.


remembering Panguitch's past

In 1864, Brigham Young sent fifty Mormon families to settle Panguitch. (A Paiute word meaning “Big Fish.”) It’s a sparse but pretty valley with the Sevier River running through it and Panguitch Lake nearby. But at 6600 feet, the growing season is short and the winter is harsh. (I visited in May and nearly froze.) By mid-winter, the settlers had run out of food and were gnawing on frozen wheat.
Parowan, a more established Mormon village, was 40 miles across the snow-filled Bear Valley. Facing starvation, seven men volunteered to try to reach Parowan and bring back supplies. The oldest was 66-year-old Jesse Louder, a carpenter. He and his wife, Zilpha, had come to the Great Salt Lake with their three surviving (of nine) children. One of the youngest of the party was 20-year-old John Butler, who apparently felt strongly the burden of providing for his widowed mother and eleven siblings.
The men set out with a yoke of oxen and a cart, which they had to abandon. With the snow hip-deep, the men soon foundered as well. (I guess snowshoes are a northern invention.) As the story goes, the men laid a quilt on the snow (Like the Amish, those Mormons don’t go anywhere without their quilts) and knelt to pray.
Noticing that the quilt, with them on it, didn’t sink into the snow, they “began quilt-laying in prayerful earnestness,” Alexander Matheson, one of the quilt-walkers, recorded in his journal. By means of this quilt-relay they made it to Parowan, where their brother Mormons fed them, resupplied them, and brought them as far back along the road as possible.
“The return trip was harder with the weight of the flour, but we finally made it to our wagon and oxen and on home with thankfulness to the Lord for his goodness,” wrote Matheson.
The story of the Winter Quilt Walk of 1865 is a treasured piece of the patchwork of Panguitch’s collective memory. The town celebrates a Quilt Walk Festival every year, featuring all things quiltlike—contests, classes, displays—plus the obligatory parade, tractor pull, and Lion’s Club pancake breakfast. The grand finale is a reenactment of the Quilt Walk starring local talent.
I wonder if a sense of its story helps to bind a community together. Kind of like when children want to know the circumstances of their birth. Does it give a community a sense of confidence? Identity? Cohesion? For little Panguitch, maybe the example of its forefathers, who undertook this hazardous journey with great faith and great love, laid a certain moral foundation. Certainly, it hasn’t been forgotten.

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