The Mormon Landscape in Southern Alberta

One of the core books on Mormon settlement is The Mormon Landscape by Richard Francaviglia. It examines the distinctive patterns used by Mormons in settling the Western United States. In his research, he examined hundreds of settlements across the intermountain west looking for features that were common to places settled by Latter-day Saints and he was able to define a list of landscape features that were common. Kind of like a Mormon places DNA test.

He makes it very clear that each item, taken on its own, is not unique to Mormon settlements. It is their collective presence as a “visual combination of a series of elements” that creates the unique “Mormon scene.”1

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As I have read and referred to this text, my particular interest is in seeing whether these features were carried north to the towns and villages in the Canadian Mormon Trail (Cardston, Magrath, Raymond, Stirling, Barnwell, etc.). Though the Canadian settlements trailed the initial Utah settlement by at least 40 years, many of the earliest settlers in Canada had also been pioneering settlers in Utah. Consider Charles Ora Card as an example. At 16, less than 10 years after Brigham Young first led the Saints to the Salt Lake Valley, he trekked to Utah from Michigan with his parents and eventually settled in Farmington. As the first settlements in Utah began to fill up, his family was among the first settlers to move north to the Cache Valley in present-day Logan.2 By the time he led a company to Canada in 1887, he was an experienced pioneer. So it shouldn’t be surprising to see those early Canadian settlers bring the Mormon landscape with them north.

Though there are more than 10 features covered through the book, “ten of the most significant factors can be used in delimiting Mormon settlement.” According to Francaviglia, any town “possessing more than five of these will be a Mormon town.” The ten factors are:

  1. wide streets (65 feet or wider)
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  2. roadside irrigation ditches
  3. barns and granaries inside of town
  4. open landscape around the town
  5. architectural style (especially the central-hall house)
  6. high percentage of brick homes
  7. the hay derrick
  8. the Mormon fence
  9. unpainted farm buildings
  10. the LDS chapel

If you live or have lived in a Mormon town in Southern Alberta, stop and look around. Can you see at least five of these features? Perhaps you’ll be as thrilled as I was to recognize the Mormon towns of Southern Alberta in its pages.

There is context and history behind many of these features. Joseph Smith envisioned a settlement that blended urban and rural, secular and religious. He called it the Plat of Zion. Town lots were large to accommodate gardens, animals and barns. Every resident could have a mini farm right inside the town while they maintained a full farm outside. It provided a level self-sufficiency that would be completely foreign, and likely illegal, in most modern communities. It was framed with wide streets and in its core, the chapel and other public buildings created a gathering place.

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Other features were later additions. Irrigation was added in Utah by necessity. Mormon expertise in the practice paved the way for their settlement in Southern Alberta. The hay derrick was a Western Mormon innovation.3 Practicality led to simple but functional fences and unpainted outbuildings. Together it tells the story of a people.

I couldn’t help but feel nostalgic as I read the book. As time progresses many of these features are being erased from our landscape in Southern Alberta. Agricultural practices in many of these towns have been restricted or removed through bylaws.4 Barns and outbuildings are falling into disrepair through disuse, eventually, most will be removed. The hay derrick has been replaced by modern machinery. Large lots are subdivided. Pioneer homes are removed. It is a window into the past that is being closed.

Michelsen Farmstead

Michelson Farmstead, by Cocopie at en.wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia) [Public domain]

Luckily there are still places where you can see many of these things. If you haven’t visited the Michelson Farmstead in Stirling, you need to. It is a protected example of this urban-rural blend. I imagine there are still other examples, though not explicitly protected, in the smaller Mormon communities in the region.

If you are looking for a book that will help you see what makes this region unique, this is the one. I love this book. It is thorough and includes enough charts and maps to satisfy my most nerdy parts. If you see me driving around slowly looking out the car window, or walking the streets and looking at old houses or fences, you’ll now know what I’m looking for. I’m looking through a window into the past.

In future posts, I hope to explore many of these features in more depth. Can you think of features of the Canadian Mormon settlements that you’d add to the list? Are there items from Francaviglia’s ten that you wouldn’t include in your Canadian top ten?

This post is adapted from a Facebook post I wrote soon after reading the book for the first time.

1.
Francaviglia RV. The Mormon Landscape. Ams Press Inc.; 1978.
2.
Hudson AJ. Charles Ora Card, Pioneer and Colonizer. 1963.
3.
Francaviglia RV. Western Hay Derricks: Cultural Geography and Folklore as Revealed by Vanishing Agricultural Technology. Journal of Popular Culture. 1978;11(4):916-927.
4.
For example, Raymond’s Land Use Bylaw restricts agriculture practices and certain livestock to approved areas. http://cms.raymond.ca/Editor/images/Bylaw%20987-11%20Land%20Use%20Bylaw.pdf.

What motivated Jesse Knight to establish Raymond and build a sugar factory in Canada?

In early 1901, Jesse Knight, a wealthy Mormon businessman from Utah, travelled by rail across an empty prairie in Canada’s Northwest Territory. As he looked out the window of the train near present-day Raymond, Alberta, Canada, he said could visualize a fine settlement there.1 Over the next twelve years, Knight invested heavily in the region. He bought land, built a sugar factory and started a community. Charles A. Magrath, a contemporary of Jesse Knight, said “My

Jesse Knight

Jesse Knight, founder of Raymond, Alberta, Canada.

opinion is that Southern Alberta should never forget what it owes to Jesse Knight … .”1 What were Knight’s motivations? Magrath said that at the time it was “impossible to get capital interested in such an enterprise in a new and sparsely settled country …”1 Yet Knight poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into the venture.2 His work in the development of Southern Alberta and efforts to provide work for the Mormon faithful were part of a religiously motivated mission for Knight that grew from a combination of personal religious experiences and urging from Mormon leadership.

Personal religious experiences that Knight had led him to his fortune and to subsequently use that fortune to better the Mormon people. A handful of experiences have been described by those around him. Charles A. Magrath said, “it has been stated that the mine which brought him very considerable wealth came to him through a vision”1 A 1908 article in the Lethbridge Herald described a dream in which Knight’s deceased daughter appeared over him telling him he would be led to a rich mineral deposit if he would resolve to be generous.3 When J. William Knight wrote his father’s life story he described this “vision” instead as a voice from heaven. He said that one day his father was prospecting in Utah when he sat down by a tree and heard a voice say, “This country is here for the Mormons.”4 Jesse Knight took that to mean that whatever wealth could be drawn from mining the region was to be used for the Mormon people. Sometime after this, Knight told his son that, “we are going to have all the money that we want as soon as we are in a position to handle it properly … I have never had any [impression] come to me with greater force.”4 In 1896 he found the ore deposit that would make him rich. J. William Knight said as soon as Jesse made the discovery he remarked, “I have done the last day’s work that I ever expect to do … I expect to give employment and make labor from now on for other people.”4 It should come as no surprise that when urged by Mormon church leadership to provide employment opportunities in Canada, Knight followed through.

William Knight said that it was difficult for Canadian officials to understand his father’s motives. He described a meeting where Jesse Knight was questioned about this. He said, “he reached into his pocket and pulled out [a] proclamation … and asked that it be read.”4 The proclamation had been issued by Lorenzo Snow, President of the Mormon Church. It said, “Men and women of wealth, use your riches to give employment to the laborer!”4 After the reading Knight said, “Gentlemen, this was a direct message to me …”4 Gary Fuller Reese spends considerable effort demonstrating that Knight’s motives were mixed between profit and religion throughout his business career. He said, “It is often difficult to determine the difference between philanthropy and business when Uncle Jesse was involved. … it can be said that many of his business ventures were both philanthropy and profit-seeking.”5 There are other contemporaries of Knight backing up this description of his motives. In describing the Raymond sugar factory, Charles A. Magrath said, “[it] was not built as a commercial enterprise so much as for the benefits of the settlers in the surrounding country.”1 Although there is ample evidence that Knight had strong desires to use his fortune to benefit people, it is clear that he considered the merits of the Canadian project before agreeing to it.

Even though there was a beginning of a sugar beet industry in Utah at the time, one historian noted that when Jesse Knight was first presented with the idea of building a sugar factory in Canada he thought it absurd.2 The idea of growing and refining sugar in the Mormon settlements in Canada had been percolating in the mind of John W. Taylor several years before the Raymond factory came to fruition. Taylor was one of Twelve Apostles in the Mormon church, the second highest body of the church, and an early promoter of Mormon settlement in Canada. He likely would have been aware of the church’s backing of a beet sugar factory in Lehi, Utah in the early 1890s.6 As early as 1892 he had tried to interest others in growing sugar in Southern Alberta.2 In 1900 Charles A. Magrath, a land promoter and close associate of John W. Taylor, distributed beet seeds to settlers in the region. The resulting beets were sent to the factory in Lehi to be tested. The results showed promise.1 Taylor put Magrath in contact with some people in Salt Lake City, Utah who had expressed interest in developing a sugar plant. Magrath said he was “unable to make any headway with the proposal.”1 It may have been on this same trip that Magrath and Taylor met with Knight. Taylor had been authorized by church authorities to interest Knight in the colonization of Southern Alberta.2 According to one historian, Taylor and associates specifically sought out Knight because it was generally known that he was “a man of substantial means” and was trying to provide opportunities for people.7

Knight’s first impulse was not to build a factory. He sent his two sons O. Raymond and J. William Knight to consider the ranching opportunities. Shortly after his son’s return, Knight agreed to the purchase of 30,000 acres of land near Spring Coulee, Alberta.1 Soon after, he travelled to Canada to see the land he had purchased. It was on this trip that he was convinced to build a sugar factory. William G. Hartley wrote that “Canadian Stake President Charles O. Card, Apostle John W. Taylor, and non-LDS developer Magrath convinced Jesse to develop beet sugar manufacturing as an industry in Alberta. … the more Apostle Taylor talked to him the more convinced he became.”2 When you consider the religious experiences that led to Knight’s acquisition of wealth and the proclamation from Lorenzo Snow, this pressure from Taylor likely hit with force. Before he left Canada, Knight had committed to a factory and left a $50,000 guarantee.1

It was clear that there was considerable involvement in the project from the leadership of the Mormon Church. When the Knight Sugar Company was established the board of directors included all three members of the church’s highest governing body, the First Presidency, and shareholders included members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.2 Hartley explained that the church had moved away from directly funding projects like this, as they had with the Lehi sugar project, and instead looked to wealthy members of the church to provide the funding. He went so far as to say that Joseph F. Smith, President of the Mormon Church, “pushed the project.”2

Over the years several historians have explored Knight’s motivations as part of their research of broader topics. The conclusions have been consistent. John R. Hicken devoted an entire section of his thesis to Knight’s motivations in settling Raymond. Speaking about the founding of Raymond he said, “It exists because of the religious convictions and humanitarian nature of Jesse Knight.”8 Hicken acknowledged financial motives for Knight, but noted that “ … his initial motive was oriented in his religion, and was not dependant on a profit margin.”8 Gary Fuller Reese described Raymond, Alberta as one of “the two great living monuments” to Jesse Knight’s philanthropy.5

Ultimately the factory closed. According to Magrath, “the settlers found it more profitable to grow grain during war.”1 J. William Knight said that “it seemed impossible to get the farmers to grow sugar beets in sufficient quantity to make the industry profitable.”4 In spite of Knight’s religious convictions to open the factory, when profits did not materialize he closed it. In the dozen years of its operation the factory had provided employment and opportunities for as many as 1500 Mormon settlers in the region.2 Knight had fulfilled his religious mission to use his means for the well being of the people and the Mormon church had solidified its presence in the region.

This article is adapted from a paper I recently wrote as part of my studies at the University of Lethbridge.

1.
Magrath CA. The Galts, Father and Son: Pioneers in the Development of Southern Alberta, And, How Alberta Grew up: A Brief Outline of Development in the Lethbridge District. The Lethbridge Herald; 1935.
2.
Hartley WG. Mormon Sugar in Alberta: E. P. Ellison and the Knight Sugar Factory, 1901-17. Journal of Mormon History. 1997;23(2).
3.
Crops in the South. The Lethbridge Herald. July 24, 1908:1.
4.
Knight JW. The Jesse Knight Family: Jesse Knight, His Forbears and Family. Deseret News Press; 1940.
5.
Reese GF. Uncle Jesse: The Story of Jesse Knight, Miner, Industrialist, Philanthropist. 1961.
6.
Arrington LJ. Utah’s Pioneer Beet Sugar Plant: The Lehi Factory of the Utah Sugar Company. Utah Historical Quarterly. 1966;34(2).
7.
Tychesen HBC. The History of Raymond, Alberta, Canada. 1969.
8.
Hicken JR. Events Leading to the Settlement of the Communities of Cardston, Magrath, Stirling, and Raymond, Alberta. 1968.

Picturesque Cardston and Environments

Over the years I have collected a stack of books and a folder of PDFs about the history of the Mormon communities of Southern Alberta. Some I’ve read, others I refer to and the rest are on my “to read” list. As I was looking through some files that I recently received, I came across this picture of Cardston1 taken by the Alberta Railway and Irrigation company in 1900. It reminded me about one of those books I’ve been meaning to read called Picturesque Cardston and Environments.2

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Norman W. McLeod, the editor and publisher of the Cardston Record, put out this 116-page book in 1900. It is essentially a promotional brochure for the region. In it, he talks about the history, growth and the current state of Cardston and the “neighbouring hamlets” of  Aetna, Leavitt, Mountain View, Caldwell, Kimball, Magrath and Stirling. If you have every wanted time travel, here is your method. This book transports you to a time when Cardston was only 13 years old. Stirling and Magrath were mere months into existence. Raymond wouldn’t arrive on the scene for another year. It is fairly unique in the historiography because of its proximity to the beginning of all of these communities.

So, what was Cardston like in 1900? McLeod says that by 1900 the pioneer tents and log cabins have given way to comfortable homes. Cardston was the proud home of the two largest stores in Southern Alberta, the Cardston Co. and H. S. Allen & Co. There is a bank, a newspaper and two “first-class hotels.” In fact, both hotels were added to in the last year to accommodate the number of visitors and travellers coming through the town. He glows about some of the new construction on its way. Two new drugs stores, a new $5000 amusement hall, a flour mill, a North-West Mounted Police barracks, a post office, immigration building and a planned $25,000 tabernacle.

Cardston, he says, is a fiercely patriotic and religious community, but “with nothing whatever of fanaticism.” He says the community has art and culture and that Cardston is the “commercial, financial and ecclesiastical centre of this great commonwealth, which the ‘Mormon’ people have built up, [it] has forged rapidly ahead and must always maintain supremacy as the chief distributing point for the entire region.”

Speaking of the neighbouring hamlets, Aetna he says “must inevitably become great in importance and develop soon into a busy, bustling, populous town.” Leavitt is “a flourishing hamlet, and is now taking on more than usual degree of importance.” Mountain View is the most populous settlement next to Cardston. Caldwell is home to the only sawmill in the district and the community is filled with “unusual vigor and enterprise.” Kimball is a new ward that will “ultimately be formed into distinctive settlements and wards.”

In his conclusion, he extends an invitation to all to come to Southern Alberta. He says, “Southern Alberta, in the language of Holy Writ, is ‘a land of brooks and waters, of fountains and depths that spring out of valleys and hills; a land wherein though shalt eat bread without scarceness; thou shalt not lack anything in it.’ It is the promised land.”

Luckily, this book has been preserved digitally and is available in multiple locations online. It was originally printed in 1900 and then reprinted in 1937 to celebrate Cardston’s Jubilee year. I found a few places online that offer reprints from digital files of it. This will be a fun read for anyone from Cardston, one of her neighbouring hamlets or interested in Mormon settlement in Southern Alberta.

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1.
14 Jun 1898-17 Jun 1898. Alberta Railway and Coal Company photographs.
2.
McLeod NW. Picturesque Cardston and Environments. Cardston: N. W. McLeod; 1900.

The History of Mormon Settlements in Canada

I grew up in Stirling, Alberta, Canada. It is one of many communities in a region now known as Canada’s Mormon Trail. The area was settled in the late 19th and early 20th century by Mormon immigrants coming from the Western United States. It wasn’t until I lived outside of the “Trail” that I started to recognize its uniqueness. Distance opened my eyes to the rare pattern of settlement in these Mormon communities. Their origins are reflected with wide streets, irrigation ditches, unpainted outbuildings, large lots, “Mormon fences”1 and a handful of other traits.2 Some traits are visible, while others need a keen eye to spot. The elements together form the Canadian Mormon landscape. This is a unique expression of a settlement pattern, the Plat of the City of Zion, started by Mormon leaders in Ohio, Missouri and Illinois.3 As Mormons were forced to move west it adapted to meet their needs in Utah, Idaho, Arizona and California. It eventually made its way as far as Canada and Mexico.

130 years ago Charles Ora Card led a group of Mormon settlers to Lee’s Creek, in present day Cardston, Alberta, Canada. Mormon settlement in Southern Alberta marks one of the last colonization efforts led by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.4 As many as nineteen5 communities were started by Latter-day Saints between the 1880s and 1910s. They blended urban and rural. Each town lot had enough land for gardens and livestock but was situated within a community environment. Nelson Lowry described Mormon villages as communities where “barns, chicken coops, pig pens, and stack yards, as well as the homes, are built on the village lots.”3 Not all were planned identically, but they built off a similar distinctly Mormon pattern.

The uniqueness of the Mormon style of settlement was recognized in 1989 when the entire community of Stirling was designated as a National Historic site because it “is the best surviving example of a Mormon agricultural village.”6

This website will endeavour to explore the history of these Mormon communities, highlight the unique characteristics of Mormon settlement in Canada, document their features and promote the preservation of the history of Mormon settlement in Canada. Though we won’t be limited to publishing strictly about Mormon settlements, our efforts will certainly be focused on the following communities that were originated by Mormons:

  • Aetna
  • Barnwell
  • Beazer
  • Caldwell
  • Cardston
  • Frankburg
  • Glenwood
  • Hill Spring
  • Kimball
  • Leavitt
  • Magrath
  • Mountain View
  • Orton
  • Raymond
  • Stirling
  • Taber
  • Taylorville
  • Welling
  • Woolford


In addition to the website and official Facebook page, we’ve started a group on Facebook where we’ll invite anyone who is interested in this topic to share photos, stories, examples and threatened sites associated with this history. Our vision is that this group will be a gathering point for people who share our passion for preserving the history of Mormon settlement.

1.
I reached out to Richard Francaviglia, whose book “The Mormon Landscape” was where I first encountered the term, for clarification on what a Mormon fence was. He said, “The term ‘Mormon Fence’ is generic and was widely used by Mormons themselves back in the 1960s. It refers to any kind of very functional fence that may be made out of varied materials … Many are/were simple paling fences (vertically arranged pickets, posts, slabs, etc) and often patched with anything …”
2.
Francaviglia R V. The Mormon Landscape. Ams PressInc; 1978.
3.
Nelson L. The Mormon Village: A Pattern and Technique of Land Settlement. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press; 1952.
4.
Sherlock R. Mormon Migration and Settlement after 1875. Journal of Mormon History. 1975:53-68. http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.uleth.ca/stable/23286028.
5.
The Encyclopedia of Mormonism article “Canada, LDS Pioneer Settlements in” by Howard Palmer mentions eighteen, but we’ve found evidence for nineteen. Whether some of the smaller communities constitute a settlement could be the cause of the discrepancy.
6.
Stirling Agricultural Village National Historic Site of Canada. Canada’s Historic Places. http://www.historicplaces.ca/en/rep-reg/place-lieu.aspx?id=7773. Published June 22, 1989. Accessed August 9, 2017. [Source]