For the Mormons who settled Tooele Valley in the mid 1800s, faith and grit were prerequisites. These qualities, along with a robust sense of community and a knack for building things that last, were the lifeblood of budding Tooele Valley settlements. It was an era of extreme uncertainty at the edge of the pioneer frontier, when relations with area Goshute clans were volatile, resources were scarce and a freak infestation of grasshoppers could spoil a season’s entire harvest.
But it was also a time of character, of simple joys and spiritual solidarity. Family life was centered largely on local branches of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which operated under purview of a regional bishop. As communities grew, their branches flourished. In 1877, the population of Tooele County was 4,000. The branches of Tooele County were organized into the Tooele Stake — the 15th stake to be created following the arrival of the pioneers.
This year marks the 135th anniversary of the Tooele Stake. Its history abounds with fascinating tales — some colorful, many inspiring. Several prominent church figures rose from its ranks, including apostle LeGrand Richards and church president Heber J. Grant. Since its establishment in 1887, the Tooele Stake has seen only 13 stake presidents. Four of them are still living. Three of them, current president Sergio Abarca and former presidents Joel Dunn, 84, and Jim Bevan, 81, gathered at the Tooele Stake Center last week to swap stories.
“I can remember going out to church with my dad in Mercur and Ophir,” said Dunn, the Transcript-Bulletin publisher emeritus, who served as stake president from 1976 to 1978. His father, Alex F. Dunn, served in the same capacity from 1937 to 1957.
At the time it was organized, the Tooele Stake of Zion consisted of six wards: Tooele City, Grantsville, E.T. City, Lake Point, St. John and Vernon. Its first stake president was Francis M. Lyman of Fillmore. A total of 2,958 people resided within the stake’s jurisdiction, which spanned the entirety of the county and, between 1882 and 1887, a cherry-picked portion of southern Idaho that had been settled by Tooelans. The stake offices stood at the corner of Main Street and Vine Street in downtown Tooele.
Francis Lyman served until 1880 when he was called as an apostle. He was replaced by 23-year-old businessman Heber J. Grant.
“The reason he came from Salt Lake to be stake president is that there was nobody in Tooele that kept the Word of Wisdom,” said Bevan, who presided over the stake from 1987 to 1996.
“You can imagine how well he was accepted out here,” said Dunn.
Although the number of congregants flouting the church’s health code at the time cannot be verified, Grant’s tenure did have something of a rocky start. Particularly, the young stake president struggled with giving talks. His first one lasted a mere seven and a half minutes. Subsequent speeches were even shorter. Grant’s frustration is recorded in “Gospel Standards.”
“I was not able during the next three or four Sundays to talk as long as I did the first one,” Grant said. “I ran out of ideas in five, six and six and a half minutes.”
Grant chalked his failures up to personal pride and, after a particularly embarrassing speech in Grantsville, resolved to humble himself and say only those things that would benefit the audience.
“And I have never failed from that day until now,” he noted.
Grant was called as an apostle just two years later, and would later become the church’s sixth president.
Hugh S. Gowans was sustained as stake president in 1882 after Grant’s departure. His 29-year tenure was the longest of the 13 presidents. By all accounts, the Gowans era saw steady church growth and general prosperity. Although detailed records of the stake’s dealings were kept from the time of its establishment, they trailed off around the turn of the century. The pre-1900 records and a general history of Tooele County were compiled into book form in 1977 as part of the stake’s centennial celebration.
“Somebody had kept a history,” said Dunn. “You can imagine what a job it was to keep it. And then in 1900 it quit. We didn’t have anything after that.”
Dunn recalled his father’s years as stake president as a time of hardship. His father saw the stake through the Great Depression and two wars. Dunn told of his father’s goal one year during World War II to provide a Thanksgiving turkey to every family in the stake.
“Sam Clark had a turkey farm in Lake Point, and Dad went to the Relief Society president and said, ‘There should be nobody in our stake that doesn’t have a turkey-member or non-member,’” Dunn said.
By 1953, the Tooele Stake had split twice to form the Grantsville and Tooele North stakes. Dunn was called as stake president in 1976 and oversaw final preparations for an event that the Transcript-Bulletin would deem “one of the largest celebrations in Tooele County history.”
And they were probably right. The three-day extravaganza featured a pageant, a parade, an art exhibition and a tennis tournament. There were dances, various contests and a royalty competition where candidates for queen of the centennial celebration played instruments and delivered comical monologues. A Sunday fireside with speeches by LDS apostles Ezra Taft Benson and LeGrand Richards capped off the festivities.
Today, the Tooele Stake consists of nine wards and one branch, and though its boundaries have shrunk (its northern boundary is now Vine Street), its membership remains at about 3,500. Current stake president Abarca has served for over seven years. A native of California, Abarca was surprised when he was called shortly after moving to Tooele.
“I was living in the valley just over a year when they called me, and I had only been in the stake for about six months,” Abarca said. “It was a stretch for me.”
Presidents of the 135-year-old Tooele Stake tell the story behind one of the LDS church’s oldest entities
The generational progression was appreciable as the men stood in the stake high council room beneath portraits of each former stake president, Abarca pulling up church archives on his iPad as Bevan flipped through fading paper documents. Across the hall in the gym, a ward Christmas party was in full festive spirit. A group of young men ribbed each other as they walked down the hall, and a young boy strolled into the room and paused casually for a moment before rejoining the party.
Much has changed over the last 135 years, but much also hasn’t. Bevan asserted that while the stake’s temporal purposes may have shifted over the years to adapt to evolving circumstances, its spiritual objectives have remained unchanged. Bevan put it simply.
“Really, the mission is to bring people to Christ,” he said.