Mom looked everywhere trying to find us, but we were well hidden. She knew we hadn’t gone on our biggest adventures of climbing Little Mountain, or swinging like Tarzan from root to root from the Oak Brush roots sticking out into the walls of the deep Settlement Canyon Stream. Instead we were just behind our backyard hiding in the deep grass of the field. Not only did we tie the lush tall green grass together to make escape route tunnels, but we also pulled it up by the roots to plant on top of our dugouts to camouflage them. Ah, the good old years before TV, when creative playing, bicycles and sandlot baseball were king.
Little did I know then or care, but a similar long green lush grass called “Great Basin Wild Rye” used to cover Tuilla (Tooele) Valley before the onslaught of cattle and sheep grazing. The Utah History Encyclopedia claims that as early as 1847, Tooele Valley was known for its “waist or stirrup high grass” and was used by herders from other valleys. While traveling from Sacramento to Salt Lake Valley in 1827, Jedediah Smith and party stopped some Indians in Skull Valley asking them where the buffalo were. They pointed east over the other side of the Stansbury Mountains, and said, “Tuilla Valley, Tuilla Valley.” Tuilla was the Shoshone word for tall grass. So there were buffalo here. (History of Tooele County Vol. II)
As late as 2006, in a report about the Tooele Airport, the Ute RC Association stated that the runway was rough, and the well-known waist high Tooele grass is profuse.
In the 1920s, Jack Rabbits became one of the major menaces to the grazing and agriculture of the Valley. So thick were they, that they were hunted just to be rid of them. One way they did this was by intercommunity hunting contests held between the marksmen and clubmen of Tooele and Grantsville as described in History of Utah’s Tooele County. On one Saturday, Tooele won the rabbit contest by bagging 214 rabbits compared to 207 for Grantsville. The very next week another hunt put Grantsville ahead by 204 compared to Tooele’s 199. My grandfather told me of flatbed trucks piled high with rabbit carcasses that were exhibited on the corner of Main and Vine streets in Tooele. Rabbits were also used as food. One hunter/entrepreneur hauled entrails free rabbits to Salt Lake and received $1.50 per dozen rabbits. Would that even pay for the shotgun shells today?
Sheep, and less so cattle, are blamed for the over-grazing that preceded the Dustbowl era of the 1930s. Grantsville alone boasted of grazing 6,000 to 7,000 sheep a year. As many 100,000 sheep were sheared annually in just two shearing corrals located in the valley. This contributed considerably to the overcrowding of the available range. This overcrowding, for a long period of years, along with several very dry water years and denuding wildfires, climaxed with a great dust storm in Dec. 1929. The worst dust storm occurred in Dec. 1934, making driving between Tooele and Grantsville almost impossible. In some places in Grantsville the dust was almost 12 feet deep. So much so, that the town was in danger of becoming abandoned. Children would often be seen holding hands to safely cross the dust darkened streets on their way to school. A wet sheet over windows was a way to lessen the severity of the dust while staying indoors. In 1938, Soil Conservation Officials and concerned citizens formed a plan that included not only restrictions on grazing, but also the planting of Crested Wheat Grass. Before that, dust choked off more than 10,500 acres in the valley or 31 square miles.
For a vision of how Tooele Valley used to look, come by the Tooele Pioneer Museum and notice how tall and beautiful the Great Basin Wild Rye is. Not only beautiful, and nutritious for animals, it provides for excellent surface erosion protection and soil stabilization that can be valuable in restoration species with areas receiving as little as 8 inches of moisture a year.
The Tooele Pioneer Museum is open every Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. until National Museum Day on Sept. 28, on which day hot dogs and all the trimmings will be free. Of course admission and tours are always free.