The Mormon habitat has always been a vortex of legend and lie. Even today, as the State settles down to gray hairs, there lingers something wonderful and outrageous about Utah, a flavor of the mysterious and strange. Many still journey to Utah to see a Mormon.
Even if there had been no background of Joseph Smith, Angel Moroni, and the Book of Mormon, Utahns would have been incomprehensible, misunderstood and lied about, because they set down in the book of Western history the most stubbornly cross-grained chapter it contains. All the conventions of Western life in Utah went haywire. Only late, and briefly, did Utahns turn feverish, like their neighbors, with get-rich-quickness. Wars of cattle baron and homesteader dissolved at Utah's borders, because farmers had come first to the creeks. Lynch law wandered into the bishops' courts to sit in the back pews and watch, bemused, the quiet sanity of theological justice. Immaculate woman and scarlet woman together lifted their petticoats to take flight before family migrations and polygamy. Utah has always had a way of doing things different. The rest of the country has never quite got over it.
Much of that pioneer distinctiveness survives in Utah life, although the forces of twentieth century civilization have shaped Utah into patterns of conformance, so that there are fewer, outward stigmata to a Utahn, and somewhat less wild speculation about him. Most visitors now betray no disappointment at finding Mormons hornless.
"Utahn" is regarded as almost synonymous with "Mormon," although there have always been those who would quarrel fiercely with this assumption. Although the total Church membership ("Church" meaning always the Church) numbers perhaps only three-fifths of the population, the particular quality of Utah life is almost wholly Mormon. Whatever there is of substance to the "gentile" influence represents, if native to Utah, a reaction to Mormon culture rather than anything distinctive in its own right. Two blocks in Salt Lake City stand as the tangible heart and center of Mormon Utah--Temple Square and the adjacent eastern block where stand the modern Church offices and the pioneer structures raised by Brigham Young. But the vital texture of Mormon culture is something much more broadspread-the honest old adobe houses, the villages nestling in the valley bottoms, the people themselves.
Mormon Utah is primarily that fertile strip of occupied land, down through the north-central part of the State, lying at the foot of the Wasatch mountain rampart. Four-fifths of the population lives here, in towns that vary from metropolitan Salt Lake City to humble villages that are distinguishable as towns only by their general store and sturdy "meeting house." This densely populated area, said to sustain more persons to the acre than even crowded Japan, is the great monument to Mormon endeavor, although the log or adobe houses built by Utah's founding fathers rise from creek bottoms all over the State.
Even in this richest and oldest-settled area, the stamp of a pioneer culture is everywhere manifest. Grandsires built too sturdily, albeit of such building materials as wood and mud, for the pioneer period to have lost its substance. Even in Salt Lake City old adobe houses stand up indomitably to the years, the very earth of their dooryards seeming to have crumbled sooner. In smaller towns these houses retain their pioneer flavor of accomplishment; often they are still the best houses in town, despite modern structures of pressed brick, whitepainted wood, or stone. There are few flourishes to such buildings. They stand upon the earth, compact and designed to live in, the bare high walls weathered native gray. Almost always these houses are shadowed by trees. If houses could not stand as monuments to a culture, trees, gardens, and sheer greenness could. The cities themselves, almost universally set four-square to the directions, reflect an ideal of spacious and noble planning. Exigencies of one kind and another have invaded the grand sweep of pioneer planning, but nothing is more quickly remarkable to visitors than the breadth and straightness of the streets, the width of the sidewalks, and the length of blocks in Utah cities. And all the cities are tree-grown, comfortable with homes and lawns and gardens and flowering shrubs.
Not in this greenest area but in the outlands most nearly survives the old Mormon society. Few "gentiles" have found that hard land to their liking; they have settled instead in the cities, and cast there the social and physical weight of their differentness. The Mormon "wards," or local congregations, in the rural villages comprise from ten to a hundred families living on terms of social intimacy unknown in the cities. Every man is every man's neighbor; all the children go to the same school; the families go together on Sunday to meeting, or to the canyons on outings. Perhaps the sons and daughters sing in the choir; certainly they go together to the dances, bazaars, and banquets held in the meeting house. Only the richer communities have church buildings sufficiently elaborate to boast chapel and "amusement hall" both; characteristically the meeting house serves all community purposes unless the school building is called into use.