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Historic Provo

Oral History of Margaret Williams Torkelson


GRIGGS: I am interviewing Margaret Williams Torkelson, who is 94 years old. We are at her home which is located at 2045 Aldo Circle in Salt Lake City. It's June 27 at 2:00 p.m. Mrs. Torkelson, could you tell me about some of your early remembrances of Provo?

TORKELSON: Yes. I have a great many memories. I was three years old when we moved from Mapleton to live in Provo. My mother's sister had lived in the old house with the grandparents. My grandmother had carried my Aunt Maggie Stewart all the way across the plains. She had little Margaret and a little eight-year-old son who walked beside her. They had this horrible trip across the plains and wound up in Provo, Utah and were given that place.

The Williams family came from the east after the war, when the railroad began to come through. They settled in Springville and Mapleton and worked in Hobble Creek Canyon. That was where my Grandfather Williams had a sawmill, and my father, Tom Williams, worked with his father. I think they built most of the early residences in Springville from the wood that came out of that canyon. Then grandfather went over to Mapleton to live. He owned most of the big east side of Mapleton, Utah. That's where I was born on May 30, 1894, and where I lived until I was three years old. In Provo, we lived at Aunt Maggie's house.

I started school there and went to the Maeser School when I was a little girl. That was when Karl G. Maeser had had that school named for him. Along the same block where we lived was another Williams family. They were no relation. But Edith Williams and I were seat mates in this little old-fashioned school house where the seats were screwed down to the floor. And the teacher gave us flat peas and she marked our names on this desk. We had to lay the peas flat-side down on the letters to make our name. Well, my name was Margaret and that's a nice long name. My buddy Edith had a short name so she got through laying out the peas so much faster than I did. I had my first heartbreak and first weeping in school over that. Those are silly things to be talking about I guess. I could do so much better job if I could read you the histories that I've written.

GRIGGS: Don't worry because this is exactly what we want, just things that come to your mind.

TORKELSON: Well, anyway. Father had been working in Springville. I just don't know how it came about. But there was a murder over in the Utah Lake. A man had had his cattle on one side of the lake which had frozen over. The man who came to Mother's door and wanted to stay overnight. And they had one little girl and Father was helping them to be comfortable. Father saw these bloody quilts in the back of the wagon. To make a very long story short, Father decided later that when the lake had thawed, that it was this man and his son who had been murdered and came up out of the water. They'd been frozen in the lake. This man was carrying the quilts in his wagon. He said he'd been butchering cattle. Anyway, Father went to Provo and talked to the sheriff and they found the solution of this murder on a Pelican Point, Utah. Then Father was made a law officer in Provo and we moved from Mapleton to Provo. That's where his experience began.

GRIGGS: That's fine. Can you tell me about downtown Provo when you first remember it - what it looked like and some of the impressions you have of the early downtown area?

TORKELSON: Oh, yes. I remember very well going down Main Street. You see there were saloons on all the streets with swinging doors. And when the prohibition movement came, Father, being the City Marshall, had the job of getting the saloons cleaned up. And he knew who they were. One was Jack Dempsey, I remember Father talking about him. He was quite a notorious person as a fighter. It was through Father's good work that the saloons were closed. He was Marshall up and down that Main Street. Then we moved out of the First Ward down where we had lived near Aunt Maggie and bought our own home. And that home still stands in Provo.

GRIGGS: Where is it located?

TORKELSON: It was on the Henry Smith property at 384 East 4th North. See if I had my book here in front of me now I could tell this story right. But anyway, we lived there and I went to school at the BYU. There was no university or anything. There was just, what did they call it? The Training School.

GRIGGS: Could you tell me about your lifestyle in Provo and some of the things you did with your family?

TORKELSON: Well. We had the cows that my brother had to take to the pasture every day. All the cows in Provo went down over the railroad tracks to the pastures. The boys had to go and bring the cows home every evening.

GRIGGS: And where was the pasture where your brother took the cows?

TORKELSON: South of the city and south of the railroad tracks. The kids used to have to drive the cows home in the evening. I was scared out of my life to be out when the cows were coming home. Each kid had his own stick and the wide street was filled with cows. I would try to get over a fence, or to get behind something. I hated to be out when the cows were coming home.

GRIGGS: What were some other family activities?

TORKELSON: We had butter to churn. We had bread to bake. We had soap to make. We had rag carpets to sew and put down in our houses. All of those things that we went through.

I graduated from BYU and I became a teacher. I was hired at the BYU Training School to work with Miss Hermees Peterson who was teaching the first grade. But Hermees had a job in her hometown. So three days a week I was in charge of this first grade. If you remember the old BYU, our classroom came right out to the street on the northeast corner of the building. That's where I met Camilla Eyring, President Kimball's wife. She came up to Provo to go to school, and she and I were both beginners in that situation.

My next job was to go to Logan to teach. From Logan, after I'd been up there five years, I went to New York to teacher's college at Columbia University. Then I came back and took over the supervision of the elementary school system in Cedar City and Iron County, Utah. I was there for 15 years.

GRIGGS: That's really interesting. Where was your first home located in Provo when you moved from Mapleton?

TORKELSON: That was 94 South and 1st East.

GRIGGS: You said that you went to the First Ward? Is that right? Please tell me about going to church and some of the activities that you had in your ward.

TORKELSON: The old church has been torn down. We had wires across the ceiling and curtains, you know, to divide the classes. We had to sit on a little chair stand and were taught in the Sunday school classes. I had my first experience by being a little snowflake at Christmas in a pretty white dress.

GRIGGS: You said that you moved away from that ward. And then which ward did you go to?

TORKELSON: We moved to the Provo Fifth Ward. And those are the old Smith homes on the way to the mental hospital.

GRIGGS: Oh. On Center Street?

TORKELSON: Yes. Fourth East is where the corner of the house was. We had good experiences in Provo, particularly in the schools. That old Maeser School was a precious place to go because Dr. Karl G. Maeser wrote an inscription on every blackboard. And then it was covered with a glass panel and I guess they're still there, if that school is still in use.

GRIGGS: Tell me a little more about going to school at Maeser School.

TORKELSON: Well, it was always a joy for me to go to school. I just had a great time. I loved stories and liked to make things and do things with my hands.

One of the things that was so interesting in our growing up days wherever we lived was the preparation for food in our own places. Father always had a vegetable garden as I've told. And we made soap and we sewed carpet rags. And we made quilts. When it was house-cleaning time and the neighbors down the street had a threshing bee we went and got the fresh straw to put in the bed ticks. But it was a wonderful experience. We had nothing to be afraid of. I don't think we ever had a lock on a door. I don't think we ever had a key.

GRIGGS: You just didn't need one.

TORKELSON: No. People were friendly and neighborly. One experience that was very interesting. Do you remember Florence Jefferson Madsen, that wonderful vocalist? Well, I had a very good singing voice and Florence was my teacher. And she lived just a block away from where we lived in the old Stewart home that I showed you the picture of. I worked with her then at the BYU. We sang in operas and had a wonderful time. I had a beautiful voice in song.

GRIGGS: What operas did you sing in?

TORKELSON: Oh, honey, I don't know that I can remember.

GRIGGS: Where did you perform?

TOEKELSON: It was always at BYU in the old college hall. That's where we always had the big doings.

GRIGGS: What were some of the businesses on University or Main Street and also on Center Street that you can remember?

TORKELSON: Well, Center Street had the first theater, the first movie. My younger sister was one of the girls that helped people find their seats. Then, on the Main Street going from the depot up to BYU, we had circus days that were fantastic because the Ringling Brother Circus would come to Provo and Father, being the sheriff, would take us kids and we'd get up in the early, early morning and go and watch them putting up the tent poles and the elephants pulling the load. From Center Street, clear up to the university was the parade route. I can remember being down on the corner from this old house that I showed you the picture of and everybody from Mapleton, Springville, all our relatives, everybody were there to watch the parade. And then the man with the horn would say, "Hold your horses! The elephants are coming!" (Laughter) We'd watch the clowns and the beautiful ladies on the horses. Oh, it was a great day! And Father would take us then, we'd be all day and practically all night with the circus because in his position as the sheriff, the city marshall as he was called then, he had to be in attendance. We had a great childhood. Lots of exciting things.

GRIGGS: How many years of school did you complete before you started teaching?

TORKELSON: I had just one year that gave me a teaching certificate.

GRIGGS: In high school?


GRIGGS: After you left Maeser School, what other schools did you attend?

TORKELSON: I went to the Parker School. And that's where I did my first year of teaching, in the Parker School. I had all the little kids that were in the neighborhood where I lived in my class. The mothers were very much excited about having somebody that the kids had known in the neighborhood being their teacher. I had a lot of wonderful experiences. But above everything else, we had friendliness and lack of fear, the things now that little children don't have. I feel so sorry for little children being told all the horrible things and witnessing and understanding these things. The world is a beautiful place. The birds singing, the plants and the flowers and everything. For Memorial Day we'd pick the buttercups on the ditch banks. We had irrigation ditches going up and down the streets. And we'd pick the sweet smelling flowers off the locust trees. Have you ever smelled those locust trees? Whatever we could get we'd put in a little basket and walk from our home on 4th North down to Aunt Maggie's place again, and from there over to the cemetery. Then we'd come back to Aunt Maggie's and have strawberries. And my birthday was always on Decoration Day (May 30).

GRIGGS: When you were at Parker School or BYU Preparatory School, did you have any clubs or activities or sports that you can remember?

TORKELSON: Yes. We had groups. I have my yearbooks and things in there I could show you better than tell you.

GRIGGS: What kind of groups were you involved in?

TORKELSON: Choral and dramatic art groups. We had lots of nice things. We had good teachers. We had wonderful music and drama. I remember that I had a wonderful teacher, Beatrice Camp, elocutionist. And that was one class that I enjoyed very much. I got a chance to be in some of these plays.

For one occasion, I guess it was when I was graduation, my aunt make a very beautiful dress for me. It was really the prettiest dress I had ever had. It had a very small opened neck. President Brimhall was the president of the school then. He was a cantankerous, sour person. Miss Camp, who was the director, when it was time for me to get up and give my reading of this story, said,"Oh. You can't go on like that. Prisident Brimhall would have a fit." So she went somewhere and got somebody's old sweater or scarf or something and covered up my pretty dress.

GRIGGS: Oh no!

TORKELSON: So that's not a pretty memory. I was so upset about that.

GRIGGS: Were you living in Provo during the Depression?

TORKELSON: Oh, indeed we were.

GRIGGS: Could you tell me about the changes that were evident in Provo during the Depression years?

TORKELSON: Well, I know that money was the scarcest thing in the world. But we always had something to offset that because Mother was never satisfied when there were less than 100 quarts of peaches in the cellar. We had our own vegetable garden. Father was a wonderful person with our garden. He always planted it in just exactly the right way. Certain things were here and here and here and it went back up to the corn. When peas were ripe and ready to eat, we ate peas every day until they were all gone. It was the same with the corn and everything else. We always had good fresh vegetables. We had an apple tree and a plum tree and a grapevine so we had jelly and preserves. We had chicken and eggs and wonderful food. So we didn't suffer like people would now. You have to have a pocketful of money to get enough food to make a small meal.

GRIGGS: That's true. Do you remember the dates when your father was the sheriff or the marshall in Provo?

TORKELSON: I could tell you that in my story that I've written about it. I wish I could have that before me. It was from about 1897 when I was three and into the early 1900's.

GRIGGS: Maybe when we get done with the interview, we can look it up in your book and write it down.

TORKELSON: Yes. Well I think reading some of the things that I have written would be much better than what I'm doing now.

GRIGGS: Tell me about some of your father's experiences as sheriff?

TORKELSON: He was always going around at midnight to see that the saloons were closed. And sometimes if there was nobody to take a drunk home, he could haul him out in the backyard and leave him outside until he could go home. He was a person whom everybody liked. My father was a very friendly, congenial person and everybody liked him.

GRIGGS: What other kinds of problems did he have to deal with besides the drinking in the saloon?

TORKELSON: Well, nothing too serious: drunkards, thieves, etc. When he became the head of the jail and we moved to the jail to live it was different.

GRIGGS: Oh, you lived there!

TORKELSON: Yes, in a house that was in front of the jail. Mother did the cooking for the prisoners. That house still stands. The house was connected to the jail before they built the new jails. Mother prepared the food for the convicts. Then we'd push it through on trays. She always gave them good measure. There was one poor little man there. He'd murdered a man. But Mother felt so sorry for him and he was always so hungry. So she always had a couple of extra biscuits or something for him and she went in the hole all of the time providing food for the jail. She didn't make any money on that.

GRIGGS: Can you remember any of the restaurants in Provo? Did you ever eat at the restaurants?

TORKELSON: Oh, yes. Now let me see if I can remember that one. It was a beautiful place where we used to like to eat. In fact, I went back there a time or two with my husband after I married Mr. Torkelson and came up here to live. We went back there just for fun to have lunch. But I can't tell it to you today. It doesn't come to me.

GRIGGS: Where was it located?

TORKELSON: It was about two doors west of Center Street? The Schwab's store was on the east side of Academy Ave. There was that big building, was it the bank on the corner? And next, going to the west, was this nice place to eat.

GRIGGS: Was it Sutton's?

TORKELSON: Yes. That's it.

GRIGGS: We have a lot of people who ask us about the resorts that were around Provo by the lake and also the places where people went to dance. Did you have any experiences at the resorts that you could tell me about?

TORKELSON: As BYU students, we were told not to attend the Mozart, which was a public dance hall. But the lake was a lovely place to go down to on the west side where the Knudsons and other people lived. They had lots of lovely vegetables and fruits to sell. We used to go down for summer picnics. There was really nothing west of Main Street. You could go right straight down to the river and fish. I remember one time that Father caught some fish and brought them home. I was trying to do the work in the house or something and I put the fish that he brought in a dishpan with water and they flopped all over the kitchen.

GRIGGS: Oh. They were still alive?

TORKELSON: Yes. I had a hard time rescuing the fish. Well those are little bits of silly memory.

GRIGGS: Could you tell me about some of the activities in Provo on the Fourth of July?

TORKELSON: Yes. We always had a beautiful parade. Do you know where that Mangum residence on 4th East and Center Street, those great big shade trees? Well our home was just two houses north of that facing east. Some of us would take chairs and put them down there without names on them so we had a close view of the street. Then we'd sit down there in the shade and watch the parades and listen to the music. Those were beautiful days.

GRIGGS: What kind of floats did they have at the parades? Were they pulled by horses?

TOEKELSON: Oh, usually, yes. They had to be pulled by horses at that time and later by automobile.

GRIGGS: How were they decorated?

TORKELSON: Oh, beautifully, much like they are today, but I can't remember too many of them. I remember the circus more than I do anything else from those early days. But then, of course, they had all these ladies riding the lovely horses and everything like that. That house where we watched the parades still belongs to my family. My sister, Lucille Jones, lived there for years. I had an interesting experience a couple of years ago with a friend here in the ward who took me for a trip to visit all the homes that I had ever lived in. I had kind of wanted to do that. He took me one day and we made the trip to all these places. Up around the BYU everything is so different. College Hall was all there was to BYU at the time I was there. Everything's changed. The trees are down. We had black locusts up and down the sidewalk. We had the irrigation ditches to flood the lawns.

TORKLESON: Oh, much like they do it now, with floats made by different wards, and different bands, etc. But the circuses are the things that I remember most in those early days because they came at night. We were close to the depot, on 4th South there where we lived. We could hear the trains coming. My mother had two brothers who were engineers. They lived in Salt Lake City, but they'd go whistling through and Mother would say, "Well, there's John. John's in." Her brother was on his way with his train. Father took us everywhere. Do you remember the opera house? Father could always have tickets there. He had one place up in the gallery with two chairs. He took all of us. There were four kids. He told two of us to sit in the chair and the other one would sit on his lap and watch these plays that came in. There was one production, I can't remember the name of it now, but I can see it as plain as day, somebody was creeping up on a man to get behind him, and I stood up and said, "Don't you hurt him!" or words to that effect. It embarrassed my dad to death. But it was so realistic. I got into the theaters and got to ride the merry-go-rounds and all those things. They were just good, clean, wholesome, happy, fun days.

GRIGGS: Did you used to play at the parks and playgrounds?

TORKELSON: No. We weren't permitted to go there. Our mother kept a short rein on us.

GRIGGS: That's good too, isn't it? Well, this has been very helpful. Thank you so much. It really is interesting to hear you talk about Provo as it was when you were young.

Interviewee: Margaret Williams Torkelson
Interviewer: Karen Griggs
June 27, 1988

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