The Man Who Saved Christmas
One of my favorite St. George Christmas tales was told by Nellie McArthur Gubler, the daughter of the story’s hero. It happened during the bitter cold winter of 1899, following the spring visit to St. George by LDS Church President Lorenzo Snow. During his visit to this drought-stricken corner of Utah, President Snow had received a revelation at the pulpit of the Tabernacle. He promised the citizens of this Mormon village that if they paid an honest tithe, the Lord would open the windows of heaven and pour out an abundance of moisture. Apparently the church members had responded faithfully. Now the rain and snow was almost more than they could bear.
Christmas was fast approaching and due to the winter storms, supplies were running low in town. No freighters were willing to risk their horses and wagons on the 65-mile snow-packed trail to the railroad station at Modena. Ordered freight was piling up at the station and the folks in St. George were in need of the coal oil and other necessary items stacking up on the dock. The freight route ran through the snow-packed mountains north of St. George where the winter winds blew a chilling blast.
One of St. George’s stalwarts in those days was Daniel D. McArthur. He was president of the St. George LDS Stake and a founder of the St. George Co-operative Association. He had recently taken over management of the Co-op business on Main Street, just north of Tabernacle Street. When he heard that a couple of St. George businessmen were going to try to transport two railroad foremen from St. George to Modena in a white-topped buggy drawn by a four-horse team, he began to formulate a plan to send for the freight. He approached his 22-year-old son Moroni, better known as “Rone,” who was experienced at hauling ore and handling a four-horse team. Rone was less than enthusiastic about making the trip. He knew it would take a good ten days and might well be impossible to complete. But he also knew how much it would mean to the community. Crucial supplies were fast dwindling. What’s more, Christmas was just around the corner and he knew the townsfolk were counting on the “store candy” and toys that had been ordered and were sitting in storage at Modena. He knew how much the children of town hoped for a few store-bought gifts to go along with the homemade items Santa Claus would bring.
Rone remembered how happy he had been as a child to receive just one small store-bought toy to go along with the home-knit socks, mittens, caps, shirts, pants, and other clothing his mother had made for him. He remembered one special Christmas when he was lucky enough to receive a little braided whip with a whistle on the end of it. Another year he got a ceramic dog’s head whistle, which he cherished. Rone knew how disappointing it would be to the children of St. George if the town’s freight was not picked up and delivered before Christmas.
He decided to take two wagons and four horses. As he pulled away from the Co-op on Main Street that frosty December morning the townsfolk watched in appreciation. They cheered as the wagons rumbled up past Dodge’s Pond northwest of town to The Twist, through Buckskin Holler and The Big Sands by the White Knolls, up the Ladder, and past the volcanoes at Diamond Valley. He was into snow by now, snow that would grow deeper and deeper as he pressed northward. Those first 12 miles were a steep climb and the horses were winded. He unharnessed, watered and fed them, and made camp for the night. By 4:00 a.m. the next morning he was ready to begin another day.
He was on the trail again by daylight. The passenger coach that preceded him was breaking a trail through the snow. He drove past Chad’s Ranch near what is now the town of Veyo, Cane Springs, Dan Sill Hill, and the Burgess and Platt Ranches at Mountain Meadows. As he pushed through the deepening snow, Rone sometimes sat high up in the spring seat in the head wagon wrapped in a quilt. But most of the time he walked behind the wagons to keep the blood circulating in his feet. The wind blew a stiff gale and he stomped his feet as he slogged along, just to make sure he could feel them. As cold as it was here, he knew it would only grow colder as he made his way through the mountains and into the Great Basin.
When he reached Platt’s Ranch at Mountain Meadows he found the driver of the coach in bed suffering from two frozen feet. The driver would have to stay there and try to save his feet by wrapping them in coal oil soaked rags. One of the Platts would take the passengers on to Modena. Rone made camp at Platt’s Ranch, always seeing to his horses before he saw to himself.
Once he reached the desert near present day Enterprise the route leveled out and the traveling was easier, though no less cold or miserable. Again, the coach and its new driver had marked out the road and Rone pressed on with new hope. It was late afternoon of the third day when Rone and his team finally arrived at Modena. There was no town, only a boarding house fashioned from a worn-out rail car, and a cook shack for the railroad workmen.
It had been weeks since the St. George freight had been picked up. There was more on the dock than Rone could haul. Coal oil in five-gallon cans was top priority. But Rone made sure to load all the candy, Christmas trinkets and toys he could. Nellie relates that as her future father loaded the treasures on the wagon his thoughts went back to that little braided whip and dog-head whistle Santa had brought him as a boy and he thought how happy the children of St. George would be if he could only make it back to town with his load before Christmas. He knew how much the parents in town were counting on him. With the wagons loaded he camped that night at Modena.
He was on his way by daylight. The horses pulled the heavy wagons through the snow, each step drawing the precious cargo closer to its destination. It was cold and slow going but things went relatively well until he neared the Burgess Ranch at Mountain Meadows. New snow had obliterated his earlier tracks and Rone grew snowblind. He realized he had no idea where the road was and suddenly his horses and the lead wagon broke through the crust into a stream of water that flowed from the Burgess Spring. He knew immediately he was stuck and he groaned at the thought of what it would take to get out of this predicament. Nellie said in years to come her father would shed tears of sorrow for his younger self as he told of the bitter cold and the almost impossible task he performed that day.
Alone in the frigid white mist he unhitched the horses and unloaded every piece of freight from the lead wagon, carrying it through the deep snow to firmer ground. He separated the two wagons and hitched one team to the back of the hind wagon and pulled it backwards onto the road. He used the same process to pull the lead wagon out, and after much maneuvering he had the entire rig back in place on the road. He reloaded all the heavy freight.
All he could think about was making it back to St. George in time for Christmas.
Now he pressed on, slowly and carefully, through the snowdrifts of the mountain vales until, finally, he could see the red desert to the south. By now, horseback riders were monitoring his slow but sure progress and sending word to town of the heroic freighter’s status.
It was late evening of the tenth day when he saw the golden light of coal oil lamps glowing from the windows of St. George. The rumble of his wagons shattered the crystalline air and the townsfolk cheered him on as he entered the village. He rolled down Main Street as shouts of joy hailed him from every direction. He jumped off the high wagon seat into a throng of well wishers, most of them women. One was Em Cottam, Mrs. Thomas P. Cottam, who a few years later would become his mother-in-law.
“My, but you are a good-looking chap,” she told him. Rone later remarked that that was about the first time anyone had told him he was good-looking.
There was plenty of help to unload the wagons that night, and Rone was glad because he was tired and wanted nothing more than to get home and into his own bed. When the last item was checked off the freight list, Rone climbed back up into the spring seat and drove his horses and wagons a half block south on Main Street, turned right on Tabernacle Street and drove west another block and a half to where the red-rock McArthur home stood. St. George’s new hall of justice stands on that land today. There he was greeted by his dear mother. Before he went in to the hot home-cooked meal that awaited him, he unharnessed, fed and watered the horses.
Throughout the rest of his life as Moroni McArthur recounted this experience his voice would crack when he recalled how easily it could have all turned out differently. Thanks to Rone, St. George’s Christmas of 1899 was much more merry than it might have been.