Perched on White Mesa near Blue Mountain in southeastern Utah, the town
of Blanding sits at the southern end of the Great Sage Plain. Documented
Anasazi occupation of this site extends to as early as A.D. 600, with dwellings
being constructed as late as the early 1200s. Archaic Indian sites that
far predate this period also exist at the foot of White Mesa. Utes and an
occasional Navajo also camped in this area because of the water from local
springs and seeps. Before the town was built, Navajos called the location
"Sagebrush," because of that plant's luxuriant growth that swept
through the pinyon and junipers to the base of the mountain.
In 1886 Francis A. Hammond, newly appointed LDS stake president, sent out
an exploring party from Bluff to evaluate possible townsites that could
support an agricultural and livestock economy. Monticello, twenty-two miles
north of Blanding, received the initial attention in this colonizing effort.
For ten more years White Mesa remained the haunt of the diminishing livestock
herds of the non-Mormon L. C. outfit. Not until 1897, when Walter C. Lyman
with his brother Joseph loaded a buckboard with supplies and left Bluff
to investigate White Mesa's potential, did the idea of a community there
start to take shape. At one point, Lyman looked out over the sea of sage
and, according to accounts, had a vision that one day this isolated area
would have an LDS temple and play an important role in serving Naive Americans,
especially through education.
This idea was hard to accept at the time, and it was just as difficult to
imagine how irrigation water could be obtained from the mountain. But a
half-dozen people believed, marked out the route of a canal from Johnson
Creek, and then went to work to make it a reality. The LDS Church called
many of these men on missions, but by 1903 they had returned and completed
their work. By April 1905 Albert R. Lyman, Walter's nephew, had pitched
his tent amid the sagebrush in the newly surveyed town. By July, five other
families were established and the town had started its climb in population.
First known as Grayson (after Nellie Grayson Lyman, wife of Joseph), the
town changed its name in 1914 when a wealthy easterner, Thomas F. Bicknell,
offered a thousand-volume library to any Utah town that would adopt his
name. Grayson vied with Thurber (now Bicknell) for the prize; the two towns
split the books and Grayson assumed Bicknell's wife's maiden name - Blanding.
However, the people of Blanding were somewhat disgruntled to find that many
of the books they received were of poor quality.
Between 1912 and 1916 Blanding received an infusion of new blood because
of political unrest in Mexico. Many Mormon families, who had previously
fled south of the border during the intense anti-polygamy persecution of
the 1870s and 1880s, abandoned their Mexican homes and moved back to the
United States. Some found refuge in San Juan County. In January 1914 the
town could claim a population of 500 people; five years later it had risen
to 1,100. Not all of this growth was attributable to events in Mexico, but
a sufficient amount of immigration occurred to create in the minds of at
least some of the early settlers a slight division between them and the
newcomers, called "Pachecoites."
During this same era, modern conveniences started to become a part of the
town's life. Schools moved from tents with sideboards to a frame building
in 1908. A year later, a phone line stretched from Blanding to Monticello,
connecting residents to Moab and the outside world. Electricity arrived
on a part-time basis in April 1918 and became a full-time reality in 1935.
Improvement and maintenance of the water system remained an ongoing task.
In 1916 the town constructed a reservoir with a distribution system comprised
of wooden pipes that frequently had to be replaced. By 1921 work had started
on a 5,400-foot tunnel on top of the mountain to bring excess water from
its north side. Thirty-one years later, at a cost of $125,000 and a great
amount of hard work, the townspeople completed the tunnel and watched the
precious water flow into the reservoirs below.
Blanding, like most communities, actively supported national efforts during
World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II. The town, however,
received lasting notoriety for its involvement in the 1923 Posey War, billed
by enthusiasts as the last Indian uprising in the United States. Far from
being that dramatic, the event was more accurately a last bid for freedom
by some desperate Utes living on the outskirts of town.
In economic terms, Blanding has ridden the waves of boom and bust cycles.
Livestock and agriculture came to include lumber operations; all gave way
in the 1950s to the burgeoning uranium and oil industries. New roads, service
industries, and an increased population gave rise to a significant cash
flow that increased local opportunities for education and employment. By
the 1980s, however, when area ore was barely marketable, many people who
had come in with the boom packed up and went elsewhere. State and federal
government as well as educational institutions, however, continued to be
large employers for those who remained. Organizations such as elementary
through college schools, social services, and the Edge of the Cedars Museum
provided local employment as well as attracting people to the community.
According to the 1990 census, Blanding has a population of 3,162 people,
over a third of whom are enrolled in some type of educational program. The
College of Eastern Utah - San Juan Campus, established in 1977, provides
a number of two-year degrees to an average of 500 students per year, half
of whom are Native Americans. Many area people today refer to Walter C.
Lyman's vision and believe it is still unfolding.
See: Cornelia Perkins, Marian Nielson, and Lenora Jones, Saga of San
Juan (1957); Albert R. Lyman, The Edge of the Cedars (1966);
and Gary L. Shumway, "Blanding, The Making of a Community," in
San Juan County, Utah, Allan Kent Powell, ed. (1983).
Robert S. McPherson