Delta is rather unusual among the primarily agricultural towns in the state, since it was founded in the twentieth century and owed virtually nothing regarding its establishment to direction from the general hierarchy of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The previously settled West Millard farming area was already becoming prosperous from alfalfa seed production when Frederick R. Lyman and others of his Oak City family began investigating the possibility of diverting Sevier River water upstream from the relatively new Gunnison Bend Reservoir, which was used for cultivating lands at Oasis, Desert, Hinckley, and Abraham. After farmers from those communities claimed winter runoff water and commenced building a larger Sevier Bridge Reservoir in southeastern Juab County, Lyman persuaded his fellow members of the Millard LDS Stake presidency, Orvil Thompson and Alonzo A. Hinckley, to call attorney James A. Melville to determine the feasibility of forming a new irrigation company in connection with this reservoir project. The Mellville Irrigation Company was organized for that purpose on 24 March 1906. Twenty-nine of the thirty-four original incorporators were residents of Millard County.
That spring, fifteen stockholders met at Oasis and selected a townsite of mostly unlevel land in a section including the railroad section-house of Akin. The townsite was named Melville, but then the United States Postal Service objected because of its similarity to a Cache Valley town, the name was changes to Burtner in honor of a helpful passenger agent of the San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake City Railroad.
The enterprise proved attractive to many other Utahns as well. The foremost early sources of settlers was Wayne County, sending a dozen industrious families, including that of Hiett E. Maxfield, former bishop of Fremont, who was sustained to the same office at Burtner early in 1909. Nelson s. Bishop of Utah County constructed the first house/hotel in the townsite, followed by Henry J. McCullough, most recently from Garfield County, who log house served also as the first post office and store. The first community school/church meetinghouse was a one-room building hauled from Hinckley. Not long after, construction began on a ward amusement hall.
Melville Irrigation Company stockholders entered upon land under the Desert Land Act, revised in 1891 to allow up to 320 acres providing that eighty of those were brought under irritation within a three-year period. They understood that a diversion dam, reservoir, and delivery canals were essential to accomplish this. Work was commenced in 1907 at a dam site town hundred yards upstream from where the recently rebuilt San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake City Railroad crossed the Sevier River, some four miles north of Burtner. Many stockholders paid for portions of their company shares through labor on the earthen-filled dam, primarily constructed with horse team-drawn slip scrapers. Some water was delivered to project lands late in the summer of 1908, but on 14 June 1909 the dam and spillway washed out, leaving a newly planted crop with little chance to mature. Work immediately commenced on rebuilding a pile-plank reinforced dam, which was completed that August.
By that time, another group of promoters, almost exclusively non-Mormon from the Midwest, planned to promote a project on adjacent West Millard lands. First organized 19 March 1908 as the Oasis Land and Water Company, a Nevada Corporation, they entered into agreement with the Deseret and Melville companies to procure a half interest in the Sevier Bridge Reservoir and its water rights. The company aimed to develop lands under the Carey Act of 1894, which authorized a state to receive up to a million acres of arid land from the federal government on condition it was reclaimed under the law's requirements. This was ultimately one of the most successful Carey Act projects ever developed. Unfortunately, another washout of the diversion dam in June 1910 not only discouraged many farmers but also essentially ruined the Oasis company financially. Several Melville directors induced former Utah surveyor General George A. Snow to investigate local prospects. Favorably impressed, Snow brought outside capitalists including W.J. Moody of Chicago into a new enterprise named the Delta Land and Management Company, which assumed the obligations of the defunct company and brought the project fruition. The Delta Company commenced elaborate promotional activities in California and in the Midwest, and numerous land seekers flocked to the area, usually enjoying special excursion rates offered by the railroad.
The town's name was changed to Delta at the behest of the new company in 1911, and the extended land sales boom directly stimulated its growth as well. By 1912 boxcars loaded with farm equipment, furniture, and sometimes even livestock were unloading in great numbers. While most intended to locate on their new farms, the local newspaper noted that the area around the depot looked like a camping ground because of the large number of settlers' tents. Before the boom ended there were seven hotels along with several restaurants and livery stable operations established mainly to serve the potential land buyers who continued to flock to the area throughout the decade.
Delta area soils were of the proper composition for good sugar beet production. After several years of experimentation, area farmers agreed to plan sufficient beet acreage to induce the southern Utah Sugar Company to construct a large sugar factory at Delta. It went into operation in 1917 and enjoyed good output for several years. But partly because of drought, waterlogging of frequently irrigated land, and the decline of beet prices, and particularly the fantastic profits being earned from alfalfa seed crops at the time, the plant closed and was eventually dismantled and moved away.
From its early years, Delta has been the commercial center of one of the largest alfalfa seed and hay producing regions in the Intermountain West. The early 1920s was a time of expansion beyond the limits of productive farmland, stimulated by exceptionally abundant irrigation water and particularly high alfalfa see crop prices. In 1925 the area produced more than one-fourth of the total seed harvested in the entire nation, bringing impressive profits to many growers. By that time, three national seed-packing companies and several local concerns had warehouses and cleaning plants in the Delta area, some of which continued through the difficult years of the 1930s to prosper again later. In the decade of the 1950s, the region produced nearly six percent of the nation's alfalfa see output.
During the Depression years, Delta-vicinity livestock production increased dramatically, enabling many families to survive the difficult period. Such endeavors continued to expand until the early 1960s the Delta Livestock Auction was the second largest in Utah. The local economy received a boost during World War II through employment opportunities for many residents connected with the Japanese relocation camp at nearby Topaz. Although it was part of a shameful episode in the nation's history, many residents remember positive social and cultural interactions with the internees.
Mining, particularly of fluorspar, hauled by dump truck to be shipped from Delta by railroad ore car, also enhanced the local economy in the late 1940s and early 1950s, as did the mining and milling of beryllium several decades later. Completion of Highway 6/50 in the early 1950s brought new prosperity to the city's hotels, motels, restaurants, and service stations, as well as stimulating other enterprises. The area has long been popular with pheasant hunters, water-sports enthusiasts, rockhounds, all-terrain-vehicle riders, and those who appreciated a vast and varied desert landscape. Recreational facilities in the Delta area are exceptionally good.
In the late 1970s promoters of the Intermountain Power Project (IPP) announced their intentions to locate a coal-burning plant near Delta to generate electric power for southern California and other areas. Many local water shareholders sold the company essential water at good prices. Company and local government officials cooperated in enhancing much of the municipal infrastructure in preparation for the increased population expected during the construction phase. The resultant boom was exceptionally free from increased crime of conflict, and the IPP presence has been a positive aspect of recent local history. Delta residents continue to make their city an excellent place to live. They have always taken particular pride in their schools, and higher than average percentage of Delta students have gone on to higher education studies and outstanding achievements. The high school wrestling team has attained the national attention for winning an unprecedented twenty-five state championships as of the early 1990s.
Edward Leo Lyman