The city of Orem is located on the eastern shore of Utah Lake and extends on the east to Provo and the foothills of Mount Timpanogos. It shares the general location with Provo, and its history is closely related to that of Provo. Its recent explosive development and growth have resulted in Orem's population exceeding 67,000 people, according to 1990 census figures.
Prior to its incorporation, Orem was known as the "Provo bench," and its fertile orchards and farmlands added to Provo's early reputation as the "Garden City of Utah." Orem was incorporated in 1919 because residents recognized the need to develop a water system for the area. Orem has little naturally occurring water, and local residents believed that Provo was unlikely to provide the public financing necessary to construct a water system. One of the first acts of the new town was to issue $110,000 in bonds to construct the water system, which solved the area's long-standing shortage of water. The new town took its name from Walter Orem, the owner of the interurban railroad that ran between Salt Lake City and Provo, in an apparent attempt to curry the favor and attract the investments of this prosperous resident of Salt Lake City.
Unlike many Utah towns and cities, Orem was not laid out in regular city blocks with houses clustered closely together. Instead, Orem's origins are in homesteads settled along the territorial highway (now State Street) and along other substantial arteries where area farmers built their homes and to live near their fields and orchards. As prime farmland along primary roads was taken, farms sprang up in other parts of the "bench" that is now Orem, and rural roads soon crisscrossed the area connecting the farms. This type of development, known in Utah as the "Gentile manner," differed from typical historical development by Mormons, who were often counseled by church leaders to live in the city and cultivate farmland outside its limits.
One of the cohesive influences in Orem has been the Sharon Community Educational and Recreational Association, better known as SCERA. SCERA was created in 1933 under the guidance of Arthur V. Watkins, then president of the LDS Sharon Stake and later a United States Senator from Utah, as a substantial community effort at "planned and organized recreation." SCERA has fulfilled much of its anticipated role in the city since its birth in the depths of the Great Depression.
The first major evolution of Orem began in the early 1940s when the Geneva Steel Works was constructed by the federal government as an inland producer of steel. Built along the eastern shore of Utah Lake, Geneva has provided employment to many local residents, either directly or indirectly. In recent times, Geneva has spawned controversy because of increasing concerns over environmental damage caused by the plant and related concerns about lost employment which would be caused by the shutdown of the plant. USX Corporation, the former owner of Geneva, ceased active production of steel at the plant for a brief period in the mid-1980s and then sold the plant to a small group of investors who revived operations.
The second major change to the landscape of Orem came as many of its farms were converted to shopping centers and malls along State Street and the University Parkway, the intersection of which now probably stands as the focal point of the metropolitan Orem/Provo area. First the University Mall and later other malls attracted business away from downtown Provo, historically the central shopping area of Utah Valley. Little successful central planning has taken place in Orem, and it is as much without a central core now as it was when it was known as the Provo bench. Pockets of commercial and residential development dot the expansive area that is Orem.
The third major evolution of Orem has been caused by the city's recent development as a center of computer technology and development. Giant WordPerfect Corporation, founded by a former Brigham Young University professor and one of his graduate students and headquartered in Orem, has provided the impetus for the creation of other computer software companies in the city. A fledgling entertainment industry, begun with the construction of Osmond Studios in northeast Orem, has also helped change the face of Orem.
Many of the past developments in Orem can be seen in the city's present form. Orem's proximity to the Wasatch Mountains and Utah Lake make it an all-season center of recreation. Geneva remains a large employer and a center of controversy. Often unchecked commercial development of the city continues. New high tech firms such as WordPerfect now compete with Geneva as the largest private employers in the city. Orem has come a long way from its days as the sleepy unincorporated Provo bench and even from its early days as an incorporated town comprised of scattered farms and orchards. It is now a vital city that must confront the issues that urbanization brings.
See: Kenneth L. Cannon II, A Very Eligible Place: Provo and Orem, An Illustrated History (1987); Orem Bicentennial History Committee, It Happened in Orem, A Bicentennial History of Orem, Utah (1976).
Kenneth L. Cannon II