Utah History Encyclopedia


By Lowell C. Bennion
Since the 1850s, Sanpete County's history has revolved around the rivalry of its four leading towns--Mt. Pleasant, Gunnison, Manti, and Ephraim. Ephraim, long portrayed as the epitome of "the Utah farm village," refused to concede primacy of place to its nearest competitor, even though Manti captured both the county seat and one of Utah's first four Mormon temples. In the 1950s, Ephraim finally eclipsed all its rivals in size and two decades later passed the Census Bureau's magic 2,500 mark to become Sanpete's only urban place.

Outwardly, Ephraim still resembles its Sanpete rivals and the classic Mormon village, but inwardly it has always differed in significant ways. From its founding in 1854 until the end of the Black Hawk War in 1868, Ephraim functioned as Sanpete's most important fort. Platted across one of the San Pitch River's largest tributary "creeks," Fort Ephraim arose next to a sizable Indian settlement, "presenting the appearance of two cities, side by side, with entirely different manners and customs" according to one early observer.

Its function as a fort drew a very diverse population to Ephraim, with Danes forming a bare majority by 1860. Divisions naturally developed, prompting the church to appoint outsiders as bishops. The fourth, a Norwegian named Canute Peterson, arrived from Lehi in 1867 and, after signing a peace treaty with the Indians, helped bring stability and prosperity to a newly incorporated (1868) City of Ephraim. By 1872 the city had built two imposing structures a block apart on opposite sides of Main Street--a co-op store and a tabernacle.

Brigham Young's appointment of Peterson as president of Sanpete Stake in 1877 enabled Ephraim to serve as church seat and become in 1888 the site of the stake academy, the forerunner of Snow College. The school grew very slowly, not moving into its first permanent building for nearly 20 years. Not until after the LDS Church turned the school over to the state in 1932 did it become a bonafide two-year college. The school now (1993-94) numbers nearly 2,500 students and rivals agriculture as an economic base for Utah's smallest college town. Snow College has had a much more enduring impact on Ephraim's growth than the ephemeral railways, agricultural businesses, and light industries once located on the west side of town. The college has also made Ephraim the most cosmopolitan place in Sanpete, connecting it with the other towns and the rest of the state through its manifold programs.

The growth of Snow College has also altered the composition of Ephraim's population which by 1880 had become about 90 percent Scandinavian. Then about half of all residents had one of eight surnames: Anderson, Christensen, Hansen, Jensen, Larson, Nielsen, Olsen, or Peterson. No wonder than used nicknames like "Petee Bishop" (a son of Canute) to keep the identities of the townsfolk straight! It could be said that non-Scandinavians married a Christensen, left town, or never felt fully at home. To compound matters, fully one-fourth of Ephraim's Mormons had, by choice or birth, entered the plural form of marriage.

To revive the town's Nordic heritage, a few Ephraimites started a Scandinavian Festival in 1976. Held on the weekend before Memorial Day, the festival now features numerous events centered on Ephraim Square. Ephraim almost razed its empty Co-op after tearing down the old rock tabernacle, but it recently decided to restore its finest building and make it once again a central focus of Main Street and the entire town.

See: Albert Antrei and Ruth Scow (eds.), The Other Forty-niners (1982); Centennial Book Committee, Our Yesterdays (1981); Gary B. Peterson and Lowell C. Bennion, Sanpete Scenes: A guide to Utah's Heart (1897).