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“That was Fun, Let’s Not Do It Again”: The Curious Legacy of the Grouse Creek Cultural Survey

Thomas Carter
University of Utah


Executive Summary

In the quarter century (almost) since the publication of The Grouse Creek Cultural Survey: Integrating Folklife and Historic Preservation Field Research, I can’t tell you how many times people have come up, thanked me for my contribution, and said how much the little booklet has meant to them. These declarations always surprise me, since although I’m sure folks have read it, I’ve never felt that it had much of an impact on the actual way either public sector folklorists or preservation historians do their jobs. It may be that what they liked was the history part—the intimate story of a charming little community—while ignoring the method stuff, for certainly after it came out folklorists didn’t start doing intensive community surveys, nor did folklife suddenly become an accepted part of historic preservation practice. So what IS the legacy of the Grouse Creek experiment in "integrating folklife and historic preservation field research?” What can we say about the project now that enough time has passed to give us some perspective? This essay addresses these questions, starting with a bit of background, then covering some of the lessons learned, and ending with thoughts on the current state of affairs in both folklore and historic preservation.

 The Survey

During the summer of 1985 the American Folklife Center sponsored a field survey of the cultural resources found in Grouse Creek, a small Mormon ranching community in northwestern Utah. The project was unique in that it combined folklife and historic preservation field research into a single survey, something that hadn’t been done before. Also unique was the cooperation between State Historic Preservation Office and Folks Arts Program personnel. Such collaboration wasn’t customary, or considered necessary, since the responsibilities of the two agencies was so different. Still, when prompted, they responded, each supplying two fieldworkers: Roger Roper and Debbie Randall were the architectural historians, while Carol Edison and Hal Cannon represented the Folks Arts Program (Hal had recently started his independent Western Folklife Center). Leadership and funding for my project coordinator position came from the American Folklife Center. I was probably chosen to lead the team because I was a folklorist working in historic preservation, and could work both sides of the street so to speak. We selected Grouse Creek as our study site because it was small enough to be surveyed intensively and the residents were amenable to our intrusions. Hal and I had been there and knew the place had some good buildings. The folklife potential was less apparent, but we hoped for the best.

The Grouse Creek work had several objectives. First and foremost, it reflected a larger effort by the American Folklife Center staff to bring folklore and folklife into the mix of cultural resources covered by federal historic preservation legislation. At the time, preservation planning applied mainly to buildings, though it was obvious to us that history could be found "in the things people do” just as much as "the things they have built.” To be honest, we may have been working with a rather dated definition folklife, one that stressed the time depth of tradition and the survivals of folk culture rather than more contemporary meanings of communicative event. Still, it made sense that old buildings and old ways of doing things were both part of a community’s history and therefore worth preserving. Other objectives consisted of developing a methodology for systematically surveying folklore and folklife, something akin to the comprehensive architectural survey, and addressing the harder question of how intangible aspects of culture could best be protected (a question that lingers on and to some degree accounts for this session).


Nature of the Collaboration

To call the Grouse Creek work an "integrated” survey might be a misnomer. The bulk of the actual surveying was conducted separately, the architectural historians doing the buildings and the folklorists everything else. We never really considered mixing the two, since we viewed this as a job and not a classroom exercise per se. Everyone was either camping out or living with host families, so time well spent in the field was on everyone’s mind. On two occasions, the entire team worked together, although these group sessions were considered more a way to introduce the fieldworkers to the resources than break them of old habits. Where we hoped for integration was in the area of knowledge, the evidence gained from the survey work, and here we were quite successful. The combining of the buildings with the folklife practices yielded a much richer sense of place than either taken alone, and everyone seemed to get this from the outset: the build environment informed the folklife, and the folklife helped inform the buildings. Maybe it is richness of the data itself that people find attractive; certainly this was the case for the surveyors.

Tanner house/view of the Grouse Creek Valley. The reliance on floor plans as diagnostic
features for developing typologies and analyzing building history is a contribution of folklorists
to the field of historic preservation. From
Grouse Creek Cultural Survey.

The folklorists faced the biggest challenge, and this was first accepting the idea of a comprehensive survey (something they had never done before) and then developing a method for actually doing it (also something never done before). The standard folk arts survey consisted of finding a few exceptional artists to be highlighted in a recording or exhibit, and starting with nothing more than a "checklist of folklife categories” to be used during interviews was particularly daunting. I think it worked quite well, however, and I have always liked the way folklorist Carol Edison admitted that the project had sharpened her sense of community identity. "In a typical folk arts survey,” Edison noted, "this display of local values would more easily have been missed.” In all, twenty-five individuals (thirteen men and twelve women) were conducted. The population of the community in 1985 was about 100 people living in thirty-five households, so the folklife survey touched about a quarter of the population (and the percentage goes up when counting only the adult members of the community). It was a respectable showing!

Documenting cultural features, Grouse Creek Cultural Survey.

Historians benefited from folklore methods in less obvious ways. First there was a reliance on floor plans as diagnostic features for developing typologies and analyzing building history. This morphological emphasis is absent from most preservation surveys (which concentrate on exterior appearance) and reflects the gradual movement of folklore thinking into both architectural history and historic preservation in the 1970s. This concern for site and building plans, coupled with a general acceptance of more common buildings of all kinds (the opening up of the field in general to vernacular architecture), remains part of folklore’s legacy. I carried these interests and techniques to the Utah SHPO office in the early 1980s, where they were gradually absorbed into the survey process so that by the time of the Grouse Creek project they were well known to both architectural historians. It should be said too that the interviews and oral histories conducted by the folklorists also aided the building survey by generating valuable information concerning such things as builders, owners, construction dates, and remodelings.


Finding of an Integrated Survey

The valley where Grouse Creek is located was settled in the late 1870s by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, popularly known as Mormons, moving in from established communities near Salt Lake City. The chief attraction was availability of land. An attempt was made to farm the valley, but livestock, and cattle ranching in particular, quickly became the chief occupation. The population was extremely homogeneous. People here were mostly English or the children of English immigrants. At its peak, the valley had about 450 residents. In 1985, there were 100 living in 30 households.

As the architectural survey proceeded, several patterns quickly emerged. First, settlement in the valley followed the line-village structure found in many outlying LDS communities. In Grouse Creek, small family ranches are arranged along a long road running north to south through the valley, each with a slice of arable bottomland along the creek. A meetinghouse stands near the center of the community. Such a settlement pattern stems from the Mormon penchant for social cohesion—living together rather than apart fosters a sense of group identity and religious affiliation which stands in stark contrast to the isolated individuals found on the corporate ranches found to the west in Nevada. In terms of the local building stock, log construction and dirt roofs of a general western nature characterized the initial settlement period, but after 1900 a period of economic stability brought with it a set of better and more substantial houses built of brick, stone, and frame. The principal house types during this period were the hall-parlor, central passage, and cross-wing, like the village plan, characteristic of Mormon practices. The architectural evidence seemed to suggest that the history of Grouse Creek could be best understood as the extension of Mormon religious culture into this remote corner of Utah.

Historic photo of the Betteridge Ranch from Grouse Creek Cultural Survey.

Lee House, from Grouse Creek Cultural Survey.

The folklife survey, however, added another dimension to the team’s understanding. We discovered, as expected, the strong expression of Mormon cultural values in the emphasis local residents placed on family, community, and religion. Yet the same interviews and observations, as they shifted toward questions concerning occupational practices and material culture, clearly identified a strong Nevada cowboy cultural presence in the area. The basic cowboy skills and gear found in Grouse Creek were similar, not to those found in Utah where farming predominated, but rather to those from the west over the border in Nevada. The folklife research told us that Grouse Creek, rather than having a single Mormon identity, had a strong western cowboy component as well. Armed with this information, we went back and looked more carefully at the various outbuildings, stables, and corrals and also found these similar to Nevada examples. In this way, the integration of the architectural and folklife data enabled us to develop a central theme in the history and culture of the area, and this was what we called the Mormon Cowboy, the church-going buckaroo.

Integration of the architectural and folklife data enabled the project team to develop a central theme in the history and culture of the area: the Mormon Cowboy. From Grouse Creek Cultural Survey.

Grouse Creek lies on the boundary between two major western culture regions—the secular land of the range-cattle industry with its core in Elko County, Nevada, and the sacred Mormon empire with its core in Salt Lake City. As the research progressed, it became more and more apparent that Grouse Creek life was shaped by the interplay between these two powerful traditions. Cowboy values informed the occupational side of Grouse Creek life, while Mormon values guided most other aspects of family and community life. The Grouse Creek experience suggests that no easy separation can be made between historic buildings and traditional cultural practices. The ranch and the technique of ranching are both significant features of the Grouse Creek heritage. The difference is that the ranch can be listed on the National Register of Historic Places and thus protected under federal preservation law, while the cowboy skills and gear cannot, but the survey made it clear that both need to be considered when preservation planning decisions are being made.

Lessons Learned

For all its positive contributions to our understanding of Great Basin history and culture, the Grouse Creek cultural survey appears to have had little impact on either preservation or folklore methodology. After the project was finished, the historians went back to doing history and the folklorists forgot about the rewards of a comprehensive approach to fieldwork and went back to seeking out and celebrating exceptional folk artists. There was no follow up by either agency, and the collaboration that proved so successful in Grouse Creek was never tried again. I don’t think it was the model that failed. Actually, it worked pretty well in providing an detailed overview of life in the valley during the 1980s. It also made the residents of Grouse Creek more aware of their heritage, and some think this new awareness helped in their decision several years later to block the building of hazardous waste disposal facility at the south end of the valley. They had something worth preserving that was more important than a few more jobs.

View of the Frost Ranch with site plan, from Grouse Creek Cultural Survey.

Allen Tanner house, Grouse Creek, Utah.

The failure may be one of timing. The Grouse Creek cultural survey was built on an approach to historic preservation that was disappearing rapidly in the wake of funding cuts and changes in administrative philosophies. Statewide surveys were largely abandoned, or turned over to local governments, as SHPO staffs turned to meeting the requirements of monitoring Section 106 requirements and tax act applications. Having a couple of staff historians work on a project like Grouse Creek was unthinkable in this new atmosphere. And likewise, folklore and folk arts programs also were shifting away from an older embracing of history and tradition toward a new emphasis on performance and communication. Folk arts programs also struggled with funding, and had enough to do just doing and keeping their own jobs. Thinking back, its possible that the Grouse Creek experiment was doomed from the beginning. It did, however, make a significant contribution to the local history of the area, allowing us a "richer sense” of the place and its past. Life in the valley continues much as it did when we visited back in 1985. Many of the old houses still stand, abandoned as they were all those years ago, and the church remains the center of the community (though downgraded from a "ward” to a "branch” because of a drop in numbers). The full-time residents that remain still make their living from cowboying, a way of life preserved, not because of any long-range plan, but simply because the conditions that made that life possible still exist. When these conditions disappear, so too will the Mormon cowboys.


References Cited

Carter, Thomas and Carl Fleischhauer. Grouse Creek Cultural Survey Integrating Folklife and Historic Preservation Field Research. Washington, DC, Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1988.

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