Most Salt Lake City residents take it for granted that the city’s July 24 celebration, marking the 1847 entry of the Mormon pioneers into the Salt Lake Valley, always seems to come off like clockwork each year. In fact, it was not until a committee of the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce organized the celebration in the 1930s that it became an annual affair.
Celebrated sporadically since 1849, Utahns had marked July 24 as a Utah version of “founders’ day.” Early on, it took the form of occasional picnics and celebrations in the cool canyons above the city. In 1897, the new state pulled all of the stops out for a fiftieth anniversary of the first pioneer company’s arrival. The party lasted six days. A similar celebration marked the Diamond Jubilee in 1922.
In 1931, Chamber organizers called their celebration “Covered Wagon Days” and it set the pattern for what Utahns have grown to expect around July 24 in the state capital. Celebrated between July 22-24, a nightly rodeo was held at the State Fair Grounds. During the event, a flight of eighty planes from the Army Air Corps flew over the city on two occasions. There was a children’s parade and pageant with authentic Indian village of the Shosone Tribe.
A religious service opened the July 24 observance at the Salt Lake Tabernacle. Following a salute of guns, whistles and sirens, a grand parade wound through downtown. The climax of the day was the “Pageant of the Pioneers,” held at the University of Utah Stadium. The grand display had twenty-one episodes depicting everything from Mormon pioneer history to Utah gaining statehood.
Heber M. Wells, the state’s first governor and key organizer of the Chamber, was called home from Washington, D.C., to participate in the festival. The Chamber put up eighty billboards across the state and in Idaho advertising the gala, while advertisements ran in thirty-five newspapers in the two states.
While the 1931 event was called the “first annual” celebration, the Depression put a check on festivities until 1935, when the yearly celebration took off under the direction of the chamber-affiliated Covered Wagon Days Inc. The programs became more ambitious with each succeeding year.
The pioneers’ entry was celebrated with a vast, four-day program in 1936. Some one hundred thousand spectators viewed the 1936 parade of seven thousand participants. A grand “Utah Cavalcade” entertained guests at the University of Utah stadium.
A fifty-bed temporary hospital, staffed by four physicians and eight registered nurses was set up to handle Covered Wagon Days casualties. Fortunately, little use was found for it. Despite the crowds, the celebration turned a $2,700 ($35,000 in 2002 dollars) deficit.
The celebration continued to grow. About 150,000 attended the 1940 parade and it took entries an hour and a half to pass the official reviewing stand on Main Street between 200 South and 300 South.
Wendell Wilkie, a 1940 presidential candidate, attended the parade and said, “I’ve never seen anything equal to it in typification of the state’s founders or in the beauty of its floats.” Some naive eastern news reporters wrote that the people had turned out to see Wilkie.
“That parade was worth coming a long way to see–and you’d have to go a long way from Salt Lake City to ever see a better. Outstanding feature of this year’s parade was the patriotic motif of so many of the floats. It gave the procession added significance in these trying times when the nation’s attention is concentrated so much on threat to our national security, both from external pressure and internal subversion,” a Salt Lake Telegram editorial said.
In 1940, year attendance records were shattered and Covered Wagon Days turned a profit of $1,483 (about $19,000 in 2002).
By 1942, a war-time theme and Old Glory’s colors pervaded the parade entries. Despite the specter of war hanging over the nation, it didn’t deter visitors.
“The audience. It must have been all of Salt Lake City’s population plus thousands of visitors from throughout the intermountain area and a nation-wide representation of other states in tourists and travelers. They left not a single vantage point unoccupied. Every available downtown spot held its quota of spectators,” a news reporter wrote.
That year, the event turned $2,000 profit ($22,222 in 2002 funds) after eliminating the unprofitable pageant.
In all, the Chamber’s involvement lasted for eight years. In 1943, the non-profit Days of ‘47 committee took over operation of the event as the committee looked forward to the 1947 centennial of the pioneers’ settlement.
Sources: “First Governor of State Lauds Wagon Frolic,” Deseret News, 5 June 1931. Utah Writers Project, Work Projects Administration, “94 years in the making, Covered Wagon Days,” Salt Lake Tribune, 20 July 1941. “Days of Ô47 Organizes, Sets Program,” Salt Lake Tribune, 14 June 1943. “Thousand Hail Pageantry of Pioneer Parade,” Salt Lake Tribune, 25 July, 1942.
1931 Covered Wagon Days Invitation and Program in Utah State Historical Society Library Collection.