As the 1930s were stumbling to a close, Utah looked ahead to what it hoped would be a happier event–the 100th anniversary of its founding. The Depression was still draining resources and in Europe chilling events filled the news, but the decision makers decided that Utah should throw an outstanding party in 1947.
Gus Backman, as executive secretary of the Chamber of Commerce and Commercial Club, was deeply involved in the planning. Years later he recalled how the Chamber helped put on one of the biggest parties the state had ever seen.
Everyone in the area wanted a big celebration, he said, so they lobbied and got through the 1939 Legislature authorization to set up an independent Utah Centennial Commission. After the Legislature adjourned, the first meeting of the fifteen-member Commission was called by Governor Herbert B. Maw. The new chairman was President David O. McKay, second counselor in the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and his vice chairman was John F. Fitzpatrick, publisher of The Salt Lake Tribune. Gus Backman was named executive secretary, and later director of the commission.
Other original members of the Commission were A. Hamer Reiser, S. O. Bennion, Frederick P. Champ, Delbert M. Draper, A. O. Ellett, Judge James A. Howell, Mrs. Rosella F. Larkin, Donald P. Lloyd, former governor Charles M. Mabey, Nephi L. Morris, Mrs. Mary R. Mower (who shortly resigned), I. A. Smoot, John M. Wallace, David H. Thomas, Ward C. Holbrook, and Brigham S. Young. Many were also active in the Chamber.
“Of course there were no funds available, and prior to the meeting of the next Legislature, we got in the midst of the war,” recalled Backman. With no funds appropriated and the war underway, the Centennial Commission suspended its formal work. Nevertheless, members planned and studied on to the end of the war in 1945 how to put on a celebration that would be an advantage to the entire state.
“During that entire time, President McKay and John Fitzpatrick took the lead in the development of a comprehensive program which was ready to submit to the Legislature the minute the war was over with,” he said.
In 1944, said Backman, the commission, now reactivated, went back to the Legislature with a Centennial proposal to appropriate $1 million to update many of the state’s properties. They also asked the Legislature to participate with the various counties on a fifty-fifty basis to make improvements and develop their own cultural activities.
“As a result of that appropriation, such things as the completion of the north side of the University of Utah stadium and the installation of the loud speaker system…the complete rehabilitation of the State Fairgrounds, and cleaning up and putting into fine shape of the old state capitol at Fillmore were carried out,” he said. “The balance of the money was allocated more or less on the basis of population and the willingness of the counties to participate.”
(The various counties did catch the Centennial spirit. More than 140 local committees were active. For the 1947 Centennial, for example, Emery County put on a full year of activities, including plays and dances, a Centennial chorus, and a three-day celebration at the new Centennial Park in Huntington that included a rodeo, horse races, boxing and wrestling, a variety program, and an original pageant of 115 people. Throughout the state there were similar pageants, plays, parades, fix-up campaigns, Centennial balls, air shows, beauty queens, rodeos, and picnics.)
In 1945 the Commission, with the Chamber’s Gus Backman leading the way, went back to the Legislature and asked for another $500,000 to provide programs and entertainment marking the anniversary, “with the understanding that we would repay it,” Backman relates. “The Legislature more or less laughed at the thought that any Centennial would ever pay back anything. But when I was able to produce a letter from President McKay and Mr. Fitzpatrick to the effect that in their opinion the money would be repaid, I received the money immediately.”
The 1947 Centennial commemorating the entrance of the Mormon pioneers into the Salt Lake valley and the subsequent settlement of the state was indeed a big event, with the entire state celebrating. It included a whole range of activities. They entered a centennial float in the 1947 Tournament of Roses Parade and sponsored centennial parades in Salt Lake City July 23 and 24. The Sons of the Utah Pioneers put together their own “covered wagon” trek consisting of automobiles outfitted with canvas covers reenacting the trip from Nauvoo, Illinois, to Salt Lake City–albeit more comfortably than the original journey. Englishman John Cobb came back to the Salt Flats to race with Ab Jenkins under the Chamber’s supervision in another attempt to set a world land speed record, which he did in September of 394.2 mph. Parades, exhibits at the refurbished fairgrounds that drew five hundred thousand people, a Western Golf Open, and a Centennial camp of four thousand Boy Scouts were among the activities. The new “This Is The Place” Monument, sculpted by Mahonri M. Young, was dedicated at the mouth of Emigration Canyon.
Backman remembers also that under the direction of people like Spike Morris and Jimmy Hobson, the state put on the greatest year in sports that it had ever seen. That included NCAA track and field championships, national downhill and slalom ski championships, and the U.S. clay court championships.
“Under the direction of Dr. Lorin Wheelwright, we developed ‘Promised Valley’ (a musical pageant about the Mormon pioneers composed by Crawford Gates which continued a long run after the Centennial).” At the time he recorded his remembrances in 1970 the musical was still being presented in Salt Lake City. “It cost us about $20,000 to produce the lyrical score on the production, and then it was presented practically the entire Centennial year in the University of Utah stadium (where there was new seating). In spite of the fact that the cost of the production was in the neighborhood of $135,000, we still made about $30,000 profit out of that operation,” he said.
Finally, Backman said with some satisfaction, “Let me just say this, that of the $500,000 that was allocated to us for those events during the Centennial, we were fortunate enough to return to the State of Utah $535,000.”
That was an extraordinary achievement, but for Gus Backman, one of the most important outcomes of the Centennial was the teamwork and trust that developed between President McKay and John Fitzpatrick. Historians generally agree with Backman’s assessment. The two, joined by Backman, continued their association to the end of their lives. Their Tuesday morning meetings brought together important media, religious, and civic interests that would influence affairs throughout the region.
Sources: Gus P. Backman typescript in Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce papers, Special Collections, Marriott Library, University of Utah. Thomas G. Alexander and James B. Allen, Mormons & Gentiles, (Boulder, Colorado: Pruett Publishing Co.) 1984. Utah History Encyclopedia (Salt Lake City, Utah: University of Utah Press: 1999). John S. McCormick, Salt Lake City, The Gathering Place (Woodland Hills, California: Windsor Publications, 1980). Utah Centennial Commission report on Utah State Archives Web page. Edward A Geary, A History of Emery County, ( Salt Lake City, Utah: Utah State Historical Society and Emery County Commission, 1996); and various related county histories.