Utah economy

Mormon Women Use Relief Society to Help the Poor and Start a Business

Mormon crickets and grasshoppers nearly decimated the crop soon after the Latter-day Saint pioneers entered the Salt Lake Valley. After those difficult years, many Latter-day Saints began to store grain to avoid their previous trials, to practice the principles of self-reliance, and to feed the poor.

As part of grain storage efforts, the Saints built the Ephraim Relief Society Granary between 1872 and 1875. Initial efforts to store grain were unsuccessful, so in 1876 Brigham Young asked Emmeline B. Wells to direct the grain storage program.

Wells and the Relief Society quickly took over the program and began to organize the harvesting and storage of the grain. When the Relief Society of Nauvoo was formed, the minutes recorded: “Mov’d by Pres. Smith, that Mrs. Smith proceed to choose her counsellors, that they may be ordained to preside over this society, ministering to the poor – ministering to their needs, and tending to the various affairs of this institution.

Caring for the poor and needy was central to Relief Society. On June 9, 1842, Joseph Smith declared that Relief Society “is not only for the purpose of relieving the poor, but of saving souls.” This ministry to the poor and afflicted characterized the Relief Society and its efforts in Ephraim’s garner.

The granary operated from 1872 to 1914. The Relief Society used it to store grain, but they also used the second floor as a hall. He held community and cultural events there, making it a gathering place.

The building itself had a chute where workers slid grain to storage bins. Sometimes carrying infants on their backs, the pioneer women slid the grain down the chute to the basement. The grain stored there was used as food storage as well as for charitable purposes.

The Ephraim Relief Society would send branch representatives to Salt Lake City for annual meetings. There they coordinated their distribution and management of grain. The name of Sarah Peterson, president of the Relief Society of Ephraim, appeared on the records in the attic.

Florence Peterson Faux wrote, “When he was finally beaten, Sarah had harvested 60 bushels of wheat. This she shared with the colonists—it was their salvation, for by frugal and prudent management she provided bread for the little colony all winter long. They called it “Salvation Wheat” and when it was low, Sarah put some in a little bottle to show her husband when he got home from his mission.

Peterson kept the little wheat bottle all her life and when her husband was buried she placed the bottle with him in the casket.

Due to the lack of a monetary economy in Utah, the granary would collect in-kind donations instead of cash. The Relief Society again mobilized the attic to help the poor. The group collected donations and stored grain for local distribution to the poor and to support the needs of the church. The Ephraim Relief Society would work with tithing offices to help the poor.

In addition to cereal, the Ephraim Relief Society also sold handmade items, Sunday eggs, wool quilts, and dairy products.

As one of nine Relief Society granaries belonging to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, this granary was important. It provided space for women in the public sphere to manage public affairs.

In a report on the success of the Sanpete County Relief Societies, edited by Wells, they noted: “The county has been very energetic in storing wheat, and much of it has been gleaned by women and children. … There are a number of female-owned buildings in the county, one or two of them quite large and spacious, and in some places there are shops and millineries wholly run by the Society of Relief.

In addition to the granary’s success, the Ephraim Relief Society used the building for other business purposes. “The History of the Relief Society in Ephraim” recorded that women acted as undertakers, midwives, nurses, and provided food and shelter to the poor. Women also helped construct buildings.

The Ephraim Relief Society eventually ceased operations. One of the last charitable endeavors the members became involved in was during World War I. The Relief Society collected grain to give to the needy and afflicted during this time. The grain program was the oldest and most successful program in Relief Society history.

While the building was owned in the name of the women of the Relief Society, they eventually sold it to Ephraim Milling and Elevator Co. in 1915. The granary remained operational for several years until economic hardship hit Ephraim. In 1969, the Ephraim Company newspaper published an article about how the attic would be destroyed, but that decision was reversed within two months.

The community came together to preserve the pioneer building and it was saved in 1990 when funds were secured to preserve the building.

Today, Ephraim’s barn is the only Relief Society barn open to the public.

Mary Cashion

The author Mary Cashion