“We peeled layer by layer,” Bill Fairbanks explains as he tries to describe how his crew of contractors unveiled a long-hidden piece of Utah history. He knows that surprises can be waiting even when you start renovating an apparently normal home, but he could never have predicted this. An unexpected wooden structure had emerged from the drywall. And it must’ve been there for more than 100 years.
Family City USA
The location’s Orem in Utah, which you’ll find about 40 miles from Salt Lake City. With just under 90,000 inhabitants, this is the state’s fifth-biggest metropolis. Orem’s historically been known for its orchards and steelworks, but it’s also a place that has been changing rapidly. It’s gone from “the Garden City of Utah” to “Family City USA.”
Older than Utah
You might think that an ordinary 20th-century house in somewhere such as Orem’s an unlikely place to find a remarkable historical artifact. After all, it didn’t become a city until 1919 and Utah’s only officially been a state since 1896. Yet somehow the busy road known today as State Street still has remnants from before either of those dates.
Look into the past
Of course, people didn’t just suddenly appear in Utah on the day it joined the Union. There’s a longer history here and it’s a fascinating one. And if you want to learn more about how it became the place it is today, then you aren’t alone. A direct window into the past like the one discovered in Orem’s the sort of thing that makes lots of people excited.
Hiding in plain sight
Normally, though, you expect to see these great historical discoveries being made in ruined temples or dramatic-looking mansions. When you’re living your everyday life in a regular home, you probably don’t stop to think that perhaps there’s a treasure trove beneath your feet. So it wasn’t until the house was half-destroyed that people could finally witness what’d been hidden there all along.
An ancient land
So how exactly did the house fit into the history of Utah? This land’s actually been inhabited for around 12,000 years. But we probably don’t need to go all the way back to the ancient tribes of the Desert or Fremont cultures, or even the Ancestral Pueblo/Anasazi people who were the ancestors of today’s Pueblo Indians. Their stories are still fascinating and important, though.
Other Native American tribes to call the area home have included the Ute and the Navajo, both of whom still have some presence in the region. Europeans first made an appearance during the Spanish expeditions of the 1700s. And when Mexico declared its independence from Spain in 1821, it took what’s now Utah with it. The area was called Alta California at the time.
The hope of freedom
One of the most famous parts of Utah’s history is when Mormons settled the area in the hope it’d be somewhere they could practice their religion freely. Their arrival actually occurred while the territory was still Mexican, though it was only a few years before the Treaty of Guadalupe Hildalgo saw Mexico cede to the U.S. what are now the Southwestern States. Utah was among them.
Where East meets West
Mormons weren’t the only people who saw something worthwhile in Utah, either. By this point it’d become an important part of the fur trade with a large population of trappers. And when attempts were made to bring the whole country together via the transcontinental railroad, it was in Utah that the east and west tracks would finally meet. The golden spike at Promontory’s still a tourist destination today.
Yet Utah hasn’t always been an easy place to live. It’s a land of deserts and rugged mountains, where it takes resilience and creativity just to make sure your crops have enough water. Still, an enterprising pioneer could build a life there. People in the area that includes Orem and Provo took advantage of fertile land to create fruitful orchards and farms.
The lack of water was still a problem, though. Provo is one of Orem’s closest neighbors and even earned the nickname “The Garden City” — but locals didn’t think it would be able to provide them with a water system, too. So they decided to create their own town that could take care of their needs, in an area then known as Provo Bench.
Walter Orem was a big name in Utah at the time. He owned a railroad that ran from Provo to the state capital of Salt Lake City, so he was definitely someone residents wanted to keep on side. Christening their new town in honor of him seemed a good way to earn his attention — and maybe even his investment.
A raggedy town
Orem isn’t exactly a typical Utah city, though, and the reason comes from its rural origins. Most metropolises in Utah are pretty similar in layout. They consist of blocks of houses all close together. But the people who’d already established their farms and homesteads round Provo Bench weren’t really thinking about future incorporation or becoming a neat town.
The Gentile Manner
State Street was once the main highway through the area, so that’s where most of the original farms were based. Roads and settlements grew up around the orchards and fields, and were shaped accordingly. There’s even a name for this kind of development. It’s known as the “Gentile Manner” because it’s a contrast to how religious Mormons usually tried to keep their working farms separate from their city homes.
Orem’s next big development came during the 1940s with the founding of the Geneva Steel Works. These were established by the federal government on the shores of Utah Lake to make sure that the U.S. had the materials it needed to fight World War Two. The site would become one of the biggest defense-related industries in the state, with 10,000 people needed just for its construction.
Orem changes again
Geneva became the primary employer in the area for many years but eventually change would come again to Orem. This was during the 1980s after the steelworks had shrunk and been sold. Shopping malls and other retail outlets were springing up. While it mightn’t have been the most well-planned city in the world these businesses did manage to steal some customers from nearby Provo.
A story of growth
Since then Orem’s become a home of modern technology and cultural activity. Tourists may climb the impressive 11,000 feet of Mount Timpanogos or enjoy the nearby Timpanogos Storytelling Festival in Lehi. So the town’s now a long way from those early, waterless days. Indeed, Orem gained 10,000 people just between 2010 and 2020.
North State Street
It’s among this history of change and growth that we come to North State Street and its little house. The story of this spot in Orem’s just as intriguing as the city and state as a whole. Just look at its former residents, the Shimadas, who bought the land not long after WW2 and built a fruit stand there.
This mightn’t sound remarkable but Harry Shimada and his family had formerly lived in California. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, though, President Roosevelt ordered that Japanese-Americans be forcibly detained in case they helped the enemy. So the Shimadas were sent to Wyoming. And they lost their Californian farm, meaning they had nothing left when they were eventually released.
Thankfully, Orem gave them a place to rebuild. They had a home and a business again, and local children were delighted at being able to buy candy from them. This in turn led to the house bought by those new owners who wanted to renovate it. But who’d have thought that they’d find a whole pioneer log cabin inside?
The Hidden Cabin
Yes, you read that right: an entire pioneer log cabin. To be precise, a home built by a man called Carl Hanson way back in 1885. Everything that’s happened on the site since then, from the Shimadas to the demolition, has all stood on top of a perfectly preserved piece of history from back when Utah was still just a territory.
A very special design
Now, if you remember, Utah’s quite heavy on desert and rather low on water. That means it isn’t a great place for trees to grow. So why exactly would someone decide to build a log cabin rather than using the area’s more customary adobe or stone materials? And what’s it doing being stuck together and insulated with plaster, instead of regular mud?
If you don’t already know the answer, then you probably won’t guess that it’s inspired by the kind of buildings constructed in medieval England. For some reason, that’s the style that settlers in Utah brought with them and seemed to enjoy. And it’s definitely what Carl Hanson kept in mind as he hewed those logs with his own hands.
One hardy pioneer
Carl Isaac Hanson was Swedish by birth but when he converted to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) he decided to move to Utah. It was in 1883 that he set up a blacksmith’s shop there near Fairview. This wasn’t long after Orem got its first manmade canal — and therefore its first regular source of water.
The problem was that Carl wasn’t alone. His twin brother Neils was with him and, as often happens with siblings, they had a falling out. Neils then relocated to Pleasant Grove to establish his own smithy, while Carl took up residence in Orem. It was there that he’d build a 160-acre homestead with his wife, Mary. And those acres included what would become the rocky foundation of the cabin.
Mary Swenson Hanson was a secretary for a local irrigation firm. She was also another Swedish-born member of LDS. Her marriage to Carl was arranged but appears to have been successful. Cabin and smithy sat side by side on land with possibly four houses in total. Carl also later served on the local council. And their six children should’ve been able to carry on the couple’s legacy.
The next generation
In 1922 Carl fell ill. He was 63 when he died about six months later and his son Harold took ownership of the properties. Unfortunately, lots of children is a recipe for trouble when there’s an inheritance involved. Harold’s sisters wanted their share of the family fortune but Harold couldn’t give them the cash without first selling both houses and land.
A family history
If you’re wondering how we know about this significant chunk of Hanson family history, well it’s because the Hansons are still present in Orem. Stan Hanson grew up with the stories of his great-grandfather Carl so he immediately knew what he was seeing when he drove past the modern house and observed the exposed structure. Somehow, impossibly, the cabin he’d heard so much about had survived.
More than a cabin
Stan later told ABC that his exact thoughts were: “My word, I think that those are logs that are exposed.” And that was more than enough for him to turn around and look more closely. He even left a note for the developers to tell them this was his great-grandfather’s cabin. “It just kind of broke my heart to see that place go,” Stan admitted.
Can it be preserved?
Stan was already making plans to pick the cabin up and move it himself but it turned out he needn’t have worried. Bill Fairbanks and his company, Cater Construction, had no intention of letting such an important piece of history be demolished. Bill knew what he was seeing, and its importance.
Beyond all expectations
Though he may have recognized the cabin in a general sense there was no way Bill could have known how complete it’d be. The two rooms still stood on their solid foundation. When he saw Stan Hanson’s note, it was just one more piece of the puzzle. He contacted city officials and the house’s owners promised to donate the cabin to the city in its entirety.
Not so easy
This is where it gets a bit trickier, though. As you can imagine, historians don’t like uprooting history. Cory Jensen of the Utah State Historic Preservation Office called preservation efforts “admirable” but noted that while “it would be preferable to preserve the house in place, it is understandable that they need to move it for the planned development of this property.”
A tricky dilemma
That’s right. Preserving the log cabin means moving it — just picking up an entire building and relocating it somewhere else. And, of course, because it’s so old and historically important, you can’t risk parts getting lost or broken in transit. So it’s definitely a job for experts and they have to work with the utmost care.
Pioneer determination, again
It certainly sounds difficult and it’s a task the people of Orem are taking seriously. Steven Downs is the deputy city manager and he listened to opinions from both experts and locals. Not long after the discovery he said, “Exactly how this cabin is preserved and where it may go, we don’t know. However, we know the community is interested. So are we!”
Remembering the past
“The cabin is representative of the main families that settled this area,” Downs added. And that partially explains its importance. For experts such as Corey Jensen, the hope is that photos of the cabin in its original glory can be found so the restorers know exactly what they’re trying to achieve. They know, for instance, that the current windows can’t be the originals because of their thermal panes.
Another tricky aspect is that the cabin was found on a larger construction site. Of course, you can’t just walk into the middle of demolition works. So anyone passing by who wants to take a look at the historical building has to stand on the other side of the street and admire from a distance. It’s definitely a talking point for the neighbors.
But the very first thing to do was ensure that the now-exposed cabin was protected. Part of the demolition work had involved taking off the roof, which is clearly not the way to preserve what’s inside. Contractors rushed to pull tarpaulins over the top to keep it safe. Other steps to be taken before it could be moved included securing the walls to prevent collapse.
The moving process involved lifting the cabin into a flatbed trailer that could carry it to a new — albeit interim — home. A temporary storage facility was found where it’d be safe and sound while the contractors returned to their building site. But longer-term plans for the cabin’s restoration and storage took a little more time to come together.
How could they not just preserve the cabin, but also honor what it represented? Downs wanted “to pay tribute to all of those families that came and settled this area and started a legacy of what this community has become.” And it was decided that the best way to do this was by establishing a heritage park — with the cabin at its center.
Orem: then, now and the future
Every person who lives in Orem or just has an interest in pioneer times will be able to visit the park. It’ll be a few years before the center opens, though. The aim’s to ensure that the remarkable history not just of Carl Hanson and his family, but also of this city as a whole can be remembered and celebrated. It shows all the hard work that went into making Orem what it is today.