Tourists and Utahns alike enjoy the Beehive State for its many opportunities for outdoor recreation. Learn how much of that recreation originated in the way people worked.
The state of Utah is widely known for its outdoor recreation. Skiers enthusiastically take to our slopes. Hikers ascend our summits. Climbers scale our cliffs. Hunters stalk our deer, elk, and birds. But at one point in our history, most of these activities were considered work, not leisure.
In the early twentieth century, residents of Provo found it confusing when the Brigham Young University athletics department started taking students up Mount Timpanogos. You climbed the mountain to prospect for minerals, they said, or to fish its streams, or to find a lost cow, but you never climbed it for fun. One resident even went so far as to ask, “What could you do once you got to the top? Come down. Big deal.” Ski buffs faced similar bias. Before Utahns named their snow the best on Earth and advertised it as a source of play, skiing was merely a way for the postman to deliver the mail during harsh winters. It wasn’t fun. It was hard work.
But rising industrialism and urbanization made middle-class Americans anxious that the modern era might somehow lead to an excess in leisure. Universities across the country started physical education – or “P.E.” – programs to keep people moving. They challenged their students to adopt a sense of wholesome play that mimicked work in order to build good character. BYU athletics director, Eugene Roberts, hoped at the time that this would solve the “problem of recreation” and keep Utahns from “dying of monotony or from destroying ourselves and our civilization through soft and senseless living.” Apparently, Utahns had to work hard even when they played.
Utah is now home to so many kinds recreation that originated in work that it’s kind of what we’re known for. We find this kind of play so much fun that we often forget that it was once considered work. Or maybe, we’ve just come to realize that work is something that can be fun under the right circumstances.
Image: Hikers on Mt. Timpanogos, ca 1925. The hikers made their way over and around snowbanks and ledges on the switchback trail to the peak of Mount Timpanogos. The hike was discontinued after 1970 because of damage done to the mountain by the assault of thousands of hikers in a single day. Courtesy of Brigham Young University Lee Library Archive.
See Jared Farmer, On Zion’s Mount: Mormons, Indians, and the American Landscape (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008); Joseph Arave, “The Forest Service Takes to the Slopes: The Birth of Utah’s Ski Industry and the Role of the Forest Service,” Utah Historical Quarterly70, no. 4 (2002), pp 341-356.