Deep in the Heart of Mormondom

John HamerBickertonites, books, BYU, community of christ, Culture, LDS, missionary, Mormon, Mormons, Utah 32 Comments

LDS cards Outside of my own library and the virtual community I’m connected to through the internet, Mormondom has very little impact on my immediate environment in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The LDS Institute has a prominent place next to the university, but the LDS chapel is across the river in a part of town we rarely visit. The Community of Christ chapel is in the Old West Side historic district across the street from the home of our closest friends and there’s a Church of Jesus Christ (Bickertonite) branch out past Target. Once every six months or so we have a missionary sighting. And that’s it.

And so it’s a kind of treat for me these days to get to visit a place where Mormonism and the landscape are coterminus. I just got back home from a 3-day trip to Utah County, Utah. Utah Valley University (as UVSC will soon be known) invited me to present at their annual Mormon Studies Conference and was generous enough to spring for the trip.

It goes without saying that Utah Valley is very, very Mormon. My book for the airplane this trip was American Vertigo — Bernard-Henri Lévy’s attempt to retrace Alexis de Tocqueville’s seminal travelogue.  Lévy’s observations traveling around America remind me that commenting on the foreignness of Mormondom’s heartland is surely a well-plowed furrow on the Bloggernacle. And yet I shall plow on.

Just as Lévy inevitably visited the Mall of America in the suburbs of my hometown of Minneapolis, so I too visited Orem’s Missionary Mall.

Missionary Mall 

Beneath the giant inflated missionary (shouldn’t he have an inflated companion?), young men called to serve can buy all the durable suits their mission will require. The same strip mall has a “Sister Missionary Mall” store too, plus a Deseret Book, an LDS Distribution Services center, two food storage preparation stores, an LDS wedding dress shop, as well as my personal favorite clothing store: “KneeShorts.”

KneeShorts store

Of course we were able to get fry sauce at Burgers Supreme — is there any clearer sign that you’re in Zion? — but it was also available in bulk at the grocery store. The grocery store had two full racks of LDS greeting cards: “Congratulations on your Mission Call!”  There was even a Spanish section: “Felicidade en tu Bautismo!”

Beyond all that fun, the real treat for me was the BYU library. The University of Michigan has a decent Mormon history library — probably about twice as many books as I have. Both are just a drop in the vast sea of books and periodicals lining row after row of shelves at BYU. I could hang out in the general book stacks contentedly for weeks without coming up for air. But little more than an hour was possible because an even more tempting treasure lured me deeper into the library: the special collections archive.

The archives house a vast trove of early Mormon materials. Just one example — I was able to access a box containing a couple dozen letters my ancestors wrote to each other in the 1860s and 1870s. (The actual letters, not copies.) The LDS branch of the family lived in Salt Lake valley and the other (who had left Mormonism) lived in Council Bluffs. In one letter, written by my great great grandmother, she described meeting a young man while attending school.  Sometime after the letter was penned this young man went on to become my great great grandfather.

As I was leaving special collections I ran into a scholar who had also come from out of state for the Mormon Studies conference. Having found his own priceless treasure, he told me, “Every minute I’m here is precious,” and added, “What’s shocking is how many people live in this valley and have never once taken advantage of the resources right here that we have to plan and travel to find!”

Too true!

Comments 32

  1. Hey John. Cool memoir. Utah valley is just too queer for words, but you made it charming. Enjoy Ann Arbor. My bro is there for law school, and I’d love to visit it some time.

  2. This was an enjoyable read, John. I’ve become so accustomed to seeing new Missionary Malls, Kneeshorts stores, and the like, that it doesn’t even strike me as unique anymore (I didn’t grow up in Utah). Regarding Special Collections … I’m down there on a weekly basis and see the same individuals nearly every time. It is indeed an underappreciated gem in Utah County.

  3. “Every minute I’m here is precious,”

    Totally. The last time I was there was a little more than a month ago. It is completely euphoric…which makes me a complete dork…but I’m cool with that.

  4. John, I don’t see any mention of Burgers Supreme in your post…

    I absolutely agree though about the preciousness of some of those archives. Their increasing availability on the internet has been a real boon.

  5. John, you always include the best photos with your posts. I live far away from the world you are visiting and find it equally odd and fascinating. I was excited a few months ago to visit an LDS bookstore, at last, in Spokane of all places. It’s odd to be drawn to Mormon pop cultural items and embarrassed that you identify with them at the same time.

  6. Ha! I knew I had seen your face online somewhere when you walked into Concert Choir. That’s been bugging me since yesterday.

  7. Darg! In all the hustle and bustle of preparing for the semester to end, I forgot the dates of your Happy Valley trip, John! We could have gotten lunch or something.

    Ah well, another regret…

  8. did you happen to eat at smokehouse right next to that kneeshorts store? Good, good pizza. I used to eat there with my buddy every week when we were there at school.

  9. Pizza at the Smokehouse?

    A waste of a opportunity to eat a good Reuben!

    Good Reuben’s are hard to find these days.

  10. Thanks for this great travelogue, John. It’s been 8 years since I was last in Happy Valley and you took me for a stroll down memory lane. Burgers Supreme . . . fry sauce . . . oh my.

    But oh how things seem to have changed! Missionary Mall? KneeShorts? Oh my Heck! Not even those cultural oddities existed back in the day when I was there.

    By chance, were you able to take in a comedy show at Johnny B’s, hit Movies 8, go for a dip in the natural hot springs down by Spanish Fork, or check out the lustful necking scene up at Squaw Peak? My freshman year, we used to love to take a spot light and a megaphone up to Squaw Peak, shine the light of truth on the fogged up car windows, and call out through the megaphone: “This is your Bishop speaking. Put your hands in the air and step out of the vehicle!” Ah . . . those were the days . . .

  11. Little known fact: it’s easier to find fry sauce here in Austria than in Virginia. We went to an Austrian Gasthaus the other day AND they served fry sauce with their potatoes. I asked my friend (from Salzburg) about it. She says it’s pretty common here. SO, the next time you out-of-staters are craving fry sauce (if you’re too lazy to make it yourself), why not buy a ticket to Austria instead of Utah? You definitely don’t get the missionary malls but I could show you a few cathedrals that must might make up for it.

  12. Post

    JfQ (#1): Creepy and charming are probably in the eye of the beholder. I do like Ann Arbor. I first moved here in 1992 and I enjoy it a lot. It’s a little too small for our taste, which is one of the reasons we’re finally moving to Toronto this summer.

    Christopher (#2): It was great seeing you at the conference. If you’re down in special collections on a weekly basis, then I know they aren’t going to waste!

    J. Stapley (#3): I find it’s wonderfully liberating to have embraced my inner dork.

    Carlos (#4): It’s rare to be able to explore other planets these days. With the spread of chains — the HomeDepotfication and TGIFridayfication of America — regional distinctions are in retreat.

    Steve Evens (#5-6): Not go to Burgers Supreme? Am I a Phillistine? 🙂 My sister took me to Burgers Supreme for my Birthday Dinner and I ordered a good old-fashioned Apollo Burger (now renamed pastrami burger) — which I dipped in my fry sauce. Now that’s how you celebrate a birthday!

  13. mmmm….. BURGERS SUPREME.

    I probably would have gone to Beto’s, too.

    and I def would have headed south of campus for a J-Dawg w/ special sauce.

  14. Amen, John H.

    Which is one of the reasons I chose to job-hunt in SLC after grad school. I have made friends with Stan Larson in the University of Utah Special Collections and have been able to see some really cool stuff (among other things, both the Sterling McMurrin and David O. McKay collections, both of them willed their papers to the university). I was able to saunter across campus last week to hear an Author Meets Critics panel with Blake Ostler defending his systematic theology “Exploring Mormon Thought” and to sit near Margaret Toscano, Dennis Potter, Jim Faulconer, and the Bloggernacle’s own Clark Goble.

    I definitely appreciate being here for the fry sauce too. Crown Burger is to die for.

  15. Does BYU have a specific collection of letters between the early Mormons in Utah and the Midwest? My wife’s family history contains a few letters they received from friends that followed Alpheus Cutler to Minnesota. I find the letters facinating. Despite the split over doctrine and leadership, the letters demonstrate an almost unbreakable bond of brotherhood between friends that endured the trials of Missouri and Illinois. The correspondence continued until they were elderly. In the last letters, the writer laments that they are now too old to return and build Zion in Jackson County. He wrote that the next generation would need to finish what they had started.

  16. Post

    Thanks, Rigel (#7): I’m a very visual person. No matter what you’re saying, it probably can’t hurt to add a picture.

    LdG (#8): Hey guy — your choir rehersal was amazing. You guys are great. Your choirmate Laurie is my sister. Good luck with your upcoming performance at conference — I know you’ll do well.

    KC (#9): We’ll have to have lunch next time! Thanks, Stevo! (#10).

    Andrew (#14), Cicero (#13), JH (#12), jose (#11) and SingleSpeed (#17): Unfortunately, my trip was very brief and devoted primarily to history research. As a result I missed out on a lot of the cultural highlighs you mention — there’s always next time!

    maralise (#15): Wow. Lucky, lucky Austrians. You get to have fry sauce while living in Vienna (as opposed to Orem). Lucky bums.

  17. Post

    John N (#18): You suck. 🙂 That would be so cool. How fun!

    chanson (#19): It was Mary Eliza Winchester, speaking of Jonas Henry Erekson. They were the parents of Grandpa Erekson’s father, Leslie H Erekson.

    Seldom (#20): BYU has all sorts of materials like that in its archives. The archives that specialized in non-LDS Mormon groups like the Cutlerites is Utah State University. I am sure that if you contacted Ann Buttars at USU, the university would be very interested in acquiring and preserving those letters, so that they would be available to scholars. Also, if you wanted to write an article about the letters and the subject, I can tell you we would be interested in having you present at a JWHA conference and publish in the JWHA Journal.

  18. Post

    Rigel — Everybody is probably 10th cousins with everybody else: they just haven’t done the genealogy yet to prove it. I’m closer than 10th cousins to both Bush and Obama for all I know.

    I do know my European ancestors have been on this continent for 14 generations.

  19. John — great post. Don’t know if you ran into these, but my favorite part about the BYU library was the locked books. I once assumed that the University only kept rare and/or behind metal bars. Oh no, they also kept books of questionable substance in purgatory, as well. To test the theory, I once tried to check out Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer.” I finally got it, but only after some freshman with a skeleton key granted me access. Those were the days.

    And what’s with all this love for Burgers Supreme? What about cheese fries at the Training Table? I wouldn’t touch them an asbestos-lined 10-foot pole now, but back in the day, they went down nice & easy!

  20. Shawn,

    That may be true as far as titillating material is concerned, but you can check out Fawn Brodie’s “No Man Knows My History” and Bertrand Russell’s “Why I am Not a Christian” just fine. Seemed like an odd policy to me.

    Crown Burger beats Burgers Supreme any day.

  21. We moved to Provo in 2005. My wife is visibly overcome with anger everytime she drives by Missionary Mall and the giant inflated missionary. She knows it’s irrational, but it’s the not-so-subtle foisting of the Book of Mormon depicted in his pose that really gets her. She swears in her wrath that she’ll drive by with our teenage sons at midnight and perforate the dude with a shotgun. My boys have been infected with the aversion as well. They all took great joy more than a year ago when the big guy disappeared, but shortly thereafter the newspaper reported that he had been found deflated in a dumpster. Apparently there were others of like mind in town. He’s alive and well today, as John’s picutre reveals. I just chuckle when I drive by. As an epilogue to the story, much to our surprise we all discovered new ties Easter morning emblazoned on the back with the Missionary Mall logo. My wife simply smiled and said “they were cheaper than anywhere else.” Economics wins again.

  22. When in Vienna, eat a Wienerschnitzel with blaukraut, and squeeze a lemon over it all. Then take a long walk through the city, and soak in the history and the crossroads.

  23. I like that all the staples are together… Deseret Books, Emergencies Essentials, and Wallpaper Warehouse!

    Hamer, did you know there’s an lds bookstore in the Twin Cities burbs near the temple? It’s in the same building as a gas station. From the outside it looks like they’re connected like gas stations and fast food joints sometimes are. Like you could browse BoM action figures whilst sipping on a slurpy. But no, there’s a wall between the two.

  24. Hi Cousin,
    I found you on the net thrugh the remark “It was Mary Winchester….”. Your Jonas Henry is cousin to my g-father Jonas Henry. There fathers Jonas and Peter were brothers. If you would like info on this branch of the tree, let me know. Always good to find relations.
    Judith Stevens

  25. Hi,I have enjoyed your words and photos. Hoping I can get your permission to post your article on my facebook as well as other blogs. I am a LDS from Taiwan,and most of my friends are non-LDS and curious about Mormon but they tend to think we are boring and dull. I was hoping may be I can show your article to them,probably get their interests to know more about LDS.

    thank you for your endurance of my poor English writting^.^ hope i can get your reply soon…thank you!

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