small-town Utah


The museum was set up in what must have been an old department store of some kind. I pictured the building lined with racks of clothes and a makeup counter, cash register up front with a woman in a dress ringing people up, circa 1950s. Now it was arranged into careful and painstaking displays that captured the storied history of the small town of Delta, Utah.

I’d never been to this particular city before. It was a little bigger than I thought, but still felt very much like a small town. I was here researching, and I explored the streets of the little community before stopping at the local museum, figuring this was as good a place as any to start. The walls were covered in old photographs, hand written stories, artifacts from the settling of the city, and items that would have existed among the town’s residents back-in-the-day. There was a display counter full of old items, a mannequin behind it posed as if ready to sell something. One side of the museum was dedicated to rocks and quarrying, important to the development of a community that relied primarily on those industries. Another entire wall was devoted to the stories of military men who were prisoners-of-war or veterans or lost in combat, all of whom originated in the region.

I learned a lot about the city in my short visit. Set up initially as a short railroad switch stop, the train going all the way from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City, the community was called Aiken and Melville and Burtner before they adopted the name Delta. Free land was In the early 1900s, free land was offered to anyone who would come in and farm a 40 acre plot, and the residents began moving in. In time it became a town, then a city, and the population of the place is around 3400 now.

I came across one particular story, a hand-typed account of a man, now deceased, who served as a prisoner of war during World War II in Japan. It looked fascinating but was nearly 70 pages long, so I flagged down the volunteer, an overweight short woman that I’ll call Mavis. I learned she was nearly 90 as we spoke.

“Hi, I was wondering if I could get a copy of this book? I don’t have time to read the whole thing now but it looks fascinating.”

She thumbed through the booklet. “Oh, that is a find. It’s a wonderful story, so full of history. I knew this man my whole life. But I’m sorry to tell you, our copy machine is broken down now, went down a few years ago. There is another copy machine down at the corner pharmacy, but I can’t let you leave with the book.”

She paced back to the front of the store, still thinking out loud. “They used to sell copies of this little booklet at the city library back in the 1980s. I bet they still have a few. But they aren’t open today. Let me think. The man who wrote this is dead, but his brother is still alive. He just turned 102! Let me see.” She grabbed the white pages and thumbed through them. “Oh here he is, hang on.”

And before I could protest, she was dialing the number, which I could hear ring twice. “Hi, yes, Janet? Is Elmer there? Oh, he’s sleeping? I wanted to see if he had copies of his brother’s book, the World War II one. Yeah, I’m sure he has one, too. I can call back in a few hours.”

She gave me a consoling look. “Looks like you are all out of luck for now, but you could try again in a few hours when he’s awake.”

I smiled and said thank you, leaving some money in the “Donations Only” box on the counter, and asked her for a place to get a cup of coffee. She directed me a to a small diner down the street, and soon I had black coffee and a slice of homemade banana cream pie, set on my table whose hair was styled right out of a 1980s fashion magazine. I ate and sipped and listened to snippets of local conversation. A new dog, grandma’s new marriage, a planned visit from a cousin, an exchange of recipes. I watched the locals bond over pie and French fries and eggs and sausage and stacks of pancakes and just absorbed it all.

My brain flashed back again to that time in New Orleans when I had my fortune told, and the man said that I walk into a place and absorb its whole history and then carry it with me. I wondered what Delta must have been like in 1947 and 1975 and how those times differed from now.

I decided that in places like this, the roots were not far underneat the tree, easily exposed and firmly planted.

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