A Hidden Treasure on Main Street
Partially hidden behind an untrimmed tree and a rickety porch on Kamas Main Street is a historical treasure with a rich 150-year past. Built of cut sandstone and partially covered in plaster, this somewhat homely structure embodies the economic heart and soul of early Utah settlements. It mostly goes unnoticed and under-appreciated to those who pass by, including longtime residents whose ancestors once used it as a gathering place to bring their tithing, maybe get a loan when times were hard, meet for gospel worship, and sing praises to their God. From the 1950s to the 1970s their relatives may have spent a night in the barred basement that served as a jail for local troublemakers.
Built about 1871, its original purpose was to serve as a Tithing House.
When the Mormons arrived in 1847, life in what would eventually become Utah was not easy. They adapted to its harsh environment by forming communities and relying on one another to survive. Until the early 1900s, money as we know it did not exist. Early settlers relied on barter for their necessities.
Tithing Houses were key in how early Mormons survived and thrived in the harsh environment of the Mountain West. Their ecclesiastic leaders asked them to “tithe” or donate 10 percent of their income, property, and labor to the Church every year. These resources were gathered in Tithing Houses (also called Tithing Offices or Tithing Granaries), where any accumulated surplus could be managed and redistributed for the collective good. They were thus part bank, part warehouse, and part employment exchange.
For example, if someone needed grain, they deposited what they had, such as a chicken. Or if they needed eggs, they deposited some hay. Or if they had neither chicken nor hay, they donated their own labor. Many new immigrants worked for the Tithing House before finding more permanent jobs in their communities.
Labor donated at the Tithing Houses was used for local public works projects such as constructing irrigation systems, grist and lumber mills or other community buildings. The Salt Lake City Temple, for example, was built largely through labor coordinated through the Tithing House. During the clash with Indians throughout Utah in the 1860s, tithed labor was used to build forts for protection and defense.
People in need could borrow from the resources stored at Tithing Houses and many became indebted. Communities took this debt very seriously and on occasion, violence could break out if people tried to leave without paying it back.
Kamas Valley, like all other communities in Utah, had a Tithing House. From approximately 1871 to the early 1900s, residents of Kamas Valley brought their one-tenth tithing of grain, vegetables, livestock and labor to this sturdy rock building. The surrounding lot was filled with stacks of tithing hay, and vegetables and other produce were stored in the basement.
Kamas Valley was fortunate to have – in the person of Benjamin T. Mitchell – a not only experienced, but also somewhat famous, stonemason.
Mitchell sculpted the first Sunstone on the Nauvoo Temple,
created the Great Salt Lake Base and Meridian Marker.
This stone marker was placed in August 1847 when beginning the original survey of “Great Salt Lake City,” around the temple site designated by Brigham Young four days after arriving in Salt Lake Valley. The city streets were named and numbered from this point, and it is the basis of measurement for virtually every property in Utah.
Mitchell also served as a foreman on the construction of the Salt Lake Temple.
Benjamin and his son Joseph Smith Mitchell (a longtime resident of Kamas)
cut the sandstone in a local quarry (probably at the base of the “S” Hill”), and built the sturdy two-foot-thick walls of the Tithing House. John O’Driscoll
plastered the walls, and Jesse R. Burbidge
built the pulpit.
The Tithing House served Kamas Valley for the next 150 years, not just for tithes, but for many other purposes. Until the first proper meeting house was built in 1901, residents gathered on the main floor to hear gospel sermons. A passage written by long-time resident Alma Warr says this:
“…the people gathered here to listen to Gospel sermons while mice scuttled across the floor. Spiders wove a lace network across the windowpanes and aroma of rotting potatoes from the depths below. The iron stove just in front of the pulpit where we roasted our faces and froze our backs. When we were seated in the choir, the bass and tenor were on one side of the stove, the sopranos and altos on the other. Following are some of the speakers that were there: Bishop S.F. Atwood, John K. Lemon, Willet S. Harder, Justinian Warr, John Lambert, James Woolstenhulme, Ward E. Pack, John Horton and many others.”
Sometime in the 1930s, a porch was added, and the building became housing for employees of the Oakley Brooklawn Creamery.
In the 1950s and for the next 50 years, the Tithing House served as the Kamas City Building. Here the mayor had an office, the City Council met, and a judge would hold court for the citizens of the valley. Bars were placed on the basement windows, and when necessary, it was used as a jail for local troublemakers. The bars are still visible on the south side of the building.
When the new Kamas City building was built in the 2000s, the old Tithing House, probably not realizing its return to its original purpose, was used as the Community Action Center and Food Bank serving Kamas Valley residents in need.
This historic and treasured building still stands at 30 N. Main Street as a reminder of the largely successful economic system used in early Utah. In 2021 the building was sold to a private party who hopefully will maintain the building’s historic integrity. Most communities have placed their Tithing Houses on the National Historic Register and use them as museums or other community heritage sites. Sadly, Kamas City has not, thus relegating this significant structure to retail space.
- Beverly Bemis
- Mary Lewis