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Holladay Journal

Fifth annual Holladay History night draws large crowd

Dec 04, 2019 09:08AM ● By Zak Sonntag

Holladay Historical Commission smiles proudly after a successful event. (Zak Sonntag/City Journals)

By Zak Sonntag | [email protected]

Multitudes piled into City Hall in October for a chance to learn about life during the war-driven 1940s at the fifth annual Holladay History Night, which drew a crowd so big it surprised even organizers.

“We put out 300 chairs and they filled right up. So we brought another 75 chairs out and they filled right up. By the end it was standing room only,” said Sandy Meadows, who chairs the historical commission. “People love our community and they want to know this narrative because the period affected everybody.”

Holladay, it seems, loves it some history.

Attendees were serenaded by vocalist Brenda Woods, who covered early American hits like “A Bushel and a Peck” and “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree.” They then strolled through a gallery of eclectic historical artifacts, including bear-skin gloves and an Edison standard monograph.

“Live music adds so much to an experience. I loved that I recognized the songs and could actually sing along even though I have no idea where I’d picked them up. History seeps in,” said Jenna Nelson, a resident and newlywed, who stopped at the artifacts table to investigate a guitar zither instrument. “And stuff like this. Where do you get to see a strange instrument like this?”

But the event’s centerpiece was the latest installment of an ongoing documentary film project, whose fifth chapter, covering 1940 to 1960, depicts America’s extrication from the dust-coated doldrums of a brutal economic depression and its return to industrial powerhouse, a transformation that came not a minute too soon for Utahns and the Holladay community.

“People think that Utah has always been a strong economy, but we were actually in the worst shape” leading up to the war, explained Blake Hadley, the film’s narrator.

“Our unemployment was at 35.8%. That was the third worst in the nation,” Hadley said.

The film’s deepest theme explored the ambiguous relationship between war and prosperity. 

The bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, a day “which will live in infamy,” in the words of President Franklin Roosevelt, also sparked the catalyst for a desperately needed economic recovery.

But even as the economy rebounded, access to basic consumer goods shrunk because factories across the U.S. were converted to serve the war effort exclusively.

“I remember we couldn’t get sugar, so we had to come up with other things. Gas was hard to get too,” said Lin Gardner, whose grandfather was an early Holladay dairy farmer. “But war bonds were easy to buy,” Gardner joked.

Of course, not everyone in attendance had first-hand memories of the era.

Millennial Andrew Nelson said, “I don’t remember learning about a lot of this stuff in our history books. I was surprised how many simple, daily things people couldn’t get their hands on because of rations.”

In true American fashion, people found creative workarounds to the undersupply. Many women, for instance, painted their legs brown and drew fake seamlines with crayon to give the impression of nylon stockings, which were in high demand but slim supply. 

“Those type of details are awesome. It’s interesting to learn about those kinds of details and the way [their generation] lived day to day,” Andrew Nelson said.

The war presented an opportunity for common folk living in Holladay.

The big need for labor yanked women out of the household and thrust them into factories, creating a major and lasting shift in social dynamics across the state and nation.

Because gas was rationed and allowed for work-related consumption only, Holladay residents had one shot to jump on a city-lines bus that pulled through the “Cottonwood loop” each morning, and one shot to catch it back at night. The bus carried working men and women to factories in the city where they sewed and riveted and shipped the supplies needed to support the troops. 

Even the youngsters back home lent their hands to the war effort, running the fields collecting milkweed pods, whose soft insides were stripped out and sent off to make life jackets for service members. 

The film struck somber tones when it asked viewers to examine certain “what ifs” and the war’s ethical implications and regrets, including the gruesome and indiscriminate consequences of nuclear explosions; Utah’s participation in the unconstitutional internment of Japanese American citizens held at Topaz Mountain; or the psychically devastating consequences for service members, who endured life-long trauma scars at a time before diagnosis or treatment existed for veterans with war-related PTSD.

“Back then they just called it ‘shell shock.’ My uncle served in the war and that’s how we knew him, as someone who had this weird shell shock condition that caused him to shake and quiver all his adult life,” said David Brimley, who was born and raised in Holladay. 

While the film incorporated local perspectives, most of its material pertained to a larger American narrative.

“I was hoping they’d include more about the local life here in Holladay. We got some of it, but it felt like this was mostly about national history,” Brimley said.

“It’s tough because there just isn’t tons of archival footage to work with when it comes to Holladay’s local community and history,” said Lin Gardner, a board member of the historical commission.

Beyond artifacts and film, for some the night’s highlight was the living history in attendance. 

The commission honored three Holladay centurions.

Leola Nielsen, a remarkably spry 102-year-old who popped up from her front-row seat like a jack-in-the box, who turned to the crowd to explain how to find her birthplace in Turner, Idaho.

Carmen Sheppard (104), foster caretaker to 22 children and proprietor of the Carmel Reception Center, where she worked until she was 102.

And then there was Lynn Newman, wearing his Navy hat and big grin all night. 

A lifelong Holladay resident, Newman said, “I can still look over and see the kitchen table where I was born. Right on the kitchen table. Right in Holladay.”

One attendee approached Newman and said, “I need to shake this celebrity’s hand. What is your secret to living so long?”

“Oatmeal,” he said.

Then he smiled widely and looked over at his partner, Patricia, of 75 years.

 “And a good wife.”