Long-time residents know that today’s nursery setting was, in the 19th century, a major facet of the Cotton Mission, established by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon).
In July 1847, the first LDS pioneers settled the Salt Lake Valley. Two years later, LDS President Brigham Young sent Apostle Parley P. Pratt with 50 men to explore Southern Utah. He returned with a report that noted the area in Utah’s Dixie had some real possibilities for farming.
During the winter of 1852, Mormon leader John D. Lee with 11 men came through what is now Washington County and later reported to Brigham Young that the area was suitable for raising cotton, flax, hemp, grapes, figs, sweet potatoes and fruits of almost every kind, according to a Sons of the Utah Pioneers- Cotton Mission Chapter article entitled “Utah’s Dixie’s Historical Sites,” written by Harold and Priscilla Cahoon of Washington City, Utah.
In 1854, when Santa Clara was settled as the center of the Indian Mission, Mormon leader Jacob Hamblin became ill and Indian missionary A.P. Hardy was sent to Harmony, Utah to obtain medicine for him. Hardy also went to Parowan, and there he received a quart of cotton seed from Nancy Anderson, a Southerner, which he took back to Santa Clara. The seed was planted in 1855 and a crop was harvested. The new seeds were saved and planted in 1856 and enough cotton was raised so that 30 yards of cotton cloth was produced. Some was sent to Brigham Young, who realized that cotton could be successfully grown in the area, Cahoon stated.
In 1857, Brigham Young called 38 Southern families to the Cotton or Southern Mission to grow cotton in the Rio Virgin basin area. Two parties departed from Salt Lake City, one led by Samuel Adair, and the other led by Robert Covington, with their destination to be a town called Washington.
“The possibility of raising cotton was a strong incentive for establishing Washington City,” according to Douglas Alder and Karl Brooks, authors of A History of Washington County; From Isolation to Destination.
Cotton had successfully been tried at Tonaquint and Santa Clara a few seasons before and it was hoped that the warm climate in Utah’s Dixie might be helpful in launching a large cotton industry.
“The drive for self-sufficiency was a constant theme of Brigham Young, and cotton would add greatly to such economic independence for the whole of Mormondom,” Alder and Brooks wrote.
Consequently, the first extensive manufacture of cotton cloth was begun in 1865 when a cooperative cotton factory was organized under the direction of Brigham Young, according to a website article written by the Washington County Historical Society.
In May of 1865, President Young wrote Mormon apostle Erastus Snow asking him to “look out suitable places” where a cotton factory could be erected.
When President Young visited the cotton country in September 1865, he selected a site for the factory along the bank of Machine Creek on the west side of Washington, according to the book, Under the Dixie Sun.
Washington had at least three distinct advantages that led Young to place the factory where it was eventually built, according to author Andrew Karl Larson’s book, The Red Hills of November; a Pioneer Biography of Utah’s Cotton Town.
First, the town was centrally located in relation to the other settlements on the Virgin River. Second, the bulk of the land adaptable for cotton production was located in the Washington-St. George-Santa Clara area, with the largest part closest to Washington.
Third, was the water power resources of Washington were fed by a steady source of water from Mill Creek, Larson’s book stated.
Young hired Appleton Harmon , inventor and builder of the odometer, who was living in Toquerville, to supervise the construction of the factory. Harmon was paid $1,000 for his efforts. By December 1865, the building was one story high. On July 24, 1866, a celebration was held at the factory and Erastus Snow dedicated the partially completed building.
The one-story building was found to be insufficient, so the factory was raised two stories during the summer and fall of 1868. As local farmers began to grow the cotton and take it to the cotton mill factory, a variety of cloth was turned out by the looms at the rate of 1,700 to 1,800 yards per week, Under the Dixie Sun stated.
Although the cotton farmers organized the factory into the Rio Virgin Manufacturing Company and sold stock to interested persons in Washington, Kane and Iron counties, it did not receive the support it deserved.
One of the problems was getting ready cash with which to buy dyes and supplies from the east. A second problem was that supplies required for operation of the mill factory, were often delayed or lost. A third problem was getting and keeping good hired help. When the mines in Pioche, Nev., opened few common laborers were available to work in the cotton fields. When factory workers were paid, it was often in produce and clothing, Under the Dixie Sun states.
Because of these problems, the factory was forced to shut down several times. Then when the Civil War ended and the transcontinental railroad was completed, the cotton factory could not compete with cheap cotton from the South, according to Harold and Priscilla Cahoon.
Almost from the beginning of the factory until the 1890s, the cotton factory had an uphill struggle to survive, Under the Dixie Sun states. The private operators of the factory were regularly in debt. Then on Tuesday, April 15, 1890, the Rio Virgin Company leased the factory to Thomas Judd, while the LDS Church held controlling interest in the company.
During the 1890s, there seemed to be a revival of cotton growing. Judd employed 65 to 75 persons and paid his employees one third in cash, one third in factory pay and one third in store pay, Under the Dixie Sun stated. The factory closed in 1904, but machinery was not removed until 1910, according to the Washington County Historical Society.
By 1910, LDS Presiding Bishop Charles Nibley advised closing the cotton factory and selling the property, Under the Dixie Sun states.
The factory then stood vacant for over 75 years. In 1986, Norma Cannizzaro of Provo, Utah, and prior to that California and New Jersey, purchased the factory from the Washington Savings Bank in 1985 with the intention of restoring the building.
According to the Cahoons, Cannizzaro poured all of her life savings, abilities and energies in the restoration of the factory.
“She saved the cotton factory. She moved into the factory and was the steward over it and loved it,” the Cahoons wrote. She eventually opened the factory to the community as a social community center.
Because of health issues, Cannizarro eventually sold the factory to Hyrum and Gail Smith in August 1993 where it continued to be used for social events. It was then put up for sale in 1996.
On Aug. 13, 1998, Craig Keough, owner of Star Nursery which originated in Las Vegas, Nev., purchased the cotton mill factory, with the idea of retaining the integrity of the factory, while also operating a nursery and showcasing the factory’s red sandstone beauty.
The Historical Society article states that Star Nursery carefully adapted the main floor of the building to house its garden shop while preserving the cotton factory’s pioneer era construction. Exterior and upper floors were left unchanged. Star Nursery makes the second floor available for public use and tours.
“This red sandstone structure is a tribute to the perservance and determination of the pioneers who settled Washington City, Harold and Priscilla Cahoon stated in their book, Utah’s Dixie Birthplace; Washington City, Utah.
Andrew Karl Larson adds that “The Factory served as a clearing house for most of the products of the area; it performed the functions of merchandising: its scrip was a basic medium of exchange; it gave employment to many, especially to the people of Washington; it brought new blood to the community and to the Southern Mission; and it became a symbol of unity in a country which needed…something to give hope and encouragement to its far-flung chain of settlements.”