Newly-Discovered History at Mormon Station

Next time you drive past Mormon Station State Historic Park, keep an eye peeled for a small, white, garage-looking structure just north of the stockade.

When Mormon Station acquired the 1.2-acre property adjacent to the Fort in 2002, that’s exactly what they thought this small building was: just a “barn or garage.” Initial estimates dated it to about 1948-50, so it was brushed off as having “no significant historic value.”

Not surprisingly, the Park Service’s 2005 Master Plan called for this small building to be torn down. At the time, planners had grand ideas to actually rebuild some of the early Genoa’s now-gone buildings, such as Gelatt’s Livery Stable and the early “White House Hotel”, which once sat to the south of the small garage. There was no place in such a glorious picture for a remnant of the 1940s or ’50s.

Well, that all sounded terrific — until the price tag showed up. Initial estimates pegged the ambitious project at $1.6 million. And even that figure could have been too low. Yup, after that wake-up call, the plan to recreate long-ago buildings was no longer in the cards.

In the meantime, however, Park employees began noticing a few things about the humble “garage” that were, well – a little bit odd. For one thing, it had been built on a stone foundation. Pretty unusual for 1940s/50s construction. There were square nails in the wooden flooring. And, a central section of the floor planking was missing entirely, suggesting perhaps a forge once sat there.

The vacant space in the floor probably held a forge.

Yep, on closer inspection, it didn’t look like much a 1940s or 1950s building, at all!

Park staff already knew that the property had been owned by the Rice family from 1872 to 1902; the Rice family’s White House Hotel once was located just to the south. When Chris Johnson was hired at the Mormon Station in 2017 as Park Interpreter, he began digging more into the past ownership of the property. He started searching through the old newspapers for  mentions that might shed additional light on the building and its former use. And because some early-1900s newspaper issues aren’t searchable, that meant long hours of skimming page-by-page through microfilm reels.

But Johnson’s sleuth work finally paid off! Johnson turned up a newspaper article from 1908 reporting that the White House Hotel had been purchased by a man named Nels Morrison (legal title was actually held in his wife Hattie’s name). Best of all, that same 1908 newspaper story reported that Morrison was planning to use part of the old Rice Hotel to build a blacksmith shop on the property. “Bingo!” says Johnson. His suspicions that this had been a blacksmith shop were confirmed.

The front door, with its original heavy metal hardware.

As Johnson kept digging,  even more fun pieces of the puzzle began coming to light.

An oral history by local Arnold Trimmer mentioned the old Hotel had been torn down and that some of the hotel’s lumber went into a house across the street.  So it’s no surprise that Morrison might have used some of the lumber from the old hotel to build his new blacksmith shop, too.

The Rice brothers’ White House Hotel, circa 1865. This hotel was one of the first buildings to be erected at Genoa, according to a 1908 newspaper account. (Photo courtesy of Mormon Station State Historic Park).

As Johnson and his crew began clearing away decades-worth of trash from inside the old  building, even more fun traces of the building’s past came to light!

Trap doors in the old wooden floor concealed lots of litter beneath — and a few treasures!

That “solid” wooden floor? Well, turns out three small trap doors had been cut in it. Reaching beneath one of the trap doors, Johnson discovered an intact bitters bottle, dating from the period 1906-1920. Although sold as a “medicinal” remedy, such potions contained as much as 37% alcohol. Can’t you just picture the boys sitting around the blacksmith shop, passing the “medicine”?

The beautifully-preserved “Bitters” bottle discovered by Johnson beneath the shop floor is now on display at Mormon Station.

Lath marks on some of the interior boards of the “garage” (photo below) confirm that some of the lumber used to build the blacksmith shop had originally been part of a different building – quite possibly Rice’s earlier White House Hotel.

Studs and crossbracing boards show lath and nail marks, suggesting they likely were salvaged from an earlier building — quite possibly the White House Hotel.

Three sets of initials also were found painted on the shop’s walls: “C,” “CM,” and “CF.” Although the first two are a mystery, the initials “CM” might stand for “Claire Morrison” — one of owner Nels Morrison’s sons, who worked as a mechanic at COD Garage.

Three sets of initials painted above the workbench include “C.M.”

But the most exciting discovery of all came to light only a few months ago.

As Park employees cleaned out the debris that was packed in the old building, they eventually uncovered the original old work bench. Johnson looked closely at the side of the wooden bench – and discovered blacksmith Nels Morrison’s “maker’s mark” stamped into the old wood!

The name “N.P. Morrison” is stamped repeatedly in a vertical line down the front of the old wooden bench — a great remnant of his blacksmith’s “maker’s mark”!

Johnson hopes the old Nels Morrison blacksmith building will eventually be restored into a working blacksmith shop, with artifacts on display to show how it would have looked. Already, they’ve begun acquiring equipment from the 1902-1906 period, including a historic forge and blower. Perhaps volunteers might eventually operate the blacksmith shop on weekends or for school groups, Johnson said, crafting metal objects like dinner bells that might be sold in the gift shop.

Artifacts that might eventually be used in the blacksmith shop exhibit.

So now you know the fun story of this long-forgotten Genoa gem – and the tale of just how close it came to being demolished. Stop by to see the building and the Bitters bottle next time you’re at Mormon Station!