Wheat Watchers

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Lessons from the Pioneer Famine

Posted by imawheatwatcher on February 1, 2009

William G. Hartley, “Sturdy Shoes and a Waterproof Tent,” Ensign, Oct 2001, 38

Church history teaches us many lessons about personal preparedness
“If men could learn from history, what lessons it might teach us!” wrote Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1831. While it may sound surprising, a look at Church history can teach us about preparedness for our day.

Lessons from the Pioneer Famine of 1856
Members in Utah suffered through a harsh famine in early 1856 caused by a drought, grasshopper plague, and severe winter. From April to October 1855 no rains fell. Grasshoppers cleaned county after county of grain and fruit. Dry forests burned that fall. Deep winter snows and cold killed thousands of cattle. By January 1856 the pioneers faced starvation. Their efforts to survive suggest lessons about food storage, food shortages, and food rationing.

Lesson 1: In times of dire food shortages, we should be willing to share our personal food storage with others.
By mid-March 1856, wards were taking inventories to determine how much food was left in the community. It became clear that everyone would need to share what they had. Presidents Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball of the First Presidency, as well as many others who had supplies, reduced rations in their own families and helped those who were suffering. “I sell none for money,” President Kimball wrote, “but let it go where people are truly destitute. Dollars and cents do not count now.”

By July 1856 the Church’s tithing office and the people were running short of supplies. One city bishop “found 5 lbs of flour on three blocks and no meat.”

One sister recalled that during the famine she gave away flour. As her supply dwindled, she gave away a loaf of bread. Finally, with little flour left, she gave away slices of bread. People picked up crumbs when she cut the slices. “Women would offer me their jewelry, fine clothing, anything they had for bread,” she remembered. 7 Some people paid speculators $24 per hundred pounds of flour, when the normal price was $6. Bishop Aaron Johnson of Springville, Utah, sold flour at the going price of $6 and refused to raise his rates, even though people would pay four times that price.

Lesson 2: During times of famine we might choose to fast more often to provide for the needy.
In 1856 fasting made more food available for others. In April, President Brigham Young said that his family saved a considerable amount “by frequent fastings,” which they gave to the poor. One bishop whose ward was “very poor” said he “had nothing to begin with, but he immediately called a fast and the brethren have done pretty liberally.”

Lesson 3: When the course of our normal life is disrupted, it helps to fill free time with constructive activities.
A history about circumstances in Spanish Fork, Utah, in 1856 includes this description: “Having no crops to gather, the settlers built bridges, made fences, opened a road up the canyon for the purpose of getting out wood poles and all the men turned out for weeks on these public works, donating their labor.”

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