Bengt Nelson Senior: Iron County brickmason

This is an excerpt from Bengt Nelson's autobiography.

I was born in Lomma, Sweden, about three miles west of Lund, September 28th, 1834. Father not being satisfied, moved  to Torreberga -where he rented a farm for ten years, paying three days work a week, the year around for the rent. I would help father in the summer on the farm and go to school in winter, Father kept a pair of horses, a cow, and about eight head of sheep. He was a hard working and honest man and very faithful in his labors. He was therefore much respected, as his work was much needed at Torreberg. He was handy man, could do anything mostly that was needed to be done on the farm. He was a good farmer and always ready and willing to do all he could, he therefore had many favors shown him.

 Bengt Nelson

Bengt Nelson

I was now approaching my teens, and being handy with tools father thought that blacksmith would be a good trade for me. I had a cousin who had married a good blacksmith, and with him remained a short time for the purpose of learning the trade. But the constant hammering and clang of the anvil very much annoyed me, and the stone coal smoke was also very disagreeable, I gave up this line of work. Mother had a brother who was a good bricklayer, and she prevailed upon him to take me as that line interested me very much. I remained with him about three years and enjoyed the work and soon got so I could do fairly well along this line. My uncle also took a great deal of interest in me, as I was always willing to do all I could.

Some time in 1853 I heard of a new religion that had come to the country. It created quit an excitement among the people, but it took us a long time before we could find out anything definite about it. The Elders representing this new creed, or Mormonism as it proved to be, had been cast into prison for preaching and baptizing, and one man had been transported for baptizing a man in Helsingborg. All these stories we became acquainted with. Finally my sister and brother-in-law had seen some of the elders and had been converted and were baptized. They persuaded me to go to Malmo with them, where a meeting was to be held in a private house, and this gathering proved to be the first conference of the Church held in Sweden. It was a room l5 by l6 feet, and there were present about 18 or 20 persons. What I heard there made such an impression upon my mind. That it has remained with me up to the present time. I was thoroughly convinced of its being the pure Gospel of Jesus Christ, and felt justified in obeying it and was therefore baptized the same evening, April 15th, 1854. This step that I had now taken made my heart full of joy and satisfaction.

My mother had died in 1853, and this together with the lack of religious liberty in Sweden at that time, rendering us liable to arrest any day, we decided to gather together what little means we could and emigrate to America. We arrived at the mouth of the Mississippi River where we cast anchor, until a river steamer came and towed us up to New Orleans where we landed on the 23rd of February 1855.

Hearing that labor was in demand at Omaha I took passage up the river, and arriving there found work on the State House. I engaged with Mr. Bovey, who had the contract, to work for five dollars per month and board, with the understanding that I should draw fifty dollars the first month if I was worth it. After the second month Frank Woolley came up to get hands to drive teams across the Plain and I engaged to go with him, very much against the desires of Mr. Bovey, as masons were very hard to get hold of about Omaha. I had decided to take the first chance I could get to come to Salt Lake, so Mr. Bovey very kindly paid me a full hundred dollars for two months service. As I was now at liberty to go west to Utah I made every preparation for the event. I had promised my sister, younger than myself to see her safely through to Zion the first opportunity I had, and now was the first chance that had presented itself. She had become acquainted with a Swedish girl by the name of Ellen Johnson, and was very anxious to have her go along with her for company, as they were the only two Swedish girls there and they had become very well acquainted. I talked the matter over with Brother Frank Woolley, and it was finally agreed that they could go along with the company and cook, and I would pay twenty-five or thirty dollars extra, besides the work they would do. The starting point being Atchison, left Omaha about the 5th of August and arrived in Atchison the 7th, and on the 9th we started with four yoke of cattle, three yoke being perfectly wild.

 Ellen Johnson

Ellen Johnson

We left Bridger the 31st, and very soon it started to snow, and it was not long before we were traveling in snow three feet deep and were compelled to camp right on the tops of the Rocky Mountains tying the poor animals to the trees without a mouthful of anything to eat. It was bitter cold but there was plenty of timber and we made big fires to warm ourselves and teams. Most of us were young and it is a wonder that we did not get our feet frozen, as I had to thaw my boots before I could get them off my feet. The next day we met teams that had been sent out from Salt Lake City with corn for the cattle, this was a great help to us. We arrived in Salt Lake November 9th 1856. I had a dream on the plains that I should marry Ellen Johnson, the girl companion of my sister. I asked her if she thought it would come to pass. She said, "Yes, I have dreamed the same thing, and Frank Woolley is to marry us." Accordingly we were married by Frank B. Woolley in his father's house November 16th, 1856.

The council at that time was for those who had no employment to move into the settlements so I decided to take the first chance I could get to leave the city. The first man I found was Bishop Klingonsmith from Iron County, who was up to get people to go to Cedar City to help build up the iron works, which had already been started. So in company with the Bishop and others we left for the south. We finally reached Cedar City November 29th, 1856.

Winter was approaching and the weather was cold. I was very anxious to find something to do to provide ourselves with the bare necessities of life; we were strangers without friends and feeling very lonely. Of course, it was not long before we found friends and good ones, too. The Bishop sent me out to herd cattle at Iron Springs, west of Cedar about 8 or 10 miles. I was more than willing to accept of any job to earn our living for the winter. This insured us something to eat, but we were getting nearly destitute for shoes and clothing, what little we had in this line being pretty well worn out before the winter was over. We were not very pleasantly surrounded. Our home was a dugout in the bank of the creek and a fireplace dug out in the bank served as our stove. Willows served as walls, a loose board for a door, and for the roof, some boards laid level with the ground at the top of the bank. Upon one occasion a band of Indians numbering about a dozen, came to our dugout, crowded in, and demanded everything we had. We knew it meant death to us if we parted with our food and bedding and possibly death if we refused them, so we thought we might as well die first as last, and refused them with the exception of what food we had. They drew their knives across their throats to show us what would become of us if we did not accede to their desires. After giving them practically everything we had in the line of eatables they left us. We were told afterwards that they only wanted to scare us, but we were strangers in the country and they looked and acted very warlike, several times after that they visited us but there was no further attempt to use any violence or interfere with us in any way. We were eight or ten miles from Cedar and they could easily have killed us both, without anyone knowing the details of the affair, as we had no friends or relatives at Cedar to have bothered about it. Of course we felt to thank the Lord for softening their heart that they did not kill us, as we were at their mercy and could not have helped ourselves. The time spent at Iron Springs, about three months, was passed by me in looking after the stock and necessarily my wife was left much of the time during the day alone, thus making it anything but pleasant.

Returning from Iron Springs, the first thing I did was to secure a lot on which to erect a home for myself and wife, the new city, the present site of Cedar, having been surveyed the year before. I secured a city lot from the Bishop and was the third settler in the new city, as the people had not started to move up from what was called the old Fort, but as I was expected to work at the iron works I came direct to the new location as it was much nearer the iron works than the old Fort. I dug a cellar, but having no lumber, I used willows for the roof, then covered them with straw that I obtained from a kind farmer, and then covered that with dirt, but it proved to be a rainy season, and the roof leaked badly. I tore the roof away, made some adobes, walled up the cellar, and built an adobe room on top of it. I succeeded in procuring some old board for the roof, and covered them with dirt. But not having any boards for the floor we had quite a time, until I got hold of a few pieces and made them answer for part of a floor, at least.

Some families had moved down in the southern part of the Territory, in the region we called Dixie and they were raising cotton. The Bishop brought us some cotton, we picked the seed out of it, got some hand cards, such as we had in Sweden, then she carded and spun the cotton into warp. My wife then spun twenty pounds of wool for Sister Hamilton to get five pounds for herself. She then procured a loom to weave it and thus the cloth was made for the first pair of pants that I had in Cedar.

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It was rather discouraging to think that after long days of hard work one received just anything that the person had, for whom the work was performed, and a very high price was paid too. For instance: I built a house with two rooms in it and plastered it for two sheep. Those sheep cost me thirty dollars putting an ordinary valuation on my labor. I do not blame the man, not at all, it was just the condition existing. I was thankful to get the sheep, and thankful for the work. Sheep were as scarce as clothing, and those that had a few did not want to part with them.

In 1858 the ironworks were discontinued and many of the people moved away from here. Out of a settlement of about two hundred families only about forty remained, and the most of those left were poor as only about one family in four had a team or cow. Those who were remaining at the old fort were being continually urged to come up to the new settlement, and I being the only bricklayer left, my services were in great demand, but all I could get for my labor was service in return so I decided to get some land as I understood farming and had a good chance to get land from those who were moving away.

For many years I was kept especially busy in laying up buildings in Cedar City. When the city was first located no buildings had been erected and I had the honor of putting up nearly every house that was built in the place. Adobes were used then almost exclusively, and later I also built about half of the present brick houses in the place. I have built and superintended all our public buildings, with the exception of the Ward Hall, and of this I did a good deal of the building but did not supervise it. I also did a good deal of work on the first Normal building.I was elected city treasurer, marshal, and assessor and collector during 1867-68, and in my home affairs I was kept busy farming and building, laying up two or three houses every year according to the size of them. The Sheep Company was organized into a Co-operative Sheep Association May 20th, 1869. I put in 68 head valued at $344.50. I took the contract of building the Co-op Store for part capital stock and part merchandise. I completed it Dec. 17th, 1876.

I have held many positions of trust in Cedar City and have labored faithfully to the best of my knowledge and ability for the interest and welfare of the people in whatever capacity I have been called to fill, and whenever I was up for office I have never yet been defeated at the polls.

I am now nearing 76 years of age and according to the allotted life of many my stay here is not long. I am in the hands of God and abideth my time.

Bengt Nelson, Sr., died in Cedar City on April 22, 1919 at the age of 84 years.