The sesquicentennial of Mormon pioneers arriving in the Salt Lake Valley clearly is a big event for Utah.
But it’s almost as big in Idaho, where observances are planned throughout the state in the coming week and where one resident in four has a personal connection to July 24, 1847.
“It’s really our celebration, too. We were part of it,” said Delbert V. Groberg, whose grandmother moved north from Utah to Idaho Falls in 1885.
She was part of the settlement of southeastern Idaho by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the decades after the first pioneers arrived in the Great Basin.
“Idaho was kind of a safety valve for Utah,” said Jay Burrup, an archivist at the LDS Church Historical Department in Salt Lake City who grew up in the southeastern Idaho town of Downey.
“By the time the second generation was growing up in Utah, most of the land had been claimed and was being farmed and irrigated,” Burrup said. “Because the Mormons had such large families, the children needed land too. A lot of them went north into Idaho.”
Starting in 1855 along the Salmon River and with the first permanent settlement in 1860 at Franklin, just above the Utah line, the Mormons heeded their leaders’ calls to spread the “Stakes of Zion.”
Groberg, born in 1906, grew up with Idaho and the church. The former president of the Idaho Falls Temple remembers becoming bishop in the early 1930s of a local congregation - a ward - covering an area now served by four stakes with several wards each.
More than 335,000 Idaho residents are Mormons, about a quarter of the state’s population.
“That’s more than there was in the whole church not too many years ago,” Groberg said.
Many Idaho residents - Mormon and non-Mormon - have ancestral or even continuing family ties to Utah. And the church hierarchy is filled with the state’s natives, including three of 14 former presidents, two of the current 12 apostles and a number of other general authorities.
One of Groberg’s sons, John H. Groberg, is the church’s Asia Area president.
Such connections make Pioneer Day a personal celebration for many Idaho Mormons every July 24. But past southern and eastern Idaho observances that were bigger than those for the Fourth of July troubled some non-Mormons.
So in Idaho Falls, Pioneer Day has been toned down.
“It was because of community pressure saying we favored our church membership rather than our country. It was an item of contention, so we elected to drop the big celebration,” said Willis Yost, a church media specialist in Idaho Falls.
“I personally feel bad about it because we probably had the biggest parade in the state. We just went all out.”
It remains the biggest party of the year in many predominantly Mormon communities like Rexburg and St. Anthony. And this year the church has added “Worldwide Pioneer Heritage Service Day” on Saturday.
Wards and stakes will conduct service projects ranging from blood drives and landscaping work for a Methodist church in Nampa to staining the fences around Tautphaus Park and Sandy Downs in Idaho Falls.
And on Pioneer Day itself, a number of Idaho residents will be in Utah to share in festivities that figure to draw tens of thousands from around the world.
Among them will be Melvin D. Griffeth of Rexburg, whose Americanas riding group will join in the final leg of the Mormon Trail Wagon Train through Emigration Canyon on Tuesday to This is The Place State Park.
The 40 to 50 Idaho riders with all-black horses, red tack and matching costumes also will participate in the Days of ‘47 parade and rodeo in Salt Lake City on Wednesday and Thursday.
“Basically what we’re celebrating is our pioneer heritage, those who sacrificed so much to make this a better world,” Yost said.