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Marion Joseph Kerr

A Biography by Ralph Lowe

Marion Joseph Kerr commonly called Joe, is my maternal grandfather. At the time of this writing he is 75 years of age but his mentality is that of a man in the prime of his life. He is a man of splendid proportions. He stands 6'1" and tips the scales at 220 pounds. For many years grandfather wore a full beard. One of my earliest reelection recollections of him is in connection with these whiskers. Grandfather was always in a hurry. One cold morning his habit caused him to use the kerosene can. The top lid of the living room stove was removed and some kindling wood was placed in the firebox. A splash of kerosene and a flash from the unseen live coals of fire and grandfather’s whiskers were gone. When next I saw him I did not recognize him. Grandmother cried for an entire day when she realized the beard was gone. From that day he has remained clean-shaven.

Sparse gray hair covers what once was a curly black batch. Years ago his eyes change color from blue to gray. This phenomenon was caused by the kick of a horse. The blow from the horse’s hoof was so great that the eyes were knocked from their sockets and they rested on the cheeks. Lockjaw developed and for days he lay between life and death. Family prayers were held at his bedside and it is the belief of all concerned that these were the deciding factors in the struggle. And it might be said that Joe Kerr's entire life has been a struggle and this principle of prayer and religion has played a leading part in his struggles.

Grandfather's beginning was humble and he will have a humble end. Born in a wagon box covered by an old carpet, he was yet to become one of the influential men in the state of Idaho. His grandfather was Joseph S. Rawlins who was a first lieutenant in the company commanded by Captain Lott Smith. Lot Smith and his company had been called by President Abe Lincoln to protect the property of the Telegraph and Overland Mail companies. Adjutant General Thomas cautioned Captain Smith that the work would be filled with hazards and dangers. The company did its work well.

In volume 2 of the history of Utah we find a detailed statement of this activities of the Rawlins family. Joseph L. Rawlins was a son of Joseph S. Rawlins and the son was a territorial delegate in Congress from Utah. He was later the first United States senator after Utah was admitted into the Union. The elder Rawlins did a splendid work among the Indians. He became their friend. The story is told that when my grandfather was a baby he became very ill. The family had settled near an Indian village. Their "Wikiups" surrounded the Kerr and Rawlins homes. There were no doctors and the families cared for the baby as best they could. It appeared that grandfather was going to die. One evening his mother was holding him and was crying. An old squaw visited the home. She looked at the child. She shrugged her shoulders and said: "Papoose heep sick. Me fix him." She then attempted to explain to the mother what should be done for the child. The mother asked the squaw to prepare the concoctions. The squaw left and in a short time returned with a handful of various Indian herbs. She mixed them together and boiled them and then bathed in the baby in a mixture of warm water and juice from the plants. She put grandfather to bed and said he would be well by morning. The next morning grandfather was as well as ever.

Grandfather's parents were very, very poor but being a race of hardy Scotchmen they stood up well under the hardships that they had to endure in those early years in the West. The wagon in which grandfather was born on November 6, 1861 was in front of the dugout. This latter place was what was called the Kerr home. The dugout was so small that the wagon box was far more roomy and comfortable. This carpet-covered box was not much of a maternity ward but one good and kind man was brought into the world from under that old carpet. When the weather became uncertain the only possible precaution against rain was to put the bed on the table, which occupied the center of the one-room dugout. My great grandfather was a poorly paid night watchman at the time of the son's birth. His duties were to keep the Indians from stealing the settler’s horses. Many times his friendship with the Indians enabled him to prevent severe losses.

In those days school lasted for only a few weeks each year. The boys were needed on the farm this hand to herd the cattle. Young Joe Kerr thus had his early schooling. At the age of 13 he drove oxen and hauled hay many miles to feed the starving cattle. The weather was terrible and the family only succeeded in saving one cow. The loss was keenly felt. The youngsters in the family continued to work unceasing morning till night. The cattle were herded by day and corralled each night in order to protect them from the Indians.

Grandfather has told me of how his father brought the first draft horses into cache Valley. These sources were very poor specimens as judged by modern standards, but they were regarded as very valuable land. But notwithstanding the friendship for the Indians, the appearance of these new horses caused the Indians to forget their friendship. The first night after the arrival of the horses, they were stolen by the Indians. Young Joe rode with the men on the trail of the guilty Indians but the horses were never recovered. Grandfather says that the friendship with the Indians kept them from killing or fighting the white people but that they would frequently steal everything in sight. This caused an atmosphere of uncertainty under which grandfather lived as a youth.

When grandfather began to grow older he started work for himself. The railroad was just coming through the West and men were scarce. He became a foreman of a railroad crew and he is very proud of the fact that his crew set records for track laying. The spirit of religion which I have previously mentioned caused grandfather and his men to always observe the Sabbath. They were working on a contract and work must be rushed. The other crew thought that they could outwork the youngster Joe and his six-day crew. Grandfather however, always maintained that one day a week must be set aside for both men and animals and that as much work could be done in the six days as in seven. He felt that he proved this by his records. One day the head of the division decided to visit the strange outfit and see what kind of man they were. He was invited to eat supper with grandfather and the crew. He afterwards remarked about the absence of rowdy-ism and profanity in the presence of the religious spirit on that Sunday evening. There was no rough conduct and to hear grandfather tell the story, he would discharge anyone who displayed any unnecessary coarseness. And yet Joe Kerr when angered can out swear any man I know. I would not venture to say where he learned this habit, but it certainly was not acquired in prayer meeting.

The Kerr family lived at Richmond, Utah. Richmond is in Cache County and particularly in the early days Cache was recognized as a cold and barren territory, but this is where Young Joe spent his early years. At the age of 19 he married Ella Merrill. She was an industrious girl. She was also deeply religious. She came from a family of religious people. After the marriage the young couple continued to live in Richmond and she was appointed director of the dramatic society. He took the lead in several plays. Because of his size and his black hair he usually played the part of the villain. He took an active part in the social activities of the village and his spare time was spent in the social activities of the town. He was president of the debating club. He was the leader of the musical circle and soon became an active leader in all ways. He was the best wrestler in the town. People who knew him in those days have told me that he was without a peer in physical strength. He was a good rider and in the language of the Cowboys of today as a bronco buster he was rated tops.

But times changed and more culture came to the village. During the 20 years since the birth of a black-headed baby, the Indians had been securely control. Adjoining towns had sprung up. Other settlers had arrived, a new farm style of the various parts of Cache Valley.

Grandfather had but meager schooling and in 1885 he decided to enter the University of Utah. He did so and remained there for two terms. He, however, was compelled to leave the university and go to work. He then commenced contracting for himself. He secured a contract job with a railroad at Jordan Narrows. He secured other jobs and did fairly well on them.

But still another change was to enter grandfather's life. Hunting was his favorite sport. He had heard of the wild game in the upper Snake River Valley of Idaho. In 1893 went there on a hunting trip. He saw not only the delightful hunting grounds, but he saw an unconquered agricultural region. He thrilled at the opportunity to settle there. In the spring of 1895 he moved his family consisting of his wife and six children to the little town of Ora. It was a fertile spot along the banks of the Snake River near what is now Island Park. The long trek from Richmond was made in wagons. Immediately upon arrival, the father and sons correctable log cabin and cleared land for the next year's crops. Many trips were made to the timber for logs. These trips brought exciting experiences with wildlife and the lack of roads. I have made several trips with grandfather to the timber country. I have realized that he was a timber man. He knew how to fall a tree. He knew how to protect the forests.

Grandfather expanded his holdings until he finally became the owner of several hundred acres of land. In addition to the B.C. home that much grazing territory. The size of this family continued to increase until there were 10 children. By the time the last one was born the little community had become a small town, but from the beginning the Kerr range had been the center of act duties for the community. The little church had been built across the road from the Kerr cabin. Grandfather from the beginning was the head of the community life. He was the bishop. He was the dentist. He was the blacksmith. The home and the ranch were equipped with the necessary facilities for the community life. Even the Fourth of July and other celebrations were held at the Kerr ranch house. On these occasions they would have bronco busting in all types of races and games. At night the crowd would dance while M. J., as his friends now called him, played the accordion or banjo. Soon the orchestra was improved with the arrival of a good fiddler. Today the new arrival would be termed a violinist but in those early days around the Kerr range he played his fiddle. Grandfather also had a good tenor voice and he was not at all backward and displaying his talents. Many of the old folks still tell about the celebrations held that the Kerr range. Pink lemonade was served but lemons could not be purchased and therefore it was pink lemonade minus the lemons.

The winters came and went. M. J. and his sons took many hunting trips into Island Park. The snow was from eight to ten feet deep. This merely added zest to the sport and grandfather, now an old man, delighted in describing these hunting trips. The hunting expeditions were not only enjoyable but in addition sufficient meat for the family and neighbors was secured.

But now grandfather was a man of new mature years and solid in judgment. It was about this time that he entered the political arena. His activity in this new line came about in a strange way. Having always been active in the Mormon Church, grandfather's ire was aroused when the Idaho Legislature passed a law requiring that every voter should first take the test oath. That oath provided in a circuitous way that no Mormon could vote without taking the oath. If he took the oath he must deny the allegiance to his church. Grandfather's religious zeal was aroused. He thought the proposal and demanded the repeal. The church fight in Idaho during the days of Senator Fred T. Dubois were [was] long and bitter. Dubois fought the Mormons and grandfather was in the thick of the fight in behalf of himself and his church. He was in the fight in earnest. He became County Commissioner of Fremont County, Idaho and served for two terms. In grandfather's words, he is responsible for all the new roads in the county. This may be debated by many, but do not attempt to debate it with grandfather -- you could not get a word in edgewise. At one time he was the Democratic nominee for Congress, but was defeated. M. J. Kerr has always been modern. He bought the first threshing machine in his territory. He purchased new farm implements and road graders. The latter were purchased because he became a contractor along with his ranching and political life and much of his time was spent in building the first good roads in his territory. But in order to purchase new machinery and to build a modern home with all the conveniences of city life, he found that it was necessary to borrow money. He mortgaged his property. He used the proceeds in general expansion. He became the owner of a large flocks of sheep and herds of cattle. He was a man of wealth and influence. He and the other settlers soon overstocked the range. Finally the price of beef began to decline and in the winter of 1919 and 1920 hay was so scarce that it brought $35 per ton. By the time spring arrived a beef steer had eaten more hay than it was worth. It was then that the sheep market declined. An influx of crickets arrived and long hours were spent in fighting this pest. In spite of this the crickets devoured the hay and wheat crops. Drought occurred. There were plenty of canals built by Joe Kerr and his associates but no water to fill them. The financial crash came. All property was lost. Over-expansion and poor business ability had brought financial disaster to grandfather. A few years before this time [,] the ranch had as many as 40 hired men at one time. Now no one lived on it. What was [were] once great wheat fields became sagebrush flats.

M.J. then moved to St. Anthony. Most of the children were married. Grandfather became a salesman for Delco lights. His undaunted spirit kept him going. He was acquainted with nearly everyone in the state. He knew the capitalists and he knew the labors. One reason of [for] this was because of his work during the world war. He had been made director of labor for the state of Idaho and was at different times called by President Wilson to Washington on labor problems. This, in addition to his political and church activities had given him an extensive acquaintanceship throughout the state. Notwithstanding this acquaintance, as a salesman he was not very successful. He went into different lines of work but none of them were accompanied by a success. Then old age and the infirmities thereof begin to creep onto grandfather, but with that fighting spirit he bought several hundred chickens and since then he has been operating a small poultry business and I see grandfather not as that man of wealth and influence, but the dealer in chickens and eggs, with never an extra dime. Let it be said, however, that his children are kind considerate and are assisting him and grandmother.

Grandfather has always been the cheerful giver, loyal to his friends and respected by all. He was ambitious and he sought power and wealth. He was a good rancher but a poor businessman. He has risen from a poor boy living in a dug-out to an influential man and now again he is down to just a poor, old man who likes to get people in a corner and tell them what should be done in the world today. He keeps his eyes on the events of the day, on politics, crops, war and church. His days of activity, however, are passed. As previously suggested, notwithstanding grandfather's interest in ranches, politics and public affairs the theme song of his life has been religion. He became a bishop and the stake president. He built a ward chapel a stake tabernacle. He was considered one of the faithful. His time and money were spent for the assistance of the members of his church but now Father Time has taken his toll and grandfather is just a plain, faithful member.

A weak heart and old age are advancing on grandfather. He went high but there is no great difference between where he began and where he will end. Truly grandfather Kerr had a humble beginning and he will have a humble end.

Ralph Lowe

[Editor's note:  The original document was found in some papers of my parents. I tried to scan the document into an optical character recognition file but was unable to do so. I wanted to make in this history available to anyone who is interested and thus I have put it in machine-readable form. The document retains the spelling and punctuation and format of the original unless indicated by brackets.]

Laurence Gee, M.D.

263 Edgemont Drive

North Salt Lake, Utah  84054

October 12 2006

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MJ Kerr by Mary Gee