IOSEPA - Benjamin Pykles scans the southern edge of this old townsite in Utah's desolate Skull Valley, looking for the front wheel of a century-old tricyle. The New York anthropologist believes the relic reveals a lot about the Polynesian pioneer community that endured for a 28-year period straddling the turn of the 20th century.
"This is not just some dreary place. There were kids here and they were having fun," Pykles says as he finds his quarry during a tour Wednesday. He records the wheel's GPS position and gathers its parts, a rim, spokes, pedals and a crank once attached to the wheel's hub. A short distance away he finds the runner to an ice skate. "This is a cool story. What is this doing in the middle of the desert?"
These toys are among the artifacts left by the inhabitants of Iosepa (pronounced yo-see-pa), an agricultural community known for winning town beautification awards not long before it was abandoned in 1917. Some 100 residences, laid out among a dozen streets with Polynesian names, are little more than depressions, foundations and rock alignments. But their voices can be heard through metal and ceramic fragments of Iosepans' possessions, scattered among the cow dung and other detritus left by the cattle operation that succeeded the town under the Stansbury Mountains. Pykles, a professor from the State University of New York at Potsdam and an alumnus of Brigham Young University, is netting some of those voices as he conducts the first archaeological survey of Iosepa this month with a dozen SUNY anthropology students.
"We're finding evidence of everyday life," senior Claire McMahon says. "They have two identities. They are Mormon pioneers and South Pacific Islanders. The town is a testament to their faith. They made it as modern as possible for the time. The streets were gridded out in the way of Mormon settlements with the church in the center."
Utah Polynesians consider Iosepa sacred because their ancestors are buried there and some were initially skeptical about Pykles' archaeological project. It has since won the support of the Iosepa Historical Association, which maintains a pavilion by the cemetery for holding cultural celebrations.
"We're trying to preserve the memory of Iosepa and a place to gather to teach our kids some of our island traditions," past president Richard Poulsen says. The town is named in honor of Joseph Fielding Smith, who served two missions to Hawaii as a young man before becoming president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Iosepa is the Hawaiian pronunciation of Joseph. Smith converted many to the LDS faith, luring some to Utah where they scattered around the Salt Lake Valley. In the 1880s the church searched for a place for the cultural misfits, and decided on a working ranch in an inhospitable valley, about 75 miles southwest of Salt Lake City.
The first 46 settlers arrived in August 1889 and faced the harshest winter ever recorded in the West. They endured, and built homes, as well as a school and church on the 17-acre Imilani Square; they ran cattle and grew fruit for the church-owned Iosepa Agriculture and Stock Company. The town's population peaked in 1915 at 228. Approaching death, President Smith decided to establish a temple in Hawaii and called on Utah's South Pacific Islanders to help build it. By 1917 Iosepa's residents had departed for Oahu, and cattle, cowboys and the elements soon erased the town.
About the only things left standing are headstones marking some of the 88 graves in the cemetery - and a fire hydrant, manufactured by Ludlow Valve Co. of Troy, N.Y. Pykles happened upon the hydrant, encased in sage brush, while searching for stone monuments placed by surveyors in 1908. That year, water was piped from mountain springs to feed a municipal water system and a network of hydrants.
"This was supposed to be a permanent settlement," Pykles says. "Its size and the amount of money they put into it points to that conclusion."
Pykles' research began with church archives and Tooele County offices, where his students discovered a plat map, deeds and documents detailing the economic life of the town. Records identified 14 families who owned their own lots, which Pykles keyed to the map. It wasn't until he found the survey stones that he was able to determine the exact locations of these 3/4 -acre lots. His students are now excavating the two lots where John Mahoe built his home on Hawaii Avenue. One hole, once a trash pit or a privy, is yielding a bounty of artifacts.
"We have complete chicken skulls coming out, very large fish vertebrae. With these bones we will be able to reconstruct their diet," Pykles said. He suspects the fish bones are those of carp caught in a pond called Kanaka Lake, which served as a venue for ice skating in winter.
On Wednesday, Mahoe's great-grandson Mike Sadowski paid a visit and Pykles showed him the rock alignments that indicate the likely footprint of the home where 11 Mahoe children were born.
"It's incredible. We had no idea where our family's land was. We've been driving over the lot all these years because the road goes over it," says Sadowski, a television cameraman who lives in Tooele.
"I am honored Ben is starting this project with the lots my family used to live on."
* Iosepa: Utah pioneer settlement inhabited by Polynesian Mormon converts from 1889 to 1917. Despite a massive investment in the town, it emptied after the LDS Church called on its residents to help build a temple in Laie on the Hawaiian Island of Oahu.
* Where: 75 miles southwest of Salt Lake City in Skull Valley. Take I-80 west to exit 77 and drive 15 miles south on Route 196.
* What: New York anthropology students and their professor are hosting a public archaeology event from 9 a.m. to noon on Saturday with the blessing of the Polynesian community. Iosepa descendants will be available to tell their ancestors' stories and the Iosepa Historical Association will provide lunchtime refreshments at the town's cemetery.