As the temperatures plummet and the chilly wind bares its teeth, one cannot help but think about those hearty souls who traveled west, buoyed by dreams of fertile farmland and a prosperous new life, only to be met with the harsh reality of an Idaho winter. While many hardships were endured along the trails, life was no easier in the early days of a fresh settlement.
The Thomas Sleight Cabin in Paris, Idaho stands in testament to the difficult circumstances faced by the first wave of pioneers to settle the Bear Lake Valley. It is the only remaining cabin from the thirty or so that were quickly constructed to provide some shelter from the encroaching elements before more permanent homes could be built. They shared this already tiny space with another couple, Charles and Anne Atkins, while they waited for Spring to come. The cabin offers a fascinating glimpse into both the personal history of this remarkable family as well as being emblematic of the pioneer experience as a whole.
Thomas Sleight was scraping by as a lowland farmer in Lincolnshire, England when he converted to the Mormon Church in 1854 and set sail for the United States. He first settled in Genoa, Nebraska, where he met and married Marianne Reynolds from Warwickshire, England in 1857. Though poor, they lived a happy, comfortable life. Thomas described Marianne as “handsome and lovely”, and his love for her was palpable. The pair emigrated to Utah in 1860, where they wintered in the Sessions settlement before moving on to Hyde Park in Cache Valley. There, as Thomas recalls, “By hard labor and the industry and forethought of my wife, we soon began to get the necessary things around us to make us comfortable and likewise become acquainted with some kind and faithful friends.”
This comfort would be short lived, however. In the Fall of 1863, Thomas, Marianne, and a host of other families were called to be part of the first group to settle near the Paris Creek. Eleven covered wagons shepherded along by ten men and a lone woman, made the trip over the rugged Wasatch mountains, arriving on September 26th. Several more groups would arrive in the weeks following, for a total of 48 men, 40 women, and 30 or so children set about preparing for the first winter.
Thomas and Charles built their cabin from felled logs. They stripped the bark and cut notches in the wood to fit them together. Mud was used as makeshift plaster to fill the cracks and keep out the wind, while sod was used for roofing, and they tamped down the dirt floor as best they could. The simple structure was rounded out with door and window frames were set with simple wooden pegs, which was completed just in time for the first snowfall. An imaginary line was drawn down the center of the 16’ x 16’ cabin to separate the two couples, and they waited out the winter in relative harmony, if not in comfort.
While many of the men focused on building the cabins, the rest of the settlers went about gathering hay and foraging for whatever else they could find to supplement their supplies. Though only a two-week journey from other more established settlements in fair weather, there was no telling if they could not rely on having access to outside help once snow blocked the mountain passes. Luckily for the Sleights and the rest of the Paris community, the winter was relatively mild and passed without hardship.
Hardship is relative, though, especially when you begin to think about what day-to-day life must have been like during this time. Four adults were forced to share barely more than 250 square feet of space. The extra body heat might have been a boon, though. Even if the winter were on the mild side, temperatures rarely would have hovered around freezing for most of November, December, and January. There is not enough mud along the banks of the entire Paris Creek to keep such a chill from seeping into one’s bones.
But still they persisted, even when faced with the herculean task of building a town from literally the ground up. They undertook the backbreaking work of clearing trees, leveling land, and constructing buildings, not to mention the necessary activities of daily life like cooking meals around the hearth, making and mending clothes, and fetching water from the river, all of which was rewarded by another night in the cramped confines of this drafty little cabin. And yet, Thomas referred to the passing of this first winter as “comfortable and happy.”
Spring did finally come to the Paris settlement, and the Sleights completed construction of a permanent house in early March of 1864. Only two years later Marianne would tragically pass away from blood poisoning brought on by being scraped by a peach pit. In Thomas’s 1866 eulogy, he speaks glowingly of her strength of character, warmth, and joy, and one can only surmise it was the strength of their bond and love for each other that made this cabin “comfortable”. “She was my most faithful companion whether in prosperity or in adversity… And her willing hands were always ready to assist me,” Thomas continues, “She knew how to make a home a happy place.”
It is hard to imagine the time spent in such a humble abode being remembered fondly, and yet that here we are. Circumstances that seem nearly impossible to us today – the cold, the backbreaking work, the monotony – were not only endured, but enjoyed. The cabin is certainly an important piece of Paris’s history and a helpful microcosm of the settler experience. However, it is all the more precious for keeping Thomas and Marianne’s story alive. The land around the cabin has now been turned into a city park. When you visit, run your hands along the worn logs, feel the draft under the door, imagine sharing the space with three other people, and honestly ask yourself if you, like Marianne, could make this into a “comfortable and happy place.”
Many thanks to David Sleight for allowing access to documents and photographs in preparation of this story. Exterior photographs for the collage were provided by Laurie Rich of the Friends of Bear Lake. The Idaho Heritage Trust is proud to support this project and more than 600 others like it throughout the state of Idaho, ensuring our history and culture is preserved and protected for generations to come.
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