By Darryl Alder
Dec 29, 2014

Brigham Young, Leader of Cooperative Economics

Brigham YoungIn this fourth day of Kwanzaa, the focus is cooperative economics (or in Swahili, Ujamaa), which is to build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses and to profit from them together. This cooperative self-sufficiency can help communities be more financially independent while bringing people closer together. This concept was part of Brigham Young plans, when the Mormon pioneers settled our mountain valleys.

Early on he recognized the need of the pioneers for clothing as well as food and resolved that the Latter-day Saints should be economically independent. Following the Utah War of 1857-58, Brigham Young’s drive for self-sufficiency was strengthened. Experiments in growing cotton, smelting iron and cooperative sales institutions were all attempted.

st-george-cottonExploration in the 1850s confirmed that the Santa Clara and Virgin river basins, located 300 miles south of Salt Lake City at a lower altitude, had the potential to grow cotton, grapes, figs, flax, hemp, rice, sugar cane, tobacco, and other much-needed warm weather products.

Washington Cotton Factory

Washington Cotton Factory

The “Cotton Mission” as then organized and families were sent to Santa Clara to befriend the Indians and get the area prepared. Shortly cotton seed was procured, planted, harvested, and ginned. The cotton was then carded, spun, and woven into thirty yards of cloth. A sample was sent to Brigham Young.

Iron worksBrigham Young also issued “Mission Calls” to establish an iron manufacturing plant called the Iron County Mission based out of Parowan. On 13 January 1851, settlers began building a small fort and farming operations to support themselves during the iron-manufacturing attempt. However the discovery of coal in the Little Muddy Creek  south of Parowan, prompted a move of the blast furnace site to present-day Cedar City. Coal was mined six miles up the canyon and transported by wagon to the furnace located on the banks of the stream at the canyon mouth, to be coked at the mine site later. The iron ore was transported from Iron Springs to the blast furnace by ox-drawn wagons. Limestone for the process was also abundantly available. A year later a small test furnace was erected and some poor quality iron produced. A small sample was rushed by special express to Salt Lake City where it served as proof that iron manufacturing in the Great Basin was an accomplished fact. During the next six years many furnace test runs were made, with varying degrees of success.

Zions Cooperative Mercantile Institution (ZCMI), ca. 1880

Zions Cooperative Mercantile Institution (ZCMI), ca. 1880


Zions Cooperative Mercantile Institution (ZCMI), was Brigham Young’s largest and most successful cooperative undertaking. Known as the “People’s Store,” one historian called it America’s First Department Store. Founded in March 1868, Utah settlers had already foreseen a new threat to their peace and prosperity with the coming of the railroad. To combat the inevitable change that territorial growth would bring, Brigham Young gathered a group of community and business leaders to form an organization of community-owned merchandising dedicated to the support of home manufacturing and to sell goods “as low as they can possibly be sold, and let the profits be divided among the people at large.”

Cotton MissionThis organization was christened “Zions Cooperative Mercantile Institution” and although ZCMI was itself never a true cooperative, it spawned a region wide system of local cooperatives owned and operated by the people. Sales totaled over $1.25 million the first year. The store sold a wide variety of goods including clothing, wagons, machinery, sewing machines and carpets?all available to member cooperatives at the same price as in Salt Lake City. ZCMI served as an outlet for the products produced by the Saints themselves as well as “states” goods.

Opening in 1870 the “Big Boot,” as the shoe factory was called, soon manufactured 83,000 pairs of boots and shoes yearly. Two years after the opening of the shoe factory, ZCMI began production of its own line of work clothes in a new clothing factory, soon to be famous for its “Mountaineer” overalls.

In 1876 many of the several departments were consolidated under a single roof. The impressive three-story brick-and-iron facade of ZCMI stretched long down Salt Lake City’s Main Street. A wing added in 1880 doubled the square footage of this landmark in Salt Lake’s business district.

In all, each undertaking helped Utah become more and more self sufficient and moved us toward Brigham Young’s dream of economic independence. Today when you buy local or shop in a farmer’s market, you help move cooperative economics forward.

Darryl Thumbnail
Author: Darryl Alder | Director of Strategic Initiatives, Utah National Parks Council, BSA. This article was compiled from the Utah History Encyclopedia from separate articles written by Morris A. Shirts, Martha Sonntag Bradley


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