George Speirs: Early Merchandiser of Tooele
George Speirs was bom January 6, 1827 in the far off beautiful Isle of Scotland in the city of Tarbolten. He was fifth in a large family. They were poor, hard-working people. He didn't own a pair of shoes until he was 12 years of age.
At the age of 21 he married Janet Lyon, bom January 5, 1828 at Kilmarnock, Scotland. She was the daughter of John Lyon the poet.
The Scottish ancestry of this young couple endowed them with courage, bravery, perseverance, and a desire for some of the better things of life. Hard work coupled with their love for their new found religion, their devotion for each other, and a desire to raise an honorable family was the stern teacher that helped to frame the pattern of their lives.
The education of George Speirs was very little. He was bom with a thirst for knowledge. Much of his schooling was self taught. In later years he was recognized for his outstanding mathematical tutoring around the old heating stove in his store, and his great love for astronomy led him far into this field.
The Latter Day Saint missionaries were laboring throughout the British Isles. George and Janet attended the cottage meetings and were soon converted to the gospel. They with many other converts set sail for the United States in the year of 1856. They were six weeks upon the ocean. Grandmother was pregnant with her fifth child. She was so terribly ill that she was confined to bed nearly all of the voyage. She was so filled with panic of the thought that her baby might be born upon the ocean and may not live and the horror of it being buried there. She had the elders administer to her often. The baby, George, was born four days after their arrival in New York and died within a few hours of birth. Four other children had been born in Scotland. They were Janet, William, Agnes and John. John died before leaving Scotland.
George Speirs was a weaver by trade and was anxious to buy a loom to bring west. But the trip by boat had left the purse empty. It was necessary to remain in New York to replenish the supply of finance. Young, strong, and determined each morning found him walking the streets looking for work. He found employment in a store. There he worked for the next four years. The experience he gained there helped him to lay the foundation for the mercantile business he engaged in later years. Another son, Thomas, was born in New York.
The Speirs family was active in the church. Here a lasting friendship was developed with George Q. Cannon. They encouraged the organization of a wagon train to come to Utah. He was the owner of one cow. The team was made up of the cow and an ox owned by another person making the trip. In that wagon were two special items. One was the longed for loom and the other a gift presented to grandmother just before departure. A something she had silently dreamed of but felt the cost was too great. A cast iron cook stove, not large, with four lids on top, a front apron, and an oven big enough for a four loaf pan. Janet Speirs wouldn't have to cook on a fireplace. In the spring of 1860 the wagon train rolled west in the company of Jesse Murphy. Little Tommy learned to walk holding onto the wagon tongue while in camp each evening. It was late fall when they arrived in Salt Lake Valley. They spent that winter in Salt Lake City in the Eleventh Ward. The following spring of 1861 they were sent to Tooele Valley.
The first home in Tooele was a one room log house with a dirt floor and dirt roof just south of the present Vine and First West Street. Right below the Bonelli home, soon a lean-to room was added to house the precious loom.
Next George Speirs acquired a 15 acre farm two blocks south and two blocks west of the house. The next well planned project was the planting of the farm. He had studied horticulture and knew the science of budding and grafting fruit trees. This technique he used to improve the quality of his fruit. All types of berries were planted, white, purple, and raisin grapes, a half acre locust tree wood lot. Sugar beets, sugar cane, and flax were cultivated. The two former were used to make molasses for sale and home consumption. The straw of the flax was used for weaving and the seed for medicinal purposes, also sage.
He had in his possession asparagus seed which had been sent him by his brother-in-law William T. Stains who was on a Latter Day Saint mission in Russia. William Stains had written to say he had found a new and very palatable vegetable growing wild there. It was ordinarily started by the transplant of roots but could be grown from seed if nurtured carefully for a period of from three to five years while the root system was becoming established. So anxious was he to care tenderly for his precious seed that had come from so far away. He was concerned over the method of cultivation. The earth must be mulched loosely yet not deep enough to disturb the seeds and tiny roots developing. So he straddled the rows, crawling on his knees cultivating with a table fork. A sizable amount of seed must have been sent as the bed was approximately 40 by 75 feet. The asparagus did very well in the Utah climate and at the height of production as much as three bushels a day was picked. This asparagus bed is believed by our family to be one of the first in Utah.
A long row of pie plant now known as rhubarb grew alongside the grape vines.
Tooele was a small community, everyone with their own farm and orchard. So there was little opportunity for sale here. But Stockton, seven miles south of Tooele in Rush Valley, was a thriving mining center. The Old Chicago Smelter had been built there. Ore was brought in from Dry Canyon, Ophir, Mercur, Eureka and from the Honerine mine now known as Bauer. There were four hundred families there (taken from the Mining Historical Quarterly) as well as numerous boarding houses, saloons, etc.
George Speirs had the produce but no wagon for conveyance, so he became his own pack horse. He fashioned a basket for his back from the willows growing along the irrigation streams. This he held in place by straps going over each shoulder and on each arm or in each hand he carried a large basket. Since pie plant and asparagus were the first fruit and vegetable each spring there was an anxious market for all he could furnish. The produce was picked at night, tied in pound bundles, and stored in the dirt cellar covered over with wet clothes. At the first sign of daylight he started his long walk to Stockton. By the second spring he had built a large two wheeled push cart. As each produce was ready it was taken in the same way. Thus was the first phase of marketing by George Speirs.
Able Parker came to Tooele in 1863 and started a saw mill at the mouth of Middle Canyon. Shortly after this William and Thomas, the two older sons, got out logs and a two room log house was built on the farm. The rooms were about fifteen feet square with slab roof and floor. A lean-to kitchen and room for the loom were built on. Locust trees were planted around the house and four lilac bushes were planted by the front door.
The material woven from flax was coarse and heavy. It was known as "itchy knittys," and used mainly for work clothes for men and boys. However there was much demand for it and the loom was kept in constant use until the Provo Woolen Mills were started. A greater variety of material could be had much cheaper, so the loom was stored away.
Grandmother capitalized on her stove too. Saturday was the day designated for other families to bake bread. The stove was kept hot all day. Each person who came brought so many arms full of wood. The pile was often so high the family didn't have to worry over firewood.
All of the family worked hard to make a success of the various projects which meant their livelihood and success. Five other children were bom after the arrival in Tooele. They were Mary Ann, Lilly, Christina, Ellen, and Matthew.
The second phase of merchandising by George Speirs was by freight wagon. As soon as he had saved enough money to buy a heavy freight wagon and team, he began to freight from Salt Lake City to Stockton and Ophir. It took four days to make the round trip. The end of the second day found- his wagon loaded and back to -the cave near Garfield known as "Half Way House," where he spent the night. Mr. Speirs always took his youngest son, Matthew, along with him to help take care of the animals at night and also to keep him company on this long tiresome journey.
During these trips the father and son became very close to each other, they learned much poetry together and also committed to memory many verses from the Bible. They also talked of business and different phases of merchandising, thus he was training his son for the future business world.
The third night he was home and added produce tot he wagon from the farm. The fourth day he delivered the load to its destination. Very often a barrel of sauerkraut was fastened onto the side of the wagon to be sold by the quart. As each fruit came into season it was dried on the racks in the hot sun. A large apple press was set up in a shed by the cellar for the making of apple cider. Apple and honey vinegar was another product. The freight wagon was carried on until 1880 when it was turned over to his sons and son-in-law William G. Stewart.
Mr. Speirs was then ready for his third phase of marketing. He wanted to make his store a permanent one in Tooele City. In 1880, he established his business in a log cabin on South Main Street. This building has since been moved to Vine Street as Pioneer Hall.
Business in this location grew very rapidly and soon the business was much too large for such a small building and a new location was sought.
He purchased a two story building on First South and Main Street from Herman and Slater in 1882. Very proud indeed was he, to move into such a fine big building. The upper story was used as a dance hall and the lower became the "Speirs General Store".
Because of his good business policies and his lovable disposition more and more people came to his store. He kept everything from carpet tacks to wagon seats and from pins to the latest styles in ladies millinery.
Much of the business was credit from one harvest to another, and a good bit of trading. His freight wagons carried such produce as potatoes, grain, dried fruit, etc. to Salt Lake city for exchange of other commodities. He became a successful and wealthy merchant during his twenty-six years in the mercantile business from which he retired in 1906.
Mr. Speirs not only made close pals of his own children, but he proved to be a great friend to many of the boys in the community. He was a mathematical genius, and when the boys had trouble with their problems they headed for Speirs Store. When no customers were in the store the boys would group themselves around the old stove and with blackboards and chalk the lesson would begin. These boys were never allowed to leave the store until they understood perfectly the problems which they had solved. Such men as Elder Richard R. Lyman, one of the apostles of the Church, A.G. Gowans, his brother Dr. E.G. Gowans, and many other prominent men of the city and also of Salt Lake City, enjoyed these arithmetic lessons, sitting on wooden boxes or vinegar barrels around the store on winter afternoons.
George Speirs was always interested in education. He loaned money to many people for an education, among them were Elder Richard R. Lyman, Dr. E.G. Gowans, Dr. George Steward and many others. He advanced money to James Dunn to help start the first newspaper.
Aside from his mercantile business, Mr. Speirs benefited his community by acting as a member of the City Council. He was the first sexton and the water master for many years. He was instrumental in getting Tooele City's first culinary water system established.
Mr. Speirs built a large two story brick home on the comer of Main and Second South streets, which he shared with his family and any others that might need a home. It later became the home of his son Matthew who was the new owner of the store when he retired in 1906.
Mr. Speirs turned his farm over to his daughter Ellen and her husband William G. Stewart. This log cabin and home is located at 394 West 2nd South in Tooele and is still occupied by family.
He had a forceful testimony of the gospel and served in many church capacities. He was President of the High Priest quorum and a leading figure in the Seventy Quorum. Then he was honored with the crowning glory of Patriarch of Tooele Stake. He gave 83 blessings, the last of which was given four days before his death which occurred December 19, 1919 at the age of 93.
George Speirs and Janet Lyon were sealed in the old Salt Lake Endowment House. Living a life of love and dedication for 71 years. At the close of their life they had 51 grandchildren and 60 great grandchildren. They passed away the same winter just six weeks apart. Janet died October 26, 1919, at the age of 92.
By Barbara Barlow from History of Tooele City VII
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