While historians gave little notice to this unique part of history, Dennis R. Lancaster wrote the “Dixie Wine Mission” (1972) in which he cited the general conference of the Mormon Church in Salt Lake City on October 6, 1861, at which 309 family heads were called to St. George to reinforce the settlements already established. Then in October 1862 President Young announced that the southern colonies should supply the territory with wine "for the Holy Sacrament, for medicine and for sale to outsiders."
This phase of the colonization effort in southern Utah was greatly bolstered by the call of 30 Swiss families headed by Daniel Bonelli.
Many of the Swiss company had come from wine-producing areas in Switzerland, and knew how to make good wine. The mission was strengthened by a group of expert horticulturists called by Brigham Young. Walter E. Dodge, known as "the father of the grape in southern Utah," planted his seeds and cuttings at Dodge Springs, which became a principal source for starts and information. John C. Naegle, who was to become known as the best winemaker in Dixie, and whose product was marketed under the name of "Nail's Best," was called to Dixie to build up the fruit and grape culture in 1866. He built a large two-story stone structure at Toquerville to house his polygamous family.
On the ground floor of this impressive building, which stands today, was a huge wine cellar. He purchased a wine press and distillery in California, which he used to manufacture as much as 3,000 gallons a year of the choicest wine in the country.
The rich, fertile soil, warm, dry climate, and long growing season in Dixie proved so beneficial to viticulture that by 1866 one-third of the total acreage under cultivation at Toquerville was given to orchards and vineyards. Brigham Young remarked, "I anticipate the day when we can have the privilege of using, at our sacraments, pure wine, produced within our borders." Another important function of wine making was to provide a cash crop for the Cotton Mission. In the mid-1870s the Dixie winemakers had a ready market among the miners at Pioche, Nevada; Silver Reef, Utah; and the settlements to the north.
Miners, characteristically hard workers and heavy drinkers, were happy to pay cash for rich Dixie wine.
Brigham Young was emphatically against the frequent use by the Saints of wine and spirituous liquors. He felt that "wine should be an article of export and not drunk among the Saints except in taking the sacrament."
As early as 1873, Brigham Young advised the Dixie Saints to be temperate and wise in the use of intoxicating drinks. An April 19, 1884 circular from the St. George Stake president sent to the bishops advised that "the habitual drunkard cannot retain a standing in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, neither can he, who for gain, or otherwise, puts the cup to his weak brother's lips." Several local Church officials were released because of sweet Dixie wine.
Ironically, when the Dixie Saints began to pay their tithes in grapes and wine, the Church tithing offices in St. George, Toquerville, and elsewhere entered into the production of wine. Soon the Church found itself to be the largest producer of wine in the area. The tithing office sold its surplus to the mining camps, but as the silver deposits began to give out and the mining towns began folding up, so the St. George tithing office stopped accepting grapes as tithing and abandoned its own wine press in 1891.
Wine was served for the sacrament in all the wards that stretched along the Virgin River. This was not new wine or grape juice - it was good, aged wine. When asked if wine used in the sacrament was new wine. One southern Utah native commented, "It isn't wine, unless it's fermented." One old-timer said. "There was a good turn-out for church when wine was used in the sacrament and it might even help today."
But as the abuse of the Sacrament wine increased, wine was abandoned in favor of water in sacrament services. A directive to this end was issued by the St. George Stake on July 9, 1892.
It should be noted that the Word of Wisdom, as the LDS membership know it today, was not considered binding upon the Church until the October 1880 general conference of the Church when the Pearl of Great Price and Book of Doctrine & Covenants were canonized. Until that point, the people of Dixie considered the Word of Wisdom a good piece of advice, but not a commandment.
And there were economic reasons for the end of the wine industry in southern Utah, besides pressure from the Mormon Church. Greedy winemakers began selling wine made from bad grapes, or wine not sufficiently aged and the Mormon and gentile customers began to turn elsewhere. The railroad brought in better quality California wine. And the closing of the Silver Reef Mine in the 1880s eliminated a major market.
Toquerville was the heart of the southern Utah wine district. Farmers began pulling up grapes and raising other crops, though a few diehards, regarding wine making as part of their essential mission to Dixie and continued planting grapes.
Early southern Utah resident John D. Lee related how in Salt Lake City, Mormon church President Brigham Young produced a decanter of wine, “of his own make” and treated his guest with the boast that it was as fine an article as could be bought in Dixie.
Folklore historian Olive Woolley Burt relates a story about two government agents named McGeary and Armstrong who came to Toquerville to catch a polygamist. McGeary sent his associate around to the back of the home while he stayed in front. Armstrong rounded the corner of the house and noticed a barrel with a canvas tied over the top. He thought he'd step onto the canvas to get a look in the window, but his weight dislodged the canvas and he fell into the barrel. The fragrance of ripening wine quickly informed the agent it wasn’t a rain barrel he'd fallen into. He climbed out, licked his chops and using his hands as a dipper went to work.
McGeary, curious about the stillness at the rear of the home, tiptoed around the corner and found his companion stretched out on the ground fast asleep. He took in the situation and followed the example of his partner, and partook freely.
Meanwhile, the brother and his plural spouse had an undisturbed night, and in the morning, two red-faced agents hurriedly left town.
The Dixie Wine Mission was, for awhile, one of the most successful of Brigham Young’s “self-sufficiency” missions. Beet sugar, iron mining, cotton, pottery – all met with failure.
But the Saints, the weather and the market place combined to make the Dixie Wine Mission a smashing success. And, in the long run, it too failed, as pioneer life became easier and the rigors of Mormonism came from commandments rather than daily life.
The history of the Dixie Wine Mission remains a witness of what the Saints can accomplish when their hearts are in their work.
E-mail Loren at email@example.com.