The white trunks of aspen trees growing along roadsides in the mountains east of Sanpete Valley are covered with names and other graffiti carved by knives of former visitors. People who traveled or worked there seemed to have had an irresistible urge to establish their status by leaving their names displayed on these stately and attractive trees for future visitors to see.
When trees were properly carved, the knife cuts were formed into black scars that remained in vivid contrast to the snow-white bark for the lifetime of the tree. If cuts were too shallow, the tree healed them up so no scar was left. Some inexperienced carvers had cut channels clear through the bark down to the wood, and these caused such large scars that the carvings were almost illegible. But most carvings were made properly by competent and experienced carvers so the carvings became permanent and attractive.
In the early 1900’s all travel was by horseback or horse drawn vehicles, which was slow enough to give travelers ample time to observe and reflect on the great collection of carvings they found on the trees. There was also time to add one’s own name while the horses were resting or while they were stopped for lunch.
The names of entire families, father, mother and children, were often left on trees as evidence that they had been in the mountains. A family trip to visit a sheep herding father or to fish in the mountain streams made it possible for them to record their names on the biggest tree they could find. In areas most frequented by people, tree trunks were so covered with carvings that there was scarcely any bare surface left within reach.
Carvings varied as widely as the people who made them. Most names were formed of large block letters, but there were many styles, kinds and sizes of name carving. Some names were made in beautiful script instead of the usual printed letters. Lon Larsen was one who used uniform, flowing longhand made with real artistic quality.
Another who left his name in fine script was Orange A. Olsen, a Forest Service officer who has a ranger station named for him in Joe’s Valley on the Manti Forest. Most carvers were content to leave only their names or initials, but some added their addresses and the dates the carvings were made. The oldest I recall was dated 1890, while other dates showed continuous carvings from then right up to the time I herded sheep, from 1922 to 1927. Many indulged their artistic talents by carving a wide variety of pictures which included everything from horseshoes to teepees, houses, snakes and human hands.
There were more pictures of people than anything else, especially voluptuous ladies and virile men, and many likenesses of horses, bears, and various other animals. Many sentiments were expressed in messages left for future visitors to see. Some of these read, “All sheepherders are crazy,” “Hate these blatting woollies,” “Lonesome Joe,” “Killed a bear.” In one area there were many short poetic verses, most of which were somewhat ribald in character. Some carvers thought it smart to counterfeit the names of well-known celebrities, so when one found “Daniel Boone,” “Tom Mix,” or “Woodrow Wilson,” it was understood these had been faked and were not authentic signatures.
During the years I herded sheep I was fascinated with the carvings, most of which had been made by sheepherders. In the long summer days, sheep shaded up from mid-morning until late afternoon, leaving the herders free for many hours in the middle of the day. So what could occupy their time better than tree carving! Andrew Tidwell was the most prolific carver of all the sheepherders on the north end of the mountain. He sometimes carved his full name in large letters, but at other times he shortened it to “A. Tid.” But in most places only his initials were found, on hundreds of trees along roads and trails and back in the boondocks where only sheepmen and hunters usually go. No one filled up a tree trunk like he did. He would ride his horse up to a tall tree, stand up in the saddle and carve “AT” as high on the tree as he could reach, then place another initial under that one and repeat it all the way down to the ground. I counted 28 “AT” initials in a column on one tree, and there were many more like it.
The regular camping places where sheep camps were located year after year where known by well established names, many of which were carved on trees at the camps. “Little Bear,” “Beer Spring,” “The Jumpoff,” were some of the names. But “Honeymoon Camp” was my favorite. It was so named because a sheepherder once took his bride there right after they were married. It was an ideal place to spend a honeymoon and get a sheepherder’s salary at the same time. But there was a problem. The bunk on which the honeymooners slept was made of aspen poles with rawhide strips crisscrossing each other for a mattress. The groom had slept alone all his life, and it was difficult for him to get any rest cuddled in the arms of his affectionate bride. After several restless nights, the groom solved the problem. While the bride was not looking, he tightened the leather strip running down the center of the bunk. This raised a slight ridge down the middle with depressions on each side. Thereafter when the bride fell asleep, the cuddling was ended as she slipped of the ridge onto her side of the bed, and the groom slept soundly on his side, happily remote from her cuddling arms.
To relieve their loneliness, herders would often ride to the neighboring camps to visit and have dinner together. On Sundays two or three herders would catch a mess of trout and have a joint fish fry at one of the camps. It was customary for all to leave their names at all camps. I once wrote down the names on the trees at Harve Spring Camp. These were: Lynn Averett, Wenzel Brewer, Dan Christensen, James Jacobs, Loftin Johnson, Lon Larsen, Hans Lund, Howe Lund, Ray Lund, Bruce Madsen, Chet Mills, Liandro Serrano, Andrew Tidwell, Kenneth Tidwell, Aurel Winkler, Montel Winkler, Owen Winkler, Irl Wilson, Peter Woolsey and Shirley Zabriskie.
Not all aspen graffiti were manmade; bears also left their marks. It was rumored that a bear would claim his home territory by reaching high on a tree and marked the bark with his claws to show that this area was owned by a large bear. I doubted this, but I did see hundreds of trees deeply marked by the claws of bears that had climbed them. There were then very many bears in the mountains. A marauding bear ran amuck in the sheep I was herding one night and killed or mortally wounded 42 sheep on their bed ground. We used bear grease rendered from bear fat to keep our shoes oiled. Sam Pierce was employed as a bear hunter and killed more than 100 bears in 1916 on the Manti Forest area.
Most carvers left their names on many trees, but two men told me they had each carved their names only once. One was Ernest Winkler, whose name I found near Commissary Spring where he had carved it as a boy. The other was James Larsen, whose one carving was in a grove of trees on top of the mountain. He carved this while his sheep were marooned in deep snow from a severe early fall storm, and he was waiting for help to rescue them. A team of horses dragged a fir tree through the snow to make a trail the sheep could follow off the mountain, strung out in single file.
Recently I found a forgotten carving of my own name on a tree near Silver Creek. With it was the date, “Sept. 9, 1924,” and the comment, “114 fish.” I remembered carving this on my way home to attend school after herding sheep since early May. Another herder and I had gone fishing before I left the herd. The legal limit was then thirty fish per day with two day’s limit allowed in possession. I was bringing home, packed in grass in a gunny sack tied behind my saddle, my sixty fish and those the other herder was sending home. So the “144 fish” were six fish short of the 120 we were entitled to.
The tree carvings gave a taste of history to visitors at a time when the leisurely pace of horse travel made it possible to see and admire them. Now that motor vehicles whisk people through groves of trees so rapidly, they do not take time to observe and add to the carvings as they did sixty years ago. And many people contend the carvings destroy the beauty of the picturesque aspen trees. So the day of the popularity of aspen graffiti is past.