Additional Resource

History of the Church in Rexburg, Idaho

In 1855, Brigham Young, president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, sent a small party of men to the Upper Snake River Valley in Idaho to see about its suitability for settlement. Returning after spending a summer there, they reported to President Young that it had frosted every night. Their experience gave credence to one Native American’s assessment of the Rexburg area: “It is nine months winter and three months late fall.” But President Young just said, “That’s all right, perfectly all right. When we need that country it will be all right and we will settle it.”

That colonizing time came in the early 1880s. A railroad line had crept from Utah north into the Idaho territory during the 1870s, reaching Eagle Rock (later named Idaho Falls) in the spring of 1879. Accessibility promoted more visits to the land, and descriptions of the region piqued the interest of William B. Preston, a Church leader in Cache Valley, Utah, which at that time geographically included all the Upper Snake River Valley.

Preston visited the area and was so pleased with what he found that he called a handful of men to start colonization of the region, with Rexburg as the “central point for religious, educational and commercial enterprises.” In the original group were seven men from Logan — Thomas E. Ricks, Sr., Thomas E. Ricks Jr., Brigham Ricks, Heber Ricks, Willard Ricks, Fred Smith and James M. Cook — and four from Wellsville — Francis C. Gunnell, Daniel Walters, Lorenzo Thorp and Leonard Jones.

At the groundbreaking ceremony for the temple in Rexburg, Idaho, on 30 July 2005, Richard F. Smith, great-grandson of Fred Smith, noted about these men: “The First Presidency did not tell them when to leave to come up here and accomplish that task. But because of their keen interest and excitement, much similar to the excitement we feel today, they left in January. They left on January 25th.”

Their travel was difficult. It was a cold, snowy winter.  Taking tools, supplies, plows and other implements so they could start farming as soon as possible, they set off in several wagons and sleighs.

On 11 March 1883, in honor of Thomas E. Ricks’ stalwart service to the Church, President Preston officially named the town Rexburg, “Rex” being the “German ancestral name of the Ricks family.” Of course, for a time many of the early settlers called Rexburg “Mosquito Flats” because of the infestation of the annoying insect.  Outsiders seemed to have trouble remembering the name at first, referring to it variously as Ricksville, Ricksburgh, Ricksberg, Rexford, Rixburg, Rexburgh or Rexberg.

The little community grew rapidly and was unique in Church pioneering efforts because other than the original group of leaders, Church members were not called to go to Rexburg by their leaders. They came because of their interest in the area, and by the end of fall 1883, several hundred settlers had arrived.

The next April, one resident wrote that immigrants were “pouring in” from southern Idaho and Utah. Henry Flamm, a store owner, exemplified the unselfishness that helped the community thrive: “Several times he simply wrote off debts to help a struggling family. He was especially solicitous to families whose breadwinner had been called on a mission [for the Church], supplying commodities for them, as he did for widows in the community.”

In response to a June 1888 letter from the Church Board of Education recommending that communities establish academies, the Bannock Stake in Rexburg remodeled a meetinghouse to accommodate a school. Jacob Spori, a well-educated Swiss immigrant newly settled in the valley, was hired as principal, and the Bannock Stake Academy opened on 12 November 1888. 

On that day Principal Spori announced, “The seeds we are planting today will grow and become mighty oaks, and their branches will run all over the earth.” In the early days of the academy, that influence must have seemed distant at best, because the school struggled to survive for several years. Principal Spori worked tirelessly and almost single-handedly to find ways to keep the school open. He farmed and worked on the railroad for a time, donating not only his school salary but also some of his earnings from other jobs to help pay the salaries of the other teachers.  Even then, sometimes the teachers and subsequent principals went without pay to try to reduce the deficit of the school, but the Bannock Stake Academy (later the Fremont Stake Academy and then Ricks Academy) kept functioning, when many other stake academies in the Church had to close their doors. In 1900, the community even broke ground for a new building to house the school, with a few residents questioning the “wisdom of choosing a site so far from downtown.” 

Today, with the campus stretching far up the hill to the south of the Spori Building, that Spori location is on the edge of campus closest to the center of town.

“Rethinking education,” a current motto of Brigham Young University-Idaho (the present name for the school), could describe much of the history of the institution. For example, college classes were added in 1915, and eventually elementary and high school classes were dropped. In 1923 the school became Ricks College, a name that stuck for nearly 80 years. In the 1930s and again in the 1950s, Rexburg nearly lost Ricks College.

During the Depression, national, state and Church financial situations were increasingly dismal, and the Church had closed others of its schools. Several times, Church leaders tried to give the college to the state, but the state declined. Hyrum Manwaring, college president at the time, noted that the “heart throbs and benedictions” of pioneer settlers were “built into the mortar and stone of the massive building,” and current residents would be true to their trust by fighting to keep the school open. Finally, in 1937, Ricks College received word that the Church would keep and maintain the school. 

But two decades later, the town’s devotion to Ricks College was again tested when the Church decided to move Ricks College to Idaho Falls, a larger community which they thought could more efficiently serve students. Rexburg was stunned, and over the next four years residents tirelessly worked to plead their case for keeping Ricks College in Rexburg.

M. D. Beal, a retired professor, voiced in a letter to Church leaders the commitment of past and present Church members to the school in Rexburg: “The faith and devotion of the pioneers has been renewed whenever the status of the school was in jeopardy. Now they are disturbed again. [. . .] I submit that Ricks College cannot be moved. Schools have souls, and attempts to shuffle them about may be expedient but they are not wise.”

Finally, with little fanfare, the Church’s decision to keep Ricks in Rexburg was announced. It would be hard to exaggerate the gratitude of the community.

Rexburg weathered another assault when the Teton Dam burst on 5 June 1976, flooding all of Rexburg located on the flat land with water eight to ten feet high. The “college on the hill” literally became a refuge. Ricks College housed thousands who were displaced and served 386,000 free meals over the next three months. The characteristic Rexburg faithful resilience enabled citizens to dig out and rebuild. One person, showing the sense of humor that helped many get through the crisis, imparted a lesson of the flood: “Lay not up for yourselves treasures in the basement. Upstairs, maybe, but not in the basement.”

Since the flood, both the college and the town have grown continually.  Another stunning change of course came to the school when “without warning” President Gordon B. Hinckley, current President of the Church, announced on 21 June 2000 that Ricks College would become a four-year school, renamed BYU-Idaho. Since then, the acceleration in building, implementing curriculum changes and fostering the student activity program has been dizzying. Most recently, Church members have been united in their excitement for the Rexburg Idaho Temple, which will be dedicated on 3 February 2008.

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