by Buckley Jensen
When Albert Lyman was born in Fillmore, UT on January 10, 1880, his father was building a road through the Hole-in-the-Rock. He spent part of his boyhood in Scipio, but his first love was Bluff.
He spent most of his teen years riding the range with his father through much of the wild and rugged beauty of San Juan County as they tended their cattle. He developed a lifelong love for San Juan County.
In 1898, Albert was called on an LDS mission to Great Britain. Prior to his mission and following it, he worked on a ditch with others to bring water out of Recapture Canyon to irrigate farmland on White Mesa. He returned from his mission determined to pioneer what he considered to be the most beautiful place on earth
White Mesa, (today known as Blanding) is a 25-mile strip of relatively flat, farmable land with great canyons to the east and to the west. It is located south of the Abajo Mountains about half way between Bluff and Monticello.
In 1880, Walter C. Lyman spent time on White Mesa and felt it had a destiny. In l902, Walter and Peter Allen surveyed a town site.
In early April l905, Albert R. Lyman and his wife, Mary Ellen “Lell” Perkins and their first child (Casse) loaded their worldly possessions into a wagon and journeyed from Bluff to that lonely, wild place. On April 2, Albert grubbed enough brush to clear a place for a tent, in which they lived for the rest of the summer.
“I loved White Mesa more than any other region on earth. It has had for me a peculiar kindred appeal as of something with which I was vitally concerned in the dear long ago.
“The same for its people: They are my people, just as good and just as bad as I. They like the things that I like, speak my language and cherish the hopes which are dearest to me.” (Albert R. Lyman, History of Blanding)
It was a hard life. Until Albert got a ditch built to bring water to his homesite, he and Lell had to carry water from Westwater Canyon two miles to the west. They did their cooking in an open fire in front of the tent. That summer, little Casse fell into the fire and was severely burned.
But giving up and going back to Bluff or moving to Monticello never seriously crossed Albert and Lell’s mind. They worked hard and brought 14 more children into the world. Lell had always wanted twins, and it is said she wept when her 15th child was born and Quince (Guen Lyman Smith) was not a twin.
Other hardy folks joined them in the new community, which was named Grayson.
Grayson was changed to Blanding when a man in the East promised to give the community books for a new library if they would change the name of their town to honor his dearly departed wife, whose maiden name was Blanding.
Albert was always busy with his large family, his efforts to make a living and his service in his Church. Lell had never had good health. Before she died in 1939, she told Albert she wanted him to marry her sister Gladys, whose husband had died.
Several of Albert and Lell’s children were still young when their mother died. Albert married Gladys out of a sense of obligation to Lell. The decision turned out to be one of his best. Gladys was a loving mother to his youngest daughters, a good homemaker and a true help-meet to him.
Albert Lyman was always a leader in the Community and the LDS Church. He served in leadership positions in the Church all his life. He was a counselor in several stake presidencies and was the president of the Indian Mission. He is probably best remembered as a Stake Patriarch who gave hundreds of blessings to members of the San Juan Stake over almost 20 years.
Lyman was a prolific writer. His diaries and journals were extensive. His column “The Old Settler” was a weekly fixture in the San Juan Record for many years. His wit and wisdom were appreciated by readers far and wide. He wrote several books, including The Outlaw of Navajo Mountain, Man to Man, Indians and Outlaws, and The Edge of the Cedars.
Albert loved to write, but with his large family and a small house, (by today’s standards) he had nowhere to gather his thoughts and write in peace. On the lower part of his property in Blanding he built a small one-room native sandstone structure where he could go to write.
When he was thus engaged, he placed a flag where his children could see it from the house. It was a brave child who approached the “Swallow’s nest” (as he called his writing studio) when the big bird was writing. When he was not writing, the children were welcome.
The “Swallow’s Nest” has been preserved and today is located in the southeast corner of the Blanding Visitor’s Center property.
Of Albert’s many accomplishments, the one he was perhaps most proud is building a school for Indian children in l946. Albert and his family loved the Indians, and never forgot that one of the principle reasons for the San Juan Mission was to befriend and help the native peoples.
Albert’s recollection of building the Indian school was, “I wanted to build the school in Blanding, but the people simply wouldn’t have it in town. I had land here and I wanted to build it on that land, but they wouldn’t have it. We went a mile west of town across Westwater and built it. We had a dickens of a time maintaining that school out there. Then the sentiment changed somewhat, and they allowed the school house to be dragged in to town. They brought that house and put it on my land right in the place where I wanted to build it in the first place.”
The Indian children’s educations had been sorely neglected. On the first day of school in 1946, there were 28 Navajo and Paiute children in school. The Lyman’s fed the children as well as taught them.
The highlight of the year was a visit from LDS President George Albert Smith, Spencer W. Kimball and Matthew Cowley from Salt Lake City, who showed their deep love and concern for the Native American people by making the long trip to visit the school. The pictures that were taken of these Church Leaders playing games with the children were some of Gladys’ prize possessions.
An example of Albert Lyman’s love and compassion for Native Americans is the story of his encounter with “Old” Posey. Posey (a Ute) stole two of Albert’s horses. He was caught and brought to court. Frank H. Hyde acted as Posey’s defense attorney.
Posey was found guilty and bound over to the district court. All the Utes in attendance howled when the guilty verdict came in, ran to their wickiups, took everything they had and disappeared.
Posey could not be taken to Monticello to jail because people were afraid Posey’s angry relatives would ambush them on the way. So they kept Posey under guard in Bluff.
The next day, Posey asked for permission to bathe in the river because his body was in an unsanitary condition and he couldn’t stand it.
Even knowing that Posey had never in his life worried about sanitation, his jailers took him to the river to wash. Posey dived in, swam underwater across the river and disappeared. The posse formed never found a trace of him.
Two years later he surfaced again in Bluff but looked so haggard and worn out that Albert did not have the heart to continue the case and all charges were dropped. The story didn’t say whether or not Albert got his horses back.
Mr. Lyman was fond of history and wrote extensively about the creation of San Juan County. He was especially proud of the Hole-in-the Rock epic, which his father was instrumental in leading.
The great souls who made that incredible journey were heros to Albert. Late in life, he remembered it this way: “It is remarkable that that outfit ever got through there. There was no serious sickness nor accident nor death in the whole procedure. There were two babies born, one on the west side of the river and the other on the east side. They had started out expecting to get to Montezuma in three weeks, but instead it took six months to get to where Bluff is today.
“They were so exhausted they gave up going the additional 15 miles to Montezuma. But the way they were preserved, and the way they carried through and the way old Bishop Nielson proved to be a prophet telling them what to do, it was truly remarkable.”
Albert R. Lyman died November 11, 1973 at the age of 93. As of 2005, his and Lell’s living posterity numbered over 1,000 souls. Today the Middle School in Blanding is named after him. Many of the young people who have attended the ARL Middle School have been direct descendents of the respected and beloved man for whom the school is named.
The Father of Blanding has been gone for 35 years. How proud and amazed he would be if he could see the modern, beautiful, progressive community his beloved White Mesa has become.