A half century ago, south Salt Lake Valley was a laid-back expanse of farm houses, barns, outbuildings, pastures and fields, livestock, and narrow country roads. Now, it’s subdivisions, commercial pockets, and busy roads.
But just off of 1300 West sits a peaceful agrarian retreat—the 2.8-acre Holt Farmstead. In a visionary move, South Jordan City is preserving this tangible piece of the area’s heritage.
The main focus of the farmstead is a beautiful 1907 farm house. Built by Samuel E. Holt for a family of 12 children, the house and land remained in the family until Samuel’s daughter, Mabel Holt Nelson (also known as Aunt Mame), died a few years ago.
Aunt Mame wanted her farm to become a community gathering place. Upon her death, the family complied. When they sold the farm, the developer agreed to donate the three acres including the buildings to the city for a historical park. The rest of the land will be developed with historically compatible houses.
Since then, the city has worked hard to preserve the house. Aided by grants from State History’s CLG program, the city has replaced the roof, repaired windows and mortar, painted, replaced chimneys, done extensive seismic work, and more.
The city has also repaired the milk house, chicken coop, “inside-out” granary, coal shed, and buggy shed.
The surrounding land will become an educational community park, with gardens, walking paths, historical plaques, historical demonstrations, and gathering spots.
State History architect Don Hartley praises the city’s vision: “This is a great project,” he says, “The city of South Jordan recognizes its agrarian history is going away rapidly to modern development, and intervened in a direct way to save this piece of their rural past.”
Richard Newbold, nephew to "Aunt Mame," helped her on the farm along with other family members. He says they sheared sheep right on the property by the "garage." His brother took care of the garden east of the house.
The family held reunions twice a year of "Grandpa Holt's" descendants. At Easter time, they would gather by the canal in a grove of trees and have a hot dog roast and Easter Egg hunt,
Then in the fall, on Samuel Holt's birthday, they gathered by the house and ate at picnic tables. By the end 250-300 people came.
Russ Newbold, great-nephew of “Aunt Mame,” began to dream about restoring her house when he was young. Here he talks about how the house got under his skin, into his heart, and into South Jordan’s plans.
Helping Aunt Mame
"My dad was Aunt Mame’s nephew. She and Uncle Hen (Henry) never had any children, so her nephews helped on the farm. Later, we children helped: working the vegetable garden; feeding the cows, chickens and sheep; hauling hay; and helping birth and care for the lambs. Work on the farm was an integral part of our growing up."
It needs to be fixed!
"For whatever reason—I’ve never figured this out—I’d look at the house and say, 'Gosh, it needs to be fixed.' But Aunt Mame didn't have money. The wool from the sheep and a few lambs sold at auction allowed her to pay taxes on the property and pay her bills.
"After Uncle Hen died, I asked my mother what was going to happen to the house when Aunt Mame died. She said, 'I don’t know. It will probably be torn down.'
"I was beside myself. 'No way will that happen!' I said. 'How could that happen when so many people love it?'
"But my grandmother (Aunt Mame’s sister) agreed with my mother. That generation just saw an old building falling apart, and when they were dead it would be time for something new. They said to me, 'Don’t worry about it, honey. It will be torn down. Just live your life and enjoy it while it is here.'
"That was devastating to me. I refused to believe it."
A magical place
"When the house was built in 1907, the house and outbuildings were surrounded with farmland. Because the house was in the center of the property, not on a street, it was like an oasis. A dirt road led down a hill across a wooden bridge and over the canal. Trees along the ditch bank isolated the house from other farms.
"With the full view of the Wasatch Range to the east, it was a magical place that transported you back to a simpler agrarian lifestyle where you could escape the noise of life.
"Aunt Mame was part of what made the place special. She was a kind person with childlike innocence about her. She would never say anything bad about anyone, no matter who they were. She treated everybody like they were family. One of the reasons my dad grew the vegetable garden was so that she could give it away. Her father, Samuel E. Holt, had been the local Mormon bishop, and when she was growing up they had shared their garden with those in need."
Link to the past - and dreams of the future
"When I was at the farm I would stare at the house and think about my great-grandfather Holt, who built the home and raised his 12 children there. I would pore through old family snapshots and look for clues of what the house looked like when it was built. It was always fascinating to me to see how the house and farm had changed over time.
"At night when I was falling asleep I would think about how the house would be restored. From junior high on, I sketched the house for my classes and still have a math folder with a sketch of the house on it."
"During my second year in college, I joined the newly created historic preservation program at the University of Utah and also wrote a National Register nomination for the house.
"I asked Aunt Mame and my grandmother if we could have it listed on the register. Grandmother said, 'Absolutely not. It’s not your property, and we don’t want anyone telling us what we can and cannot do.'"
(Note: A National Register listing does not restrict the owner’s rights to the property whatsoever).
Aunt Mame gets excited
"Fortunately, after my grandmother passed away and when Aunt Mame was 96, she agreed to have it listed. She became very excited about the idea of the house being preserved. She was emphatic about how she wanted it to always be a gathering place for her family and friends.
"Aunt Mame passed away in 2004 at age 99. The property went to my father and his two brothers. At that time I had finished my MS degree in historic preservation and was working for an architectural firm."
How the preservation happened
"Two years later, a developer, the Arbor Group, offered to buy the property. My father and brothers wanted to honor Aunt Mame’s wish to preserve the farm. I explained how, in order to do this, the property needed to have a well-defined historic preservation easement in place, stipulating the preservation of structures, landscape elements, and view corridors that would all help in maintaining the unique sense of place.
"At that time we began discussing our plans with the City of South Jordan. They
expressed a keen interest in converting a portion of the property to a historic site and park. The intent was for the family and developer to donate a portion of the property to South Jordan City. South Jordan would then restore the historic site, and the surrounding acreage would be transformed into a residential subdivision.
"In preparation for this I drafted concept provisions that became the basis for a preservation easement protecting the historic site as well as sympathetic design guidelines for the new residential development.
"As a preservation consultant for South Jordan, I finally had the opportunity to create the scope and construction documents for the exterior restoration of the house and barns, and also to work with the local architect and contractor on preservation issues.
"All those years of dreaming of the restoration have been fulfilled!"
Every community should have this kind of place
"Aunt Mame wanted the farm to be a place where people could come and feel welcome. Every community should have historic sites such as this – a place where people can experience history in an engaging and meaningful way over and over again. Aunt Mame’s farm will again become the gathering place for families and the community."