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Malad Valley Welsh Festival - An Interview With Jean Thomas

2018-06-09
By: AmeriCymru
Posted in: about

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AmeriCymru:  What can you tell us about the history of the Malad Valley? What is the Welsh connection?

Jean:  Malad Valley was named by Donald McKenzie and a group of French trappers who camped along the Malad River in the early 1800s and became very ill from drinking the water. Hence, they named the area “Malad” or “sick” in French. (They probably ate the poisonous water parsnips, but the water is pretty alkali and would taste bad.)

Malad was founded in 1864 by Henry Peck and his sons, who had a contract with the Wells Fargo Freight Company to provide wild hay for the teams of horses taking goods to the Montana gold and silver mines and coming back with gold and silver. They brought their families and several other Welsh settlers to the Malad Valley the next year.

By 1868 several other Welsh Mormon families arrived in the Malad Valley, settling Malad City, St. John, and Samaria. They had been converted to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Wales and were encouraged to “gather to Zion,” which was the Salt Lake Valley. Considering that the English had usurped all the farms and mines, the attraction of free land under the Homestead Act was certainly a draw, too.
Hundreds of Welsh Mormons came north, stopping first in Willard, Utah, and then coming to the Malad Valley, which in the spring reminded them of their homeland.

Several years ago, researchers at Brigham Young University, beginning DNA research to trace ancient peoples, selected Malad as a starting point for their research because there were more descendants of Welsh ancestry in Malad than anywhere else in the world outside of Wales. They drew blood from hundreds of people in Malad and began their DNA research. That preliminary research eventually was sold several times and expanded to become some of the DNA-based genealogy companies today.

AmeriCymru:  What is the history of the event? When was the first Malad Valley Welsh Festival held?

Jean:  The Welsh pioneers brought their music and poetry traditions with them, and an eisteddfod started in the 1880s with competitions in choral music, vocal solos and ensembles, dance, and all types of poetry. The eisteddfod was held one year in Malad and the next year in St. John with judges coming from as far away as Salt Lake City. The eisteddfod lasted until the beginning of World War I.

People in Malad had talked for years of starting a Welsh Festival, but it finally became a reality in 2005 when the first Festival was held. A committee of 20 citizens interested in promoting and celebrating the Welsh heritage of Malad Valley planned and organized the first Welsh Festival in about six months. That first Festival attracted about 500 people. This year is the 14th annual Malad Valley Welsh Festival.

AmeriCymru:  A tremendous amount of work goes into organizing an event like this. When do you start planning and organizing the Festival? How many people are involved?

Jean:  After the first couple of years, the core committee members knew what worked and what did not although every year we introduce new activities and events. The next year’s Festival is already partly planned when the current year’s Festival is underway because we get names and suggestions for presenters, musical groups, etc., that we can’t use in the current year but that may be asked to participate in a following year. Everyone takes a month off to breathe after the Festival is over, and then plans get started for the next year with confirming presenters, musicians, etc.

We operate with a chair, co-chair, secretary, and treasurer and 26 committee chairs. The size of committees ranges from 1 – 20 members. In addition, many volunteers are involved as hosts and hostesses, drivers, guides, and judges. Last year approximately 200 people were involved in some way with putting on the Festival, including operating vendor booths.

AmeriCymru:  What’s on the agenda for this year’s Festival? Any particular events you wish to highlight?

Jean:  Our presentations are always featured. One presenter this year is Carla Kelly, an award-winning novelist, who will talk about writing her sequel to “My Loving Vigil Keeping,” the story of the Scofield (Utah) mine disaster in 1900 that killed over 200 Welsh and Finnish miners. The other presentation will be on traveling in Wales with anecdotes and pictures of places in Wales. To go along with that presentation, we will display “A Walk Through Wales” with huge banners with pictures of castles, landscapes, and other sites in Wales. Last year we started our poetry competitions – one for youths and one for adults. The crowning of the youth “Bards” after they read/recite their original poems will again be featured. The adult “Bard of the Welsh Festival” will be “chaired” in a beautiful Welsh Festival chair and will preside over the finale event and next year’s Festival. For the first time, we are having an introductory event when the Bard from the Festival last year will walk in, preceded by a “knight” and Welsh dancers. In addition, we have all-day Celtic music on the outdoor amphitheater plus three indoor concerts: a choral concert, a youth concert, and a piano ensemble concert. Kids’ activities, games played by the pioneers, wagon rides along historic routes, a quilt show and bake sale, tours of the historic 136-year-old Presbyterian Church, and community meals will provide fun for everyone. In addition, to celebrate its sesquicentennial, Samaria (a small town 6 miles southeast of Malad) will host several events, including tours of pioneer-era cabins, displays about Welsh pioneers coming to Malad Valley, a Welsh children’s farm, and other exhibits.

AmeriCymru:  You are featuring a presentation on traditional Welsh dance by Laraine Miner. Care to tell us a little more about this?

Jean:  Yes, Laraine Miner will be one of the outdoor presenters on the amphitheater. She will talk about traditional Welsh dances and use local students to demonstrate the dances. The students learned the dances during summer school and are excited to show what they have learned. Laraine is from Idaho Falls and is a well-known folk dance instructor and performer. We are excited that she is able to come to the Festival this year.

AmeriCymru:  Any final message for the members and readers of AmeriCymru?

Jean:  We are celebrating both our Welsh and pioneer heritage, which are intertwined for most long-time Malad residents. It is not an eisteddfod, but music and poetry are highlighted. We are proud of our pioneer heritage and want those early settlers and their struggles to survive drought, blizzards, grasshoppers, illness, and barren, sagebrush-covered land to be honored and remembered. Malad Valley did not end up being very much like their beloved Wales, but they persevered, and we are the products of their Welsh work ethic and stubbornness.

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