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Explore Antelope Island's Fielding Garr Ranch

Through rain, snow or sunshine, Beth and Dennis Simonsen volunteer every Thursday at the Fielding Garr Ranch in Antelope Island State Park. Dennis has volunteered for fifteen years and his wife has been at it for fourteen years. Beth also notes that she was there that first year, but she was typically crocheting under a tree while her husband tended to the visitors. It wasn't long before the curators asked Beth if she would like to volunteer as well. It was not a difficult decision to make.

"It's just so quiet and peaceful here," she says.

Ranch cultural volunteers Beth and Dennis Simonson.
Ranch cultural volunteers Beth and Dennis Simonson.

To her point, a quiet bubbling from the nearby spring is the only sound outside of our own voices. In retrospect the bubbling likely was imaginary. The tranquility of this place evokes such ambiance. Those nearby freshwater springs sustain a dense little forest that is an important bird habitat. A female great horned owl sits quietly, high in a tree, which Beth spots after a couple of minutes of careful searching. The deer are often out foraging in that hour or two before sunset. Many consider the sunsets to be among the best in the state. Outdoor recreation opportunities abound. 

All this surprising beauty is surrounded by the largest natural lake west of the Mississippi River (and one of the saltiest bodies of waters in the world), the Great Salt Lake.

The ranch dates to the pioneer era before a private rancher purchased the land from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Private ranching peaked in the middle of the century but continued until 1981. 

Everything in the ranch display is hands-on: feel the bison fur, sit in a saddle, ring the sleigh bells or handle the tools.

Today, the ranch is a popular destination for groups of schoolchildren, as evidenced by the hacking marks in the workbench. Decades-old tools of the trade line the bench. Their rust-stained metal and oily, worn leather glow in the light that pours in from the south door. Mr. Simonsen grabs one hooked implement, like a miniature scythe, and holds it up. 

"Know what this is for?" he asks. "It's a beet-digger." 

He slices the air with the hooked field knife to demonstrate the motion, but the rusty tool succumbs to its age and the top of the tool comes off without striking anything. 

It was already broken. 

"All these tools are quite old," he notes, setting the tool down after a brief attempt to reattach the hook to the squared-off top of the blade. 

Save time for the hiking. A view from Antelope Island.
Save time for the hiking. A view from Antelope Island.

Dennis points out how everything in the ranch display is hands-on: feel the bison fur, sit in a saddle, ring the sleigh bells or handle the tools. In a main living area, he calls attention to a particular piece of hand-built furniture, assembled without metal screws or nails. 

The Simonsens welcome a number of international travelers on buses during the summer and skiers taking a day off from the slopes in the winter. All are curious to get a sense for living in this surreal place, which feels as much part of the pioneer American West as it does a vastly longer geologic timeline. 

Several buildings make up the Fielding Garr Ranch complex. Its early-20th-century lifestyle is carefully preserved but invites exploration. While the tour is mostly self-guided, on Thursdays the Simonsens are never far off to intrigue you with details or answer questions, adding historical texture and droll anecdote to the experience. 

There are different volunteers throughout the week manning the ranch. 

While the ranch adds an unexpected layer of culture and Western history, the island is most well-known for its more than 20 miles of trails for hiking, horseback riding and mountain biking. Antelope Island’s trails meander among free-roaming buffalo and some of the Earth's oldest exposed rocks. Stay the night at one of two campgrounds and wait for star-filled skies to enhance the island solitude.