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Andrew "B" Christenson (1869-1931): Biography

A biographical sketch, A History of My Father, Andrew “B" Christenson, by Wendell Bartholomew Christenson, Sr. Composed in several parts, in 1967, the original handwritten papers are in possession of W. Bart. Christenson, Jr., Provo, Utah.

[Note: The various items of information for the bracketed inserts and addenda in the record which follows were taken from Lucile C. Tate, Andrew B. Christenson, Mormon Educational Pioneer, Brigham Young University Press, Provo, Utah, 1981, with appropriate page numbers referenced accordingly. In explanation of Andrew’s middle initial “B” and the “son” ending of his surname, the following quote was taken from the ABC/SBC Family Foundation Website (http://www.abcfamilytree.com/Home.html): There were two young men named Andrew Christensen living in the same town and their mail etc. was always getting confused. Therefore, Andrew changed his name from Andrew Christensen to Andrew B. Christenson to avoid the mix up. His descendants have continued to use the "son" spelling rather than the "sen" spelling of their last name. Two of Andrew's brothers did the same thing, each inserting an initial and changing the spelling of the last name.]

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Each one of us is many things to as many different people, and I suppose that my impressions of father are very much my own. As the oldest [living p. 94] son, I was rather personally involved in our financial and business affairs and was often given responsibilities which I was not equipped to bear. In the process, I grew and developed, but father had real need for someone with practical wisdom and business experience to balance his vision and enthusiasm. I was not up to the job, and among those with whom father counseled, there was no one who had either the time or experience to really help.

Father was no ordinary man. In fact, he was far in advance of his time and foresaw many things which only now, after thirty-five years, are being recognized and appreciated.

His interests were varied, and each interest in his active mind was expanded to epic proportions; and those near to him were included in the vision and assigned parts and responsibilities in the implementation. In the end, this was father’s undoing. These chosen partners failed to play their roles. Having been selected without consent, they finally went their way, each pursuing his individual interests and needs. Yet, each one, having been touched by the magic of the vision, was left better for the experience and would remember. [Each would] be raised to a higher plane in his own scale of dreams.

Father came from sturdy Danish stock, men and women of courage, faith and vision. His grandfather, Christen Christensen, was a well to do manufacturer of farm implements in [Kobberød p. 5], Thisted, Denmark, a small village on the North Sea. When he heard the Gospel from the Mormon missionaries in 1865, he with his family sold their property and with the money came to America. They also paid passage for thirty others, presumably employees and neighbors. This money was never repaid; and when the Christensen’s arrived in Utah, they had little left but a strong faith and grateful hearts for the privilege of being in Zion.

During the long ocean voyage, Christens beloved wife [Karen p. 8] sickened and died, to be buried in the waters of the Atlantic.

In the Christensen party was a young lady of eighteen, Else Kathrine Andersen, who alone of her family had joined the Church and was disowned by them. [Already a member of the Church, she was governess for the three young daughters in Christens family p. 5.] She changed her name from Andersen and took the Christensen name. [Subsequently] she became the wife of [Christens] son, Laurs Mathias Christian, in 1866, and the mother of my father.

Else Kathrine was a remarkable woman. She gave birth to eleven children, raising nine to maturity. In addition to the struggles of pioneer life, [she] studied medicine under a woman doctor in Salt Lake City to whom she was led in a dream, and as a result she was able to minister to the needs of her family and neighbors.

Laurs M. C., the father of the family, was under the necessity of working as a laborer, and with many mouths to feed and hard times, the family was often hard-pressed financially.

[Andrew was born June 6, 1869, in Manti, Sanpete, Utah p. 13.] At the age of thirteen, father left home to find work and help out. His first job was as a herder of sheep for a man also named Christensen, a rough, godless man, who spent much time telling young Andrew that a belief in God was utter foolishness. One day, this man, while riding the range accompanied by father, was caught in a cloudburst, and in trying to cross a gully swollen with flood waters, the bank caved in plunging horse and rider into the torrent. The man caught a hanging branch and was helped out by father, who said he had never heard a man pray more fervently to God for deliverance.

Father was ambitious for an education and kept books in a box in the sheep wagon, which he studied at every opportunity preparing for a day when he could go to school. One day, he had climbed to a high ledge on a slope overlooking the sheep herd and was deep in study, when his attention was drawn to a disturbance in the flock. Looking down, he saw a huge grizzly bear coming up the slope toward him. He was unarmed, and although bears were not uncommon in the Henry Mountains, this one seemed to have one object in mind—father. He first shouted, and then threw stones, but the bear came steadily onward. In desperation, he looked around for some means of defense, when he noticed a deep crack in the ledge upon which he stood. Bracing himself against the mountain side, he placed his back in the crack and strained with all his might. Slowly the crack began to widen, and just as the bear reached the bottom of the ledge, a great section broke loose, crashing with a thud in front of the beast and followed by a shower of rocks and dirt. The bear rose on his haunches, turned and headed straight down the mountain, with the rock bounding close behind and gaining speed at every turn. Father said that he had never seen a bear run so fast. And the last glimpse he had of the beast was as it was headed into the scrub oak and quaking aspen, with the rock speeding unchecked, crashing trees and brush in its path. The sight hit father’s “funny bone,” and he literally rolled on the ground with laughter.

Father had many hair-raising stories which he used to tell us before the fire on long evenings. He was a marvelous story teller, and we children would sit entranced reliving such experiences with him.

Much of his time for six years was spent alone in the mountains and deserts far from home and loved ones. His companions were the sheep, wild beasts, and rough men. Through it all, he remained true to the teachings of his parents and his church. And he never ceased to study and prepare for the future that had already begun to take shape in his active young mind.

He visualized dams in the rivers storing up water for fertile fields. He dreamed of mineral wealth in the mountain rocks, and cities in the valleys wherein prosperous people would dwell. He saw the Church expanding, and the Gospel truths being carried to the ends of the earth. He also saw himself in the picture—working, prospering, and sharing.

All boys have dreams. Andrew’s were a bit vast. But to him they were very real, and he seemed to see before him all the means for their realization.

He lived close to the Lord and had some remarkable spiritual experiences. At one time, going through the mountains alone, he became hungry and exhausted. He was impressed to investigate a deserted log hut in which he found nourishing food spread out to eat, yet no one was in sight. Father ate with deep gratitude and a strengthened testimony. On another occasion, while watching under the stars, thinking profoundly on the glories of creation and the goodness of God, the heavens seemed to open, and he, being touched by the Spirit, saw the glory of the world beyond.

Through such experiences, he was comforted in his loneliness, and strengthened in his faith and convictions as to the part he personally might play in shaping the world about him.

At age nineteen, he had acquired some sheep of his own. He decided to put one of his brothers in charge and start school. He quickly finished the grades, embarrassed by his size and age. High school followed, and having graduated with high grades, he went on to the Brigham Young Academy in 1891 [in company with several siblings p. 35]. It was at the BYA in 1892, that he became better acquainted with Sarah Jane Bartholomew and her older sister, Roxie. Father fell in love with Sarah, and [following acquisition of his Batchelor of Pedagogy degree in 1895 p. 40] they were married in the Manti Temple, on 1 July 1896. The honeymoon trip was made in a wagon containing all their belongings, pointed toward Kanab, Utah, where father had been given his first teaching assignment.

[Some months later, in the fall of 1898 p. 58], he entered [the University of Michigan] at Ann Arbor. [He and Sarah now had a young son, Adelbert Alphious, born 12 April, 1897. Edith Lovena followed on 22 April 1900 p. 61.] Father graduated with high honors in the class of 1901 [Batchelor of Arts degree p. 64]. He was then asked by the Church to go to [the newly constructed Woodward School p. 71] in St. George, Utah, where [evidently] there were some real problems with the young people. It was felt that father’s talents were needed. [He remained there through 1903 p. 82.]

[Thereafter, in order to prepare himself for a full professorship, on the advice of his University of Michigan professors, while leaving Sarah and the two children with Sarah’s parents in Fayette, Utah, Andrew journeyed to Germany for advanced studies at the University of Berlin, beginning the fall term in 1903. Interestingly, during this interim, for a period of several weeks, he was subsequently banished from Germany, because he was a speaker in public meetings of a Mormon Branch in Hanover. Nonetheless, the matter was eventually resolved, and he was able to return to his studies. Moreover, Dad was born, October 26, 1903, in Fayette; and, a year later, Adelbert died suddenly of diphtheria, November 29, 1904. Upon learning of his young son’s death, Andrew left school, and hurried home to his grieving wife and family. He promised never to go abroad again unless Sarah and the children were with him. That promise was kept. Upon his return from Germany, during the 1905 school year, he was readily employed by the LDS University (then College), in Salt Lake City, as professor of French and German pp. 85-94.]

During the next eighteen years, father was largely engaged in filling educational missions for the Church. [From 1906 to 1910], he was called as Principal of the LDS High School. [Perhaps nowhere in A.B. Christenson’s public life do we see him more warmly human than in the period from 1906-1910 while he served as principal of the LDS High School….He seems less stern now, although he is ever vigilant in ferreting out student problems and eradicating them through personal interview and counsel. And he seems to me, at least, to have immensely enjoyed himself in his new call. During this period, he was also developing into a business entrepreneur of no little acumen and skill—a sideline which, I believe, became more necessary as his family and his dreams grew, and wages did not keep pace p. 102.] Then, after loosing his [little] daughter [eighteen month old], Elsie Eliza, by drowning in the family fishpond [on April 8, 1910 at their home in Salt Lake City p. 114], he took the family to Europe for one year, in 1910.

On returning from Europe [they docked in New York harbor on November 12, 1911 p. 129], he was given [had already been awarded p. 131] a full professorship [and department chairmanship p. 131] on the faculty of the Brigham Young University [in Provo, Utah, at $1,800.00 per annum….the same amount paid to him as principal of Woodward School in St. George ten years earlier. He now had three additional children, seven and a half years of experience as a teaching-principal, and two and a half years of advanced schooling in Europe, yet his new salary reflected no increase to compensate for the additional expense and experience. No complaints seem to have been expressed, however. He was simply provident, in preparing for the needs of his family upon their return pp. 131-133].

While father was in Europe, he had left his affairs in the care of his older brother, Chris, and through unfavorable times, the family fortunes had dwindled. [Thus], the start in Provo was made under financial difficulties. [We] first lived at the foot of the college hill next to a family named Warnick. He was a banker and the [two] families became warm friends. Their son, Paul, was about my brother’s age, and we had many good times together.

Father later moved the family to a place up on Provo Bench, Pleasant View. There were barns, a garden, and fruit trees, but living was primitive. Mother was obliged to heat wash water on an open fire in back of the house, and the toilet was some distance from the house. This was one of the lean periods in our family history.

We raised peaches, but there was little market for them. [One day], Sheldon and I took a buggy load into Provo to peddle them on the street. Coming home, one of the [remaining] baskets fell between the buggy and the wheel, and the mare became frightened and bolted, bit in teeth. A man seeing our plight risked his life to run along side, grabbed the bridle, and was able, even though dragged along side, to stop the horse and save two frightened boys. We learned later that he was the father of thirteen children.

From [Provo, father] was called to Rexburg, Idaho, to organize the Ricks Academy [into a junior college. He remained in this capacity from 1914 to 1917, instigating many necessary, innovative and successful changes on the way to junior college status pp. 147-161].

[While in Rexburg], we lived next to the Hyrum Manwaring family. [Hyrum and Andrew had been classmates at the BYU Academy p. 38.] [The two families became] wonderful friends. Our home was comfortable. We had a garden where we raised wonderful vegetables, so crisp that they literally popped when they were cut. [The garden] was watered by a canal at the top of the field in which we could catch eating-sized trout, and where Sheldon and I learned first to mud crawl and then to swim.

[Nonetheless], it was while at Ricks that father began to feel that he was too limited in school work. He had never forgotten those boyhood dreams and was becoming impatient with the low salaries and limited opportunities in school work. During [1916] in Rexburg, he had rented a wheat farm twenty mile east of the city. The crops were already planted and all we as a family had to do, was keep it free from mustard weed and [wandering] cattle. [The property] ran south up the foothills into forest land. There were quaking aspen and pine. Wild berries grew there. There was a little log cabin where we stayed and tended the grain fields. Cattlemen leased the Forest Reserve upon which their cattle fed, and often broke down our fences in the process. Sheldon’s and my job [at ages eleven and thirteen, respectively] was to patrol our grain fields and keep the cattle out. This we did by making wooden spears to hurl at the beasts whenever they came near. It was a wonderful summer vacation. When harvest time came, we called in the combines which cut and threshed for a share in the profits. After all expenses, father realized over $3,000.00—[one and a half times his annual salary p. 162.]

[When school ended (in 1917), Andrew again petitioned the Board for a release from his (two year p. 161) call to Ricks. President (Mark) Austin, in a final attempt to dissuade him said, I think your greatest good could be accomplished among the youth of Israel, that they might be impressed with your testimony of the divine mission of Joseph Smith and the work of God that has been established in the earth. To this, Andrew replied, Yes, but I have other work that I must do; the growth and development of this great Western country. For those who ask what impelled Andrew, John Henry Evans gives this answer:

He was never content with the thing immediately in front of him. His mind always reached out after something that was beyond. I used to know (in LDS University days)some of the things that he cherished as wanting to do in the world…and in all his plans, they were not ultimately for himself….I do not know anyone who worked harder for the things that he wanted for the Church and for others than Brother Christenson pp. 166-167.

Whenever we associate with people for any length of time, there is always something that we remember them for, and the one thing that Brother Christenson stood out for in my mind is his understanding, his grasp of fundamental truth….Large in body, he was large also in the region of his mind. His was one of the most wonderful intellects that I have known in anyone pp. 159-160.]

Father exercised a powerful influence on the Rexburg community and laid the foundation for an excellent junior college facility. [He was forty eight years old, and had spent twenty-seven years either as student, teacher or administrator. If he were to carry out even part of the plans that filled his mind, he must be getting at them. Brother Hyrum Manwaring succeeded Andrew as the leader at Ricks Junior College p.168.]

[So it was in the early summer of 1917 that Andrew and his family moved to LaVerkin, in southern Utah. Having carried out a successful real estate business on the side during the previous decade, he had already purchased property rights there and, with several prominent local partners, intended to create a spa, as well as a vast irrigation project pp. 171-175.]

While in Dixie, father with the help of Sheldon and me, and an occasional hired man with team and scooper, began to build the bath house near the LaVerkin hot springs. The development of these springs had long been in father’s plans. He visualized a health spa with cabins on the hillside and hot mineral bathes piped to every dwelling. The water had unusual properties and people came from far and near to enjoy its virtues.

Along with the hot springs, father had made filings on the water of the Virgin River and had plans for building a dam near the entrance to Zion Canyon, which would provide irrigation for thousands of acres of desert land in a climate nearly equal to that of California.

It was a good plan. Money for the initial work was acquired from the local people and everything was ready to start. The U.S. Government was ready to put up about five million dollars. Unfortunately, [with] war [being] declared between Germany and the United States [WWI], all government reclamation commitments were withdrawn. This was a severe setback for father. He had come so close to real wealth, possibly millions from the sale of land under the project. Instead, he was left in debt, and years of hard work and planning had been lost. [But] I never knew father to complain.

[Before any sort of full success could come to the LaVerkin venture, Superintendent Horace H. Cummings (General Superintendent of Church schools p. 100) came to Andrew with another official call from the Brethren to return to the Church School System (June 1918). A serious problem had arisen with the leadership of Millard Academy in Hinckley, Utah. Would Brother Christenson go and set things in order there? Andrew must have wrestled with himself over the call, felt frustration and disappointment, too. Finally, however, a spirit of acceptance overcame all other feelings. He accepted the call p. 178-179.]

[Along with] mother and the other children, he went ahead [by car p. 179] to prepare a place to live, leaving Sheldon and me [ages 13 and 15, respectively p. 179] to bring a load of our belongings [by wagon] from LaVerkin to Hinckley. It was a hard trip. We were caught in snow storms, sand storms, and mud, and as we neared our destination, the country appeared barren and desolate. We passed a covered wagon headed back toward Fillmore. Across the canvas cover was printed a large sign, “In God we trusted and in Delta we busted.” (Delta was one of the towns near Hinckley.)

Father had found a house and farm near the edge of town where the family was settled. Father was soon busy with school and business trips, leaving Sheldon and me under mother’s direction to run the farm. We worked hard, but with little results. The land was rapidly becoming white from alkali brought to the surface by heavy irrigation, and nothing would grow. The experience ended any real interest we would ever have in farming.

[By early 1919, the war had ended, the flu epidemic had struck, President Joseph F. Smith had died—and the Church decided to close eight academies, including Millard. An era had passed, and Andrew turned to other activities pp. 186-187.] Father was finished with school work.

In 1919, [in company] with his younger brother, Albert, and a brother-in-law, Otis Erkenbrach, the [1,010.9 acre p.191] Starr Ranch, located between Santaquin and Mona, near Nephi, Utah, was acquired. It was a beautiful place near the foot of lofty mountains from which flowed both surface and underground streams. Much of the land was watered by deep artesian wells. To the west was a lake stocked with fish and in the fall an abundance of ducks and wild geese.

On the property stood three large brick houses. The one in which we were to live was beautifully furnished and would give the family and our friends many happy hours. This venture held great promise, and for a time prosperity seemed assured. Crops were planted—wheat, alfalfa, and sugar beets—and there were also horses, cattle, chickens, and hogs. [Additionally], the place was well equipped with barns, corrals, and a blacksmith shop. With the addition of a tractor and some machinery, we were in business. We worked very hard and were proud, happy, and filled with high hopes for the future. There was talk of college, missions, travel and great accomplishments. Father in the meantime was impatient. He was offered an opportunity to buy a cattle ranch of about 5,000 acres near Duchesne in eastern Utah. The banks were willing to put up the money, and, with a thousand head of cattle thrown into the bargain, it looked very attractive. A quick calculation on father’s part placed our total worth at about $500,000.00, and with luck and a few good years, we would pay off all the debts with plenty to go.

The winter of 1922 started out normal enough. Crops had been good, the cattle were fat and ready for market, with an offered price of $60.00 a head--$60,000.00 for the herd. Wheat was bid at $2.00 per bushel, and we had 10,000 bushels to sell. However, word went out among the farmers that prices would be higher in the spring and to hold their crops.

Spring never came. Snow was heavy and stayed on the ground until nearly May. Feed for the cattle became scarce, and father was forced to buy hay at $40.00 a ton to keep the 1,000 head of cattle from starving. The banks advanced the money. Finally, when winter ended, the market had vanished for both cattle and wheat. It was almost impossible to sell at any price. The banks, which had loaned so freely, now wanted their money. Farmers, who for all their lives had been able to get almost any amount on signature, were given a flat “No!” Father, of course, was over-extended. It cost him his share of the ranches and all other owned assets to get out—and he still owed tens of thousands of dollars.

In 1923, we moved from the ranch to Salt Lake City. I suppose we had lived in worse places, but this little house at the bend of the Jordan River on 21st South Street was a place to house the family, now in dire financial straits. Mother, brave and cheerful as always, set about with almost no money to scrub, paint, and paper with the help of the children. I can remember my pride in helping to select paper for the parlor. When it was finally hung, it looked great. And, with a warm fire roaring in the pot-bellied stove, things [began to look a bit more] bright and cheerful.

I don’t know how father managed. I’m sure he was deeply discouraged and for a time there was little to do except borrow from friends. He was gone a great deal. For a time he took a position as advisor and principal in a school down south, and the money he made pulled us through.

We, the older children, began to look for jobs–Sheldon in a restaurant; I, in a mine in Farmington Canyon; Edith [Edythe] waited on tables, and longed to go east and advance her musical training.

We made out. Our affairs improved, and father by some means managed to acquire a big home on South Main Street into which we soon moved, and which would be the most significant home in my life, and I think in our family’s history. It was from this place that Edith [Edythe], Sheldon, and I found our life’s companions. It was from the Farmers Ward that first I, and later Sheldon, would go on missions. It was also from this home that Luther ran away to be gone for two years, nearly breaking mother’s heart, yet bringing us in a way closer together in love and appreciation. I was on a mission when it happened, and I often lay awake at night thinking about what I might have done had I been home. Before I returned, the family had made contact, and Luther was returned home.

Margaret and Lucile both met their husbands in this same environment, and while it was a period of struggle, it was a happy place and from it came great blessings.

This house was the closest to a home that we had known. We made friends in church and school. We found work and began to make a place in the world. While I was away in Germany, the family moved to another house up the street a few blocks. And to the younger children, this house was at last a home and a refuge. It was mother’s pride and joy.

For years mother had longed for a home, to put her roots down, make friends, and raise her family. In this last house, her dreams were partly realized. Father in some way managed to acquire title, and mother assumed the obligation. She took in roomers, cleaned, washed, cooked, and sewed. And those who came to rent and board never forgot her. She developed a sewing business making burial clothes, and for a time was the principle producer in Salt Lake City. It was her earnings that kept Sheldon and me on missions and put Margaret through nursing school.

Father never recovered from the loss of the Starr Ranch. During the coming years, he was gone a great deal–to Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, and places in between. He had great plans. His fertile brain conceived new possibilities in metals and alloys so advanced that big corporations were startled and interested and promised large sums of money, only to find that there was only the idea in which to invest–nothing tangible or developed. He also began to revive the lost irrigation project [in southern Utah], all the time borrowing money from family, friends, and strangers, hoping for the break that would renew his fortunes.

As I look back at this period, I think he felt left out, helpless, and frustrated. He had planned for so long and on such a grand scale. Success had been so near. He had dreamed such magnificent dreams, and we had all been a part of those dreams. Suddenly, we were gone, making our own way. Even mother was no longer dependent. She was now the supporter rather than the supported.

When I came home [from the mission in Germany], I spent all my time with father. I took no job, and I didn’t go back to school. I drove father on trips, worked on his projects, sat in on his councils, met his business associates, until I finally realized that he was being used by unscrupulous men whose only objective was to sell him their pseudo-skills and advice, so that he would get his backers to loan money, which in turn would be paid to them and in that way continue the hoax.

When I finally quit and got married, I had a back salary of $1,500.00 coming, which I was assured I would get. When I left for my honeymoon, I received two checks, each for $150.00. One I cashed for the trip. When I returned, I tried to cash the second one and was told that there were not sufficient funds. It was never paid. This was not father’s fault. Money had been promised.

Father always tried. In the last years, he drove himself without mercy. He was diabetic and sick, and the doctors begged him to stop. Away from home, he was often hungry and lived in cheap hotel rooms, sometimes having to borrow money enough to get home to mother, from whom he would only borrow more to take another fruitless trip, and then turn over the money to a few “hangers-on” who bled him of every cent he could raise.

In the last months of his life, he did some work for some mining people in Grass Valley, California, for which he was paid a salary. And when he died, mother received a check of which she proudly told. It was her only material legacy from father.

These are only the bare, stark facts of father’s life. They are not the whole story. Every one of his children looks back with gratitude for having known him and for his influence. There were countless ways in which he showed his love and concern, countless lessons taught with thoughtfulness and timing. Each one of us shared very personal, intimate contacts, had our vision expanded, ambitions stimulated, and horizons broadened.

Edith [Edythe] tells of discussions while planting corn at 4 AM. Sheldon tells of talks on astronomy and the timing of the planets. Margaret tells of the talks that sometimes hurt more than a spanking. Lucile has her Danish fairy poems. I have slept on the ground with father, with only the starry heavens for a canopy, and heard of his visions, his ambitions, and his hopes and desires for his family.

In retrospect, I wouldn’t want much changed. Every experience added to our strength. We received a taste for the good things: travel, music, literature, art. We had a taste of wealth and power and were shown faith, courage and strength in the hours of trial. We were taught to set our goals high and to persevere. We learned the joy of work. And in our hearts was planted an abiding faith in God and His Son, Jesus Christ.

Father was human. He made mistakes, and at times the mistakes loomed big. But in contrast, they were small when compared with the magnitude of his goals and ideals.

I shall always be deeply grateful for having him as father, and for a heritage small in material things, but, in true worth, beyond price

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