130-year-old Spencer Homestead added to the National Register of Historic PlacesAug 11, 2023 09:56AM ● By Sarah Morton Taggart / Peri Kinder
Descendants of the Spencer family and their spouses attend the dedication ceremony in June. Ninety-five-year-old Mavis Plowman Spencer was the wife of Herbert Beck Spencer, a great-grandson of the homestead’s original occupant. (Photo courtesy Salt Lake County Parks and Recreation)
Near the southwest corner of Dimple Dell Regional Park stands a humble farmhouse. Built in the 1890s, it offers a vanishing glimpse into the history of the Salt Lake Valley. And thanks to tireless efforts, it will remain standing for generations to come. On Oct. 17, 2022, the 130-year-old historic house and homestead site were added to the National Register of Historic Places.
The Spencer Homestead, located at 2591 E. Dimple Dell Road, is one of the few remaining examples of a European homestead in the area and informs the historic context of Sandy as well as the communities of Crescent and Granite.
Robyn MacDuff lived in that farmhouse for 17 years and drove the efforts to preserve it.
“I was pregnant with my first son, and myself and his father needed a place to live,” said MacDuff, who had been living in a small Salt Lake City apartment. “We were at the grocery store and I noticed the rental ad.”
A two-bedroom, one bathroom house on Dimple Dell Road was being rented out by the county. MacDuff was familiar with the area, so she called the number and rented the home site unseen. While living there, the family discovered the foundation of an old barn and the remnants of an apple orchard.
“There was an old tree that was really old and big, maybe 5 feet across,” MacDuff said. “It was kind of hollowed out inside, but it was still producing apples. We would eat them, though they were really sour.”
Learning the history
A few years after the family moved to Dimple Dell, Sandy City announced plans to build a golf course there. MacDuff joined local efforts to stop the development and preserve the natural landscape.
“I have a lot of friends and associates and connections through that group of people,” MacDuff said. “One of those guys came up to the house one day and handed me a picture of Thomas and Sarah Ann Spencer.”
MacDuff began researching the history of the home and learned that the Spencer family emigrated to the United States from North Hampton, England in 1871, first living in Virginia, then Michigan. After arriving in Utah, the family staked out a 160-acre homestead close to the mountains near the settlement of Granite. Thomas Spencer applied for a homestead grant in 1893 and started a fruit and berry farm. The farmhouse was built within five years.
“Tom and Sarah were not spring chickens when they got here,” MacDuff said. “Their three kids were fully grown. Tom was a 50-year-old person when he started his farm.”
Thomas Spencer sold the homestead in 1910 and moved his family to downtown Sandy. Ownership of the land then changed hands 12 times, always remaining agricultural, until it was purchased by Salt Lake County in 1970 to form a section of Dimple Dell Regional Park. The house became a ranger station after the MacDuffs moved out in 1992.
MacDuff didn’t go far. She remained in Sandy and was concerned when she heard that the County wanted to make major changes to the farmhouse in 2018.
“They were going to make pretty big renovations, that’s when I got the state history department and Preservation Utah involved,” MacDuff said.
One strategy to help preserve historic structures is to nominate them for the National Register of Historic Places, a program meant to identify, evaluate and protect America’s historic sites.
The home has been modified too extensively over the years to qualify as an example of architecture. For example, the original porch was removed and the windows were changed in the 1950s. But it was a strong nomination because of the site’s significance as a rare example of a late 19th-century Salt Lake Valley homestead and farm. The nomination document for the homestead includes the house and five acres around it.
“The nomination relied on the archaeology, rather than the architecture,” MacDuff said. “There's 130 years of who-knows-what and of deposits of trash, but it's treasure now.”
Some of the historic garbage is currently on display at the homestead, including glass bottles and a rusty barrel. There are no immediate plans to excavate the trash piles, work that would require experts to be done properly.
Spencer family reunited with their historic home
MacDuff went to visit a friend in Redmond, Utah in November 2022, after the homestead was added to the National Register.
“I just happened to mention to her that the house had been accepted, but I have no idea who the Spencers are,” MacDuff said. “She said, ‘well give me their name.’ And within a week she called me. She had found Anne Spencer Tucker so I called her and we talked for three hours on the phone.”
Tucker told MacDuff about a family photo with Tom Spencer sitting on a porch with his grandson and wife. It was the same photo that had started MacDuff’s journey of learning the history of the home.
“They had no idea where the house with the farm was,” MacDuff said.
Tucker and several other members of the Spencer family attended a dedication ceremony for the homestead on June 8.
“Anne’s brother was in tears from realizing that he loved having an orchard, and until now not knowing where that came from,” MacDuff said. “It’s just been really fun to see how touched they all are by the house and how important it is to them.”
The dedication event was also attended by local officials, representatives from the State Historic Preservation Office, Salt Lake County Parks and Recreation and others.
“There are so many people to thank for the work that’s been done in this park, in this community,” said Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson. “But there are many people that really go the extra mile and making sure that amazing properties like this are preserved. This is not just a special place for people in Sandy and White City, or even people living in the unincorporated area at the base of the canyon here. It’s for all of us, this treasure. To honor history, we have to understand the pressures of modern day and really, really strive to honor and to remember and to learn and to recognize the special lessons of the past.”
Salt Lake County Parks and Recreation will continue to use the home as an office. MacDuff said the farmhouse needs a new roof, but is otherwise structurally sound. Sandy residents are also working to preserve another 1890’s home in Dimple Dell. The Muir-Poulsen home at 3006 East Mount Jordan Road was placed on the National Register in 2018, but needs significant renovation work.
“I look forward to the future for the Spencer house, because I appreciate the past and where can we, as Sandy, step on a patch of ground and say this is like it was 130 years ago,” said Sandy Mayor Monica Zoltanski. “We want to keep it a place where a lot of different trail users from dog walkers, naturalists, artists, people who bought a place of solitude in the midst of our very busy urban area can come and appreciate.”
The Spencer farmhouse is dedicated to MacDuff’s oldest son, Trevor John MacDuff, who was born in the home in 1976 and died in December 2022. λ