Skull Valley • Deborah Hoopiiaina sank her knees into the dry desert dirt and began plucking tufts of tall yellow grass and thistles from around the headstone.
It took an hour and a thick pair of gloves to clear what had grown since she was here last year. And when she finished, Hoopiiaina lined seashells and plastic flower leis around the grave’s rectangular edge.
“This is my uncle,” she said, kissing her hand and touching it to the marker. “He was born here.”
With that, Hoopiiaina swept her arm out toward the landscape. But there isn’t much to suggest this land could be someone’s hometown. No houses. No neighborhoods. Just one road and this cemetery and a few skittish lizards.
It’s been more than a century since any person lived here.
The little-known small town that was once in this dusty, desolate valley below the Cedar Mountains — where Hoopiiaina’s uncle, Conie, grew up — is gone. It was founded in 1889 by a group of Pacific Islanders, mostly from Hawaii, who converted to the Mormon church.
The new believers left their tropical homeland by boat and train and traveled to Utah to help build the temple in Salt Lake City. When construction was done, faith leaders sent them to the isolated desert of Tooele County to start their own outpost, which they named Iosepa (Hawaiian for “Joseph” after The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ then-president Joseph F. Smith).
The islanders struggled for years before they transformed this harsh place into a garden. Then, they abandoned it. In 1917, many returned to Hawaii — some say the LDS Church forced them out of Utah, some say it was due to homesickness. Author Wallace Stegner wrote in his book “Mormon Country” that the people here “made a heroic effort” but “never were a part of the society that tried half-heartedly to assimilate them.”
“We were written off the map,” deadpanned Nick Hoopiiaina, Deborah’s cousin and president of the Iosepa Historical Association.
Still, every Memorial Day weekend, the descendants of those early families return. And it’s as much a celebration as a commemoration.
There’s a luau with roasted pig. There’s singing and dancing. They camp out. They play games. They hold church services on Sunday. And they decorate the gravesites to honor their ancestors.
Deborah Hoopiiaina, now 66, has done this every year since she was 8 — at first, to pay tribute to her grandparents who settled here, and later, to her uncle, who was buried here in 1968. Her family relocated to Salt Lake City when the town dissolved.
“It’s kind of a sad story,” she said Saturday. Her 13-year-old granddaughter, Autumn White, helped clean Conie Hoopiiaina’s headstone. They planted a small Hawaiian flag in the dirt (the red, white and blue crisscross, they joked, looked British).
They covered the grave with a tapa cloth, woven from the bark of the paper mulberry trees in the Pacific Islands. Hoopiiaina scattered rose petals over it. White made a heart shaped out of clam and oyster shells.
“I get to see what my family did and how they lived,” White said.
About 50 people filled the cemetery around them, pulling weeds and wiping off markers. Many share the same last names as the founding families: Halemanu, Makaiau, Imaikalani, Kekuku, Hoopiiaina.
“We’re all related,” said Pat Kamai, 57.
Kamai and her daughter Lina AhQuin added another flower lei around the neck of the warrior statue that watches over this site. The new blue and gold flower wreath sat on top of a pile of faded necklaces that have piled up over the years.
“Their native songs and dances filled this beautiful valley, which they made bloom as a rose with love and aloha,” the memorial below it reads. Other colorful signs feature palm trees and turtles. Several of the gravestones say, “God bless you” and a few have carvings of the Salt Lake City temple.
Ian Hao, too, has attended the annual gathering since he was 8. And his father was buried here recently. “It means a little something extra now,” he said, pointing to the headstone as he cleared an unmarked grave.
His own daughter, also 8, danced behind him. “They’re all my family.”
Even though this place has returned back to sagebrush and grass, Hoopiiaina believes there’s a spirit here that will remain. She pointed to the fence around the gravesites.
“That used to be lined with roses,” Hoopiiaina said. The yellow flowers once grew in the same hard soil as the thistles she pulled Saturday. Maybe, she hopes, they will sprout here again.