SKULL VALLEY, Utah >> A Utah ghost town founded over a hundred years ago by Pacific Islanders who converted to the Mormon church is still visited every year by descendants who celebrate and decorate their ancestors’ gravesites.
The Salt Lake Tribune reports Deborah Hoopiiaina’s family was among the first settlers of the town named Iosepha in Tooele County east of Salt Lake City.
The converts had come to Utah to help The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints build a temple in Salt Lake City.
After the temple was completed, church leaders sent them east to start their own outpost.
Iosepa was founded in 1893.
Hoopiiaina’s grandparents later moved to Isoepa, and her uncle, Conie, was born there. Her uncle would be buried there in 1968 where his grave still remains.
“This is my uncle,” she said during a recent visit to the town, kissing her hand and touching it to the marker. “He was born here.”
By 1917, many of the settlers had left the town.
A majority returned to Hawaii.
Some speculated that they were forced out of Utah by the Mormon church. Others said they were homesick.
Author Wallace Stegner wrote in his book “Mormon Country” that the settlers had “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,” said Hoopiiaina’s cousin Nick, who is the president of the Iosepa Historical Association.
Today the only evidence of their lives is a road and the cemetery.
But for every year on Memorial Day, the descendants of the founders return to breathe life into the Utah desert ghost town.
About 50 people came out in late May and cleaned up the cemetery. Many of them still share the last names of the founding families: Halemanu, Makaiau, Imaikalani, Kekuku, Hoopiiaina.
They honor their ancestor by decorating their gravesites and celebrate with a luau, a roasted pig, singing, dancing and games.
“We’re all related,” said Pat Kamai, 57.
He and his daughter Lina AhQuin decorated a warrior statue that watches over the site with flower lei.
Ian Hao has attended the annual gathering since he was 8, but this year is different since his father was buried there recently.
“It means a little something extra now,” he said, pointing to the headstone as he cleared an unmarked grave.
He brought along his daughter, who is also 8.
“They’re all my family,” she said.