The late Montell Seely, the creator of the Castle Valley Pageant tells the audience of the early settlers to Emery County at the 2007 pageant.
A commemoration program in honor of the late Montell Seely will be held on Aug. 1 at 7 p.m. at the Castle Valley pageant site. There will be music and entertainment and memories of Montell. Montell was instrumental in the founding of the Castle Valley pageant and its first production was in 1978. Everyone is welcome to attend the commemoration program to honor Montell. The following are two reprints from the Emery County Progress archives which detail Montell and his family on a pioneer trek and then the article written following his death on Aug. 12, 2008.
Many Emery County residents watch the Castle Valley Pageant each year and attribute its success to Montell, but few realize Montell's complete dedication to preserve his ancestry.
Since 1977, Montell and his family have participated in 35 handcart treks, have obtained seven pioneer cabins and collected countless antiques, all in the name of preserving heritage.
"It is all intermingled in preserving things that our pioneer ancestors built," Montell said. "It is a way to show them our love and respect because I want to save what they had. I can't think of any other way to express that."
Montell organized his first trek in 1977 to commemorate 100 years since his ancestors had crossed the mountain and settled in Castle Valley. The excursion began in Fairview Canyon and continued across the mountain through Upper Joe's Valley and down Cottonwood Canyon.
"This trek was the beginning of modern day handcart activity in the church," Montell said.
Throughout the many treks, the Seely family has experienced "real pioneer experiences," Kathryn Seely said.
On one of their major treks they recreated the journey of their ancestors who were a part of the San Juan Mission at Hole in the Rock. They went through 250 miles of desert from Hole in the Rock to Lake Powell across the Red Sandstone Desert to Bluff.
During the re-creation, the axle of their handcart broke while they were in a place where the support team, people in trucks in case of emergency, was unable to easily assist them. Mark Seely, Montell's son found a cedar tree, cut it down with his pocket knife and shaved it to fit in the hub of the wheels and used prickly pear cactus pulp to grease the wheels.
Just as they finished repairing the axle, rain clouds started forming around them. They got in their sleeping bags and waited out the stormy night. When they woke up and continued their journey, they realized the had run out of water.
The Seely's found slick rock pot holes that had filled up with fresh rain water and used that water to fill their canteens, despite the presence of water skeeters.
"We figured if the bugs weren't dead, then the water wasn't poisonous," Montell said.
This trek literally gave the Seely's a real taste of pioneer life.
"It was a 16 day journey and that was the best pioneer experience we had," said Montell. "It was real. It wasn't us pretending to play pioneer."
Montell's main act of devotion was writing and producing the Castle Valley Pageant. After asking others to write a pageant and being turned down for justifiable reasons, Montell was faced with two options: write a pageant himself or see his dreams diminish.
"I am a farmer, not a writer," said Montell. "But, I didn't want my dreams to die."
Montell wrote the pageant by compiling pioneer stories and rewriting them using dialogue. Since the first year of the Castle Valley Pageant in 1978, the pageant audience has grown from 500 in its first season to more than 20,000.
"In the beginning we had a lot of perseverance," Kathryn said. "It has been very gratifying that so many people caught the vision." The Seely's want their works in preserving their ancestor's heritage to help other generations grow close to the pioneers.
"We are hopeful that what we have started will go on from generation to generation so that our pioneer heritage will not be forgotten," Montell said. "We also hope that our children and grandchildren will develop in the bosom a love, so that our pioneer heritage will not be forgotten."
Emery County lost one of its greatest pioneers on Aug. 12. Montell Seely died in an accident involving a hand cart and a truck where he was hit and killed with 13 year old Hannah Wagstaff of Tropic.
The family was involved in a hand cart trek from Fairview where they were to continue up Fairview Canyon to the Miller's Flat Reservoir turnoff and across Scad Valley to Upper Joe's Valley. They were to go down Cottonwood Canyon and then enter SR-29 and continue down the canyon to the Seely family farm. But, these plans were cut tragically short as the trek just began on the morning of Aug. 12.
Montell was a friend to all. He never met a stranger or someone he didn't like. He was always ready with a quick smile and a laugh. The sparkle in his blue eyes was always there. Montell had a zest for life. He carried the pioneer spirit to a new degree. His home is like a log cabin from years gone by. He worked hard to keep alive the memory of ancestors and those long since passed on. It was important to Montell to preserve their memory and do it with gusto. Montell and family over the years have been involved with several pioneer treks. They traveled the Mormon Handcart Trail from Nebraska to Utah one year.
Montell was a story teller though he never envisioned himself as such, but he loved to tell the stories of the past and also his own story along with his family stories. Montell was a family man. He had a great love for his wife Kathryn and their children and grandchildren. Montell lived the golden rule each day. He was always picking up hitchhikers and helping those broken down along the side of the road and meeting friends from all around the country. When Ken and Sarita Sah of Green River were being deported to India, Montell stepped up to try to help them to stay in America. He even considered adopting them, but at the time nothing worked out and the Sah's were deported which broke Montell's heart.
Montell was the driving force in the beginning and continuation of the Castle Valley Pageant which just completed its 31st season on Aug. 9. Montell had the idea for a pageant in the back of his mind since he was a missionary in the Central Atlantic States, he was assigned to labor on the Cherokee Indian Reservation in North Carolina. The Cherokee Indians produced a pageant to tell their story of how the army rounded up the Cherokee Indians and marched them all the way to Oklahoma. This tale of their journey became known as the "Trail of Tears."
Montell as a young missionary had the opportunity to see this pageant and it made an impression on him. He had long thought Emery County needed a pageant and wished someone would put one together. He never thought that someone was him, he wasn't the pageant writing type, "I'm just a farmer; not a writer," said Montell.
The Castle Valley Pageant has been an annual tradition in Emery County dating back to 1978. Montell was the man with a vision when it came to the pageant. He wrote the story to depict the early settlers to Emery County who came from the Sanpete Valley. The settlers were instructed to settle the Castle Valley by Brigham Young, President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It was the last order or directive he gave before passing away. Montell had a passion for bringing the stories of the pioneers to life. He wanted to make their stories very real for the generations of today and those people yet to come. Part of preserving this story has been the presentation of the Castle Valley Pageant each year. The pageant grew from a two night production to eight nights.
The pageant has taken on a life of its own and for the 25th anniversary of the pageant, Montell and his wife Kathryn and other family members prepared a book of the history of the pageant along with stories from those who have been actively involved in the pageant over the years. Many actors have come and gone, but there are some who have been involved in the pageant for the past 31 years never missing a beat. Montell and his wife Kathryn and their family have been there since the beginning.
In 1977 the LDS church initiated what they called the Activities Committee. Carol Driggs was called to be the Cultural Arts Specialist. She asked Montell who was a first counselor in the Bishopric at the time, exactly what her job was to be. Montell said to her, "What this area needs is a pageant that will tell the story of the colonization of Castle Valley. One that will pay honor to the stalwart pioneers who settled this valley." Driggs answered, "If someone will write the script, I will certainly try to direct it."
After several attempts to get local writers involved, it came down to Montell writing the script or watching his idea fade away. So he along with Kathryn began the chore of writing the pageant. Montell didn't see himself as a writer and it was a time consuming, laborious process. Creating dialogue for the characters and interaction between the characters took a lot of time. The key for Montell was using real stories for the script, things that happened to the people along their way into the Castle Valley; a baby being born along the way, a baby dying along the way, a reluctant wife; all became story lines for the script.
The story of Wink and Anna in the pageant is based on Montell's grandparents dilemma of whether to come to the Castle Valley, before or after their baby was born. In those days, if you were absent from a homestead for more than six months, you would forfeit your claim to the land and a squatter could take over. In the end, the trip is made with a midwife in tow and the baby is born along the way.
The story of Joe and Tilda was based on real settlers named Joseph and Matilda Curtis Boulden. Their baby passed away above Upper Joe's valley and was brought on into Castle Valley to be buried.
Montell based the story of the reluctant wife on two couples he knew where the husband was willing to come to Castle Valley, but the wife didn't want to leave the comforts of the Sanpete Valley which was already settled. Niels Peter Miller and his wife Ellen were one of these couples. Miller made his wife a dugout which was a cut above many at the time. Upon their arrival in the valley, Ellen said, "Has it now come to this that I have to live underground? This line is in the pageant script. Many of the reluctant wives came to love the Castle Valley, but some never did. Grandma Montell upon arriving in Emery County tells how that was the first time she ever swore, uttering, "Damn a man who would bring a woman to such a God-forsaken spot."
Montell felt the pageant showed the pioneer spirit of women, not afraid to speak their minds and filled with emotion.
Montell always felt he was directed by Heavenly Father when he came upon the pageant site. It needed to be outdoors and have a theatre feel to it. He searched high and low, discarding several sites, when on a trip up the church mine road to Des-Bee-Dove. He found the spot. He got out of his pickup and walked up a hill, trudged through some cedars and there it was, laid out just as he imagined. He thought, 'This is the right place.' His soul was filled with joy as he scanned the site and knew it had been prepared for this purpose of bringing the story of the Castle Valley pioneers to life.
The site came to life with the pouring of a concrete pad for the stage and benches for seating. Everything came together and the first production was held Aug. 11 and 12, 1978.
You can't talk about Montell Seely without expressing his love for the Castle Valley Pageant. It would be his dream and vision for the pageant to continue on now without his earthly presence. Montell will continue to be an influence in Emery County long beyond his 74 years upon the earth. His story will be told along with those of the pioneers who settled the Castle Valley. His memory will remain bright in the years to come. Emery County is better because of the chance to know Montell Seely. Well done, thou stalwart pioneer. May your handcart be welcomed at St. Peters gates.
For more information about the program call 687-2403 or 820-4187.
This story will continue and conclude in the Aug. 2 issue of the Emery County Progress.