The “Grinch Who Stole Christmas” came to life for the residents of Lark, Utah on December 14, 1977. It was on this day that Kennecott Copper Company (KCC) notified Lark residents that they were expected to vacate the town within a year, since KCC needed the area for mine expansion. They had come into possession of the town on December 1, 1977, after having purchased the property from UV Industries Incorporated (UV) for $2 million (Jordan Valley Sentinel [JVS] 3 January 1980:3; Salt Lake Tribune (SLTRB) 5 May 1978:21; SLTRB 25 May 1978:20). This came as an unpleasant surprise to Lark residents since UV had previously informed residents that KCC would not take possession until 1992 (JVS 3 January 1980:3).
The announcement occurred at a town meeting of about 100 Lark residents who had gathered at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints church in Lark. The KCC spokesman was Soren A. Barrett, a KCC plant engineer and a past Lark resident. In a shocking announcement, Barrett told residents that “Kennecott would not buy any of the 51 homes and would not pay moving expenses.” “Kennecott is not in the housing business” he stated before sitting beside the company lawyer and remaining silent for the duration of the meeting (Unknown newspaper clipping. 14 December 1977a.). This was a bitter pill to swallow for Lark residents. Following the meeting, the townsfolk sent KCC a Christmas card depicting a “huge Santa Claus stomping on houses and carrying off squirming residents in his bag, laughing Ho, Ho, Ho.” About 100 residents signed the card (Unknown newspaper clipping. 14 December1977a). The announcement that KCC was going to evict 650 people out of the town of Lark caught national attention. Inevitably, KCC was cast as the villain, but the Lark residents admitted KCC had the right to do whatever they wanted with the town (Unknown newspaper clipping, 14 December 1977b).
Of course, there was resistance. A prominent opponent to KCC’s take-over was 81-year-old Hilda Grabner (JVS 3 January 1980:3). Mary Hilda Shewan Hutchinson Crow Grabner was born November 16, 1896, in Barrow-in-Furness, Lancashire County, England to John Hutchinson and Hannah Armstrong Shewan (Obituary 1990; Marriage 2014a; US Census 1930). While in England, Grabner was married to Phillip H. Crow with whom she had a daughter, Kathleen Mary Crow, who was born July 8, 1923, in England (Find A Grave 2014; Obituary 1990; US Census 1930). Sometime around 1924, Grabner and her daughter immigrated to the United States (US Census 1930; Obituary 1990). Grabner’s second marriage occurred on December 24, 1928, in Salt Lake City. She married Lawrence Grabner, an immigrant miner from Austria (Obituary 1990; Marriage 2014a; US Census 1930). Lawrence Grabner had obtained employment at the United States Smelting, Refining and Mining Company (Death Certificate 1937) in Lark and he and Hilda arrived there in February 1929. Upon their arrival, Hilda turned to her new husband and said, “this is the last place God made, and he forgot to finish it.” Lawrence worked at the mine until December 19, 1937, at which point he was too ill to continue working. On December 24, 1937, the day of their wedding anniversary, Lawrence succumbed to chronic tuberculosis and third stage silicosis. (Census 1930; Death Certificate 1937; Unknown newspaper clipping. 14 December 1977b). Grabner never remarried (Obituary 1990).
In May of 1978, six Lark residents and two others, presenting themselves as the Lark Town Committee, staged an over-night sit-in at KCC headquarters in New York. Committee members were Emma Jean Howland, chairwoman, Robert Beardsley, Mr. and Mrs. Bernie Trujillo, and Ruth Trujillo of Lark. Richard Tuttle and Betty Ortiz of Salt Lake City were also present at the sit-in. Hilda Grabner (81 years old), also of Lark, attended the meeting, but did not spend the night, preferring to spend the night at her niece’s home (SLTRB, 5 May 1978:21). At one point during a meeting with stockholders, one of them screamed at Grabner that she had no right to speak since she was not a stockholder. The small, delicate woman, with lace at her throat and her silver hair done-up in a crown calmly replied that “yes, we are stockholders in human lives.” She continued, “We have suffered a grave injustice and we demand fair compensation for homeowners and renters. We are being turned into refugees” (The Desert Sun [DS] 4 May 1978:18).
The sit-in was designed to get the attention of KCC management and force an in-person meeting with residents back in Lark, a goal which they achieved. The sit-in was the result of a confrontation between the town committee and KCC’s H. H. Kramer, executive vice president, and Edwin E. Dowell, corporate public relations director. The committee complained that KCC was being evasive and unresponsive to the plight of the Lark residents. They also demanded that each homeowner receive $45,000 compensation and that renters receive $4,500 to $5,000. These figures were based on the Department of Housing and Urban Development Relocation Guidelines (The Daily Utah Chronicle [DUC]. 23 May 1978:4; SLTRB, 5 May 1978:21).
KCC called the sit-in committee a sham; claiming that they had a petition signed by 80 percent of the Lark homeowners and 51 percent of the Lark renters, who stated that the sit-in committee did not represent them. The signed petition was never presented by KCC and the Lark committee expressed no knowledge of said petition and made accusations that bribes were involved (SLTRB, 5 May 1978:21-22).
While in the midst of the battle with KCC, Grabner was also taking on the utility companies. In May 1978, Grabner was present at a Utah Public Service Commission meeting where she espoused the view that senior citizens and low- and fixed-income families could not afford to pay their utility bills due to the rise in cost due to inflation and that the utility companies should step in and do something about it. As with KCC, there were those who agreed with her and those who did not (SLTRIB 24 May 1978).
In the final settlement KCC agreed to pay each homeowner 120 percent of the home value and renters were given $1,500 to relocate; with most residents agreeing the settlement was fair (JVS 3 January 1980:3). These figures ranged from $2,000 to $14,839 with the average payout at $7,913. A relocation fee of $1,500 was offered to those who evacuated by August 31, 1978. The fee dropped to $1,000 for those moving after that date (Unknown newspaper clipping 11 May 1978; SLTRIB 12 May 1978:17). KCC offered to pay house-moving fees for those who did not want to sell their homes (SLTRIB 12 May 1978:17).
The deal was better than Grabner expected, but she still believed $45,000 for homeowners and $5,000 for renters was a more equitable settlement (SLTRIB 12 May 1978:17). Perhaps she was not far off the mark since the median price for a 1,655 ft2 home in 1978 was $55,700 (Anderson 2021). KCC based their offer on values set by the State Tax Commission (SLTRIB 12 May 1978:17) which does not necessarily reflect the value of the home on the open market. However, sellers who were unhappy with their offer had the option to have their home re-appraised at KCC’s expense. Grabner and others chose to hold out and keep on fighting. (SLTRIB 12 May 1978:17).
Although the national media focused on Grabner, she was only one of many residents who were in the fight against KCC. Many onlookers were on their side, but not all (DUC. 23 May 1978:4). Rick Hall of The Daily Utah Chronicle called it a melodrama where the “little ol’ lady”, Grabner, had cast herself as the damsel in distress fighting the villainous KCC. Hall stated that KCC’s offer was more than fair and that “anyone who has ever been to Lark and seen the houses there,” knows that Grabner’s “demand is totally absurd” (DUC 16 May 1978:4). In July 1978, Grabner was still living in Lark, but had accepted the inevitable and was looking for a place in the valley; a permanent place since she stated that she was “too old to move again” (JVS 6 July 1978:1). Today (2022), the majority of the Lark townsite has been reclaimed with the exception of the large brick Lark Hospital, the remnants of the Bingham and Mascotte Tunnel portals and associated mining infrastructure, and the large green water tower.
Hilda Grabner passed away on May 21, 1990, at the age of 93 at her daughter’s home in Murray, Utah. She left behind her daughter and her husband, four grandchildren, and eight great-grandchildren (Obituary 1990). The epitaph on her headstone best sums up the spirit of this diminutive firebrand.
“Joan of Lark”
Selected Newspaper Clippings