Lex Chamberlain looks pretty much like you’d expect with a name like that: Tall and lanky, a shock of gray hair escaping from his black cowboy hat. His jeans are worn, and he wears a huge turquoise and silver horse that pulls together his bolo tie. Chamberlain is a fourth-generation Utah Mormon who inherited his father’s business — a 7,000-square-foot cave filled with dozens of multi-colored, luminescent rocks, arrowheads, plant and animal fossils, and replicas of dinosaur teeth.
Moqui Cave, about five miles northwest of Kanab on Highway 89, was once a nightclub frequented by 1950s cowboy film stars who often were in the area making Westerns. (Kanab country is the backdrop for dozens of old and current films.) Now, the cave is a favorite tourist attraction for people on their way in or out of Zion National Park.
The exterior of the cave is a replica of ancient area cliff dwellings, and though there is some debate about this, many believe that “Moqui” is an ancient term that refers to the Hopi peoples who once inhabited the area.
The interior of this sandstone cave can be 30 degrees cooler than a scorching Southern Utah day. The thermometer was well on its way to 90-plus when we visited on a recent mid-September morning. We found the $5 admission fee worth it, and not just for the collectibles. It was Lex Chamberlain’s family history that grabbed my interest.
From the moment I entered the cave, my eyes kept wandering to the oblong picture frame on the “lobby” wall. We learned that it was a 1914 family portrait of Lex’s great-grandfather, Thomas, five of his six wives and his 55 children. The short story of the Chamberlain clan goes like this: Although Mormons became known for their “plural marriages,” Chamberlain related, only about 3 percent actually practiced polygamy. His great-grandfather, Thomas, was one of these. He also was one of several Mormons directed by church leader Brigham Young in 1875 to fan out across the West and establish towns. (Mormon is the short name for members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints).
Thomas eventually took on six wives (two were sisters), and produced several dozen offspring. Thomas’ sixth wife, Mary Howard Chamberlain, became mayor of Kanab, Utah, in late 1911 and served with an all-female town council for three years.
“This was eight years before women were even allowed to vote in the U.S,” Chamberlain pointed out. “Mary was the first woman mayor in the United States.” Utah actually gave women the right to vote in 1870, “but this was revoked by Congress in 1887 as part of a national effort to rid the territory of polygamy,” according to Utah historian Jean Bickmore White. Women’s right to vote and hold office was restored in 1895, when it was written into the Utah constitution at the time of statehood.
Lex’s grandfather, Guy, was the son of the fourth wife and the 35th child. In the photo, he is a young boy. Lex’s father, Garth (born 1920), bought Moqui Cave in 1951 after serving in World War II and playing for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Garth originally converted the cave into a nightclub. Asked about the dichotomy of being a Mormon who owns a bar, Lex said that his father picked up smoking and drinking as a soldier during World War II, but later returned to the ways of the church. That’s when he converted the cave to a museum, but the amazing nightclub bars and stools, handmade by Garth, are still there. They feature back-lit counters and facing that illuminate slices of multi-colored stone, and are used for display.
Garth also was quite the Renaissance man, according to Lex. Besides being a carpenter, entrepreneur and explorer, Garth was a masterful wood carver and won awards for his bronze sculptures, which are on display.
Lex Chamberlain is at the cave most days to welcome visitors. Call (435) 644-8525 or visit moquicave.com.
Filed Under: Hit the Road