Cinco de Mayo celebrations may not be the only fiestas going on in Family City USA as today marks 90 years to the day that the city of Orem was incorporated.

As early as 1861, settlers from Provo made their way up to off-site homestead farms and orchards in what would become Orem (but for many more decades was called the Provo Bench), said longtime Orem resident Clyde E. Weeks, Jr., a journalist, historian and, for 40 years, the city's postmaster.

But it wasn't until May 5, 1919 that the city of Orem was officially established, he said.

"Brigham Young settled Provo, but not Orem, because there was no water," Weeks said.

Though Orem is an older community in Utah Valley, it's still relatively young, Orem Mayor Jerry Washburn said. The city started as an agricultural area, became a steel boomtown during World War II, and more recently became a residential, commercial and educational center in Utah and the state's fifth largest city.

"The nature of the community has changed dramatically. But yet the values and family orientation and ethics for hard work remain the same," he said. "In fact it has an enviable distinction of being a well-run community."

The Thomas Cordner family became the first permanent residents on the bench in 1877, after selling their Provo property, Weeks writes in his history of Orem.

But the story behind the city's name is one of its most interesting but little-known secrets, he writes. It wasn't named after one of its pioneering settlers or a prominent local. And though Orem has many residents who are celebrities and leaders in various fields -- including the musical Osmond family, Orem-Geneva Times founder and U.S. Sen. Arthur V. Watkins, author Orson Scott Card and artist James C. Christensen -- the city wasn't named after any of them.

It was named after a man who never lived in the community at all, Weeks said.

Walter C. Orem was the president of the Salt Lake and Utah Electric Urban Railroad, started in 1914, that linked Salt Lake City with Utah County cities as far south as Payson. Fruit growers on the Provo Bench were looking for a distinctive name for the community, Weeks wrote. Among the suggested names were Timpanogos, Sharon and Canyon City.

"The strategy in using the name Orem was that it would be a high honor to Mr. Orem, and that the community might receive some worthwhile favors from the railway promoter who lived in Salt Lake City," Weeks wrote. "Mr. Orem was properly impressed. He bought a 40-acre townsite in the 800 North State Street area, hoping that the town would centralize there."

Orem died at the age of 78 on August 27, 1951 in Salt Lake City.

Weeks said it is unusual how Orem came to be developed, because it wasn't an organized settlement of the LDS Church. Because the city was spread out from north to south along State Street with competing interests at both ends, in 1945, the entire strip, from 2000 North to 2000 South, was zoned commercial.

"With the influx of the Geneva Steel population, in 1951, 8,000 people live in Orem," he said.

Over 4,400 trailers were brought in to house those who came from all over the nation to work at the steel mill, and that, along with the University Mall in the early 1970s, led to the city's population and commercial shopping boom in subsequent decades, Weeks said.

"It would probably be another Fairview if not for Geneva Steel," he said. "That was the catalyst."

Joyce Johnson, Orem's first female mayor and currently the city's Neighborhoods in Action coordinator, said Orem's 90th birthday is special in many ways. The city's incorporation led to the city's first water system, a vast series of irrigation canals that can still be seen today.

For nearly 50 years, Washburn said, Orem and Provo formed a major agricultural production center for the region.

"Our city fathers have seen to it ever since then that Orem had adequate water, much more than surrounding towns," Johnson said.

Johnson moved to Orem with her husband in 1965 and raised their children here. Her kids' favorite memories of growing up in Orem include the alliance the city had with the Sharon Community Educational and Recreational Association, or SCERA, that offered children everything from sports activities to drama productions.

"And of course the library has played a very important role in my kids' lives and many more children," she said.

And even though the city has grown to over 90,000 people, Johnson said Orem still retains a "small-town flavor" that's hard to find in comparably sized cities. City leaders planned and set aside land for a park near every elementary school built in Orem. The relatively new Orem Fitness Center and swimming pool have also added to the city's family-oriented lifestyle.

"The parks we have in the city are second to none," Johnson said.

Washburn said the city's quality of life has continued to improve over the years as recognized by major national publications that routinely name Orem as one of the safest and best places to live in America.

Residents place a premium on education, a fact reflected by Orem students' high test scores in the Alpine School District, and by the city's close association with Utah Valley University and Brigham Young University, he said.

"Many of our residents are students at those institutions, and faculty and staff," Washburn said.

Volunteerism is also a hallmark of the Orem's heritage. He said the city's residents have long displayed a strong spirit of community service, and the service of many volunteers to the city's library and public safety department "literally saves the city thousands of dollars every year."

Weeks recently published a volume entitled "City of Orem: Millennial History, 1861-2009," that includes historical facts and photos of the city. It also has a biography of each the city's 20 mayors, and 63 city newsletters he authored between 1974 and 1980, titled "City of Orem Happenings." Last week, he presented four copies of the 400-page tome to Washburn to be donated to the Orem Public Library.

"We are indebted to him for being our city historian," Washburn said. "I know Clyde well. He's a wonderful citizen. ... He's really done a lot in preserving our history."

The city is planning some commemorative events in observance of its 90th birthday for later this month and during June's upcoming Orem Summerfest, he said.


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