Jim Kemple Shares Great-Grandfather’s History
At 10 a.m. Tuesday, January 10 2012, twenty or so history buffs from the Washington County Historical Society met with BLM staff at the historic Orson B. Adams house, located in the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, to hear a very special oral history program. Mr. Jim Kemple, a retired FAA Air Traffic Controller, described the life and accomplishments of his great-grandfather, John Kemple, the discoverer of the famous 19th century Silver Reef Mining District of Washington County, Utah. The Silver Reef District produced more than 7 million ounces of silver ore during its boom years, between 1976 and 1988.
Jim Kemple related the long and exciting life of his great-grandfather, sharing family stories and photographs. John Kemple was born in West Virginia in 1935, but left home at the tender age of 15, after having an argument with his step-mom, and headed to the California gold fields, as a 49er. As a California prospector, he made just enough money to sustain himself, but never got rich. He made his first trip to Southern Utah in 1866, stopping overnight in the small Mormon agricultural settlement of Harrisburg, about 15 miles north of modern day St. George, Utah.
He rented a room with the Orson Adams family, to which Jim said “I wonder which room he took,” looking around at the two rooms that make up the entirety of the small native stone residence. John Kemple already knew there was some silver in the area as he’d found some while panning in Ash Creek, but he didn’t believe there to be much. In 1874, he filed his 1st claim with Washington County: “it shall be known as the Pride of the West Ledge and Kemple Company.” That same year, 39 year-old John Kemple married 18 year-old Amelia Leicht.
In 1876, John Kemple had his first son: John Orson Kemple, perhaps named after Orson Adams whom he had a good relationship with. He joined the Mormon church, but was never active. After living in Beaver for 8 years, and having 3 more children, John Kemple moved back to Silver Reef with his family in 1885, where he had one last child. His wife left him, being sick of the constant prospecting, as he continued to look for silver in Arizona. He eventually came back to the Silver Reef area where he lived with a variety of his grown children. He died at the ripe age of 82 in 1918, possibly due to arthritis, according to Jim.
The tour continued up the road, where Jim pointed out the area where John Kemple staked and developed his first claim. The mine was about 15 feet deep, but no silver ore was ever found. No one knows what made John Kemple decide to mine there, but prospectors generally look for discoloration of the rock, which can indicate the presence of various elements, depending on the color.
“John Kemple led, what I think, is a pretty exciting life. I can’t comprehend how a 15 year old would leave home; but he just saddled his horse, hopped on, and rode off,” said Jim Kemple.
The BLM and Washington County Historical Society hope in the future to develop a trail system going from the Red Cliffs NCA to Silver Reef, providing interpretive signs along the way.
The BLM St. George Field Office is currently searching for docents to allow the Adams House to be open on certain days every month, and to provide historical information to visitors. If you are interested, please call Ben Cramer at 435-688-3354.