Grandpa’s Hat

Ron Madson practices law with his son, Josh and daughter in law Cheryl in an restored pioneer home on main street Alpine. They could not find any photos of the pioneers that first built the home in 1870 so they put up a dozen pictures of their own ancestors in the reception area and make up stories as to who they were and what they did depending on the audience and as the occasion dictates.

“Rings the bells…forget your perfect offering, there is a crack in everything—that’s how the light gets in”
–Leonard Cohen

My father died nearly four years ago. I inherited from him many of my grandfather’s church books—one published as far back as 1846. I knew my grandfather was a bookophile– collecting, reading and leaving his underlining/commentary throughout his books. While surveying these books, I unexpectedly found his missionary journal. I didn’t know he kept one and his worn leather journal had entries for every single day of his mission from October of 1906 to October of 1908 in the Northern States Mission. Grandpa’s mission had been an inspiration for the Madson clan. His progeny knew by heart the story of Grandpa’s hat. While serving his mission he encountered a great deal of religious bigotry and persecution. He and a group of Elders were holding an evening meeting in a barn with one single light bulb. During the meeting someone shot out the light bulb. Elder Madson got another light bulb and while trying to install it he was suddenly shot in the head. He was immediately taken to a nearby hospital. Days passed and he was not getting better and in fact getting worse. His mission president came to the hospital to give him a blessing. The mission president through inspiration realized that the medical staff was giving Grandpa Madson poison. He was taken from the hospital and fully recovered. The story was further reinforced when the Madson family could produce the very bullet-holed hat that he was wearing at the time. This faith promoting story had left a mark with all of us.

My first impulse was to race through the pages and find this wonderful account. However, for some reason I felt restrained as I held what I considered a sacred family text that for all intents and purposes had just been unearthed. Sensing a duty to share it with the entire Madson tribe, I decided to immediately start typing each page until I had transcribed the entire record and then surprise them by sending copies to all my extended family as a Christmas gift—my Grandfather being born on December 23rd so stories of Grandpa, Joseph Smith and Jesus were all wrapped together at Madson Christmas parties. I was only reading the pages that I transcribed and anxiously awaiting for the miraculous story to unfold—more than enough motivation as I waded through endless days of Grandpa writing about the rain, rejection, and no noticeable success other then selling a Book of Mormon now and again. The transcribing of days, weeks and months passed by quickly and I waited with anticipation believing that maybe it would be the next page that would reveal Grandpa’s story. Then I read and typed an account of him and his companion going to a home and a man coming to the door pointing a shotgun at them telling them to get off his property. Then about two weeks after that incident he recorded that someone threw a rock at him causing a cut on his head. He went to the hospital to have it dressed. Meanwhile, the Mission President was also taken to the hospital because of an attack of appendicitis. They were both treated and recovered. Could it be?

I plowed forward transcribing each day now guardedly optimistic that the story involving the bullet ridden hat and the spiritual intervention would appear. Page after page Grandpa Madson doggedly persisted in his missionary efforts. He defended polygamy (he stated: “all they ever want to talk about is polygamy”) as best as a young missionary could at that time. He defended Joseph Smith and our church history. He studied the gospel and read everything he could get this hands on. He went door to door and walked long distances from town to town with little purse and even less scrip. He became a battle worn missionary who would not give up no matter how much his message was rejected or misunderstood. I came to the last few pages and finished the work—transcribing his exact words that he recorded every single day with spelling and grammatical errors left intact. I was pleased to have completed this gift for the Madsons, but I had a certain melancholy realizing that the inspiring story involving Grandpa’s hat was most likely a melding of the gun incidence, his head being hit by a rock, and meeting the mission president at the hospital. It seems that over the decades all of us had, quite naturally, contributed to taking ordinary events and stitching them together to create an inspiring story. In my opinion, there was never any intentional fabrication, but simply the fertile mix of human nature, religious expression and time.

I called our families’ genealogist/historian Aunt to tell her the good news about having the missionary journal and it being completely transcribed. I told her that I needed all the e-mail addresses of aunts/uncles/cousins, etc. She was really thrilled. Before sending it to her and others in cyberspace I asked her about Grandpa’s Hat story. She enthusiastically confirmed the story. I then told her that the story may very well be a patching together of a few events over a three week period—and I explained to her why I believed that the hat story is most likely an embellishment. She went stone silent on the other end of the phone. Then suddenly she protested: “ You are wrong. I know that it happened—we have the hat with the hole in it.” I knew better then to contend with such a noble and strong matriarch’s testimony. I thanked her for her assistance and we talked family and then after entering dozens of e-mail addresses I pushed “send.” Now the only actual first hand account of William Hyrum Madson is out there for anyone who wants to read the word for word daily record written by his very hand.

My grandfather returned from his mission, married grandma, had six children and though of small means created a large personal library consisting of all kinds of church and secular histories and great literature. His written high council talks reflected his love of learning and desire to know the truth. My father, his oldest son, told me that Grandpa was always searching to know everything he could about his and his families faith and heritage, that he believed that “Mormonism is truth and truth is Mormonism,” that “in Mormonism we are only required to believe that which is true,” and that if something is true then we embrace it and if not then we discard it. My father inherited his father’s beliefs and books and now they are in my possession.

My home is a home where books and questions are welcomed. So now everyday people and historians are pushing the “send” button making available previously “hidden” books, journals, and original histories/documents that have been shelved and, prior to the internet, accessible to only a few. Once being habituated to wanting to “know things” it is only natural to fire up the “search engine,” but I have found that by accepting these offerings one enters the Faustian deal where there is no going back. I sometimes envy those who manage to have their hats, stories and testimonials intact and untouchable by new “facts.” There is so much comfort, peace and inspiration in Grandpa’s hat story. My first and most immature impulse has been and still is to make sure that everyone knows, as I have discovered, the “real story,” but with the passing of time I now believe that the real miracle is not to be found in what may or may not be the completely authentic stories in his life or the ones we tell each other, but in recognizing the legacy of my grandfather’s virtue, goodness, and fidelity to faith and family not only during his mission but throughout his life—without which the power and influence of the stories we have shared or will share lose their meaning.

But it is my lot to have inherited from my grandfather the journal and not the hat. I also inherited his belief that the truth is the “fairest of gem that the riches of world can produce” and that in the end it will prevail. So what I consider the real story is now in cyberspace so if any family member cares enough to actually read it then they can draw their own conclusions without my assistance. Soon enough in this age of information where the simplest “internet ploughboy” has at his disposals original sources some, if not many, of our myths and stories that we tell each other in family settings, community, church, and our national tribe will continue to be eroded or totally lost—whether we like it or not. Because the power of myths (real or not) are essential to all families, communities and nations some, or perhaps many, may understandably want to protest any new information, call it a lie, and demand allegiance to a certain story/myth while others will insist that it be given up. Patience, listening to each other and wisdom will be needed. However, recriminations back and forth may just be the inevitable transition process where something must die so that something new and better can take its place. For I believe we will find in the end a paradigm shift where we grow into a much more mature, nuanced and profound faith—less tribal, more inclusive and far less dependent on sensational, unsupportable claims that we might feel compelled to spend our whole life’s mission defending despite the evidence. So Grandpa’s hat has a hole in it. So do many stories we tell each other, but we should appreciate the holes in our individual and collective hats— for that is how the light gets in.


  1. Kevin Barney says:

    I really enjoyed this, Ron; thanks.

  2. Julie M. Smith says:
  3. Lovely, thanks.

    My brother just transcribed my father’s mission journal and I’m eagerly waiting to see if his famous story about a GA drinking a coke is true or not. (My father is still alive and claims it is. However, like GC, I’m waiting for the written record.)

  4. I love this post with every fiber of my being.

    (Have you provided a copy of your transcription — with a scan, ideally — to the church archives? Pretty please?)

  5. Funny how people get so attached to family folklore. When I started doing family history research online I found out a lot of the family stories I’d been told were untrue. I’ve tried to fill my dad in on the inaccuracies but he just clings to the old stories.

  6. I guess it’s human nature to prefer stories that prove our point over stories that are only factual.

  7. fabulous, thanks for sharing! i’m doing the same thing right now, but no one’s particularly interested. a future generation will hopefully thank us someday…

  8. Ron Madson says:

    #1-4,7 thanks for the kind remarks

    #4 Ardis, I have not provided a copy of the journal to the church archives. I have no idea how to do so?? Also, do they even want such journals and if so why?

    #5 Susan…I used to want to set things “straight” all the time and now only part of the time. I am mellowing out somewhat…

    #7 Anita…sometimes it can be a thankless job. I was surprised that only one cousin read a part of it. I think future Anita types will appreciate your efforts.

    Of course this post I shared is just a type of something larger that many of us struggle with. As Mr. Campbell taught us the power of myths is something to be carefully reckoned with imo. I have been struggling for a few years with histories be they religious and secular. I am still conflicted. However, I wonder if there are two large questions to be asked as to each myth: One is whether it is “true” or false or somewhere in between, and the second, is does it promote good or bad behavior individually and collectively For example, I am doing an essay on the DC 98 and the Missouri Land Wars. Is it a good or bad to have myth(s) that support the belief that we were chased out of Missouri because we were always the good guys and the Missourians were the bad guys? And secondly, is that what really happened? For me I believe in that case it is important to deconstruct the myths that we were thrown out because we were always the righteous group (anti-slavery, faithful, kind to neighbors and always justified in our activities even to point that the counter-attacks by Danites were heroic/etc.). Why? Because if we do not then we do not learn more likely it was our failure to heed the words of Christ (DC 98) that was the REAL source of our loss of Zion and not because of the myths we created to justify all that we did. So in that case the myths are in part false and largely unhealthy, ie, the “us v. them” mentality that led to retaliation on our part. THen there are myths that might be false but are inclusive, promote charity etc. ( Santa Claus stories while not “true” promote charitable feelings and inclusive—all children in world get presents).

    So maybe there needs to be myth/story chart that weighs true/false and good/bad.

  9. Ron, the church *loves* missionary diaries. Everybody knew to save pioneer stuff, but nobody thought past that point for many years — by the time they did, this later Mormon material had started to become scarce. They want your grandfather’s diary because of what it says about missionary labors, and church organization, and local members, and anything else, outside the centers of the church in a period that is not well documented. They want it because it is a primary record of a Mormon life. And sometimes the owners of diaries don’t have any idea that some apparently trivial sentences on page 84 is exactly what is needed to solve some puzzle.

    The best and easiest way, since you live fairly local to Salt Lake, is to bring the diary into the new Church History Library on North Temple at Main Street. Ask the security guard or anybody at the library desk for help — they’ll call someone from the Acquisitions department who will come down almost instantly. If you’ll loan them the diary for a couple of weeks, they’ll scan it in a professional way that will avoid damaging the book, then give the book back to you along with a digital copy if you want it. They’ll make the scan available to researchers in the library, along with your transcription (and a life sketch, and any other church-related papers you might have pertaining to his life) — and they’ll love you for it. You won’t believe the thrill you get the first time you see your grandfather’s words quoted in some article and realize that he’s become a recognized part of church history.

    Although you’ve already made the diary available to your grandfather’s descendants, most people won’t have done that — putting the original or a scan in the church archives makes it available to all of a diarist’s descendants in future generations.

    If you’re willing to donate a scan but it isn’t convenient for you to come in to Salt Lake, please email me at AEParshall *at* aol *dot* com and I’ll suggest some alternatives.

  10. Ah, another story like this:

    My great grandmother was on one of the last wagon trains to enter the valley. After leaving Edinburgh she walked across the plains. Her story was of starting the trip with no shoes, they were poor, and praying and finding shoes on a willow tree next to the Plat River and having shoes to cross the plains.

    This story was confirmed at a 24th picnic by a family whose ancestor had disobeyed his father and gone wading and lost his shoes. Close to the same time and place. Neat dovetail.

    However, I was digging through a box of old papers from my mother before she died at 101, and found a three page summary of my great grandmother’s life as she recounted it either from her own lips or from her own hand, no date but likely late in life. She recounted in print that she had lost her shoes coming down Emigration Canyon and had to walk the last miles without shoes. No mention of the prayer and miles and the miraculous.

    What do you do? What do you say? I think my great grandmother wanted it to be true. If she wanted it, who is to say that she did not fully believed it while she was talking? I asked my mother if her grandmother had really told this story. She affirmed it and said she told it on numerous occasions.

    Paul Dunn, any one? Embellishment for a good cause?

  11. I think that there might be no agenda behind myths it could just be that the story gets told and gets retold and overtime turns into something else and I just chalk it up to good old human nature and the fallibility of our memories

  12. RE: #9

    Yes, yes to what Ardis says! This is how real, full history is preserved and made to live, by recognizing, protecting, and then making it widely available in all its bits & pieces.

  13. Ron Madson says:

    #9, #12 Thank Ardis for the suggestion and detail. I will personally deliver a transcript as suggested. I see your point as to how little details can be a piece of the puzzle not only in the macro sense but also for our individual families. On the macro level my grandfather was serving his mission during the Smoot hearings. That explains the seemingly endless discussions regarding polygamy. BH Roberts visited his mission and taught them. I am sure that had an impact on him

    There is another personal story I might try to frame someday but not sure how to approach it. My mother always told us that the name John D Lee could never be spoken in her home. I thought it was some general aversion to MMM. However, I found out just six months ago that my ggggrandfather, William Alma Young was a participant at MMM. He testified at the trial of JD Lee and died two months later. His involvement or non-involvement from his perspective left a huge impact on the alienation and inactivity on my mother’s side for generations and tremendous distrust of authority. That is another story for another time—but extremely conflicting accounts.
    We are all a product of so many threads/stories

    #11 Rick, I agree that there is no personal agenda in such stories as in this post. It is just the way it is—not sure about institutional stories or such things as “Remember the Maine” or in my generation the Gulf of Tonkin story—

  14. As Heavenly Father will later attest and which you so richly concluded, the goodness of our lives far outweighs the stories told about us. Thanks for sharing.

  15. I think there is an “agenda” for these stories__ the Church wanted members to write stories that showed faith. This is good and bad for we who use the stories in our Mormon Family Histories. Good_ in that it gives, us great material, bad because some is just not true. I just begin: “A faith story is told….

  16. As to there being no personal agenda behind the myths and the changes simply being the fallibility of our memories,as Cameron suggests:

    Yes, human memories are fallible. But let’s never forget what great and creative story-tellers human beings are.
    Given the choice between Version A–“The king died, and then the queen died”–and Version B–“The king died, and then the queen died of a broken heart”–most of us will opt for Version B. We seek to find meaning wherever we can, and often we shape the stories we tell to reflect the personal meaning we have found, or would like to find.

    Of course some researchers must do their very best to find out “what really happened” (though even a videotape could not fully reveal such ‘reality’). But other researchers explore what the story-tellers WANTED to happen, and how their stories reflect their fervent desires and values. Both are immensely valuable.

  17. Good thing you didn’t transcribe Jonah’s journal. Otherwise the whole whale swallowing thing would have been revealed to be, “And the sailors straightway stuffed Jonah into the sack of dirty laundry and cast him overboard where he awoke on the shore after three days time.”

    Then what would the Savior have had to say? “Like Jonah in the sack of dirty socks….”

  18. Ron Madson says:


    #16 Good point—I used to be bogged down on getting the facts/reality/truth—but there is a “truth” as to what values a person, family and society have as reflected in their stories–whether fictional or not. The problem lies as #15 Bob pointed out is when in our age of information we find they are not true. Then what?
    We have a faith that is very focused on an almost legalistic authentication of everything coupled with throwing down the gauntlet by asserting “It is either all true or all false.” This false dichotomy should be tempered by the reality that it is impossible to expect all our historical facts/assertions to hold up–nor, I would argue, should they especially when they reinforce an “us v them” or tribalistic viewpoint that is less then charitable or prevent us from being repenting, being introspective, and then evolving into a more Christcentric, inclusive faith

    Joseph Campbell has a point to a degree as to myths being derailed by facts:

    “Every religion is true one way or another. It is true when understood metaphorically. But when it gets stuck in its own metaphors, interpreting them as facts, then you are in trouble.
    Joseph Campbell ”

    Our family history I should mention trots out other stories/myths such as BY’s transfiguration into Joseph Smith. The problem lies when these stories begin to unravel with facts. Then what? How do we react? Do we need new stories or maybe find deeper meaning beyond the sensational?

  19. #9 Ardis, thanks for pointing this out. I know that my MIL benefited hugely from journals available at the Church History Library, and she was able to set right some of the family fables about early church ancestors.

    Ron, a lovely story of discovery. Thanks for sharing it.

  20. mary j ane fritzen says:

    Dear Ron,
    This is the first time I have replied to a blog. It was referred to me by my daughter as she said it reminded her of my “wagonbox prophecy” story which Journal of Mormon History published recently. As you have aptly written, research identifies sources which may pinpoint the facts supporting a myth, and the word “myth” is not a bad word. Thank you.
    Mary Jane

  21. stories, true ones, should be guarded jealously, but there is a danger in creating and defending stories that are false. I believe that certain myths and narratives need to be deconstructed, need to be destroyed, in order to unbury the truth covered with myths.

    Not all myths are bad or evil but many of the myths we share can be whether we are discussing national myths or religious myths. When we delve into history and face inconvenient facts we should not be afraid. We should be willing to ask what myths have we created as a culture in order to justify ourselves, an institution, etc at the expense of others. What myths still persist about our national, religious, or other history that inhibits us from making real change and progress.

    The word myth comes from Greek muthos meaning to close or keep secret. Unlike myths (selective stories that keep things secret), truth telling means not forgetting and not covering up lies. The truth that will set us free (John 8:32) is called aletheia in the scriptures. This comes from the root letho meaning to forget. the “a” at the beginning negates the forgetting. In other words, truth means to not forget, to not build cairns, to not tell stories that explain why we are good but to tell true stories. This will set us free. Free to change and repent. If a culture is good we should defend it, but wherein it has erred we should engage in repentance or metanoia as the NT uses the word (literally change your mind, your story, your narrative). Indeed, changing our narrative and paradigm is an essential part of repentance. We should be able to hear the words of John, change your paradigm, change your narrative/story, change your way of seeing things, for the kingdom of God is at hand (Matt 3:2).

    Granted a story about a hat seems to not rise to the level of the dangerous myths I allude to but it is illustrative of the way that myths arise.

  22. Thanks so much for this excellent post. I’ll be thinking about this one for a while.

  23. Ron Madson says:

    #20, Mary Jane, I was not aware of the Wagon Box Prophecy until you mentioned it and I looked it up. How does one access your article? I do agree with you that “myth” has been, unfortunately, given a negative connotation. I do agree with J. Madson that myths can be either evil or good or something in between.

    #22 Back Row. I think J. Madson hit in the head, ie, how do we approach myths, histories, and, more importantly, knowing when it is better to deconstruct or leave alone. However, the problem with non-factually based myths or stories is that they have within them the seeds of their own dissembling–then what? Not to thread-jack my own post but this topic branches off into what I consider the most profound topic and that is what did Christ come to deconstruct, ie, “it has been written of old” or “it has been said of old” but I am here to tell you it is not so and to deconstruct all the myths that require you to shed blood of anyone or anything to please God. His parables/ teachings were the ultimate “subversive speech” in that he became the “the way, the truth, light and the WORD” as Josh pointed out in #21.
    So now we have myths/stories that create division as evidenced in the BOM where two narratives kept whole people/nations in a state of perpetual violence. Those kind cry from the dust to be deconstructed and not mimicked–yet we still seem to want to do the later.

    anyway, very interesting topic to first consider what Joseph Campbell is telling us about myths and then how Girard takes it to the next step and tells us how Christ comes not to mimic myths but to put them to an end–break down all barriers between all people

  24. Thank you for the interesting and thoughtful post. BTW, who were the pioneers who built the home in which you practice law?

  25. Ron Madson says:

    #24 Justin,

    Thomas Brown and his family built it in 1870 (as I have been told). The home was just one room and a loft and then a wing was added in 1890, and then in 1940 the back end was added (we know that date because when we were pulling up the old floor we found old newspapers dated November of 1940 as padding. There was also a cellar. An old timer in Alpine came by the office and told us that someone died and someone was born on the kitchen table (now our conference room). He also told us that the cellar was where whiskey was made—“no matter what they tell you in Sunday school around here, they made whiskey.” We have kept intact in the back the shed where the milk wagons picked up the milk. We had a picture of the house before it was blanketed in new brick about 30 years ago, but that is it. The original owners grandson, Bi

  26. Ron Madson says:

    …Bill Knudson lives in my ward and is the source of this information.

  27. Ron,

    This was a great post. I’ve had a few similar adventures as I’ve dived into my own family history of late. For me, the wonderful part of this is that we get to know these ancestors that otherwise are just names on a pedigree chart, or the story told at family reunions. My research led me to writing an article about the 1873 Arizona mission to the Little Colorado. What a ride that has been, and it has drawn me closer to my great-grandparents.

    I can’t begin to tell you how important the diaries and journals of others have been to this research, as my great grandmother left four typewritten pages of her story, and my great grandfather nothing. Through the many journals of others I’ve read, I feel I have gotten to know these folks. I’ve come to really sense the spirit of Elijah in this work, and and also how much fun it can be. Do put the transcript in the CHL.

    Mary Jane, I read your article about the “Wagon Box” prophecy, and thoroughly enjoyed it. Sometimes some simple curiosity and a question can lead to great things.

    Thanks again for sharing this story, Ron. It made my day, which at work has been mostly craptacular.

  28. I’ll echo Ardis’ suggestion. I spend a great deal of time looking for unpublished journals of missionaries who served in Tennessee. I am sure there are many who would be fascinated by your grandfathers journal. Seemingly unimportant references may mean a great deal to right person.

  29. Ron Madson says:


    Good advice. Have you read the biographical account of Alfred Young and his brother William Young’s missionary adventures? I am a descendant of William Young and have a copy of the biographical account of Alfred Young and their wild,crazy missionary adventures in Tennessee–and of course their run in with JD Lee–seems the Youngs could not shake him there and then again in Southern Utah.
    I am just finding this stuff out…

  30. I transcribed the missionary journals of both sets of grandparents last year – but these were senior couples serving 1979-1981 or so. Still, fascinating stuff. Very interesting to see how the Church leadership has learned from past “mistakes”. For example, they opened a new temple in Brazil but then ended up having very few local family ancestry names available for temple work. So, when they were getting ready to build the Santiago Chile temple, they had my grandparents there working all through the country on four-generation group sheets. Then, when the temple opened, there was a lot more local interest in attending.

    Plus, by transcribing, I was able to make sure that the journal would almost be “eternal”. When it’s saved on fifteen hard drives around the country, there’s far less chance of a single disaster or fire destroying the entire journal.

  31. Matt Thorley says:


    Many years ago I played church basketball for a ward team in Las Vegas. I remember playing your ward team and being frustrated with you and Ron Frutrell, because even though there was no question that your team would win, you never seemed to be able to dial down the intensity.

    Sometime after that I heard you were called to be a Bishop and I thought, “not that guy”. However, sometime after that I happened to be on the Young Women’s 4th year hike with you. We were bringing up the rear keeping the stragglers in front of us, so we had a lot of time to talk. I remember being enthralled the entire time by your knowledge and stories. Reading this blog entry reminded me of that. Thank you. And I hope I have the same Ron Madson.

    By the way I saw Ron at a luncheon for Sharon Angle last week and mentioned the basketball. We were all sure a lot younger then.

  32. Very interesting post and comments. I have been trying to figure out how to treat one of these legends about my grandmother’s grandfather which appears to be a combination of at least two stories. The legend is more dramatic in its combined form, but both stories about the early Southern States Mission are interesting in their own right.

  33. Ron Madson says:

    #31—Hi Matt! I do remember that 4th year hike. I am “that” Ron Madson but hopefully that the “same” pathological Ron that played church ball…
    Good to hear from you…assume your still in LV and I am still telling “stories”….

  34. B Hofheins says:

    Ron. Like the story. I had an experience a few years ago that was somewhat opposite of yours. I attended a fireside on the Mormon Battalion. I had always heard that my gggrandpa was a member of the Mormon Battalion, so I was very interested in the presentation. After the presentation, the host asked the question, “Who has a ancestor in the Mormon Battalion?” A few of us raised our hands and we gave the name of the person we were related to. He had a roster of all the members of the Battalion, and he looked up each name to see what company they would have been a part of. My gggrandpa was the only one that was listed. The others had somehow erroneously thought they were related to a Mormon Battalion member. I was relieved to confirm that J. Hofheins was indeed a Captain in the Battalion and his lieutenant was Bro. Sabin.

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