ABOUT THE THUNDERBIRD
We're celebrating 92 years at our location in Mt. Carmel, all dating back to Jack and Fern Morrison's arrival at the junction of State Route 9 and Highway 89. We're grateful to the family, friends, staff, and customers that make up the heart of Thunderbird. It's true we have an amazing location and a long history, but it's the people that make our crossroads a high desert paradise. Thank you, truly, and here's to many more years to come!
St. George News, June 14, 2020
The Thunderbird’s founders were Jack and Fern Morrison.
Jack Morrison was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1891. His mother died when he was only 8 years old. It was a difficult time for Morrison’s family. While still a young man, Jack caught a train to Wyoming to work in the coal mines there. Coal mining, not surprisingly, was a dangerous profession – the work included digging tunnels and laying track for mine cars, among other tasks.
In 1917, Jack was drafted into the army to fight in Europe after the United States’ entry into World War I. In the army, he learned about building roads and rail lines.
Fern Hanson was born in 1907 to Danish immigrants in Bear River City, Utah, growing up the oldest of nine children living in a two-room log cabin heated by a cast-iron wood-burning stove. She was a miniature mother to her siblings and did a lot of chores around her family’s farm, from milking the cows to building the fires on which they would cook. Her family later moved to Soldier Summit, and then Springville where she secured employment as a model for J.C. Penney.
It was also in Springville where one of her friends set her up on a blind date with Jack Morrison, which was a “scandalous adventure,” according to Fern.
After the date, her friend asked what she thought of Mr. Morrison, to which she smiled and let out a loud laugh, saying “I was plum disgusted with him.”
After the date, however, it seemed that wherever she was, Jack was there, too. After a three-month courtship, the pair were married in October 1926.
It is unclear what brought the couple down Highway 89 in Jack’s Model T. It could have been the scenery or just the sense of adventure. Or it could have been that better roads were being constructed to connect three national parks: Zion, Bryce Canyon and the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, and Jack knew about building roads.
The story goes that while exploring the area Jack tied a tree to the bumper of his Model T to prevent the automobile from careening off the steep road still under construction between Highway 89 and Zion. Jack foresaw that road creating supply lines and using his veteran benefits decided to homestead 160 acres right where the new road would connect with Highway 89.
It was a risky proposition, but Jack and Fern built a small cabin just east of Highway 89 near the Virgin River. They started their family and began to improve the property to gain ownership.
Developing the land was a challenge at first as the road washed out whenever the river flooded. Ingenious Jack utilized the runoff to the family’s advantage, building it up to help stabilize the area. Soon, the Morrisons built a gas station across the road from their home to service the travelers along Highway 89 and the completed state Route 9 into Zion National Park. Fern baked fruit-filled pies and treated the truck drivers to a slice when they stopped in. Soon she was selling pies to a regular crowd of truck drivers.
In 1940, the couple decided to build the Thunderbird Cafe and Restaurant, complete with a horseshoe counter. Starting another business was yet another risk and Jack had to take a job with the railroad to help the family get by.
On July 27, 1942, tragedy struck when the couple’s oldest daughter, Joyce, got stuck in the strong undertow of the Virgin River and her younger brother, Jackie, dove in to save her. Both children drowned.
Fern soldiered on in running the business and attending to their two younger children in Jack’s absence. Jack sold off parts of the family’s land during World War 2 and took jobs as an electrical engineer at Hoover Dam and an engineer for the Union Pacific Railroad to help make ends meet. The couple added on to the restaurant and gas station as profits allowed. The more customers they had, the more improvements they made, including adding restrooms and a curio shop.
It was during this time that Jack came up with the famous “pie girl” icon, modeled after his sweetheart. On the sign adorned by this female pie-holding beauty, the name was changed from the correctly-spelled “homemade” to “ho-made” because wood was scarce during the war and there wasn’t enough room on the sign for the extra two letters.
Being out in the country, the folksier-sounding, shortened version was a winner. These days the family embraces the controversy of that shortened sign as a fun part of their heritage.
In the late 1950s, Jack was diagnosed with cancer, most likely brought on from his days working in the coal mines. He passed away in 1961. At the time of his death, Fern was only 54 years old. With the loss of her husband, Fern could have easily given up and sold everything but she was a strong and hardworking woman with a keen business sense.
When her water rights were threatened, not wanting to raise cattle or grow crops, she built a nine-hole golf course behind the gas station and restaurant. Later, realizing that she could attract overnight visitors, she built hotel rooms.
Before her death in 1993, she remodeled the restaurant, gas station and gift shop and added more motel rooms. She kept Jack’s memory alive by keeping the original structures and building around them. For instance, the Riverside Lodge across the street from the restaurant and motel was built around their original homestead cabin where Fern gave birth to her children.
The Morrisons’ descendants still own and operate the restaurant, lodge, and golf course.
The Thunderbird Resort is a monument to Jack’s foresight and Fern’s courage and determination.
The property still includes a gas station, the very business that started it all.