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Before Marriott hotels, there was Marriottsville, Utah

MARRIOTT-SLATERVILLE, Weber County — One hundred and sixty-four years ago, in the summer of 1855, a mountain of a man named John Marriott dropped his wagon hitch into some dusty dirt a mile east of the Great Salt Lake, dug a 3-mile ditch from the Ogden River to the land he intended to farm, built a one-room log house with a sod roof for himself and his wives, and settled down to make a go of it.

Out of deference to his strength, his ditch, or on account of his being the first house — probably all three — they called the settlement Marriottsville.

Seventy-two years after that, in 1927, John Willard Marriott, Big John’s grandson, left the family farm to open a nine-stool root beer stand in Washington, D.C. Over time, that business would evolve into the largest hospitality company on Earth.

In 2019, at more than 7,500 Marriott properties around the world, no less than 760,000 people — a number that exceeds the entire population of northern Utah — wear the Marriott employee name badge on a daily basis.

Of all the success stories that began in Utah, none are larger.

The question, after nearly another 100 years have passed since J. Willard’s departure, is how much of a connection remains to the place where it all started? Do the Marriott roots still run deep in northern Utah? Does anyone remember Big John?

And is the ditch still there?

Bill Morris is city administrator and legal counsel for Marriott-Slaterville. Lee Benson, Deseret News * * * Just north of Ogden on the I-15 freeway, where the speed limit changes from 65 to 75, you’ll see the exit for “Marriott-Slaterville.” About a half-mile east of the freeway, next to a golf course and a fun park, you’ll find the municipal offices. There, an affable 46-year-old lawyer named Bill Morris holds court as the city’s full-time administrator and legal counsel.

Morris knows Marriott-Slaterville. He was born here, grew up here, and after a brief sojourn to the University of Wyoming to get his law degree, settled down here to raise his family.

Morris reports that in many ways, the town is the same as it was in 1855.

For one thing, it’s still very much a farming community — 70% of the landmass remains in agriculture.

And for another thing, all these years later a sizeable number of the town’s 1,700 residents can still lay claim as bona fide Marriott descendants — a result of a) John Marriott having four wives and 30 children, and b) Unlike J. Willard, many of the rather large posterity never chose to leave.

Bill Morris himself is an excellent case in point. He’s a Marriott twice over. His middle name is Marriott. His great-grandmother was Margaret Marriott — one of Big John’s daughters — and she married John Morris, who had a sister named Ellen, who married Margaret’s brother Hyrum.

Hyrum Marriott and Ellen Morris Marriott had eight children, four girls and four boys. The first son they named John Willard, after his grandfather and Mormon pioneer Willard Richards.

That makes Bill Morris, if you’re keeping score at home, the hotel king’s first cousin twice removed.

So does the independent, pull-yourselves-up-by-the-bootstraps, can-do Marriott spirit that first launched the settlement and then launched the world’s biggest hotel chain live on in modern-day Marriott, Bill is asked.

“Well, we don’t have property tax,” he answers.

To clarify what he means by that, a brief rendition of his hometown’s more recent history is in order.

It’s only been since 1999, Morris explains, that Marriott has been an incorporated city. In the century and a half before that, the residents were content with being unincorporated and left alone. But they got nervous as they watched urban sprawl gobble up other small towns along the Wasatch Front. Not wishing to lose their identity, 20 years ago the people of Marriott and neighboring Slaterville — seeing it was expedient to join forces — took out an $18,000 loan from Weber County to cover the costs to incorporate and set up headquarters in a vacant outbuilding at what was once the Ogden Army Depot.

They paid the $18,000 back almost before the ink dried on the loan papers.

Ever since, they have never been in debt. When they built the $1 million building in 2007 that now houses their city offices, they paid for it in cash. Their credit rating is as good as it gets.

Morris’ point: Marriott-Slaterville is well managed — so well managed that they have never had to assess their residents’ property tax.

“I want you to find another city in the state of Utah that doesn’t impose a property tax,” he says, his Marriott-Morris pride sticking out.

“I think Marriotts just know how to manage things. We tend to be very particular about how we want things done, very businesslike, and we get them done. I know I’m like that. I really think it’s part of the DNA around here.”

* * * Through the years, preserving Marriott’s heritage has been largely via word of mouth and local knowledge. That corner over there is where John Marriott built his dugout. That field is where J. Willard was born. That parking lot is where the first church once stood.

But all that changed about five years ago when a Marriott descendent started feeling a strong urge to not only get in touch with his roots, but accurately identify them.

And not just any Marriott descendent.

Marriott Hotel heir Dick Marriott and Bill Morris, administrator and legal counsel for Marriott-Slaterville, listen to Marriott’s cousin, Russell “Tooey” Marriott, on Thursday, July 11, 2019, as they look at historic sites in the Weber County town where J. Willard Marriott was born and raised. Steve Griffin, Deseret News Richard “Dick” Marriott is the youngest of J. Willard and Alice Marriott’s two sons. He was born in 1939, just 12 years after his father opened his A&W Root Beer stand in Washington, D.C. He grew up watching the business evolve into Hot Shoppes restaurants, then expand into airline catering, then grow into a hotel empire.

Dick and and his brother Bill, who is seven years older, were born and raised in Maryland, where they were groomed from an early age to one day take over the family business from their father. They didn’t have much of a Utah connection until it was time for college and each was sent to the University of Utah, their parents’ alma mater, to get their undergraduate degrees — and, as it happened for both, to meet their spouses.

Dick developed a love for skiing during his college days in Salt Lake City. When he wasn’t hitting the books at the Marriott Library, he was hitting the slopes at Alta. That led to him later on getting a vacation home in Park City next to the ski runs. His periodic visits to Utah through the years have been to the mountains, not to the family farm up north in Marriott.

But in the last decade, in his retirement years after doing his fair share and then some to turn J. Willard Marriott’s business into the world’s largest hospitality company — and himself into a billionaire — the farm started tugging at him.

It was like Big John Marriott was telling him to get his butt back home.

Marriott Hotel heir Dick Marriott, right, and his cousin Russell Marriott stop to take a photo of the Marriott Canal, right, as they look at historic sites Marriott-Slaterville, Weber County, where J. Willard Marriott was born and raised, on Thursday, July 11, 2019. Steve Griffin, Deseret News * * * We are sitting in a restaurant called Jeremiah’s next to the Best Western motel in Marriott-Slaterville. Dick Marriott and his cousin, Russell “Tooey” Marriott, are on one side of the booth. Their second cousin Bill Morris is on the other.

Dick has just finished off a Philly cheesesteak sandwich — well, half of it — and in a way that shows his respect for those working in the service industry, kindly informed the waitress, no thank you, he would not like a box for the rest.

Taking care of your employees is the not-so-secret secret behind Marriott’s success, Dick says. That and taking care of your customers. “Helping people achieve something in life and giving value to the customer has always been the Marriott culture,” he says. “Make loyal customers and employees and they’ll do great things for you.”

After lunch, with Bill at the wheel, everyone hops in Dick’s Audi for a tour of the town: Marriotts looking at Marriott.

And what’s the first thing Dick and Tooey want to stop and see?

Yep. The ditch.

It’s still there. Still pulling water out of the Ogden River to irrigate farmland to the north and west. Most of it is underground, encased in concrete culverts, diverting water to large pump stations. But there are still a few dirt portions that look not much different than the 1850s, which is what Dick and Tooey climb out of the Audi to take a picture of.

“They say Big John weighed 350 pounds,” says Tooey, who was personally tasked long ago by his uncle J. Willard to become the family historian.

Dick grins. His great-grandfather, reputed for his size and strength, “gets bigger every year,” he says.

Then Dick wants to see where the plaques are going to go.

Due to Dick’s urging — and thanks to funding from the city, the county and especially, Dick — plans are underway to set up 13 permanent plaques around Marriott-Slaterville that denote key parts of its history. One will commemorate where John Marriott built his first house — now a soccer complex. Another will show where the first church building was erected — now a gas station. Others will show where J. Willard Marriott was born, the house where he was raised and the farm where he learned to work.

That farm, located west of the freeway, is the best preserved of all the historical sites. It’s still in operation, planted in corn, looking not much different now than 160 years ago. The land was purchased, in part, by the J. Willard and Alice S. Marriott Foundation and is destined to remain a farm field in perpetuity.

As Dick, Bill and Tooey stand at the edge of the land where Hyrum and Ellen Marriott raised their eight children in the early years of the 20th century, they muse on the fact that if the oldest son, J. Willard, hadn’t left to seek his fortune on the East Coast, they might all still be hoeing beets and herding sheep.

* * * A fundamental tenet of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — the religion that brought John Marriott across the plains to Utah in the first place — is that in the latter days, the hearts of the children will turn to their fathers and the hearts of the fathers to their children.

Something like that seems to be what’s going on in Marriott.

In addition to Dick leading the effort to commemorate the history of Marriott-Slaterville with the plaques, both he and his brother Bill, now that they’re in their 80s, have decided to write down their life stories.

Author Dale Van Atta is helping them with the writing. He finished Bill’s book earlier this year. The final product was so compelling that Deseret Book, via its Shadow Mountain imprint, bought the rights to publish a portion of it. “Success Is Never Final: the Bill Marriott Story ” is available through all Deseret Book outlets as well as on Amazon.

Now Van Atta and Dick Marriott — a billionaire so unpretentious he doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page — are at work on his biography.

“I just feel it’s important to my children and my grandchildren that they understand their history,” says Dick. “They should know that the origin of the family is here in Utah. You always hear, ‘To know them is to love them,’ but if you don’t know who your ancestors are, it’s hard to love them. If you’re going to be with them in the next life you better know something about them before you get there or you’re going to feel awful silly.”

Dick is doing his best to catch up with the past as fast as he can.

“I can think of twice in my life I’d been here in Marriott, other than the last five years,” he says. “I didn’t know where anything was. I had to have it all explained to me.

“My father loved Utah, he loved the mountains and the church and all the stuff he did when he was young. Now I can better appreciate what he was talking about.”

As for Bill Marriott, at 87 he hasn’t been as hands-on as his brother in coming back to his father’s hometown. But he applauds everything his younger brother is spearheading out in Utah and shares his enthusiasm for preserving the family’s heritage.

“My father would be thrilled,” he said. “It’s wonderful, absolutely terrific that they’re commemorating and memorializing our ancestors who did so much in helping establish our church and our family.

“I think we have quite an interesting story to tell, a good story to share with people around the world that hard work pays off.”

Bill reminisced about all the mail his father — a man noted for saying, “No one can get very far in this life on a 40-hour week” — used to receive from people asking him for the secret to his success.

“He wrote letters back to them for a while,” he said. “Then he got tired of doing it and simply wrote, ‘Work and pray’ at the bottom of the page and sent the letter back. Those two words were the foundation of our family: Work and pray.”

It’s what Marriottsville was built on. It’s in the DNA.