Joseph Wolcott Cook was the only child of the marriage between Phineas Wolcott Cook and Catherine McCleve. He was born on April 21, 1855, in Salt Lake City, Utah, "about a block east of the Eagle Gate," as he put it in his autobiography. His father had migrated to Utah in 1848 in the company led by Brigham Young and was working as a carpenter-builder for the community. His mother was a young Irish immigrant who left Ireland at the age of 16 with her older sister, age 18 in 1853. She became the third wife of Phineas a few months after she arrived in Salt Lake City.
When the "Utah War" broke out, his family evacuated from Salt Lake City and moved south to Payson, Utah. Shortly thereafter, the marriage between Phineas and Catherine was dissolved. She and young "Wook," as he was called, moved in with her mother's family. He and his mother moved several times, living with different relatives during the following period. After a few months, his half brother, Phineas (junior), found him and took him to live with his father's family, who were now in Goshen, Utah, west of Utah Lake.
In the fall of 1862, his mother married David Dudley Russell and took her son to live with her new family in Salt Lake City. Russell had no home of his own, so the family moved from place to place as his work changed. They eventually wound up back in the area of Payson.
In 1864 the Russell family together with some friends decided to move to Sanpete County where they intended to raise cattle. They got as far a Moroni, Utah, when the Black Hawk war broke out. Settlers already in Salina were attacked and several men killed. This delayed the family's move somewhat so that they did not arrive in Salina until the summer of 1865. In the following year, there were several Indian raids on the settlers which resulted in loss of cattle and some fatalities.
The next year the family moved back to Payson. It was here that Wook had his first schooling. They lived in Payson until the fall of 1868, when Russell got work in the vicinity of Henefer, making ties for the new transcontinental railroad. The following spring he moved his family to Henefer. Russell divided his time between working for the railroad and farming. By this time, there were four other children in the family.
During the late months of 1869, Catherine's health began to fail. Her illness was so severe that Russell decided to take her and her family back to Payson, where she had family and could get better care. The journey was a difficult one due to cold weather and vicious snowstorms. At a stopover in American Fork, Catherine spoke her last words to young Wook She died the next night in Spanish Fork on December 19, 1869, at the age of thirty-two.
Russell moved his family in with his brother in a small settlement of Chicken Creek in the vicinity of Levan, where they spent the rest of the winter. In the spring of 1870, Russell married again, this time a 16-year-old orphan girl named Ann Palmer. Fifteen-year-old Wook and his 16-year-old stepmother did not get along well, and after a year, he decided to leave Russell's family and join his grandmother McCleve and her family, who were now living near St. George, Utah.
On New Year's Day, 1870, he and a companion, 20-year-old John Holden, left his home near Levan and headed south carrying a slap-jack which weighed about two pounds and a light-weight quilt. They were on foot most of the way. They would travel from town to town, where they would ask for shelter and food in return for some kind of work. Most of the time they were successful in finding shelter, but on one or two occasions, they were forced to spend a night in the snow around a sage brush fire with no shelter except the bedding they were carrying.
In Cedar City they caught a ride with a man with a team of mules who was going to St. George. This was a welcome change. Wook found his grandmother living in Leeds and was welcomed into her family. The entire trip had taken him about 12 days. He soon found work with a man named Tueller and was paid in the form of his keep and a horse and a cow. He was now on his own.
In the meantime, Phineas W. , Wook's father, had been called to settle Bear Lake Valley. He was soon settled near Garden City, Utah, and was becoming quite prosperous. His concern for his son led him to ask Apostle Erastus Snow to look for him in southern Utah and if found, to persuade him to come live with him in Bear Lake. Apostle Snow made inquiries on his next trip south and soon found Wook and convinced him to sell his horse and cow and join his father in Bear Lake..
On his way to Salt Lake, he stopped in Holden, Utah, to visit his half sister, Harriet Teeples, and her husband. They told him that the road into Bear Lake was blocked by snow and suggested he spend the winter with them and wait for spring thaws before going to Bear Lake. As an added incentive they told him he would be able to attend school in Holden. So it was decided. He spent the winter in school and in his spare time worked in a blacksmith shop, where he learned smithing skills.
In April of the next year, he rode with Harriet and William Teeples to Salt Lake for General Conference. While there he found his half brother, Alonzo, who was headed for Bear Lake, and they traveled on together. They took the train to Evanston, Wyoming, and then journeyed on to Bear Lake, where he found a warm welcome from his father and his family. On the way, they stopped overnight at Woodruff, Utah. That night a baby girl was born in Woodruff. Her name was Eliza Snow Bryson. Nineteen years later, she married J. W. Cook.
During his first years in Bear Lake, he helped with the work in the summer and attended school in the winter months. In 1875 he made arrangements with his father to buy some land from him and some horses to work the land. He paid for these by working for his father at the rate of $1.50 per day. With this and working at various jobs in the area, he was able to pay his debt to his father.
Soon after he received word that Russell had left his family and that Catherine's children were scattered out, living first with this relative and then another. Wook decided to go back to southern Utah to see if he could find them and bring them to Bear Lake. After some months of looking and persuading, he gathered them all together and brought them to his father's family in Bear Lake. Here they were parceled out to different families, and most of them grew up in that area.
In the fall of 1882, he worked with his half brothers, who had acquired land on Bear River in Thomas Fork Valley located east of Bear Lake on the Idaho-Wyoming line. Their problem now was to get water on the land. This they did by damming up Bear River and digging ditches to carry water for irrigation. Wook acquired some land of his own in the area and worked in partnership with his brothers.
On September 4, 1883, Wook married Elizabeth Neibour of Paris, Idaho. They spent the winter in a temporary house on the ranch, while Wook gathered logs from Raymond canyon, about 12 miles north, to build a house of their own. During the next few months, he finished a fairly sizable log home, covering the walls with siding inside and out. It was a good warm comfortable house for those times. In January of 1885, his wife gave birth to a nine-pound boy. Nine days after the birth, Elizabeth passed away. His sisters cared for the baby, but nine weeks later, the baby died also.
The next few years were difficult ones for him. He grieved for his family and tried to lose himself in his work. In the summer of 1887, he received a call to go on a LDS mission to the Southern States Mission. He was deeply in debt, and there was no market for the hay he had to sell to pay his debts. Nonetheless in February 1888, he turned his affairs over to his brother Dave and left on his mission.
His mission assignment took him to eastern Tennessee. He and his companion were what were called "traveling elders". They had no permanent place to live, but walked from town to farm, staying with whoever would take them in. As they came to towns, they would try to make arrangements to rent a school house or church for preaching services. Most days they walked ten to twenty miles. There were a few church members in the area who would keep them for a week or so at a time, but most of the time they were on the move. They would often pitch in with work to be done to pay for their room and board. Twice a year they would travel to a central location for a church conference where they would meet with a presiding authority and other elders. In certain areas, prejudice against them ran high, and occasionally rocks were thrown or guns fired in an attempt to get them to move on.
When he arrived home two years later, he found himself in a legal battle for title to his land. A new survey had been run by the government, and this required that a new filing for title had to be made. Certain unscrupulous individuals in the area tried to "jump" the claims of him and his half brothers. Eventually it all got straightened out, and they retained title to most of their filings, but it required a lot of legal work and court hearings.
During the summer of 1891, his half sister and her husband were living with him on the ranch. They hired a young girl named Eliza Snow Bryson to help with the housework. On September 30, 1891, J. W. and Eliza were married in the Logan Temple. Seven children blessed their union. Two died in childhood. They continued to live on the ranch, but as their family grew and the need for better schooling arose, they decided to build a home in Paris. It was a large two-story brick home, one of the most comfortable and luxurious in the area. It had one of the first indoor bathrooms and central heating. During the winter months, the family would live in Paris, and in the summer, the boys would work on the ranch.
Shortly after this home was built, J. W. was called on another LDS mission. This mission was to the Central States, and he labored in western Kansas. Here his missionary efforts were more successful, and he and his companion converted families who subsequently migrated to Arizona and Utah and who have since become leaders in the Church. Nonetheless, it was a very stressful time, especially for Eliza, who was left to care for a growing family and at the same time keep up with affairs at the ranch. It was a joyous occasion when he arrived home on Christmas Eve two years later.
In his later years, J. W. was a leader and a doer. He became acquainted with rural telephones on his mission in Kansas and determined to connect his ranch to the telephone system which was being built in Bear Lake County. Here again he ran into apathy and jealousy, but he determined to go it alone if necessary, and eventually the line connecting twelve ranches with the Montpelier exchange was built. He was the first to attempt to grow sugar beets in Thomas Fork Valley. Although it proved to be an unsuccessful venture due to the short growing season, it showed his enterprise and willingness to experiment.
As he grew older, he spent more and more of his time in his Paris home. The ranch was left to his son, Eldon, and his half brother, Kib. He remained active on his small farm in Paris where he raised hay for milk cows and sugar beets on his home lot. In 1930 he suffered rib injuries in a runaway involving a young horse and a mowing machine. During the following winter, he had another accident involving a cow he was milking. His injuries led to pneumonia, and after a short illness, he died on February 25, 1931. His grave is in the Paris, Idaho, cemetery.