Nauvoo: the midwestern Williamsburg – the restored Mormon city in Illinois

William Mueller

The Mormon settlers stayed only seven years and left in haste. Today visitors are returning to their restored city by the thousands.

In Nauvoo, Illinois, near a mammoth bend in the Mississippi, an elderly gentleman shows us around a magnificent 1840s home. He points out that the woodwork we think is oak is really hand-grained pine. He shows us bedrooms filled with samplers, quilt rollers, and trundles. Outside we sit in the above-ground cellar, and he shows its double-wall construction. In his garden he proudly points to peanuts, which he could not raise in Utah-nor eat here, he says and laughs, because of grateful rabbits. He could be father, grandfather, owner of the home. But he’s a Mormon missionary host for the Brigham Young home. He hasn’t tried to convert us, only to share his enthusiasm for history. Visiting Nauvoo, you will discover, is like attending a series of miniseminars, all digestible.

Between 1839 and 1846 the Mormons converted a swampy village by the Mississippi River into Illinois’ largest city. When they fled westward on a winter’s night in America’s largest exodus, they left behind a city with three newspapers, factories, a university, a brick yard, potteries, and a 158-foot-high temple.

Their church would divide (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or L.D.S.; Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, R.L.D.S.). Nauvoo remained for Mormon holdovers; then for French utopian Icarians; later for Swiss and German immigrants who created wine and cheese businesses. But in the flats by the river, old Nauvoo turned to rubble.

In 1962 Nauvoo Restoration, Inc., was created to restore the historic landmark. Excavation, remodeling, replication all went on. Artifacts were uncovered, others brought in. Today there is a 9-by-10-block area, a midwestern Williamsburg, with both L.D.S. and R.L.D.S. represented. Visitors can walk, take carriage rides, or join tours. R.L.D.S. tours three sites relating to Joseph Smith: his homestead, his mansion, and his store. L.D.S. operates about 20 sites with resident hosts, including homes and shops. It’s fun to consider the mysteries of this era: why was Joseph Smith shot; why did his widow remain behind; why did Brigham Young lead them out in February 1846; why was the temple destroyed?

In one store you learn how flax becomes linen. At another it is rope-making. See how bread is baked in wood-burning ovens; how newspapers were printed; horses, shoed. Hosts are usually amateur historians and collectors who love to share their finds at Nauvoo with visitors.

Two favorite places of mine are Jonathan Browning’s home-workshop and the Lyon Drug Store. Browning, a blacksmith and locksmith, is best remembered as a gunsmith. He outfitted Mormon settlers for the trek west-and fathered John Moses Browning, the son who, with his own son, revolutionized weaponry and warfare. It is all here, the guns and the stories, for your pleasure.

The Lyon Drug Store is resplendent with the sights and smells of herbs that Windsor Lyon used as medicines. Details on the therapeutic effects of each are given. Also on hand are other sold items: glass, dyes, crockery. The living area has English plates, paintings, antique furniture, and a wonderfully restored piano.

The private homes bear familiar and unfamiliar names: not only Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, but also William Weeks, Sarah Granger Kimball, and Wilford Woodruff. The Heber C. Kimball home is particularly popular. Scripts complement each other, rather than repeating what you have already heard.

Also of interest are the temple site, the museum at the Seventies Hall, and the Cultural Hall. Here on Fridays and Saturdays (May 15 through August 9), free variety shows are performed, and short skits weekdays throughout the day.

This town of just over 1,000 is home to excellent blue cheese, a millery, and pottery. Wines have been made here until recently. In fact, the annual Grape Festival continues each Labor Day weekend. Drawing 20,000, the event has parades; live music; exhibitors of crafts, arts, and antiques; and a pageant. “Wedding of the Wine and Cheese” depicts a farm boy’s discovery of the process of making blue cheese, and how winemaking came to be.

August 9 to 13, L.D.S. sponsors its 13th annual “City of Joseph” outdoor musical, ranked by many as among the best such productions in the United States. Hundreds of performers sing, dance, and put on skits depicting the story of Nauvoo. About 8,000 spectators sit on bleachers, blankets, or lawn chairs each night at dusk. Bring plenty of mosquito repellent.

This summer an added feature in town will be an exhibit celebrating the bicentennial of the Constitution’s ratification.

Many visit Nauvoo in the summertime, but spring and autumn are particularly beautiful. Hosts also have more time to answer impromptu questions. But whether learning or just absorbing, you will find Nauvoo to be an eyeopener.

COPYRIGHT 1988 Saturday Evening Post Society

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

You May Also Like

Living On The Edge – Rev. Robert Schuller

Living On The Edge – Rev. Robert Schuller – Interview Holly Miller With his 33rd book ready for publication, Robert Schuller celebr…

Vitamin K: pros and cons

Vitamin K: pros and cons Cory SerVaas Dear Dr. SerVaas, I take medicine to thin my blood. A doctor once told me never to tak…

Blender: the Colorado River dog

Blender: the Colorado River dog – life of a redbone hound Ed Martley How a canine con artist stole the hearts of whitewater rafters …

“Why Do You Love Me?”

“Why Do You Love Me?” – Dr. Laura examines unconditional love Holly G. Miller Talk radio’s quick-witted Dr. Laura took seven years …