Nauvoo Today: Building Again the City Beautiful


It started the way many significant things start—almost by accident.

Dr. J. LeRoy Kimball hadn’t planned to reconstruct historic sites in Nauvoo, Illinois, the city the Saints vacated under persecution in the 1840s as they began their westward travels. When Dr. Kimball first went to this city on the horseshoe bend of the Mississippi River in 1929, he didn’t know he would find the home that had belonged to his great-grand-father, Heber C. Kimball. But he did find it, and he told the woman who owned it that if she ever sold it, he wanted a chance to buy it.

That chance came in 1954. After Dr. Kimball bought the home, he spent several years refinishing it to make it livable. He wasn’t trying to do pure restoration work, in which the home would be returned to its pre-Civil War condition; he was only trying to create a suitable vacation home, a place where the Kimballs could escape the pressures of life.

Instead, it was the beginning of a new life work for Dr. Kimball and his wife, Marjorie Dahlen Kimball.

In 1960 the Kimball home was dedicated. President Spencer W. Kimball, a grandson of Heber C. Kimball and then a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, gave the dedicatory prayer. Also at the dedication were Elder Delbert L. Stapley and Elder Harold B. Lee of the Quorum of the Twelve, President J. Reuben Clark, First Counselor in the First Presidency—and a thousand other guests. Many came because they were friends of the Kimballs or patients of Dr. Kimball.

“I thought they’d all go home, and then we’d move into the house and spend two or three weeks there whenever we felt like it,” says Dr. Kimball. “But all we did was act as guides. We never did spend a night in that home. Never have.”

As interest in restoring old Mormon homes and buildings in Nauvoo grew, Dr. Kimball found himself buying land to protect the Kimball property. First he bought land to the south, to keep a motel from being built near his property. Then he bought the other lots on the Kimball block. Then came the Brigham Young home, which was in disrepair.

“The interest increased rather rapidly,” he says. “Before I knew it, I had thousands of dollars worth of land.” He told President David O. McKay of some forty homes or partial homes that would justify restoration. “I told him I knew what I would do if I had the money: I’d buy them to restore them.” Soon, with private and Church donations, he had the money.

That was the beginning, in 1962, of the nonprofit corporation known as Nauvoo Restoration Inc.

The project was historical, aimed at accurately restoring a few of the hundreds of buildings constructed by Mormon pioneer settlers. Historical and archaeological research were key phases in restoration work. Homes and sites were purchased. After research, restoration was carried out by architects and builders. The homes and buildings were finished and furnished as authentically as possible. The lot where the Nauvoo Temple stood, before its destruction, was purchased. The site was restored and a monument built, although the temple itself was not rebuilt. More than a dozen homes and sites now have been restored. Other projects are planned.

Although historical restoration continues, the project is now also a missionary project—and a successful one. Some thirty missionary couples care for the restored homes and stores. The missionaries are ardent in their love for Nauvoo, for the missionary work, and even for the strenuous task of being both caretakers and guides. Most couples work as guides in one home or building and live in another, which they are responsible to keep maintained, cleaned, and gardened.

The many visitors to Nauvoo admire such labor. Some 163,122 people visited the spacious Nauvoo Visitors’ Center during 1978. During peak tourist times, eighteen elders from surrounding missions give several months of service in Nauvoo. The total number of visits to all sites in restored Nauvoo reached 796,898 during 1978—a dramatic jump from the 462,490 visits counted during 1977. The increase is attributed to the thousands who attended the dedication of the Relief Society’s Monument to Women statuary park in June 1978.

Many visitors expressed delight that tours of restored Nauvoo sites are free. “There’s no dollar sign,” says Dr. Kimball. One nonmember couple was so impressed with the tours and the message that they stayed more than three weeks—until they were baptized.

The missionary approach is historical. Missionaries learn a notebookful of details about Nauvoo and its restoration. They emphasize the history, the architecture, the culture, and the beliefs of the Saints who settled the former Commerce townsite in the 1830s, renamed it Nauvoo (“beautiful city”), and left in the 1840s. They explain how the sites are restored.

While the work of Nauvoo Restoration went on, the Church was quietly growing in the community in a more traditional way. Church membership has far to go before it matches the number of Saints who left Nauvoo more than 130 years ago, but the Church has indeed grown. In fact, Nauvoo’s Church growth reflected the worldwide growth of the Church when Nauvoo again became a stake in February 1978—the one thousandth stake in the Church. The original Nauvoo Stake, fourth in the Church, was formed in 1839 and dissolved by 1846, as the Saints headed westward.

The Church is now far more accepted in this area whose people were once hostile. Nauvoo’s current mayor, Walter Hugh Pierce, is known to members of the Nauvoo Ward as Bishop Pierce. He is the first Mormon mayor in Nauvoo since the Saints left. A resident of Nauvoo for the last eight years, he leases and manages a motel owned by Nauvoo Restoration.

Why does Bishop Pierce, a Georgia native, live in Nauvoo? “It’s a good place to raise children,” he says. As the Church has grown in membership, all auxiliaries and programs have functioned. Students meet for early-morning seminary. Members from nearby communities travel to the Nauvoo Stake Center for Church meetings.

Bishop Pierce also likes the opportunities for friendship which are peculiar to Nauvoo. He finds it an interesting challenge to help build relations between the Church and the community. “You can’t please everybody,” he says, “but you can do what’s best for the community as a whole.” In Nauvoo, what’s “best” can involve helping merchants see ways to meet the needs of the thousands of tourists. That goal has only begun to be approached, Bishop Pierce says.

However, most Nauvoo residents have been pleased with the work of Nauvoo Restoration Inc. in “cleaning up the flats,” where most of the restoration work has been done. “It’s inspired them and made them prouder of their community,” Bishop Pierce reports.

Tourists have greatly increased the business of local merchants. A local cheese factory has doubled production. “Business is good this year, and it’s growing each year,” says Bishop Pierce. With proposed new tourist facilities, the outlook for the business community is even more optimistic.

Tourism has also resulted in a flow of visitors to a museum at the state park across the highway from restored Nauvoo. The museum is a favorite project of Katherine Ortman who, with her husband, William, lives in a historic home in the midst of restored Nauvoo. With increased interest in Mormon history, the museum has added a “Mormon room,” in which events from Church history are portrayed in miniature lighted scenes.

Despite Nauvoo’s Mormon history, and despite the boon that restoration work has been to the community, it is well known that the Church hasn’t always been popular in the area. For decades after the Saints left, Mormonism was unpopular—and much of that sentiment spilled, generation to generation, into the next century.

Ida Blum, a non-Mormon, remembers it. A Nauvoo area resident all her life, the eighty-nine-year old journalist/historian has seen the Church grow into greater acceptance.

As one of six editors who helped compile a history of Hancock County in the 1960s, she found her objectivity about the Church overruled. In fact, another editor declared that the word Mormon would not even appear in the one-volume history. “He said, ‘The Mormons were negative in Hancock County, they were negative, they were negative!!’ and he slapped his big hands down on that table every time,” Mrs. Blum recalls. “I sat there and didn’t say a word. I made up my mind that they could either take it or leave it, but I was going to write it,” she says. When the history was published, her objective section on Mormon history was included.

In compiling that history, Mrs. Blum made thirty-nine trips to nearby Carthage, the site of the 1844 martyrdom of the Prophet Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum, Patriarch to the Church. Mrs. Blum remembers well a time when the Mormon presence was not an obvious element in the county, except historically. As that has changed, and as the population has become yet another generation removed from old anti-Mormon sentiments, attitudes are markedly different.

In Carthage, a town of about 3,300, the Church now has a visitors’ center at the Carthage Jail, seen in 1978 by 58,307—some of them members of the Church. In June 1978, many of those Mormon tourists were Relief Society women from the United States and Canada attending the dedication of the Monument to Women.

Paul Campbell, a barber whose shop is in downtown Carthage, recalls the favorable impact the women had on the community. “That’s all people could talk about,” he says. “Busloads and busloads of women. I jog, and occasionally I run out past the college (where many women were housed during the dedication). It was a real shock to see those seven or eight busloads of people.” Some shopkeepers still remarked, months later, at how many women had come.

While most Carthage residents seem neutral on Mormonism, Carthage is not devoid of anti-Mormon sentiment, says librarian Michael Wold of the Carthage Public Library. “A lot of them remember times of intolerance toward Mormons,” he says of some older lifelong residents. “It’s interesting about the history. It’s sad about the tragedy. But I think most people think it doesn’t make any difference today.”

But many other Carthage and Warsaw residents had been unaware of the history that had taken place in their towns—how mobs had gathered in Warsaw and how the Smiths had been murdered in Carthage. However, in May 1978 history again made headlines when a guest speaker came to Carthage—one of the authors of a book on the trial of the men accused of the Smith murders. The speaker was Dallin H. Oaks, president of Brigham Young University. He, with Marvin Hill, wrote Carthage Conspiracy. President Oaks “spoke before a standing-room-only crowd in a steamy courtroom on the third floor of the Hancock County Courthouse,” reported the Hancock County Journal-Pilot of 31 May 1978. President Oaks answered questions posed by townspeople, whose interest in the martyrdom and the trial had been stimulated by the book.

Mr. Wold says Carthage Conspiracy, “a technical and well-done work,” is a helpful contrast to the library’s literature which is generally less than favorable toward the Church. The historical honesty and scholarship of Carthage Conspiracy has helped increase understanding among more than just Carthage and Warsaw townspeople.

And understanding is what Nauvoo restoration work is all about. In this, Nauvoo Restoration Inc. is not alone. The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has also done restoration work on the Joseph Smith homes and properties in Nauvoo.

Those RLDS properties are among the most visited in Nauvoo, since they include the graves of Joseph and Hyrum. The RLDS church has restored the Joseph Smith homestead in Nauvoo and also the still-standing portion of the Mansion House across the street, where he later lived. The Red Brick Store, where the Relief Society was organized, has been rebuilt and restored—even down to stocking the shelves with authentic items. It is open for tourists. The RLDS church also is building a new visitors’ center nearby.

Kenneth Stobaugh, director of historic sites for the RLDS church, explains why the RLDS church is involved in restoration work: “Our main thrust is to help people understand who Joseph Smith was, and what kind of life he lived. We also look at this as a place of value to those within any fold of Mormonism.”

A spirit of cooperation is being cultivated between the RLDS and the LDS guides and missionaries. Those at the Nauvoo Restoration Inc. Visitors’ Center explain the RLDS properties to visitors and help visitors find those waterfront locations.

Although some LDS visitors unfortunately leave negative written comments with the RLDS tour guides, their numbers are few. Mr. Stobaugh says that members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are among “the most responsive people who come through.”

According to Mr. Stobaugh, it helps that RLDS missionaries don’t try to convert anyone on the spot. “We low-key our proselyting,” he says. “We don’t want to get into arguments—and in a forty-minute period, we probably couldn’t change anyone’s mind anyway.”

Of course, many visitors to Nauvoo (Mr. Stobaugh estimates seventy-five percent) are not affiliated with “any branch of Mormonism.” Many live within a hundred miles and bring visiting relatives to Nauvoo. They are attracted by the inexpensive, extensive touring possible in the restored parts of the city—and some come simply because they like Nauvoo cheese.

With continued restoration comes the addition of a commercial ferry at Montrose Crossing—joining Iowa and Illinois where some of the earlier Saints once crossed the Mississippi on ice, leaving behind their homes and their impressive temple. The ferry operates from April to October. In August 1978 an Exodus to Greatness Monument was dedicated at Montrose Crossing to commemorate the Saints’ departure for the Rockies.

As the Church has grown elsewhere, so has it grown in Nauvoo. And as the message of the restoration of the gospel spreads abroad, another kind of restoration helps it spread where it once was silenced. And once again, the Saints have a home in their beloved Nauvoo.

[photos] Photography by Jed A. Clark

[photos] Scene of Nauvoo as it appears today. Inset: Dr. J. LeRoy Kimball, who has been instrumental in the reconstruction of Nauvoo.

[photo] William and Katherine Ortman live in a historic home in the midst of restored Nauvoo.

[photo] Michael Wold works as librarian of the Carthage Public Library.

[photos] Top: Bishop Walter Hugh Pierce, current mayor of Nauvoo, is the first Latter-day Saint to hold that office in Nauvoo since the Saints left in the 1840s. Bottom: Ida Blum, an eighty-nine-year-old journalist and historian, has lived in the Nauvoo area all her life.