Making Nauvoo Beautiful Again: Just What the Doctor Ordered


As the young woman watched the skit, she began to cry. Recently widowed, she could easily empathize with the characters on the stage—a couple faced with the heartache of leaving a beautiful home for an unknown frontier.

Afterward, she approached the actors, a husband-wife missionary couple. She had just come from the Nauvoo Visitors’ Center up the street, she told them, and had received a copy of the Book of Mormon there. Now she was interested in knowing more. The missionaries taught her family the gospel.

Such experiences are usual fare for missionaries in Nauvoo. “There is a unique spirit here,” says Sister Linda Rattray, a missionary from Winnipeg, Canada. While her husband, Bill, takes his turn showing visitors through the print shop next door, she plants a row of seeds in a plot behind the John Taylor home. She squints in the bright morning sun, and the breeze whips the skirt of her 1840s dress. “You know,” she says, “we are walking where the Prophet walked and talked and prayed. You can communicate gospel feelings to people here that you couldn’t in other places. And people are receptive.”

Nauvoo. The name itself, derived from a Hebrew word meaning “beautiful place,” evokes images of the past, both painful and pleasant—images of sacrifice and struggle; poverty, prosperity, and persecution; charity, faith, and determination.

This was the settlement the Saints established on the swampy banks of the Mississippi River in 1839 that grew to be a prosperous city of over 11,000 by 1845, just under Chicago’s population of 12,000. (See Ensign, Sept. 1979, p. 12.) Nauvoo had music and culture, brick homes, schools, shops, industries, and a magnificent limestone temple.

This is where Joseph Smith introduced the endowment, baptism for the dead, and temple marriage. This is where he preached the King Follett sermon, opening the Saints’ vision of eternity, where he called the first bishops and established the first wards, and where he organized the Relief Society.

Only a few miles from here—at Carthage Jail—the Prophet was martyred. A few months later the Saints left their homes and property to find refuge in the West, and the glory of old Nauvoo passed away.

But there is a present as well as a past in Nauvoo. And there is also a future.

Over a century after Heber C. Kimball and the other Saints headed west with a dream of building a new city, his great-grandson, Dr. J. LeRoy Kimball, returned to Nauvoo with a dream of restoring the old one. In the meantime, the population of the city, which had shrunk to less than a tenth of its size in 1845, had in essence abandoned Old Nauvoo and created a new town up on the blufftop by the temple site. As one observer put it, when Dr. Kimball arrived in 1954, Old Nauvoo “was a town that had died, but no one had bothered to bury it.” Some have said that the doctor “has been as instrumental in Nauvoo’s rebirth as Joseph Smith was in its birth.” (James Krohe, Jr., “A New City of Joseph,” Americana, Apr. 1980, pp. 60, 57.)

Dr. Kimball, a Salt Lake City physician, was born 8 December 1901 in Cardston, Alberta. When he visited Nauvoo as a young man in 1925 and found that the Heber C. Kimball home was still standing, he offered to buy it. The offer wasn’t accepted, however, until almost thirty years later, in 1954. He refinished it as a vacation home, and it was dedicated in 1960 by Elder Spencer W. Kimball, a grandson of Heber C. Kimball and a member of the Quorum of the Twelve. A thousand guests came for the occasion—and interested visitors kept coming. Dr. Kimball discovered that there was more than passing interest in the home and the old city.

He began acquiring other deteriorating homes and surrounding properties, and in 1962 a nonprofit corporation, Nauvoo Restoration, Inc., was formed. Under Dr. Kimball’s direction, the corporation purchased over a thousand acres and selected more than thirty homes and buildings to be restored.

Some of these sites had nothing more than crumbling foundations left; others had homes that had been continuously occupied since the 1840s. Careful historical and archaeological research guided the modern architects, builders, and designers as they sought to restore and reconstruct the buildings and furnish them with authentic furniture and fixtures.

If you talk to longtime residents of the town these days, you’ll hear a lot of complimentary things about Dr. Kimball and the work the Church has done to make Nauvoo beautiful again.

“There used to be nothing but weeds down there,” says Doris Lamb, motioning to Old Nauvoo, “—and trees coming up through the roofs of some of the old buildings! But look at all the improvements they’ve made. I’m very proud of Nauvoo.”

Old Nauvoo, situated on the flatland down by the river, is now a National Historic Site. The weeds and debris are gone, as are the old log homes and most of the wooden structures that used to line the four-acre blocks of the city. The buildings that have been restored and reconstructed, most of which are brick, are surrounded by what looks like a park with tall trees and expansive lawns.

The serenity of restored Nauvoo belies the industry of earlier days here—both during the 1840s when Nauvoo was being built and during the 1960s, 70s, and early 80s when it was being restored. Some sites—such as the tin shop, with its deteriorating foundation, dilapidated walls, and debris—have been left untouched to allow observers a glimpse of what the restoration workers started out with.

Up on the bluff is the temple site—a beautiful city block surrounded by the current town of Nauvoo. Stones outline the foundation of the building, and a scale model of the temple gives visitors an idea of the grandeur of the holy edifice the Saints were forced to abandon immediately after completion. It was later destroyed by fire and wind.

Model of the Nauvoo Temple

A scale model of the Nauvoo Temple gives visitors to the temple site an idea of the grandeur of that holy edifice.

Around 140,000 visitors, 75 percent of them non-LDS, come each year to Nauvoo—busloads of school children and tourists, carloads of families, and vans full of civic groups and social clubs. And the old city again comes to life.

Here you can visit the homes of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff, Lucy Mack Smith, Sarah Kimball, and others. Missionary couples, many dressed in period costumes, tell visitors about the city and the people who built and lived in—and left—these homes. And they discuss the antiques in the homes. Some of the items actually belonged to the early Saints; others were carefully selected to represent the times.

Inside the Joseph W. Coolidge home

Inside the Joseph W. Coolidge home, visitors see how candles, pottery, and barrels were made.

Some of the missionary couples demonstrate crafts that would have been a part of everyday life in Old Nauvoo. You can watch them make candles and ropes. You can learn about weaving, spinning, pottery-making, and barrel-making. At the bakery, you can sample delicious gingerbread cookies. At the Times & Seasons building you can see how the printing press worked and get reproductions of uncut sheets of the fourth edition of the Book of Mormon that was printed there. You can watch a blacksmith make a horseshoe and see how bricks were made in the 1840s. You can see a collection of Jonathan Browning guns, ride a buggy drawn by horses, see handmade quilts, watch a play on a stage where Brigham Young performed, and inspect a wagon loaded with supplies for the trek across the plains. And it’s all free.

As you walk these streets, it’s easy to feel the spirit of the place—to imagine that you can hear and smell and see and feel the excitement of the old “City of Joseph.” More than one observer has called Nauvoo the “Williamsburg of the Midwest.”

Some Nauvoo sites have been left untouched

Some sites—such as the dilapidated tin shop—have been left untouched to give observers a glimpse of what the restoration workers started out with.

But discussions aren’t limited to archaeology and artifacts; the missionaries are more than tour guides. “As we tell about the history, we include gospel principles,” says Elder Lloyd Stoker of Buhl, Idaho. “This is a mild, sincere way of bearing testimony and generating questions and interest. If people are interested only in the history, at least they leave with a little more knowledge of us.”

Every August a pageant, City of Joseph, is produced on the grassy slopes between the visitors’ center and the stake center. A volunteer cast and crew from several surrounding states perform for audiences of up to ten thousand a night for five nights. The setting is ideal: the backdrop is Old Nauvoo and the dramatic bend of the Mississippi River beyond. Even the new Nauvoo Stake center adds to the charm; originally a standard meetinghouse, it has since received a facade to match the historical buildings—complete with a bell tower and a replica of the bell that hung in the Nauvoo Temple’s tower. (The original bell is on Temple Square in Salt Lake City.)

Camara Associates, Inc., a tourism consulting firm, gives historic Nauvoo its highest rating: “Everything about the place is first class,” they report. “Restorations are perfect, … people are genuinely friendly and do not push their religion on visitors. … This is one of the few spots in the area that could be called a ‘destination.’ It’s probably the single best attraction in all of Western Illinois.”

“You’ve got to hand it to Dr. Kimball,” says Lillie McConkey, 79, who has been an eyewitness to Nauvoo’s resurrection. “He was the founder of it, and he worked hard here.”

Dr. Kimball served Nauvoo Restoration for twenty-five years, donating his time and many antiques to the Church. For years he shuttled between Nauvoo and his medical practice in Salt Lake City. “He was driven by a desire to protect and preserve heritage,” says his wife, Reva. “He wanted to preserve Nauvoo not only for descendants of Heber C. Kimball and other early Saints, but for all Church members. It’s a heritage for them, too,” she says.

He felt the hand of the Lord in his work. The temple site, for example, had been divided up among many owners—it had several old buildings on it—and had to be purchased piece by piece. All obstacles were overcome, the entire site was purchased, and then the archaeological work could begin. He also felt the Lord’s help in buying the city block on which the Carthage Jail stands. The Church has restored the jail and built a visitors’ center there.

“I’m looking downstream,” he often said, and he tried to help others see the great potential Nauvoo and Carthage had. “He used to tell me, ‘If you’re not planning ten years ahead, you’re not planning far enough,’” says Julie Paull, who worked as his assistant.

Many of the local people responded to Dr. Kimball’s dedication and foresight and were willing to help, says Sister Kimball. “They saw the good that the Church’s work at Nauvoo and Carthage Jail would do for the area.”

In January 1987, Dr. Kimball retired as president of Nauvoo Restoration, Inc. (NRI), and was succeeded by Elder Loren C. Dunn, a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy and president of the North America Central Area. Serving as vice-president and secretary of NRI are his counselors in the Area Presidency, Elder F. Burton Howard and Elder Philip T. Sonntag. James Taylor serves as manager of NRI.

“Dr. Kimball has done a remarkable work in Nauvoo,” says Elder Dunn. “We all owe him a vote of thanks for the legacy he has left to the Church.”

For a number of years, Dr. Kimball also served as president of the Nauvoo Mission. He was succeeded in December 1985 by Lynn E. Thomsen. Then in July of this year, the Nauvoo Mission was absorbed into the Illinois Peoria Mission, and Edwin Q. and Janath Cannon now serve under the mission president as directors of the missionary couples in Nauvoo and Carthage.

The old city is very much a part of the lives of Church members in the surrounding areas. Families go there for home evenings; Young Women and Relief Society groups gather at the monument gardens; Aaronic Priesthood commemorations are held there; Scouts hike the “Martyrdom Trail”—a trek through the countryside from Old Nauvoo to Carthage Jail.

The Relief Society Monument

The Relief Society Monument to women statuary park—a quiet, beautiful garden—is adjacent to the visitors’ center.

Durell N. Nelson, bishop of the Nauvoo Ward, pulls out his ward directory and names several members who were baptized—some just recently—as a direct result of visits to Old Nauvoo. One sister “just happened to be down there one day, and missionaries found her in the right frame of mind,” he says. They taught her the lessons, and she was baptized last year. Two other families were baptized after seeing last year’s production of the City of Joseph pageant.

“We’re finding now that more local people are joining,” he says. “And they’re bringing with them a stability.”

Although the population of Nauvoo has decreased since 1845, the feelings of friendship the local residents have toward the Church have increased dramatically over the years.

President Thomsen set a vigorous pace by joining the Nauvoo Chamber of Commerce and by establishing good relationships with civic and religious leaders in the community. And the missionary couples, who live and work in the homes of Old Nauvoo, also extend their efforts beyond the old city to the new. They serve as fellowshipping couples in the Nauvoo Ward and teach nonmembers who live in the area. They give service to hospitals, convalescent centers, and schools and have held community classes on subjects ranging from genealogy and oral history to painting and sign language. Together with Lois Crouse, the town librarian, they established a “Friends of the Library” group, redecorated the library, and set up reading programs and a book festival.

Many residents now feel a greater spirit of unity and community pride in Nauvoo. That spirit of friendship is particularly evident in the Church’s relationship with the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which owns the Smith properties in the old city. The beautiful new RLDS visitors’ center is located at the south end of town, while the LDS visitors’ center and Relief Society Monument to Women statuary park are located at the north end. Both groups encourage visitors to see all of Nauvoo.

“You haven’t really seen Nauvoo if you confine yourself to only one section of town or the other,” says Kenneth Stobaugh, director of historic sites for the RLDS Church. “We’ve all made a concerted effort to heal the breaches that used to exist. There’s been a lot of bridging done over the last twenty-five years.”

Two residents who have seen that bridging and can chronicle the transformation of their town are Genevieve Huffman, 84, and her sister, Lillie McConkey, 79, who have lived in Nauvoo all their lives. Their grandfather came to Nauvoo “during Mormon days” and knew Emma Smith. Their homes, both of which date back to the 1840s, are located right in the middle of the old city: Genevieve’s belonged to Newell K. Whitney; Lillie’s belonged to Robert Thompson. Years ago these two Roman Catholic women sold their homes to Nauvoo Restoration and were granted lifetime occupancy.

Now they laugh about the days when weeds were so high in Nauvoo that “it was a regular forest down through here.” They speak of the quiet afternoon when they sat out on the porch with Dr. Kimball, listening to his vision of what Old Nauvoo could become. They have no regrets about the old buildings that were torn down—“Some of them was just about ready to fall down!” says Lillie.

They take pride in the rebuilding that has made Nauvoo a beautiful place once again. And they speak of all the missionaries they’ve known and loved, of attending LDS sacrament meeting with them every Sunday for twenty-one years, of being invited to sing, play the guitar, and yodel at LDS programs in the restored cultural hall. (They’re affectionately dubbed the “Nightingale Sisters.”) “We get a standing ovation every time we get up there,” Lillie laughs.

“I’m not a Mormon,” she says. “But my opinion is, they live the Bible. They live to help each other. And that’s what God put us on earth for.”

“They’ve been wonderful,” adds Genevieve. “The Mormons have made Nauvoo.”

[photos] Photography by Welden Andersen

[photos] Nauvoo—“the Williamsburg of the Midwest.” On Main Street is the restored three-building printing office complex, where the fourth edition of the Book of Mormon, the bimonthly Times and Seasons, and the weekly Nauvoo Neighbor were printed. These buildings also housed a post office, a bookstore, a bindery, and the living quarters of editor John Taylor.

Opposite page: Elder William Cook of Blanding, Utah, demonstrates the potter’s craft (bottom left), while Elder and Sister William and Ruth Johnson of Ogden, Utah, describe an assortment of artifacts (bottom right)—such as a corn sheller, antique curling irons, spoon molds, and tooth pullers. They also demonstrate how to make and use rope and how to make yarn from wool.

This page: On the stage of the restored cultural hall, where Brigham Young and others performed “grand moral entertainment,” Roger and Hilda Browne of Provo, Utah, and other missionary couples present short skits, bringing to life the heartaches and courage of Nauvoo’s early Saints.

[photos] The reconstructed Webb Wagon and Blacksmith Shop, where five wagons for Brigham Young’s trek west were manufactured, is a favorite for youngsters. Here (upper left) Elder Dan Revill of Carson, California, makes a horseshoe using original bellows, anvils, and a bench vice that were taken to Utah with the pioneers and were later returned to Nauvoo.

During peak summer months, the group of missionary couples (serving under the direction of Edwin Q. and Janath Cannon, front row), is augmented by young elders who are brought in to help with the crowds. Some visitors come back time and time again.

[photo] Durell N. Nelson (right), bishop of the Nauvoo Ward, is landscape manager for Nauvoo Restoration, Inc. The Nauvoo Stake center has a bell tower and a replica of the bell that hung in the Nauvoo Temple’s tower.

Dr. J. LeRoy Kimball (upper left) had a dream of what Old Nauvoo could become—and has devoted much of his life to making that dream a reality.