Nauvoo—Still “The Beautiful”

From swampland to Nauvoo the Beautiful to near desolation—that in a capsule is the 19th century history of the little town formerly known as Commerce, Illinois. When the Saints settled there in 1839, it was an unhealthy and unproductive area, infested with mosquitoes and disease. And yet, the Prophet Joseph saw in it the promise of a home where the Saints could live in peace, safe from their enemies and the persecution that had plagued them in Ohio and Missouri. He renamed the tiny settlement Nauvoo (a Hebrew word meaning a beautiful situation or place), and within a short time it had become a thriving community, the largest and most progressive in Illinois. Within its borders were at least 20 teachers conducting classes, a university, 13 doctors’ offices, nine lawyers advertising in local papers (but no jails), eight tailor shops, and more than 2,000 homes with 11,000 residents. It was here in Nauvoo that wards were first organized, the concept of eternal marriage was made known, and the first baptisms for the dead in this dispensation were performed. The Church grew and prospered; the Saints built log, frame, and brick homes, cultivated their crops, and conducted their lives as if they planned to stay forever.

But in less than seven years they were forced once more to flee for safety. Weary of mobs and violence, they gained courage from their faith in a religion that taught them never to give up. Elder John Taylor promised: “Nauvoo was a great rehearsal. The spirit that built it will build an even greater city.” And so they moved west, where they did build other beautiful and prosperous cities. The harsh memories of being driven from their homes in Illinois slowly faded, and new generations were born and raised up far away from Nauvoo.

Although most people within the Church today know something about Nauvoo, hardly anyone outside the Church (including those in Illinois) even knew it existed until a few years ago. It was then that Dr. J. LeRoy Kimball visited the former home of his great-grandfather, Heber C. Kimball, and began to restore it. His efforts were contagious, and in 1962, Nauvoo Restoration, Inc., was founded, dedicated to restoring and preserving many of the homes and buildings of old Nauvoo. Today, thousands of members and non-members alike go there to visit each year, hoping to see firsthand why Joseph called the city beautiful.

Upon entering the old section of Nauvoo last summer, a visitor from Utah exclaimed: “It’s just like I thought it must have been long ago. But I didn’t dream it would actually look this way today!” Resembling a country village in a Mark Twain story, it is surrounded on three sides by “Old Man River”—the wide and muddy, thick-flowing Mississippi. Summers are hot and muggy—the kind of weather that makes you want to get your hair cut, or at least put it up off your face, neck, and ears. But balmy breezes somehow pervade the humidity, and acres of green grass blow peacefully where old houses used to be. (Only 16 of the original buildings have been restored; most of the remainder have now been cleared away.)

A horse and buggy clip-clops down dusty Parley’s Street (now often referred to as Teardrop Road), one of the roads the departing Saints walked down as they left Nauvoo. The driver of the buggy tells his riders: “Take one last look behind you at your homes, and all that has been yours in Nauvoo. You will never see them again. …” A blacksmith shop; the old “Times and Seasons” printing office; and the brick houses with tall, skinny chimneys, white picket fences, and underground root cellars are all additional reminders of a long ago time. In fact, out-of-town license plates and oversized touring buses lumbering down the wide country streets are the only evidence of 20th-century technology.

Uptown in the residential part of the town live the 1,100 persons who call Nauvoo home today. Much has changed since the time that Mormonism was the prevailing philosophy in Nauvoo. Wine and cheese are the major products, and a Catholic boarding school for girls has been there for many years. After the Mormon exodus, a variety of groups settled among the abandoned homes and buildings, hoping to put some of them to use. Still, it wasn’t long before the once bustling town was filled with decaying shops, houses, schools, and businesses.

But with the organization of Nauvoo Restoration, Inc., things began to change. An expanded awareness of history was given new emphasis in the area as long-time residents began to learn new information about the efforts and accomplishments of the original Mormon settlers. And although the initial restoration efforts were viewed a little suspiciously to begin with, in 1977 the first Mormon mayor in 130 years was elected in Nauvoo. There is a kind of tranquil feeling now—a dignity that follows struggle. And everywhere there are reminders of a past that cannot quite be forgotten: streets bearing the names of Young and Partridge, the Icarian Jail that was built of stones from the crumbling temple, Joseph Creek that meanders near the outskirts of the town; and of course, the flatlands where the restoration is centered. (The restored buildings have been reconstructed as closely as possible to their former appearances and have been furnished according to the styles of the 1840s. As much of the original work as possible has been retained.)

Pauline Barrett, who has lived in the Nauvoo vicinity all her life and works daily at the Chamber of Commerce building, is one of the few residents who remembers hearing firsthand accounts of the old days. “Grandad ferried many of the Mormons across the Mississippi in the spring of 1846. He used to love to tell us about when the Mormons lived here, but we never liked to listen and would sneak away as he was talking. It was his whole life to talk about old Nauvoo; we could have known it all.”

Relatively few descendants of the original Nauvoo settlers still live in the town; most of the residents are descended from the French Icarians or German Methodists and Swiss folk who later emigrated there. Mrs. Barrett, a nonmember, spoke highly of the Nauvoo Restoration: “The Mormons have really improved this town. They’ve cleared up those flatlands and installed a sewer system that serves all of Nauvoo. And they are a friendly group. I have taken many bus tours in this town and have always been greeted by a smile from the guides.”

Each summer, full-time missionaries from several nearby mission fields are assigned to Nauvoo to serve as guides, hosts, and caretakers. In addition, several couples serve their entire missions there, working primarily in the visitors’ center and as hosts in the restored buildings. More than 100,000 persons—60 percent of whom were nonmembers—visited Nauvoo last year. Sister Luacine Fox, a missionary working with her husband in the visitors’ center, commented: “People around here are warming up more and more as they see the progress that is being achieved in their community. Young couples who move into Nauvoo seem especially interested.”

The appeal of the restored homes and buildings has been irresistible to some, and many have inquired about purchasing property in the flatlands, but there is none for sale. The Church owns most of it; the Reorganized Church has four acres; and a few of the homes are still lived in by longtime Nauvoo residents. And so it appears the future is at last secure for old Nauvoo, a town that evaded growth and modernization for more than a century. Mobs had tried to destroy it, but succeeded only in subduing it. Progress avoided it; industry never settled in. Most of the homes and businesses and buildings are now gone, but the spirit that built them can still be felt, whether walking down Teardrop Road or peeking in the window of Wilford Woodruff’s sitting room. Few would disagree that once again the Hebraic name Nauvoo (which signifies rest as well as beauty) is an appropriate choice for the city built and loved by Joseph.

The Johnathan Browning Workshops

Johnathan Browning’s children reported that their father preferred gunsmithing and locksmithing to blacksmithing and horseshoeing. However, out of love and respect he shod horses and made repairs free of charge for the Prophet Joseph Smith. When the Saints moved west, Brigham Young asked Johnathan to make guns for the wagon trains so that they could have ample meat and protection during the long journey. He agreed to do this, after which he and his family migrated to Ogden, Utah. (One of his sons, John Moses Browning, secured many patents on rifles, from which came the Browning automatic pistols, rifles, and machine guns.) At the time the restoration efforts began, all but a two-story house had been razed or otherwise destroyed. Since that time the original buildings have been reconstructed, including a food storage cellar, a gunsmith shop, a blacksmith-metalworking shop, and a log house. Visitors to the blacksmith shop are given souvenir rings made from nails.

The Scovill Bakery

As you enter the reconstructed Scovill Bakery, the unmistakable aroma of warm gingerbread fills the air. A jovial hostess smiles and begins to explain that extravagant “marriage cakes” could formerly be purchased here for $25, and more modest versions sold for as low as one dollar apiece. Hard rock candies were also a specialty in the little shop that conducted most of its business on the barter system. The Scovills did their baking in two bustle ovens that took three hours apiece to heat up and stayed hot for only an hour and a half. Electricity was installed for practical purposes when the bakery was rebuilt, but the appearance of the bakery is the same. Windows made of glass that had to be imported from West Germany, a 19th-century bread slicer from Pennsylvania, a 200-year-old bowl glazed only on the outside, a milk pitcher from England, a salt jar, and gingerbread cookie samples enhance the charm of the bakery today. Also available is a cookbook containing recipes from old Nauvoo.

The Home of Heber C. Kimball

After returning from a mission to England, Heber C. Kimball purchased the land upon which he later built his large, three-story home. !t was completed in October of 1845, only five months before the Kimballs were forced to abandon it and head west. In 1954 Dr. J. LeRoy Kimball, a great-grandson of Heber, purchased and began renovating the home, setting the stage for the major restoration efforts that would follow. Restoration efforts were aided by the original floor plan sketched out on the last page of one of Heber’s journals. A few of the antiques displayed within the home today include chairs built in Nauvoo that belonged to William Clayton; Joseph’s uncle, John Smith; and J. Reuben Clark’s grandmother. Double bricks inserted in the west wall carry the date 1845, and a stone on the second story of the front wall bears the inscription “HCK 1845.” This home has been renovated to the period, but not restored as it was in Heber’s day.

The Printing Office Complex

The three red brick buildings built on this lot were among the earliest brick buildings in the city. in 1845 the original owner sold them to Elias Smith, who converted them into a printing establishment and book and stationery store. Brother Smith was also appointed postmaster of Nauvoo and moved the post office into the complex. John Taylor (who became the third president of the Church) lived in the center building while serving as editor of the two Nauvoo newspapers—the Nauvoo Neighbor and the Times and Seasons. After the Saints left Nauvoo, the equipment was left in the buildings and used to print the post-Mormon Hancock Eagle, Nauvoo New Citizen, and Hancock Patriot. Before long, however, the buildings were left vacant and eventually deteriorated. In the middle of this century, the one building still standing was adapted into a church meetinghouse, and a new floor, new windows, plumbing, lights, heating system, and roof were put in.

The Seventies Hall

This two-story, red brick building was built to be the center of an adult education program designed to improve the missionary skills of the seventies. During the construction of the hall, a tornado blew down the nine foot tall west wall, smashing the flooring and floor joists. The builders were disheartened and wanted to give up the project, but Brigham Young encouraged them to rebuild it, making the wall one inch thicker. They complied, and it was completed in August of 1844. In addition to the meeting rooms the building included a community library containing 675 books donated by the Saints. After they moved west, the building was purchased for use by the German Reformed (Presbyterian) Church and soon after was converted to a schoolhouse. In 1895 the school was moved elsewhere, and the building was leveled to the ground. When the site was excavated in 1970, the foundations of the original building were uncovered and used as the basis for the restoration.

The Joseph Smith Homestead

The farmhouse lived in by Joseph and Emma when they first moved to Nauvoo and the Mansion House they later built are owned today by the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Of special interest to members of the Church are the gravesites of Joseph, Emma, and Hyrum. The homestead is a rather humble log house, decorated with furniture common to the time and area. Pewter plates similar to those the Smiths probably used are displayed on the table. Although they were not as attractive as china, they were considered more practical as they were easy to pack, and if they were broken, they could be melted down and reshaped. Linsey-woolsey quilts (made half of linen, half of wool) are shown !aid carefully over cornhusk mattresses. Across the street is the handsome Mansion House, the home in which the Smiths lived at the time of the death of the Prophet. After her husband’s martyrdom, Emma operated the house as a hotel as a means of supporting her children.

The Temple Site

The Nauvoo Temple was the first temple in which baptisms for the dead were performed in this dispensation, although some baptisms had been performed in the Mississippi River prior to the temple’s completion. The gray limestone building stood 60 feet high, with the tower and spire rising an additional 98 feet. China, glassware, clocks, watches, clothing, furniture, and farm products were donated by the Saints to pay for the construction, and every man and boy was expected to give every tenth day in labor. Despite five years of hard work and sacrifice, many of the Saints were forced to abandon Nauvoo before the temple dedication on May 1, 1846. Two years later the entire interior of the sacred building was destroyed by an arsonist’s fire, and in 1850 a cyclone blew down the north wall and irreparably weakened the south and east walls. By 1865 the walls had been razed and the site had become a stone quarry. A few of the original temple stones are all that remain at the site today.

The Home of Brigham Young

Brigham Young, who has been honored by the United States government as a great American colonizer, was also a skilled carpenter, painter, joiner, and glazier. He put these talents to use in the construction of his Nauvoo home, which still contains the original brick, woodwork, and cupboards. The inside of the house has been completely restored, including his private office in which many of the important decisions of the Church and city were made. A mirror that was sent back to Nauvoo from Salt Lake City and a rocking chair built by his brother Phineas are the only two pieces of furniture in the home that it is certain belonged to Brigham Young. Also of interest are a foot warmer heated by hot coals and a spinning wheel and yarn winder (also called a husband saver). Outside the home is a root cellar rebuilt on the foundation walls of the original structure, with the original brick floor still in place. The well and cistern are also restored on the original foundations, and the orchard has been planted with a variety of fruits common to the 1840s.

The Home of Lucy Mack Smith

When the decision was made to migrate to the western part of the United States, widowed Lucy Mack Smith (the mother of the Prophet) felt she was too old to travel so far alone. She elected to stay in Nauvoo, although she remained faithful to the Church throughout her life. The Church purchased for her a handsome home built by Joseph Bates Noble, which Sister Smith later gave to her daughter Lucy and her husband. For many years the brick stable and carriage house in the rear of the tall building was used to shelter the fire engine used by the volunteer fire department in later years. After they obtained another building, the home was allowed to deteriorate. Today the home is affectionately referred to as the “dollhouse” because of its small rooms and narrow staircases. As one guide explained, “People come here expecting to see dolls, and I tell them, ‘The only doll here is my wife!’” A reproduction of one of the few known photographs of the Nauvoo Temple is also displayed in this home.

The Home of Wilford Woodruff

This is the only home that was lived in continuously from the time of its original construction until it was restored. Its builder and first owner, Wilford Woodruff, personally taught the gospel to and baptized 2,000 persons, kept daily journal entries for over 50 years, and was the first Nauvoo resident to raise cotton. His house, too, was built with the same type of enthusiasm; he hand-sorted through the entire supply of 14,574 bricks he had purchased, choosing the very best ones for the front wall of the house. Each of the rooms inside the home has its own fireplace for heating and/or cooking purposes. (The kitchen fireplace is equipped with high-, medium-, and low-range cooking pots.) Within the home today are Hyrum Smith’s wooden chair, a beaver skin hatbox that belonged to Wilford, his wife Phoebe’s glasses, and curling tongs that were heated in the fireplace. The charm of this old house has also been recognized by Hollywood; the house was used in the filming of Huckleberry Finn in the 1960s.

[photos] The Johnathan Browning Workshops (Photos by Jed Clark and Don Thorpe.)

[photos] The Scovill Bakery (Photos by Don Thorpe.)

[photos] The Heber C. Kimball Home (Photos by Jed Clark and Don Thorpe.)

[photos] The Printing Office Complex (Photos by Jed Clark and Don Thorpe.)

[photos] The Seventies Hall (Photos by Jed Clark and Don Thorpe.)

[photos] The Joseph Smith Homestead (Photos by Jed Clark and Don Thorpe.)

[photos] The Temple Site (Photos by Jed Clark and Don Thorpe.)

[photos] The Home of Brigham Young (Photos by Don Thorpe and Jed Clark.)

[photos] The Home of Lucy Mack Smith (Photos by Jed Clark.)

[photos] The Home of Wilford Woodruff (Photos by Jed Clark.)