It was a bitterly cold February night. The ice was so thick on the Mississippi River it had turned to a solid mass, a blue-white highway. With the river frozen solid, there was no traffic that night, no river barges, no ferrys, no boats of any kind. Thick ice made it possible to walk out on the water, solid enough, perhaps, to walk all the way to the far bank.
The city of Nauvoo was dark, but four people shivering on shore were about to test the ice. Would the ice be strong enough to support them? Was it possible to drive a team of horses pulling a wagon across?
Kayla Walker followed in her father Kay’s footsteps as he approached the river. Their friend, Tim McCormick, also moved out onto the ice. But even though she was excited to make the crossing, she was a little scared. Their guide, Jerry McLeod, had already warned them both that if they felt the ice crack beneath their feet to spread out their arms to catch themselves from falling in completely. Kayla said, “He told us to try to stay above the ice. If you fall below, the current will carry you under the ice, and they wouldn’t be able to get you. That was sort of scary.”
Kayla stepped out on the ice. Exactly 150 years ago that month, the first pioneers to leave Nauvoo crossed on the ice of the Mississippi to the other side, leaving behind their beloved and beautiful city with the white temple shining on the hill. Kayla was reenacting that night with her father and a friend. (Any unauthorized activity on the river ice is prohibited.)
“I was wearing three pairs of pants, a turtleneck, and a sweater. Then I had on a big ski coat, a hat, a scarf, and gloves. I had on two pairs of boot socks and hiking boots, and I was still cold. It was, like, minus-20 degrees. That’s why the ice was so thick. It was frozen 18 inches down. I could see cracks in it, but all you could see was more ice because it was so thick.
“It was dark. It was slippery, but we kept a steady pace. There was snow on top of the ice, so we did have some traction. We hit some slick spots where it was hard for me to keep up. I just didn’t want to stop. I wanted to get across. It took us 18 1/2 minutes.
“Brother McLeod’s wife met us on the other side in her van and drove us back home. I was very glad to get in that van with the heater on high and hot chocolate waiting. It was neat to think about my ancestors doing the same thing. Only they did it with long dresses and their children and some people who were sick. They did that, with no questions asked, because they believed in the Church. What a strong testimony they had. I think I would have gone hesitantly. I would have been asking, Why can’t I just wait? Just doing what they did so long ago was a big testimony builder.”
Kayla, 17, is a member of the Nauvoo Ward in Nauvoo, Illinois. She and the other youth in the ward have heard the stories about the pioneers who built their town at least a thousand times each. They all know that Nauvoo means the City Beautiful. And they know every street, every house, practically every flower and blade of grass in the city that they are helping to make beautiful once again. After all, many of their service projects and a lot of their summer jobs involve planting those flowers and mowing those blades of grass.
The city of Nauvoo today still occupies a gentle bend in the Mississippi River. It is a small town with only slightly more than 1,000 residents. In its day, 150 years ago, Nauvoo was a booming city of 10,000 residents. Now the streets of the old part of town on the flats are mostly filled with visitors. Pioneer homes, made of the local red brick, are slowly being rebuilt and repaired. When the youth are asked to come help decorate the Kimball home for Christmas, they immediately know it isn’t the home of one of the local ward members. It’s the home of Heber C. Kimball, an early leader in the Church.
Although there are no ghosts, it’s easy to feel the presence of those early settlers and how happy they were living gathered together, worshipping together, and just being where the Prophet Joseph was so they could see him and hear him often.
The Nauvoo teens know well the feeling of being in the presence of a prophet. They have had the last two presidents of the Church visit Nauvoo. Dustin Powell, 17, said about President Hinckley, “When the prophet came to speak, I was really paying attention to him. Everyone was more attentive. Everything was quiet so everyone could listen to him. I thought it was amazing.”
Trampas Powell, 16, added, “You just felt good to be where he was.”
All of the teens wish that one particular building had not been destroyed when the pioneers left Nauvoo. In their minds, they try to picture the temple as it would have been high on the hill overlooking the town. Today there’s a water tower near the Nauvoo Temple site, plainly visible all over town. The temple steeple stood 35 feet higher than the water tower does today, so it is easy to imagine how dominant the temple would have looked on the hill.
Mary Hasek, 17, says, “I imagine the temple there. It would be really pretty. It would make Nauvoo more crowded.”
“It would be a bigger town,” says Corey Condren, 13, “because Mormons like to live in a town with a temple nearby. But,” she adds quickly, “now there’s the St. Louis Temple, and that’s close for us.”
“I would have felt bad,” says Kevin Condren, 18, “to leave the temple like they had to. But I would have felt good that it was finished.”
The Nauvoo Young Women and Young Men also participate each summer in the City of Joseph production. Hilary Hohl, 16, explains, “It’s the whole thing about the pioneers going West. I think it’s amazing. It explains what they went through.”
And the story explains about what is left behind in the old city of Nauvoo. Sarah Hasek, 15, says, “In the play when the characters are talking about building the houses and sacrificing everything they have to do it, you can still go and see the houses they built. Their sacrifice is still here. They didn’t leave them behind in vain.”
If the young men of 150 years ago wanted to give service to a good cause, they could carry water to the men working on the temple. Today the Nauvoo Young Men are also deeply involved in giving service regularly. Each summer thousands of visitors come, swelling the numbers attending their ward. Every Sunday morning, without fail, the Young Men arrive at the meetinghouse an hour early to set up hundreds of folding chairs and prepare up to 32 trays for the sacrament. It doesn’t take a great deal of skill to set up chairs, but it takes ingenuity and a great plan to pass the sacrament to all those people tucked into classrooms or lining the hallways. All the deacons, teachers, and priests are needed to pass the sacrament. And they want to do it with dignity. “We get tired and want to take off our ties and jackets,” says Mark Hasek, 14, “but we know people will go back to their wards and say, ‘The Nauvoo boys did this.’ We’re a big example.”
Then after meetings, they have to move those hundreds of chairs outside, ready to be set up for the City of Joseph productions the following week. The boys are doing a little good-natured complaining about having to set up so many chairs when one of the girls pipes up and says, “We help with the chairs too.” The boys start to tease. “Yeah, the boys are responsible for setting up the chairs. The girls are responsible for sitting in the chairs. Everyone in the stake knows to call the Nauvoo Ward about setting up. We know chairs.”
The Nauvoo Young Women have their duties also. They see that the statues at the women’s monument are cleaned and polished. It takes a lot of elbow grease to remove the discolorations from the weather and add the wax coat to keep the bronze statues looking their best.
Although many of the pioneers who lined up their wagons at the crossing, waiting for their turn to leave their beautiful city, had tears in their eyes when they looked back for one last glimpse, the young people of the Nauvoo Ward look back all the time.
Nauvoo is a peaceful place—a little too peaceful for teenagers sometimes. One of the highlights was when the film Legacy was shot a few years ago. Most of the youth who lived here then were in the movie. “It’s funny,” said Andrew Kearse, “when I saw the film, I would pick out all my friends and people I know.”
“I think making Legacy,” says Kyle Walker, 16, “helped my testimony. The main story was about my ancestors. I don’t know if I would have been able to do what they did.”
But these teens probably would have been willing. What could make them leave the comfort of their homes today and walk out into the wilderness? “I would do it if the prophet said to,” says Andrew.