Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Day trip: To and from Nauvoo


Suzanne, Marie and Karen (from left) in front of the reconstructed Nauvoo Temple.

The subtitle here is, "Don't try this stunt yourself; you could get hurt." That doesn't mean you shouldn't go to Nauvoo (you should) or tour a few of the lovely, interesting and historic sites in south central and southeast Iowa. It just means that if you've got a choice, don't try to do it all in one day!

But we really didn't have a choice Monday. The convergence in Lucas County of my Aunt Marie Miller, cousin Karen (Miller) McEvoy (upstate New York), cousin Suzanne (Miller) Franklin (Atlanta) and myself occurrs no more than once a year, if we're lucky. And we wanted to take a day trip. Karen's husband, Dick, thought he should stay out at the farm and work. And Suzanne's husband, Bill, nervous when surrounded by Yankees, rarely comes to Iowa. So the four of us set out down the Mormon Trace (more or less) to Nauvoo bright and early.

Nauvoo is a small town (full-time population not much for than 1,000) about two and a half hours southeast of Chariton, nestled into a broad Illinois-side Mississippi River bend downstream from Fort Madison and upstream from Keokuk. Once upon a time, it was a Midwest wonder. And it's that again.

When ornery Missorians chased the emerging Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints out of Missouri --- under an extermination order --- during the late 1830s, Prophet Joseph Smith and most of his followers found refuge here from 1839 onward. These pioneers turned a wilderness into a garden and built what had become by 1846 Illinois' largest city with a population estimated between 12,000 and 20,000.

As they had in both Ohio and Missouri, however, the Saints met with hostility in Illinois, too. There were too many of them, they were too cohesive, too successful, too "different." The prophet and his brother, Hyrum, were killed on 27 June 1844 by an Illinois mob at the jail in Carthage, Ill., where they had been imprisoned, supposedly to ensure their safety. And that was the beginning of the end for Nauvoo --- temporarily.

The great exodus westward to Utah under the leadership of Brigham Young began during the early spring of 1846 after practically the entire population of Nauvoo had labored feverishly to complete the great shining white temple on the hill.


The Angel Moroni high atop the Nauvoo Temple.

By 1848, Nauvoo was practically a ghost town. The temple fell to arsonists, storms and those who recycled its fabric into other strucures. Its builders and former occupants continued to stream through Lucas County in ox-drawn wagons on the Trace, westward bound.

Ohio, Missouri, Nauvoo and the trail west forged into steel what remains one of the strongest forces of Christianity anywhere. And, of course, the Mormons put Lucas County on the map for the first time.

The Miller ancestors that Karen, Suzanne and I share, William and Miriam (Trescott) Miller, were probably converted in Ohio (although they were neighbors of the Smiths in both Vermont and New York) and followed Joseph to Missouri. But en route to Nauvoo, they and their extended family stopped alongside the trail in Van Buren County, Iowa, sent out scouts of their own and then came up into Monroe County to claim land when it opened for settlement after expiration of the Sauk and Meskwaki title during the spring of 1843. They were accompanied by a substantial number of friends and relatives who also had been among the earliest Saints. Although some of these friends joined the trek west to Utah a few years later, most remained Iowans and joined the ranks of the Baptists, Church of the Brethren, Disciples of Christ and Methodists.

Still, that Mormon link is a compelling part of our heritage, so this was a pilgrimage, too. Although I've been to Nauvoo many times, Karen, Suzanne and Marie had not.

So off we went east on Highway 34, then down the turnoff to Melrose (Iowa's "Little Ireland") and onward to pick trail at Dodge's Point, just west of Iconium in Appanoose County. Then down the Trace through Moravia, across Soap Creek, into Unionville and down the broad ridge to Drakesville.

Drakesville, northwest of Bloomfield in Davis County, is at the heart of one of Iowa's largest Old Order Amish communities. You could easily spend a day or more wandering around here (a map of Amish home businesses where you're welcome any day other than Sunday is available at the visitor center in Bloomfield). Unfortunately, we didn't have a day or two. So our stops as we headed east to Nauvoo included the following, where we gradually fell farther and farther behind.

1. The Bloomfield Iowa Welcome Center about two blocks north of the northeast corner of the square. Housed in a restored Sears & Roebuck catalog house, this volunteer-fueled operation offers a consignment gift shop and all the information you could want and more about tourism in southern and southeast Iowa.

2. The Dutchman's store in Cantril, just off Highway 2 east of Bloomfield at the west edge of Van Buren County, the closest you'll come anywhere to an old-fashioned general store. Operated by a Groffdale Conference Mennonite family, it's a wonder. Although stocked and intended to serve the area's large poplation of "plain" people and their "English" neighbors, it's become a tourist site, too. This is in no way a gift shop, but a great source for old-fashioned bulk food, meat, jams, jellies, homemade bread, fabric, family- and church (Mennonite)-oriented books, housewares and goodness only knows what else. Under or behind everything is something else, the clerks wear prayer caps and service is genuinely friendly.

Marie added to our load here by purchasing a vary large plant that had to be sacked and carefully balanced to avoid a dirt-filled trunk.

3. Bonaparte Retreat, a great restaurant located in an old mill (Meek) alongside the river on Bonaparte's main street, a few miles east of Cantril and one of the first major sites where Mormon and later pioneers crossed the Des Moines en route west. Driving between Cantril and Bonaparte, we crossed the original route of the Trail twice and I thought of Nathaniel Ashby, one of the Mormon pioneers I've become acquainted with in various ways, buried very near here at the site of his family's camp some six miles east of Bonaparte during the exodus.

After lunch, we headed east to Fort Madison to cross the Mississippi River toll bridge into Illinois, then turn downriver toward Nauvoo.


This is probably the best view in Nauvoo, from the grassy plaza just west of the Temple out across the Mississippi. The monument, "Calm as a Summer Morning," depicts the final ride of Joseph and Hyrum Smith, as well as others, from Nauvoo to Carthage, Ill., during June of 1844. Joseph reportedly said, "I am going like a lamb to slaughter, but am calm as a summer morning." The brothers were killed by a mob in Carthage soon thereafter.
As I said, Nauvoo was practically ghost town after the Mormon exodus. But the Icarians settled there soon thereafter and others moved in to keep it a viable, but by contemporary standards, very small town. Historic Nauvoo was located mostly on the flats down by the river, but to avoid flooding the town gradually moved to the bluffs above the flats and all but the most substantial of the old Mormon buildings perished.


This is the Mansion House, the final home Joseph and Emma Smith shared in Nauvoo. Originally quite a bit larger, it also doubled as a hotel.

The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (now the Community of Christ) maintained a presence there. This smaller group of Mormons, looking to descendants of Prophet Joseph Smith for leadership, organized at Plano, Illinois, and was headquartered at Lamoni, Iowa (still the site of its Graceland University) before moving administratively to Independence, Missouri. As the years passed, the RLDS acquired the Joseph Smith homestead, the Mansion House, the Smiths' last Nauvoo home, the Smith family cemetery and other sites. I first came to Nauvoo, probably in the early 1960s with my parents when the RLDS visitor center and the historic sites it had restored and maintained were the only game in town.


The graves of Joseph, Emma and Hyrum Smith in the Smith family cemetery. In the background is the Joseph Smith Homestead, the first house Joseph and Emma shared in Nauvoo.



A Community of Christ marker listing the names and dates of those buried in the Smith family cemetery just behind it. Most of these graves are unmarked. 

Beginning a few years later, members of the Utah-based LDS began acquiring and restoring other sites (40 or more in all). These now are owned and operated by the church, which built its own visitor center and finally, and triumphantly, reconstructed to temple, dedicated I believe during 2002.

After the trip downriver, we headed down Nauvoo's small-town main street (flanked by shops, eating places and many visitors) and pulled up in front of the Temple at just the same time the Nauvoo Brass Band did --- they on a horse-drawn flatbed, us in the Buick. So we enjoyed a brief concert while absorbing the temple, the plaza in front of it, the wonderful gardens surrounding both and the sweeping view out across the Mississippi to the west. The concert concluded with "Come, Come, Ye Saints," that wonderful LDS anthem written by William Clayton while camped during the spring of 1846 in Wayne County, and soon thereafter we headed down to the flats.

Not enough time. Not nearly enough time. Since it was a first visit for some of us, we started at the Community of Christ visitor center, then went on to the homestead, mansion house and family cemetery (burial place of Joseph, Emma and Hyrum Smith as well as several other family members, friends and neighbors). From there, we headed north through sites managed by the LDS, not stopping as much as we'd have liked to, but at least driving by most, then to the LDS visitor center.

The best way to do the Nauvoo tour is to hop aboard one of the horse-drawn wagons that provides transportation during guided tours. Then you're welcome to hop off at any site that intrigues you, tour it, then hop aboard the next wagon. If you don't especially want to hop off and on, finish the tour, then walk or drive back to the sites you want to visit. All are staffed, mostly with LDS volunteers in costume. And the whole operation is free and kid-friendly.

Karen got a kick (and so did the rest of us) out of meeting up close and personal a team of oxen, also available to provide a free, brief ride if you've got the time.

Then, unfortunately, we had to head home --- there was a roast in the crockpot out at the farm as well as a hungry Dick McEvoy. So we headed down the riverside drive to the river crossing at Keokuk (one of the loveliest drives anywhere along the Mississippi) and zoomed past in as quick a succession as we could manage, Chief Keokuk's grave and monument in Rand Park high above the river in Keokuk, Farmington, Bonaparte again, Bentonsport (another place you could spend at least a full afternoon), Keosauqua, then on to Ottumwa and west on Highway 34 home.

1 comment:

G Brad McKee said...

Thanks for mentioning Amish Corners in Drakesville. WE had a large success with our Benefit auction this past summer for out street projects! When planing a trip to Nauvoo, don't forget to stop in the Drakesville City Park to see one of 2 remaining log cabins built by the Mormons.