Thursday, August 25, 2005

Still on the trail (Mormon, that is)

Please note that the Far West Cultural Center no longer exits as a physical place. The Far West Cultural Center Web site, which contains a wealth of resource information, still is available.

This is the welcome sign at the Far West Cultural Center southwest of Mirabile, Caldwell County, Missouri.

Time flies when you're having fun. August began with a week of vacation and will end the same way as we all scramble to comply with our corporate master's not-so-benign "use-it-or-lose-it" time off policy before the end of the fiscal year.

Any trek down the Mormon Trail, and that's where I've been this summer, leads me inevitably to a research project that's been ongoing for many years: Trying to figure out the circumstances that resulted in the southeasterly townships of Monroe County, Iowa --- Pleasant, Mantua and Urbana --- becoming from 1843 until as late as 1866, when the last of the refugees arrived, an enclave for members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, nearly all of whom abandoned that pioneering and consumately American faith.

These "refugees" range from my own great-great-great-grandparents, William and Miriam (Trescott) Miller and their large family, to Lucius Augustus Snow, brother of Lorenzo Snow (fifth president of the Mormon church) and of Eliza Roxey Snow, a towering figure in the church and a plural wife of both Joseph Smith, the prophet, and of Brigham Young, the "American Moses." (Many members of the Community of Christ --- formerly Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints --- maintain that Joseph Smith neither promoted or practiced plural marriage and therefore deny that Eliza was married to the prophet.)

I've been focused during August on two apparent key figures in this business, Robert Rathbun (early Mormon high priest and blacksmith) and his brother-in-law, George Miller, brother of my ancestor, William. Both died in Iowa: Robert during 1856 at Iowaville in Van Buren County and George, during 1875 in Mantua Township, Monroe County. If either could speak, many mysteries would be solved. Both apparently were pioneering Baptist preachers in Ohio who followed another towering LDS figure, Sidney Rigdon, into the emerging Disciples of Christ (or Campbellite) fold and then launched themselves into the early Mormon church. Robert's son, Hiram, maintained that his father and uncle (George Miller) were instrumental in Rigdon's conversion --- but that is a claim that I suspect would be disputed.

Whatever the case, the key events that led to the Monroe County settlement began in Caldwell County, Missouri, during the Mormon War of 1838, so that was where I headed first during early August.

My first stop, 80 or so miles south of Lamoni on Interstate 35 and after a left turn at the Wallace State Park exit onto narrow, twisting and scenic state roads, was the Far West Cultural Center just outside the tiny Caldwell County town of Mirabile.

Enter the cultural center gate and climb a hill to the Wash House visitor center and gift shop. As I said, everything here is very plain. The Wash House lacks even screen doors, so wasps were tormenting (although not stinging) both the guide and her guests.The 1837 log cabin is up the hill behind the Wash House.

If you're planning a visit, it's useful to keep in mind that the Far West Cultural Center is more of dream than reality (although they do have a wonderful Web site). Located back in the woods southwest of Mirabile off twisting gravel roads, it is very plain, consisting of the bedragled remains of the 1837 Charles C. Rich log house (concealed for more than a century within what appeared to be a far later farm house), the Wash House gift shop and visitor center (an old wash house moved to the site) and a few surrounding acres.

These are the bedragled remains of the log house Mormon pioneer Charles Rich built for his family during 1837. For nearly a century, it was concealed at the heart of a newer-looking farm house and was discovered by accident. Most traces of later additions have been removed. The metal frame supports a canvas that protects the remains during inclement weather. Are there plans to restore the cabin? No. The Cultural Center intends only to stabilize and protect what remains.

The log house probably is the only remaining Mormon structure in Caldwell County, set aside specifically for Mormons during late 1836 and site of Far West, which Joseph Smith and church leaders envisioned briefly as the equivalent of later church headquarters cities, Nauvoo, Illinois, and Salt Lake City, Utah.

Digs at the log house site confirmed that it had been built there rather than moved from another location. Two notching patterns on the logs indicated the cabin had been raised slightly at some point to allow insertion of a hardwood floor above the original dirt. The cabin was built using "V" notches, evident here where the top logs join at the corner. When the cabin was raised, new layers of logs using dove-tailed notching (evident on the corner link between the lower logs) were added.

And the cultural center is a logical dream because there is no other interpretive or visitor center in Caldwell County, of great importance in Saintly history, and it does seem like there should be one.

But as I said, it's very plain --- and that seemed to disconcert an LDS family there at the same time I was, fresh from the expensively restored and carefully polished Nauvoo. It could be a cultural shock to come from "there" to "here," but that rustic site near Mirabile probably gives a more accurate view of what life was like for our pioneering ancestors than Nauvoo does.

So I loved it --- poking around the log cabin remains, peering down the hand-dug, fieldstone-lined well, contemplating the locust trees planted by Mormon pioneers because they grew quickly and produced needed wood. And in the "Wash House," I found and bought a coy of Clark V. Johnson's and Ronald E. Romig's "An Index to Early Caldwell County, Missouri, Land Records," which helped to make my day.

From the cultural center, I twisted my way back to Mirabile, then north a few miles to the site of Far West itself and the LDS-owned and maintained temple site memorial.

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