No one just "happens" to go to Brigham Young's birthplace - to get to Whitingham, Vt., you have to make an effort to do so.
Tucked away in the remote rolling hills of southern Vermont near the Green Mountain National Forest, Whitingham is far removed - especially in the pace of life - from New England's major metropolitan areas. In fact, a two-page typed history of Whitingham (pronounced White-ingham) states the town "delights in being `undiscovered,' tourism-wise."It was in this setting of green hills and sparse population - even more remote nearly 200 years ago - that Brigham Young was born on June 1, 1801, the ninth child of John and Abigail Howe Young.
The Young family had moved in from Hopkinton, Mass., a small town some 30 miles southwest of Boston, shortly before Brigham was born.
"Brigham Young, like most Americans who have made great names, was born in poor and humble circumstances," wrote Preston Nibley in a series of articles published in 1934-35 in the Church Section of the Deseret News. "When he came into the world . . . his father was struggling to gain a livelihood on a Vermont farm, where the principal question was to get enough to feed and clothe his family." (Church Section, April 7, 1934, p. 3.)
When John Young settled his family in Whitingham, the town was relatively new, having received a charter from the governor of New York 30 years previous in 1770, according to the typed history of the town by Elaine Maynard, president of Whitingham Historical Society from 1991-1995.
The first year after the charter was issued, 14 people were living in the town, notes the one-sheet history that is given to visitors at the historical society's museum. By 1800, the year before Brigham Young was born, the population had grown to 866.
The Youngs lived in Whitingham until young Brigham was almost 3 and then his family moved on to New York in search of a better life.
"[His father] had heard that farther west in the state of New York there were more opportunities and better land; so loading his numerous family [members] in his wagon, he set out in the spring of 1804 to find a new home," wrote historian Nibley in the Church Section series, which later was compiled into a book, titled Brigham Young the Man and His Work.
It was while in New York that Brigham Young grew to manhood and joined the Church in 1832, the same year that he traveled to Kirtland, Ohio, and saw for the first time the Prophet Joseph Smith, who was also born in Vermont.
The birthplace of Brigham Young today, however, stands in stark constrast to the birthplace of the Prophet Joseph Smith, located in Sharon, some 110 miles upstate the way the main roads go.
Although Joseph Smith's birthplace is in a rural area in Windsor County, it is only seven miles off Interstate 89, the main thoroughfare across the middle of Vermont and only a little more than 30 miles south of Montpelier, the state capital. The Prophet's birthplace is well marked by highway signs.
Brigham Young's birthplace, on the other hand, is tucked away in the mountains of Windham County, some five miles north of the Massachusetts border. There are no signs along the way telling visitors that Brigham Young was born in Whitingham, located about halfway, and a little to the south, between two small southern Vermont cities - 26 miles from Brattleboro on the east over Hogback Mountain and 30 miles from Bennington on the west.
Once in Whitingham, only a small highway sign, snuggled against some bushes on state highway 100, across the road from the community church and the general store/gas station, gives any indication that the village is the birthplace of Brigham Young, "the founder of Utah."
Last year, 56,307 people visited the Prophet Joseph Smith's birthplace, reported Lee R. Beckstead, director of the Joseph Smith Memorial Historic Site. Probably only a few hundred visit Brigham Young's birthplace during a year's time.
Seven full-time missionaries, including a pair of younger missionaries, from the New Hampshire Manchester Mission tell the story of the restored gospel at Joseph Smith's birthplace. Included at the site is the South Royalton Ward meetinghouse, a visitors center and a 381/2-foot monument - one foot for each year of Joseph Smith's life - that memoralizes the prophet of the Restoration. Also included on the 350 acres owned by the Church are camping facilities, complete with a 50-foot log lodge and 15 log cabins that enable individuals, families and Church groups to stay on the site.
At Whitingham, there are no Church facilities to accommodate visitors.
Nearly 50 years ago, the descendants of Brigham Young, in cooperation with the Church, installed a large 12-foot granite monument in memory of their famous ancestor. The monument, unveiled May 28, 1950, is in the community park on Town Hill. When Brigham Young was born, the center of the village was on the hill, and included a school, built in 1789, and a church, built 10 years later in 1799. The village center today is down on the main highway through town, and Town Hill now is a quiet residential area with about a half dozen homes.
For the unveiling of the monument, a large contingent of Church leaders and members, including President George Albert Smith and Elder John A. Widtsoe of the Quorum of the Twelve, traveled to Vermont. The unveiling was a prelude to the dedication by President Smith of the Brigham Young statue in Statuary Hall on June 1 - Brigham Young's birthday - in the nation's Capitol in Washington D.C.
During the Whitingham ceremony, which the June 4, 1950, Church Section said was attended by 1,000 persons, Brigham Young was extolled. President Smith said the second president of the Church was "impressive, rugged, and possessed of keen insight and leadership." Elder Widtsoe, whose wife was a granddaughter of Brigham Young, said he "probably was the foremost of all colonizers in the history of mankind." (Church Section, June 4, 1950, p. 3.)
The monument, standing in the park today as a silent sentinel overlooking intertown baseball games and family reunions when they are held, was designed by five grandsons of Brigham Young. Built of granite from a Vermont quarry at a cost of $8,000, the monument is located about two miles from where it was formerly thought to be Brigham Young's birthplace, according to the Nov. 6, 1949, Church Section.
There is no way to know how many visitors come to this quiet, peaceful village of a couple hundred residents.
Visitors dropping in at the town's historical museum, located next to the community church near the main highway, are asked to write their names in a notebook. On a recent warm Sunday afternoon, there were seven or eight who signed the visitors register.
The museum, which according to Reginald Maynard, past chairman of the historical society trustees, "has a little bit of everything out of the past." It is opened for only two hours on Sunday afternoons from Memorial Day to Columbus Day. "We probably have between 250-350 people visit during that time," he said. However, he explained, this only reflects the number of people who visit the museum.
"But," he noted, "only about 25 percent of these are Mormons. The others are descendants of early settlers of the area and people from the town and surrounding towns."
A display about Brigham Young is featured at the museum, housed in Green Mountain Hall that once was a church, then the town hall and still later a recreation hall. Carol Nelson, the only member of the Church in the town of Whitingham, which includes the villages of Whitingham and nearby Jacksonville, set up the display with help from the Church Exhibit Department. The display was first exhibited two years ago at the school in Whitingham during the town's Old Home Week, and last year the exhibit was moved to the museum in commemoration of the sesquicentennial of the Mormon pioneer trek.
"It's still on the stage at the museum," said Sister Nelson, who lives in Jacksonville with her husband during the summer months and in North Carolina during the winter.
To attend church, Sister Nelson, a counselor in the Young Women presidency, travels about 25 miles to a small branch over the Connecticut River into New Hampshire in Hinsdale. The branch, which covers an area 30-40 miles across southern New Hampshire and southern Vermont, is part of the Springfield Massachusetts Stake.
Even though it is some distance to Whitingham from the branch meetinghouse in Hinsdale, most of the 65-70 active members of the branch have visited the village and the Brigham Young memorial, with about a third having visited within the past six months, said branch Pres. Mark T. Doherty.
But the branch has never held a social at the monument site, noted Pres. Doherty. But all of that will change next spring, he said, when the branch will hold an all-day activity on a Saturday, including a pot luck dinner, in the Whitingham park.
"I feel like I'm on a mission here," Sister Nelson said of her status as the only LDS member in town. "I try to be a good missionary and set a good example. It has made me more loving and kind. Every opportunity I get I bring up the Church in some way and let people know I am a member."
Full-time missionaries from the Massachusetts Boston Mission come to Whitingham about once a week to tract, said Elder Trent Buttars from Idaho Falls, Idaho. He and his companion, Elder Adam Vansleeuwen from West Valley City, Utah, are stationed in Brattleboro, where most of the members of the Hinsdale Branch live.
"We aren't teaching any one [in Whitingham] at this time," said Elder Buttars, "but how many missionaries can say they've tracted in an area where a prophet was born?"
Actually, Vermont was the birth state of many of the original leaders of the Church. Not only were the first two presidents of the Church born in Vermont, but also other early Church leaders including Oliver Cowdery, Hyrum Smith and Heber C. Kimball were born in the Green Mountain State.