Try as I might to pull down classroom walls to capture the sights and sounds of old Nauvoo, there is no substitute for being there. Browsing through photographs of the Nauvoo Temple, the Mansion House or the restored Webb Brothers' Blacksmith Shop can never take the place of walking the streets of the historic city or pausing to read the personal accounts on Parley Street “reader boards,” such as:
“I was in Nauvoo on the 26th day of May 1846 for the last time, and left the city of the Saints feeling that most likely I was taking a final farewell of Nauvoo for this life. I looked upon the temple and City as they receded from view and asked the Lord to remember the sacrifices of his Saints.” — Wilford Woodruff
It is no secret that the sights, sounds, people and countryside of Nauvoo bring the past alive. Every year thousands of travelers discover the wonders of Nauvoo. Why not you? For me, the city gained new meaning as I saw for the first time the reconstructed Nauvoo Temple.
During the April 1999 general conference when President Gordon B. Hinckley announced, “We plan to rebuild the Nauvoo Temple,” I began making travel plans. I had walked the streets of Nauvoo many times, but I knew nothing could compare to standing next to a beautifully restored temple. As it turned out, there were others who had the same idea. In fact, I was one of more than 330,000 visitors who flocked to Nauvoo to attend the temple open house in May and June of 2002. There was an overwhelming feeling of gratitude when I first saw the magnificent Nauvoo Temple.
Have you ever felt the same when visiting a historic site? If not, make travel plans to visit beautiful Nauvoo. More than 30 sites await you in this quaint town along the Mississippi River. You need to allow yourself ample time, so plan to stay in the Nauvoo area for at least three days. Be sure to note the times that the sites are open. During the evening hours, as the old saying goes, “The town rolls up the sidewalk.” As of summer 2011, historic sites are open Monday-Saturday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. On Sunday, the hours are 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Every site is worth a visit, but on your trip don’t miss these 10 places:
The temple is breathtaking — the most splendid of all the restoration efforts in Nauvoo. Every effort was made to ensure that the 1846 limestone exterior of the original temple was replicated in design and dimension, including pilasters, sunstones, moonstones and star stones. Visitors are invited to walk the temple grounds and enjoy the beauty of the temple, and go into the Temple Visitors’ Center and see the film that was shown at the temple open house. The film will give a better understanding of the importance and blessings of making and keeping sacred covenants with God.
The Nauvoo Visitors’ Center is a good place to start your tour of old Nauvoo. The center was dedicated on Sept. 4, 1971, by President N. Eldon Tanner, second counselor in the First Presidency. The imposing, 24,000-square-feet structure is built of handmade brick.
In the Visitors’ Center, listen as missionaries tell the story of Joseph Smith, beginning with his First Vision and ending with his death in Carthage, Ill. Take time to view the video “Remembering Nauvoo,” which relates stories of people who actually lived in town. To hear their stories, as told from personal diaries and letters, is to journey to the beginnings of Nauvoo where men and women suffered and won great things and left shadows of a mighty presence.
Enjoy a short message from the scriptures in the Savior’s own words as you stand near a replica of the “Christus” by famed sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen.
As you walk outside the Visitors’ Center, don’t miss the Women’s Garden with its 13 heroic-sized statues symbolizing a woman’s role in the home and in society.
3. Joseph Smith historic properties
A must-see on your visit to Nauvoo are the homes in which the Prophet Joseph Smith and his family resided. To see inside these homes, start at the Joseph Smith Historic Visitors' Center owned and operated by the Community of Christ. In the center, discover a bookstore, a rotating display of Nauvoo period antiques and an auditorium where an introductory film is shown. Then the walking tour of Joseph’s historic properties begins.
The tour begins at the Joseph Smith Homestead, a block house made of square logs. In 1803 the homestead was used as the first Indian agency established in Illinois. Next, enjoy the guided tour of the Joseph Smith Mansion House, a two-story frame home. Joseph Smith moved his family into the 22-room Mansion House on or about Aug. 31, 1843. During his stay, the Mansion House functioned as the Smiths' private residence, a hotel and a meeting place.
After the tour, take time to visit the Smith Family Cemetery located next to the homestead. Look for the granite monument that marks the final resting place of Joseph, Emma and Hyrum Smith. Also look for monuments placed to honor other Smith family members. Then go next door to the reconstructed Joseph Smith Red Brick Store. In the 1840s the store served as a town hall, courthouse and business and general office of the church. On the second floor the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo was organized. Inside the store you will find books, gifts, historic reprints and a wide assortment of candy from the era.
Once known as the Masonic Lodge, the Cultural Hall is another must-stop on your visit. The hall was once the center of civic activities — funerals, court sessions, schools, dances and banquets. Most remembered were the plays and concerts that filled the hall to overflowing. Did you know that Brigham Young played the role of a high priest in “Pizzaro” to a standing-room-only crowd in the hall?
Today the Cultural Hall is home to the nightly “Rendezvous in Old Nauvoo” and the matinee “Just Plain Anna Amanda” productions during the summer season.
Behind the Cultural Hall is the Family Living Center. In this center, missionaries demonstrate crafts and trades of the early Saints. Are you interested in learning how to make candles, barrels or ropes? Perhaps spinning yarn, weaving rugs or pottery will capture your fancy. Missionaries daily captivate both young and old with their demonstrations of various 19th-century skills.
The restored gun shop of Jonathan Browning is a fascinating stop. At age 19, Browning saw a fine-looking rifle with the name “Samuel Porter, Nashville” stamped on the stock. He borrowed his father’s horse, rode 30 miles to Nashville to find Samuel Porter and asked to become his apprentice without pay. That was the beginning of Browning's creative and successful gun-making career.
Browning invented a repeating rifle with a revolving cylinder similar to a pistol. His son John Moses carried on his legacy. Many of the two men's weapons are displayed in the Browning gun shop.
If homes could speak of their residents, this one would tell of two Kimballs who owned it — Apostle Heber C. Kimball and his great-grandson Dr. J. Leroy Kimball. Heber lived in the home only four months and five days before leaving Nauvoo for the West. As for J. Leroy, he remodeled the home but never lived in it when the home became an immediate tourist attraction. Visit the home and discover why.
In spring of 1843 Wilford Woodruff started building his home in Nauvoo by bartering for 1,500 bricks in exchange for a pair of shoes, a shawl and a pair of pantaloons. He worked hard on the home, recording in his journal, “I went to a brick kiln and flung out 7,000 brick for my house ... nearly melted myself.” Can you find each of the eight fireplaces in the home? Fireplaces were an unusual comfort on the Illinois frontier in the 1840s. As for the owner, Wilford Woodruff spent fewer than a hundred nights in the finished home before joining the exodus to the West.
9. Wagon Tour of “Old Nauvoo”
Just in case you didn’t get to see it all, take a wagon ride through the historic city. The ride can be a little bumpy, but the hour spent in the wagon will be well worth it. Listen as missionaries tell of historic sites as the wagon moves along. You will pass by a grove where outdoor church meetings took place and a reconstructed David and Patty Sessions log home. Did you know that Patty Sessions was a midwife and is credited with delivering hundreds of babies in the Nauvoo era? Then take a look at the Lyon Drug Store and herb garden, the Scovil Bakery and Pioneer Pastimes where young and old participate in spirited pioneer games. Discover the Pendleton Log School, the brickyard and Lucy Mack Smith’s brick home. Learn of the bustling blacksmith shop where wagons were built for the westward journey. You will find yourself captivated by the stories missionaries share of the great and noble who long ago walked the streets of Nauvoo. Don’t forget to look for the wonders of nature on this ride. Turtles sunning on floating logs in the Mississippi or flocks of geese flying overhead are always the norm.
10. Trail of Hope
No tour to historic Nauvoo would be complete without a walk down Parley Street or what is known as the “Trail of Hope.” Beginning in February 1846, families loaded their wagons and lined the street waiting for their turn to cross the Mississippi River on a skiff. President Gordon B. Hinckley, at the dedication of the Nauvoo Temple on June 27, 2002, asked everyone in Nauvoo to capture the spirit of the pioneers who made this long and arduous trek by walking down Parley Street.
As you walk the Trail of Hope read the “reader boards” that tell of those who left Nauvoo.
“My last act in that precious spot was to tidy the rooms, sweep up the floor and set the broom in its accustomed place behind the door. Then with emotions in my heart ... I gently closed the door and faced an unknown future; faced it with faith in God.” — Bathsheba Smith
What are you waiting for? Nauvoo beckons!
Of course, it isn’t necessary to visit Nauvoo to know that Jesus is the Christ, Joseph Smith is the Prophet of the Restoration or that the Book of Mormon is the word of God, but don’t be surprised if your travels include a testimony-building component. The sacred sites you visit will be remembered long after suitcases are unpacked or as the poet Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain penned, "In Great Deeds, something abides. On great fields, something stays. Forms change and pass. Bodies disappear; but spirits linger."
Susan Easton Black is a professor of LDS Church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University and an author. She is also past associate dean of General Education and Honors and director of Church History in the Religious Studies Center.