As he stood facing a crowd inside This Is The Place Heritage Park’s newly constructed Pioneer Center, President M. Russell Ballard, acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, admitted to being a little emotional Friday.
The 92-year-old church leader recalled discussions going back to 1996, prior to the church celebrating the sesquicentennial of the pioneers’ arrival in the Salt Lake Valley in 1997. After much dialogue and prayer, a decision was made to develop the park into a pioneer village. But only the Brigham Young home and perhaps a few cabins were there at the time, hardly making it a place for families to come and learn about Utah’s pioneer heritage.
“We talked about the need for a legacy that would last forever, celebrating the fact that our pioneer forefathers found their way to Utah and built this great state,” President Ballard said. “With the generosity of many of you who are here this morning, and many, many others who contributed millions of dollars, we have what we have today.”
The 21,000-square foot Pioneer Center, constructed over the last 17 months, is the newest addition to This is the Place Heritage Park. The new building funded entirely through private donations.
More than 125 people attended the Pioneer Center dedication Friday morning in which COVID-19 safety protocols were observed.
Supported by rustic wooden timbers in tribute to the sturdy nature of pioneers, the Pioneer Center features sculptures, artwork and multi-media displays that tell the pioneer story and how the This Is The Place Monument was created by Mahonri M. Young.
Visitors will appreciate Tom Holdman’s stained glass chandelier and its reflection of a wagon wheel, along with a life-size bronze sculpture by Roger and Stefanie Hunt depicting the past and future of Utah’s pioneers titled, “Then and Now.”
The Hunts said they were deeply honored to take part in a project honoring Utah’s pioneer heritage. A project like this would normally take years, yet the Hunts finished in about seven months.
“It’s just so meaningful ... and an absolute miracle,” Roger said moments before sharing a fist bump and quiet hello with President Ballard. “We never dreamed we would be part of a project like this. This is a dream come true.”
Not far from the sculpture is a large window with the view focused on the monument. The center also includes a diorama of the 450-acre park.
The Pioneer Center will serve as the new ticketing location and house the Visitor Center Gift Shop.
Along with President Ballard, Friday’s event was attended by Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, church leaders and other dignitaries.
Ellis Ivory, chair and executive director of This is the Place Foundation, emceed the 30-minute program. The Rev. France A. Davis offered a prayer and David Studdert gave remarks on behalf of his father, Stephen M. Studdert, Pioneer Center fundraising chair, who was unable to attend in person but who joined via Zoom.
In his dedicatory prayer, President Ballard prayed for protection over the park and that people of all faiths and religious backgrounds would feel welcome there as they learn the pioneer story.
“We dedicate this beautiful Pioneer Center now to the state of Utah for visitors and our citizens who will come and have renewed feeling in their hearts of the great blessing of pioneers, of those who were willing to blaze the trail and give to us what we have today.”
While delivering brief remarks, Gov. Cox related a true account from his pioneer ancestry. Learning about his family history in Utah changed his life when he was a troubled teenager. Whether your family has been in Utah for generations or only just arrived, it is important that Utahns feel connected to the state’s rich history, the governor said.
“This history matters. It’s your history now. If you live here, you are a Utahn and this is your history, this is your legacy. It is something to be proud of,” he said. “We can’t forget that history because it guides us in the future.”
Among those in attendance were Sister Harriet Uchtdorf, wife of Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, and their daughter, Antje Uchtdorf Evans. Although from Germany, the pioneer story is “dear to their hearts,” they said.
“It’s such a tender feeling to come here and see all this history that we claim also in our faith. We congratulate Utah and everyone all over the world who comes here, who can feel the special pioneering spirit and the sacrifice that the people gave to make this beautiful place, to make it bloom,” Evans said. “We are from Germany, and yet we still have that great connection. We feel it like anyone else ... we can claim the story and this legacy because it inspires us. It makes us better and want to be better when we see all these stories.”
In a short interview with the Deseret News following the event, President Ballard encouraged Utahns to come visit the park.
“My plea would be that everybody in the state of Utah ought to come up here and see what has been built here in the last 20 years. There aren’t many state parks more beautiful than this one, and it continues to get better and better,” President Ballard said. “Our hope is the day will come when anybody comes to Salt Lake, from wherever in the world, one of the things they will have to do would be to come and visit This Is The Place Heritage Park. They will learn more about who we are and our history coming here because they can see it.”
Learn more about This Is The Place State Park at thisistheplace.org.