On the western edge of the Illinois prairie in a bend of the MississippiRiver once stood a city of celestial light. The Mormons called it Nauvoo, oldHebrew for "beautiful place."
It's hard to believe this peaceful town of 1,100 was at one time not onlythe center of the Mormon world but also the largest city in Illinois, as wellas a place of great civil unrest. Located some 245 miles southwest of Chicago,Nauvoo is not easy to get to -- you must want to come here -- but it is wellworth the long and meandering journey.
Five thousand Mormons arrived in Nauvoo in early 1839. In those days itbore the unlikely name of Commerce, a misnomer since the village harboredlittle more than a few scattered souls in the midst of swampy wetlands. TheMormons drained the soggy ground and wasted no time in creating a livablecommunity, gobbling up parcels of land in the process. Their purpose was tocreate an American Eden, where they could worship as they pleased, free fromthe intervention of obtrusive outsiders.
Nauvoo was a self-sufficient city-state, with its own form of municipalgovernment, system of schools (including a university) and even its ownmilitia. Its unusual status was largely the result of the efforts of itscharismatic leader, Joseph Smith.
The Mormons courted controversy. As the church's membership grew, so didits opposition from the non-Mormon element. Perhaps mainstream society'sattitude toward this most American of religions has much to do with thefaith's unconventional origins and its equally uncommon beliefs, includingpolygamy (which has since been abandoned).
Smith was a passionate man, who made enemies with great frequency. His lifeended abruptly some 18 miles east of Nauvoo in the county seat of Carthage. OnJune 27, 1844, Joseph and his brother Hyrum were killed by a mob while beingheld in the Carthage County Jail for having ordered the destruction of anewspaper facility of a rival Mormom group. The jail has been converted to amuseum and visitor center.
Nauvoo has two major museums devoted to the Mormon faith. The Church ofJesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) runs a visitor center. Housed in ahandsome modern red brick building, it features historical exhibits on theorigins of Nauvoo as well as a 15-foot by 15-foot scale model of the town asit appeared during its heyday, in 1846. Do take a few moments to savor thepeaceful sculpture garden in the back, "Monument to Women," which celebrateswomen's achievements.
Meanwhile, an offshoot of the Mormon church, the Reorganized Church ofJesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (RLDS), operates the Joseph Smith HistoricCenter. The center is a fine starting point for visiting the Smith Homesteadand the Mansion House, the latter built in 1841 as a hotel for visitors toearly Nauvoo and also the home of Smith and his family. The adjoining cemeteryis the final resting place of Joseph and Emma Smith, Hyrum Smith, Lucy MackSmith and other family members.
The best way to gain a better understanding of the Mormon mindset is towalk the streets of Nauvoo's historic district. Free guided tours from the LDSvisitors center stop at more than two dozen restored sites, including thePrinting Office, the Brigham Young Home and the Cultural and Masonic Hall. Thelatter was not only the cultural center of town in old Nauvoo, where churchand business meetings, funerals, court sessions and social events were held,but it also housed the police and headquarters for the Nauvoo Legion, or localmilitia. The Lucy Mack Smith Home was once the home of Joseph Smith's mother.
There is also a replica of a blacksmith shop, bakery (where you can samplecomplimentary ginger cookies), drug store, tinsmith shop, post office andgeneral store, gun shop, pioneer log home and school, and a bootmaking andshoemaking shop. Free demonstrations of early pioneer crafts are given, suchas candle making, barrel making and pottery throwing.
If you don't have time or lack the inclination to take a guided tour, theUptown Information Center on Illinois Highway 96 in the heart of town carriesa cassette-tape tour.
Undoubtedly the glory of old Nauvoo belonged to the great temple that stoodon the town's highest hill. The excavation of the Nauvoo Temple began in theautumn of 1840, the cornerstone was laid in April 1841 and the buildingfinally dedicated on May 1, 1846.
The temple was used for religious conferences, meetings and sacredceremonies. Constructed of native gray limestone, its spire rose 165 feet,making it the tallest structure west of Cincinnati and north of St. Louis.
The temple did not stand long, however -- only a scant two years. It waspartially destroyed by arsonists on the evening of Oct. 9, 1848, when theflames from its all-wood interior lit up the night sky. Further damageresulted in May 1850 when a tornado tore into town. But now Nauvoo ispreparing for another resurrection of sorts, for there are plans afoot torebuild the temple.
There are a few reminders in Nauvoo of the French Icarians who followed theMormons after their departure and who mounted a short-lived attempt atcommunal living. The French Icarian Museum promotes the preservation of Frenchheritage in America. Another remnant of Nauvoo's Icarian past is Baxter'sVillage, the closest thing that Nauvoo has to a mall. The "village" consistsof various arts and crafts shops, a bed-and-breakfast and a winery that is runby the great-great grandson of its founder Emile Baxter, who came to Nauvoo in1855 to join the Icarians.
Additional arts and crafts can be found along the main street in TempleHouse Village, a series of log cabin-like buildings that were left behind froma movie called "The Legacy," which the Mormons made about a dozen years ago.Visit the Kiln Shed for examples of Nauvoo pottery. Bits-n-Pieces specializesin geodes (small stones with crystal-filled cavities), sculpture, raku potteryand ceramic sculpture (mostly of the abstract and expressionist variety). JudyJones Pottery and Art Gallery stocks plastic Nauvoo sun faces cast fromoriginal clay works, as well as sunstone magnets, key holders, ornaments,chimes and even night lights. Especially striking though are the lovely piecesof art created from Mississippi River driftwood by Kathy Johnson, a retiredlocal art teacher. For bookworms, the Old House Bookstore at 1250 MulhollandSt. is a great place to bone up on your reading of all things Mormon.
Several antique malls line Mulholland Street, including Old Nauvoo AntiqueMall and Ruh's Hardware and Antiques. At 2592 Sycamore St., Rita's Romantiquesalso stocks collectibles as well as walnut and oak furniture.
Don't leave Nauvoo without sampling the town's champion -- and very tasty-- blue cheese, which ranked the best in its class at the 1999 national U.S.Cheese Contest. It's so good that even non-blue cheese lovers will be able toappreciate its creamy texture and piquant taste. You can find it on sale inlocal shops and restaurants.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Weekend expenses for two:
Lodging (two nights) ..... $184
Meals ..................... $65
Gas ....................... $41
Total .................... $290
IF YOU GO
Nauvoo is about 245 miles southwest of Chicago. Take Interstate Highway 80west to Interstate Highway 74, just east of Moline. Proceed south toGalesburg. Follow U.S. Highway 34 to Illinois Highway 94 and then takeIllinois Highway 96 west into Nauvoo.
Grandpa John's Cafe (1255 Mulholland St., Nauvoo) specializes in homemadepies and has an old-fashioned soda fountain.
Hotel Nauvoo Restaurant (1290 Mulholland St.) was built in 1840. This fullyrenovated gem boasts six dining rooms that can accommodate a total of 350people. The dining rooms are open from mid-March to Nov. 20. Forty-item saladbar and buffet served daily except Monday from 5 to 8.30 p.m.; Sunday from 11a.m. to 3 p.m.
Nauvoo Mill & Bakery (1530 Mulholland St.) features homemade sandwichesserved in the small cafe and also carries Nauvoo blue cheese, whole wheatbaked goods, gourmet jams and jellies.
New China (519 Main St., Keokuk, Iowa) is located across the MississippiRiver and serves Mandarin and Szechwan cuisine. Lunch is served from 11 a.m.to 2 p.m., dinner from 4.30 to 9 p.m. daily. Closed Monday.
Ancient Pines Bed & Breakfast (2015 Parley St.; 217-453-2767) is aturn-of-the-century home that is looking a bit worse for wear located acrossthe road from Baxter's Village. Highlights include stained glass windows,pressed metal ceilings, clawfoot tub, baby grand piano. It has three roomswith shared baths for $55 per night, including a full breakfast.
Hotel Nauvoo (1290 Mulholland St.; 217-453-2211) was built in 1840 as aresidence. This historic and charming inn has eight rooms, all with privatebath. Rates range from $49 to $59 per night based on double occupancy.
Mississippi Memories (1 Riverview Terrace,; 217-453-2771) is a lovely B&Blocated 2 1/2 miles south of Nauvoo on Illinois 96 and run by Marge and DeanStarr. Two large decks overlook the Mississippi. Most rooms have river views.There are four rooms: two with a queen-size bed and private bath go for $95each; one with a double bed and private bath for $85; and one with double bedand a private bath down the hall for $69.
Nauvoo Family Motel (1875 Mulholland; 217-453-6527; reservations only800-416-4470) has 66 rooms. Rates average about $60. The gift shop stocksMormon books, tapes, videos, jewelry and Mormon fine and folk art.Mormon-owned.
VISITORS CENTERS AND MUSEUMS
Old Carthage Jail and Visitors Center (Route 136, Carthage; 217-357-2989)has a restored jail, visitors center and memorial gardens. Open Monday throughSaturday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., Sunday from 10.30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Free.
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Visitors Center (1295Mulholland St., Nauvoo; 217-453-2237) is open 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday throughFriday and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday. Free.
French Icarian Museum (2205 E. Parley St.; 217-453-2281 or 217-453-2437) isopen from 1 to 4 p.m. from April 1 to Nov. 1 or by appointment other dates.
Joseph Smith Historic Center (149 Water St.; 217-453-2246) is open dailyfrom 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 1 to 5 p.m. Free.
For background reading before your visit to Nauvoo, you may want to pick up"Nauvoo: Kingdom on the Mississippi" by Robert Bruce Flanders and "LesIcarians: The Utopian Dream in Europe and America" by Robert P. Sutton. Bothare published by the University of Illinois Press.
Nauvoo Tourism, P.O. Box 41, Nauvoo; 217-453-6648.
Western Illinois Tourism Council, 107 E. Carroll Street, Macomb;309-837-7460.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times