NAUVOO, Ill.—On the western edge of the Illinois prairie in a bend of the Mississippi River once stood a city of celestial light. The Mormons called it Nauvoo, old Hebrew for "beautiful place."
It's hard to believe this peaceful town of 1,100 was at one time not only the center of the Mormon world but also the largest city in Illinois, as well as 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 well worth the long and meandering journey.
Five thousand Mormons arrived in Nauvoo in early 1839. In those days it bore the unlikely name of Commerce, a misnomer since the village harbored little more than a few scattered souls in the midst of swampy wetlands. The Mormons drained the soggy ground and wasted no time in creating a livable community, gobbling up parcels of land in the process. Their purpose was to create an American Eden, where they could worship as they pleased, free from the intervention of obtrusive outsiders.
Nauvoo was a self-sufficient city-state, with its own form of municipal government, system of schools (including a university) and even its own militia. Its unusual status was largely the result of the efforts of its charismatic leader, Joseph Smith.
The Mormons courted controversy. As the church's membership grew, so did its opposition from the non-Mormon element. Perhaps mainstream society's attitude toward this most American of religions has much to do with the faith's unconventional origins and its equally uncommon beliefs, including polygamy (which has since been abandoned).
Smith was a passionate man, who made enemies with great frequency. His life ended abruptly some 18 miles east of Nauvoo in the county seat of Carthage. On June 27, 1844, Joseph and his brother Hyrum were killed by a mob while being held in the Carthage County Jail for having ordered the destruction of a newspaper facility of a rival Mormom group. The jail has been converted to a museum and visitor center.
Nauvoo has two major museums devoted to the Mormon faith. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) runs a visitor center. Housed in a handsome modern red brick building, it features historical exhibits on the origins of Nauvoo as well as a 15-foot by 15-foot scale model of the town as it appeared during its heyday, in 1846. Do take a few moments to savor the peaceful sculpture garden in the back, "Monument to Women," which celebrates women's achievements.
Meanwhile, an offshoot of the Mormon church, the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (RLDS), operates the Joseph Smith Historic Center. The center is a fine starting point for visiting the Smith Homestead and the Mansion House, the latter built in 1841 as a hotel for visitors to early Nauvoo and also the home of Smith and his family. The adjoining cemetery is the final resting place of Joseph and Emma Smith, Hyrum Smith, Lucy Mack Smith and other family members.
The best way to gain a better understanding of the Mormon mindset is to walk the streets of Nauvoo's historic district. Free guided tours from the LDS visitors center stop at more than two dozen restored sites, including the Printing Office, the Brigham Young Home and the Cultural and Masonic Hall. The latter was not only the cultural center of town in old Nauvoo, where church and business meetings, funerals, court sessions and social events were held, but it also housed the police and headquarters for the Nauvoo Legion, or local militia. 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 sample complimentary ginger cookies), drug store, tinsmith shop, post office and general store, gun shop, pioneer log home and school, and a bootmaking and shoemaking shop. Free demonstrations of early pioneer crafts are given, such as candle making, barrel making and pottery throwing.
If you don't have time or lack the inclination to take a guided tour, the Uptown Information Center on Illinois Highway 96 in the heart of town carries a cassette-tape tour.
Undoubtedly the glory of old Nauvoo belonged to the great temple that stood on the town's highest hill. The excavation of the Nauvoo Temple began in the autumn of 1840, the cornerstone was laid in April 1841 and the building finally dedicated on May 1, 1846.
The temple was used for religious conferences, meetings and sacred ceremonies. 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 was partially destroyed by arsonists on the evening of Oct. 9, 1848, when the flames from its all-wood interior lit up the night sky. Further damage resulted in May 1850 when a tornado tore into town. But now Nauvoo is preparing for another resurrection of sorts, for there are plans afoot to rebuild the temple.
There are a few reminders in Nauvoo of the French Icarians who followed the Mormons after their departure and who mounted a short-lived attempt at communal living. The French Icarian Museum promotes the preservation of French heritage in America. Another remnant of Nauvoo's Icarian past is Baxter's Village, the closest thing that Nauvoo has to a mall. The "village" consists of various arts and crafts shops, a bed-and-breakfast and a winery that is run by the great-great grandson of its founder Emile Baxter, who came to Nauvoo in 1855 to join the Icarians.
Additional arts and crafts can be found along the main street in Temple House Village, a series of log cabin-like buildings that were left behind from a 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 specializes in geodes (small stones with crystal-filled cavities), sculpture, raku pottery and ceramic sculpture (mostly of the abstract and expressionist variety). Judy Jones Pottery and Art Gallery stocks plastic Nauvoo sun faces cast from original clay works, as well as sunstone magnets, key holders, ornaments, chimes and even night lights. Especially striking though are the lovely pieces of art created from Mississippi River driftwood by Kathy Johnson, a retired local art teacher. For bookworms, the Old House Bookstore at 1250 Mulholland St. is a great place to bone up on your reading of all things Mormon.
Several antique malls line Mulholland Street, including Old Nauvoo Antique Mall and Ruh's Hardware and Antiques. At 2592 Sycamore St., Rita's Romantiques also 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 to appreciate its creamy texture and piquant taste. You can find it on sale in local shops and restaurants.