116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
NAUVOO, Ill. — Sunday isn’t the best day to visit Nauvoo, unless you like being the only people milling about this Mississippi River city, known primarily as the place where Latter-day Saints prophet Joseph Smith and his followers settled from 1839 to 1846.
Those years were tumultuous for those settlers affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Driven out of Missouri by order of the governor, they fled to Iowa and Illinois. The history tab under beautifulnauvoo.com outlines how Smith bought property in what is now Nauvoo, and had workers drain nearly 800 acres of swamp to make the land livable.
History of Nauvoo
In 1840, the site’s name was changed from “Commerce” to “Nauvoo,” a Hebrew word meaning “beautiful.” By 1844, the population swelled to more than 10,000 residents, many of whom worked with their hands as brick- and rope makers, builders, gunsmiths and blacksmiths. Evidence of those trades is on view in the village shops, but many of the artisan demonstrations have been curtailed during the pandemic.
With the city’s quick growth came unrest and an uprising against Mormons in 1844. Smith, his brother Hyrum, and other city councilmen were asked to turn themselves in at Carthage, where they were jailed on June 24, 1844. Three days later, a mob stormed the jail and shot and killed the brothers, wounded a third man. A fourth man managed to escape.
Nauvoo residents didn’t retaliate, but with violence against the faith community escalating, by 1846, new leader Brigham Young urged them to leave. Many crossed the Mississippi with wagons that spring and summer. By fall, the Anti-Mormon Party attacked the city, and after two days, the remaining Latter-day Saints were given an hour to pack and leave.
Iowa City also played a part in the westward migration 10 years later. According to the church’s online history site, the westbound railroad stopped in Iowa City, and that’s where nearly 3,000 members picked up handcarts to continue their trek to Utah.
Circling back to the beautifulnauvoo website, the region’s earliest residents were members of the Sauk and Fox tribes, forced from their eastern lands; followed by European explorers and surveyors who eventually started the towns of Venus and Commerce in the 1820s and ’30s. The Latter-day Saints arrived in 1839, and shortly thereafter came French Icarians, German and Irish Catholic immigrants, all of whom have left a stamp that prevails through the city’s business district and churches.
While it helps to have some knowledge of this history before you head south to Nauvoo, you’ll see history around every corner in this town that lies across the Mississippi River from Fort Madison.
What: Nauvoo, Ill., site of a historic settlement by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
Where: A little over two hours south of Cedar Rapids via Highway 218 or 61; cross the Mississippi River at Fort Madison, but if the bridge is closed, go on down to Keokuk
The two main routes to get there are via Highway 218, straight south of Cedar Rapids for 119 miles, or Highway 61 to the east, about 130 miles south of Cedar Rapids. Either way, it will take a little over two hours on a good day, but the Santa Fe Swing Span Bridge at Fort Madison is closing for five weeks in mid-September, which means motorists will need to cross the Mississippi at Burlington or Keokuk.
I do not recommend the Burlington cross. Because the Fort Madison bridge had swung open to allow a barge to go downriver, my brother and I waited an eternity for the bridge to close. So on the way home, we decided to drive up the Illinois side. That took so long that we were afraid I’d missed a turn somewhere. We finally slid into Burlington with a half-gallon of gas in my car. (Gas was sky-high in Illinois, and I thought we didn’t have far to go to reach much cheaper gas in Burlington. I was wrong.)
So if the Fort Madison bridge is closed, go on down to Keokuk and backtrack from Hamilton to Nauvoo. And if you go on a Sunday, have dinner in Hamilton.
An internet search warned me that the historic attractions we wanted to see opened at noon on Sundays, and that because of staffing shortages, the 1841 Hotel Nauvoo was only open for dining on Friday and Saturday evenings, so we would miss the legendary Sunday brunch. It’s still open for lodging, and the town offers a variety of hotel, motel and bed-and-breakfast sites.
What I didn’t realize is that all the shops and eateries in town would be closed on a Sunday. We had spotted the sign for a winery just north of town, so we decided to see what was available there for munching. Thankfully, The Wine Barrel at the five-generation Baxter’s Vineyards & Winery, 2010 E. Parley St., serves pizza, drinks and appetizers, and for $16, we had soft pretzels with cheese, a pizza and two pops. Plenty to fuel our explorations.
The winery staff next door likened their shop to an old-time general store, chock full of specialty food items (some of which require a cooler), mixes, wine from the family vines, T-shirts and souvenirs. A room in the back holds a mini-museum of winemaking memorabilia and equipment, and is open to the public.
We took the back road south from the winery and discovered a hidden gem: the 148-acre Nauvoo State Park. With old-growth pine trees soaring overhead, the park sports the 13-acre Horton Lake for fishing and boating (electric trolling motors only), playground and picnic facilities, plus hiking, camping, cross-country skiing and sledding. Details: www2.illinois.gov/dnr/Parks/Pages/Nauvoo.aspx
The big payoff is the historic village on the flatlands next to the river.
You can meander the streets by vehicle or on foot, but the best place to start is the Historic Nauvoo Visitors’ Center, 290 N. Main St.
This large structure is a font of information, with beautiful displays and dioramas, including one that lets the public peer inside the massive, gleaming white temple which opened in 2002 on the bluff overlooking the mostly red brick buildings below.
The first temple also sat on this site, where visitors now can walk around the exterior, enjoy the flowers, the statue of Joseph and Hyram Smith on horseback, marking the spot where they paused to survey the town before riding to Carthage. Today’s visitors can enjoy the sweeping vista, with the Iowa riverside in the distance.
Construction of the original temple began in 1841. The structure was dedicated in 1846, but two years later, an arsonist set it on fire, and two years after that, a tornado destroyed the north wall. The unstable structure was razed in 1867.
At the visitors’ center, missionaries and church members at the guest services desk will assist you in scheduling walking tours of the various village buildings, and point towar the wagon and carriage rides typically available nearby. Young missionaries also perform at the center daily. Other shows, concerts and vignettes help entertain and tell the stories of the settlement, as well.
Brochures will help guide you to the Joseph Smith Historic Site; Homes of the Apostles; Temple City homes and structures; Frontier Life buildings, including the Pastimes Pavilion, Scovil Bakery and Lyon Drug Store; Main Street Trades, featuring the Browning gun shop, a tin shop and brickyard; and the Pioneer Trail, with a somber Pioneer Memorial at the site of the exodus across the river.
Various festivals are held throughout the year, from summer pageants to fall celebrations and an upcoming Dec. 10 Christmas Walk in Old Nauvoo.
The pandemic has affected some of the attractions and activities, so for the latest information, go to nauvoohistoricsites.org/updates.
And even if some sites and activities are on hold, it’s still a wonderful place to spend a day away.
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