Nauvoo, City of Wine and Mormons
Whose town? Whose story?
May 25, 1979
I spent some time in Nauvoo on a magazine assignment. (The resulting piece is here.) I learned much more of interest than I could squeeze into the small space I was allotted by that publication, so I wrote this second, much longer piece. This version is slightly improved from the original.
Interesting places tend to have interesting stories to tell, but Nauvoo, if anything, has too many stories to tell. The genteel fight to control the historical narrative in that Mississippi River town, which I only touch on here, is the subject of a 2018 book by Scott C. Esplin, Return to the City of Joseph: Modern Mormonism's Contest for the Soul of Nauvoo (University of Illinois Press, 2018). The origins of the "Mormon war" of the 1840s is the subject of Kingdom of Nauvoo: The Rise and Fall of a Religious Empire on the American Frontier by Benjamin Park (Liveright, 2020), which I review here.
See also Woman of the Year.
One hundred and thirty years ago Nauvoo, as everyone who lives there delights in telling visitors, was the biggest city in Illinois, bigger even than Chicago 220 miles to the northeast. But Nauvoo wasn't just the biggest town in Illinois. It was the biggest Mormon town in the world, home city of the prophet Joseph Smith and his Latter Day Saints, their City Beautiful, their Jerusalem, their refuge from the howling mobs that had driven them out of Missouri in 1839.
They had dragged themselves across the Mississippi into Illinois in the dead of that winter, gathering eventually in Hancock County twelve miles upstream from Keokuk, Iowa. Smith, who claimed to know such things, named it "Nauvoo," which he said meant "beautiful place" in Hebrew.
The spot Smith chose for his followers lay in a horseshoe-shaped bend in the river. The site covered roughly six square miles, most of it a benchlike "flat" along the river, bordered by bluffs. The flat was wet and rotten with malaria—it was said that Nauvoo's first industry was the manufacture of coffins for the people who died that first summer—but Smith laid out his new Zion there anyway, according to a plan he said was told to him by God. Seven years later, eleven thousand people lived at Nauvoo, with more living in the countryside around it.
Nauvoo was Joseph Smith's city. To his people he was the Prophet, and he stoked the fires of faith that built it. At first the other settlers of western Illinois admired Smith as they admired all the Saints, because of their diligence and their devotion. But he came to be feared and finally hated because of the claims he made to that diligence and that devotion. In 1844 he and his brother were murdered by a mob in a jail cell in nearby Carthage.
The ambush that killed Smith killed his city too. Within twenty months of his death the Saints followed their new leader, Brigham Young, on their march away from the bend in the river to the valley of the Great Salt Lake in the Utah territory. Except as sightseers, they did not come back for 116 years, until 1962, when they returned to rebuild Nauvoo, and thus begin depositing a new layer in the rich alluvium of Nauvoo's past.
Dr. J. LeRoy Kimball lives with his wife in a white house on Hibbard Street on the shoulder of the bluff overlooking the flat. Dr. Kimball belongs to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints—a Utah Mormon in the sectarian shorthand of Nauvoo. Though the doctor has money, he chooses not to live like a wealthy man, and the most sumptuous thing about his house is the view. The flat unrolls beneath his picture window to the Mississippi, and beyond that a line of bluffs on the Iowa side.
Dr. Kimball is nearly seventy, balding, with eyeglasses and an unassertive mustache. His manner shows a formality easily mistaken for stiffness. It shows in his carriage (which is erect), his gestures (which are self-contained) and his dress (which even on hot summer days includes a suit and tie). When he speaks it is in a soft matter-of-fact baritone of a man who is used to being listened to.
It was Dr. Kimball who generalled the Saints' march back to Nauvoo. He is president of the Mormon mission at Nauvoo and president of Nauvoo Restoration, Incorporated, the not-for-profit organization the Utah church set up in 1962 to restore the old town. It is through NRI that the Utah church has so far funneled an estimated $7 million in research and restoration money into Nauvoo, the "Williamsburg of the Midwest." It is generally conceded that Dr. Kimball controls the strings on that capacious purse.
It is August in Nauvoo, a few days before the opening of the annual four-day run of City of Joseph, an "historical musical of Nauvoo from 1839 to 1845" which draws crowds of some forty thousand each year. It is performed on an outdoor stage dug out of the side of the bluff a block below the doctor's house and as he settles into an easy chair the sounds of rehearsal occasionally roll up the bluff and fall exhausted into his living room.
"I started it, see," he explains. "I first came to Nauvoo in 1929 when I was a medical student at Northwestern University. My great-grandfather used to live here—Heber C. Kimball, a very important man in Nauvoo in the old days. Then, many years later when I was looking for a place to retire and get away from medicine, well, naturally, I came back here. I bought the old place and had it fixed up. That was in '54.
"People used to ask me, 'Shouldn't you build a monument to Heber C. Kimball?' and I'd tell them, why, no, there's no need to, you see. He built one himself." From the City of Joseph stage come fragments of the celebratory chant that makes up the opening number: "City of Joseph, City Beautiful, City of Joseph, Nauvoo!"
When Kimball dedicated the house in 1960 it was 114 years old, one of only three dozen Mormon buildings to survive into the 20th century. More than a thousand people showed up to see it. "That's when I began to think that the interest in Nauvoo was greater than I thought," he says now. He moved out, installed a couple in the house as caretakers, and opened it to the fifteen thousand tourists who visited it the first year.
The experience excited in the doctor a "grand vision"—a plan to resurrect old Nauvoo, and thus rededicate the monument that Saints like his great-grandfather had built to themselves. As he talks, the loudspeakers on the flat blare the finale from City of Joseph. "The things men believe in," the chorus sings, "are the things they do."
Modern Nauvoo had taken root on the bluff away from the soured dreams of the flat. A young scholar named Bruce Flanders visited the flat in the early 1960s, when NRI first began buying up the roughly 1,200 acres that made up the old town plat and a surrounding buffer zone. "The town covers more than six square miles, much of it open fields and tangled brush," he wrote later. "Houses are scattered about at wide intervals, some inhabited, some empty, some in ruins. Superimposed upon the whole is a gridiron of old streets, some in use, others almost but not quite incorporated into the surrounding fields and woods."
Most of the log and frame buildings on the flat had long since collapsed or burned, but many of the sturdier brick buildings survived. These were the houses of the better-off church officials, business places, and public buildings, and their presence confused archeologists and misled visitors who deduced from such remains a town more elegant, more permanent than old Nauvoo had ever been.
Most of the Saints came to Illinois from New England and New York, and Nauvoo was a museum of Eastern seaboard architecture. Those buildings have been restored or rebuilt, and more will be. Intruders from later eras were razed, streets graveled, empty lots sodded with bright new grass. A visitors center was built that has exhibits and offices for the NRI staff. In its original incarnation Nauvoo was dirty, violent, half-formed like any frontier town; its new self is immaculate and placid almost to the point of torpor. From up on the bluff, where the new town stands, one can watch the tourists' cars glide noiselessly at precise right angles over the flat, which looks like an architect's model come eerily to life.
The Nauvoo Visitors Center sits in sixteen acres of the flat at the north end of Main Street. It was built in 1971 by NRI to house offices, an exhibition hall, and two auditoria. At 153-feet square and two stories tall it is by far the biggest single building in Nauvoo.
Inside, young male guides dressed in the uniform of the Mormon elder—white dress shirt, tie, dark suit, unfashionably short hair—pad softly on rust-colored carpet, towing strings of shuffling tourists behind them. The center's cross-shaped exhibit hall occupies most of the first floor. In it are paintings, models, and maps charting the strange odyssey of Joseph Smith and his followers. Few of the thousands of visitors who come there who are not Latter Day Saints know much about the church or its history; they listen respectfully if a little incredulously, as if they might laugh if they weren't cowed by all the talk of God.
The displays are arranged chronologically. On one wall is a sprawling map showing the tortured course of the Saints' migrations from upstate New York to Ohio, Missouri, Illinois and the Utah territory; below it are scale models of the Temple and the sacred baptismal font borne on the back of carved oxen that stood in its basement. It is the paintings that dominate the hall, though, some two dozen of them in all—"Jesus Christ Testifies of the Prophet Joseph Smith," "The coming of the Book of Mormon Prophesied," "Joseph receives the golden plates from Moroni." Each covers perhaps twenty square feet, as if no more modestly sized canvas could do justice to the enormity of the legends it depicts. The style is literal, the colors unnaturally bright and pure; faith allows no ambiguity, even in the colors of the past.
Most of the guides are young men on mission for their church. Few are even twenty-one years old, all are earnest, polite, and a little mechanical. Like guides everywhere they spend their days saying the same things over and over, and their bored tone sometimes belies the bizarreness of the tale they tell.
" . . . as the Holy Bible is the history of the Eastern hemisphere, the Book of Mormon is the history of the people of the western hemisphere in their dealings with God . . ."
". . . persecutors drove them out of Far West before they could build a temple. . . "
". . .the extermination order was self-explanatory. The Missouri governor told the Mormons, 'Get out or we'll have you killed.' That's clear enough. . . "
". . . you can see the Catholic steeple out the window. If the Temple were still standing, it would be thirty-five feet taller than that. . . "
". . . there were no jails in Nauvoo. Didn't need 'em. The Mormons didn't get out of line. The only trouble was caused by outsiders. . . "
Here and there guides stand huddled with the more persistently curious visitors. They answer their questions ("Now let me get this straight. Were they into plural marriages before they left Nauvoo?") in the way of all believers, with the bemused patience of an adult explaining to a child why it gets dark at night.
The purpose of the visitors center, in sum, is not to teach visitors about Nauvoo but to teach them about Mormonism. ("If people go to the Sistine Chapel in Rome," Dr. Kimball has noted, "they want to learn something about the Pope, don't they?") The Utah church regards the entire NRI restoration as a proselytic venture. This missionary aspect of the project threatened to chill Nauvoo's welcome to the newcomers, so NRI staff have muted their message and concentrate on the tourists rather than the townspeople.
Still, the obligations of history and religion often conflict. The exhibits at the visitors center especially reveal the ambivalence of NRI's mission in Nauvoo. In September, James L. Kimball Jr. talked about Nauvoo before a group of preservationists gathered in Springfield for the national meeting of the American Association for State and Local History. Kimball is a Utah Mormon, son of Dr. Leroy Kimball and an historian himself who has done much research on old Nauvoo. "Our site interpreters must do two things," he explained. "One, they must make clear to the visitor the representative nature of Nauvoo as an urban community in pre-Civil War America." But, he acknowledged, "Nauvoo is also a monument with shrine-like qualities to a Latter Day Saint, for whom making the trip to the bend in the river is akin to visiting Jerusalem. To them, Nauvoo is sacred space."
Reconciling the historical record with the imperatives of faith is, as Kimball observed, "a recurring, incessant, frustrating, and delightful challenge" at Nauvoo. Of the two, faith has proven the more persuasive. Samuel W. Taylor, whose 1971 book, Nightfall at Nauvoo, managed to transcend historical partisanship by making all Mormon factions angry, complained in a bibliographic note about church historians who feel compelled to "couch their history in the idiom of the missionary tract." Taylor repeated a claim made by a Mormon scholar that the eighteen-minute orientation film shown to visitors at the NRI center contained no fewer than eighty-seven errors of fact, a statistic that, to Taylor at least, showed "genuine dedication to the [church's] accepted story."
* * *
Once a year, Nauvoo invites the people of three states to join it in celebrating the Labor Day weekend Nauvoo Grape Festival. The festival is a venerable institution, having been around long enough that the Nauvoo Grapevine, the local weekly newspaper, feels entitled to refer to it as "the Historic Grape Festival"; the one that opened last September was the forty-second since its founding. The Mormons on the flat do not take part, since there is much drinking of the local wine and their church bans the use of alcohol even in a spirit of civic duty. But even so, attendance at the three-day festival averages 30,000.
There is some dispute about who started viniculture in Nauvoo. After the Mormons left, the town had been settled by a band of French communalists led by a Utopian named Etienne Cabet. But Cabet's band apparently was as unsuccessful at making wine as they were at making Utopia—the experiment broke up after seven years—and most historians date the establishment of the industry from the subsequent arrivals of German and Swiss immigrants.
By the 1860s, Nauvoo vintners were filling glasses up and down the Mississippi from St. Louis to St. Paul, and shipping fifty gallon kegs east toward New York. By the Civil War, Nauvoo had a reputation as the "grape metropolis of Illinois," which it kept until Prohibition. Today there's only one winemaker left. The product isn't very good but the tourists buy it and it lends local agriculture a marketable exoticism in country where soybeans and feed corn are the staples.
Drinking alcohol on the sidewalks is prohibited so Grape Festival celebrants stand prudently on the grass of Hotel Nauvoo's lawn, a yard or two away from legal jeopardy. The mood is happy and well-lubricated; members of the Burlington, Iowa American Legion, their parading finished, rang up an impromptu serenade, polka-style, as they marched single file, still playing, down the street to the Alleman Lodge 1853 of the Knights of Columbus for food. Labor Day weekend is the biggest weekend of the year, and for many merchants the take during the festival makes or breaks their year.
The festival concluded, as it does every year, with a performance on an outdoor sod stage at the nearby state park of the historical pageant, Quashquema to Nauvoo, a one hundred actor (counting horses) extravaganza written, staged, and acted by the townspeople. ("If it rains before the Temple-burning scene," the tickets read, "money will be refunded," the sponsors obviously agreeing with the paying customers that a pageant without a Temple-burning scene is no pageant at all.)
The climax of the pageant and thus of the festival is the ceremonial "Wedding of the Wine and Cheese." In 1937 an enterprising Nauvoo citizen named Rhode realized that the limestone caves that honeycomb Nauvoo (wine cellars mostly, abandoned when Prohibition came in) were perfect for the manufacture of blue cheese. Legend holds that the first blue cheese ever made was made accidentally in France in a cave very much like those in Nauvoo, when a careless shepherd mislaid a curd sandwich which transformed itself into blue-veined cheese. Today the Nauvoo Milk Products Company, taking to heart the tradition by which each generation in Nauvoo contrives to somehow make its living from the failures of its predecessor, manufactures tons of what cheese aficionados consider to be quite good blue cheese. The wedding—complete with trumpets and a wine barrel altar and schoolgirls dressed as milkmaids dancing with purple-smocked schoolboys —was borrowed from the city of Roquefort in the Aveyron Department in southern France, which organizers in Nauvoo say is the only other place in the entire world where it is performed.
"Roll out the barrel!" thunders a baritone, "We've got the fruit of the vine." The pageant endeavors to include all of Nauvoo's busy past, and by sheer zeal overcomes the contradictions of celebrating both wine and the abstemious Mormons in one breath. Virtually every element of town takes part, the members of the area Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints—the Missouri Mormons—taking the roles of Joseph Smith's tribe.
So for three days visitors stroll the streets of Nauvoo sipping Old Nauvoo from paper cups and generally turning the City Beautiful into the City Rowdy. In recent years the festival has been taken as an opportunity for generalized hell-raising, a sort of tune-up for the motorcycle clubs and cowboys before the big rodeo the week following in Fort Madison, when folks really tear it up. Noise and litter and petty vandalism have become commonplaces of Labor Day weekend. Last year, however, some park employees were roughed up, and a lot of people began asking whether the festival hadn't gotten a little too festive.
What to do about the festival is a much-debated topic among Nauvoo's natives. The Mormons would probably like to see it canceled; even though traffic through NRI houses is as much as five times normal on festival weekend, the traffic of apples through NRI windowpanes is pretty high too. As one NRI official notes with distaste, "We usually get the better sort down here, but it's pretty hard to keep them separated during something like this." Last year an employee of the state park who lives in Nauvoo bought space in the Grapevine for a questionnaire polling townspeople about whether it ought to be canceled, shortened, or moved to a different weekend. It was decided to hold the festival again as usual this fall, though the subject is by no means settled; events, as they say, will be watched with interest.
The festival's best friend is Elmer Kraus. Kraus is an innkeeper, restaurateur, booster, landowner. He and members of his family are the biggest property owners in the modern business district atop the bluff. On the morning after the close of the 1978 festival, Elmer Kraus was out early, shuttling back and forth on foot between his Hotel Nauvoo and his cafe on the other side of the town's main street, issuing instructions to employees to clean up this or restock that. He moves quickly, and his crews keep track of him with the help of walky-talkies.
Kraus is a man of medium height and build, brown hair decorated with strands of gray, wearing a yellow shirt with a tie and, because he is a sensible man who spends much time on his feet, brown suede jogging shoes. He greets people in a gravelly voice with the practiced courtesy of someone who's made his living as a host for more than thirty years.
"My father came to Nauvoo in 1912," he explains. "He was one of the very last of the German immigrants to come here. Came here poor as a church mouse and taught himself the cigar-making trade. Times in Nauvoo were pretty hard then, and a lot of businesses along the main street here were boarded up, as happens when a small town is in trouble. So whenever he could arrange his bills to allow it, my father would buy one of these places. Pretty soon he became the biggest property owner on the street." History, money, family, and civic duty are tied up in Elmer Kraus, and he does business on the assumption that it is impossible to advance the cause of one without advancing the causes of the rest.
Kraus was one of the founders of the Nauvoo Grape Festival, for instance, and still sits on board of directors. Like most such celebrations it serves purposes that are as much commercial as social. Unlike many of them, however, Nauvoo's has intramural political significance. The festival is for non-Mormon Nauvoo what the City of Joseph pageant is for the Saints—a celebration of group past and an assertion of its present identity. Since the arrival of NRI in 1962, a few Nauvooites see the festival as a bulwark against what has been called "the Saintly steamroller."
Publicly, Kraus is careful to credit each of the parties of his town's renaissance. In the early years of the NRI project he and Dr. Kimball tangled often, like two old bears who stumbled across each other in the same cranberry patch, and Kraus is more circumspect now. "They've done a beautiful job of it," he says of NRI. "They have helped beautify the place, and of course they made it for some a religious Mecca. They just want to do their own period, and I can understand that. Everyone to his own, I say. But sometimes people don't hear the rest of the story of Nauvoo. Nauvoo is not just a Mormon town, but a lot of our visitors think it is. I want people to learn about all aspects of our story."
Kraus' disputes with NRI are not all historiological. He owns land on the flat which he's refused to sell to NRI, to their irritation. NRI in turn bought one of the local motels and leases it to a Mormon couple, making NRI one of Kraus' business competitors. And Dr. Kimball's long-range plans for the flat—a new highway that would bypass modern Nauvoo on its way to the NRI visitors center, a one-hundred-plus-unit motel—challenge the Krauses' hard-won family hegemony.
Kraus lights a small cigar. "If we can succeed in bringing forth the other eras, we will remain a unique community. It's in the long-run interests of the Mormons to do this. too. Their interest is proselytizing for their religion. If non-Mormons don't come to Nauvoo because they think it's just a religious Mecca, they won't get their shot at them, right?"
There are pro-Kraus Nauvooites and anti-Kraus Nauvooites, but that is only one of the fissures that cross the town's deceptive calm. A certain disputatiousness is part of Nauvoo's character, a function of its crowded history. Nearly every good Nauvooite denies it exists, but outsiders who know it tend to agree with the state official who says, almost admiringly, that there are more divisions in Nauvoo than in any other small town he's ever seen—between old families and new, between the Independence Mormons and the Utah Mormons, between the Mormons and the Catholic community, one of the legacies of the German and Swiss immigrations of the previous century.
For most townspeople, however, the changes that have attended the Mormons' return to the flat are happy ones. For them the restoration has meant money and a recaptured future; in the words of Ida Blum, the nonagenarian town historian, "Just as Virginia's and Kentucky's gold was tobacco, Nauvoo's history became gold." Any doubts about the growing Mormon economic and political presence dissolve in the light of this harsh truth: Nauvoo's economic ship would sink if NRI stopped paddling. Chicago Tribune reporter Robert Unger paid a visit to Nauvoo in the summer of 1978. "These days, most people smell the tourist dollars," he wrote, "and the smell is sweet enough to overcome almost everything else." ●
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