Woman of the Year
Kay Ortman’s love affair with Nauvoo
October 13, 1978
A happy story about a woman who is exactly who and where she ought to be. Joseph Smith’s Mormons settled in Nauvoo to make a heaven on earth; when Kay Ortman followed them 111 years later, she found that they (with a little help) had succeeded.
"This town is so wonderful. We have so much history here. First there were the Indians, then the fur traders, then the Mormons of course, then the French Icarians . . . . “ The audience for this recital is a knot of tourists standing a dank and ill-lit cellar room in the Rheinberger House on the grounds of the Nauvoo State Park in Nauvoo, Illinois. It is Grape Festival weekend, 1978, and the encyclopedic instructor is Kay Ortman, historian, booster and the Nauvoo Historical Society's 1978 Woman of the Year.
Rheinberger, for those who've forgotten their Nauvoo history, was a Liechtensteiner cooper-turned-vintner who came to the Mississippi River town in 1850, four years after the Mormons had abandoned the town on their epochal march to the Great Salt Lake valley. His house is now the headquarters for the Nauvoo Historical Society. The State of Illinois bought the house and everything in it as part of a deal negotiated in 1950 when it acquired 143 acres of land for a new state park, but members of the society take care of the collections housed there and act as guides and that is why Kay Ortman was standing in the dirt-floored grape pressing room telling tourists all about how wonderful Nauvoo is.
Many of the songs sung in praise of Nauvoo's charms, the "Williamsburg of the Midwest," sound hollow, the result of civic pride being alloyed too generously with calculation; it is well to remember that tourism is Nauvoo's biggest industry. But Kay Ortman's public affection for the place is unaffected and apparently inexhaustible.
"Everything is beautiful, everything. Wherever you go." When he moved into his new house, Herr Rheinberger laid out 500 Concord grape vines next to his house. That vineyard is still there, and visitors to the park are encouraged to pick their own. "Oh, people are in perfect ecstasy to pick our grapes when they come here," Mrs. Ortman relates. She is an energetic, fit-looking woman whose hair is only recently begun to trade its natural brown for gray; most people are disinclined to believe her when she tells then she is seventy years old. “Can you imagine how people from the city must love this place?" Mrs. Ortman says she sees many of the same faces every year during grape festival weekend, people who have come to share her affection for Nauvoo.
She moved to Nauvoo with her husband from Chicago in 1948. She pitched in right away; she was one of the committee of forward-looking Nauvoo-ites who journeyed to Springfield to convince then-governor Adlai Stevenson that the state should buy up derelict land in the middle of town for a new park. The historical society named her Woman of the Year at their annual picnic in July, and the Quincy Herald-Whig sent a reporter to interview her. “I filled up the page," she says happily, and one suspects that Mrs. Ortman filled it without half trying.
"Everybody likes me because I'm unprejudiced," she beams in explaining her honor. She says she is everybody's friend, which is an accomplishment worthy of note in Nauvoo, where frictions— Mormon vs. Gentile, Mormon vs. Mormon, old family vs. newcomer—caused by the mammoth Mormon restoration effort since 1962 have made local life uncomfortably warm at times. Ortman and the rest of the N.H.S.'s 125 members are certainly unprejudiced historically. The Rheinberger house manages, better than any other spot in town, to convey some sense of the ebb and flow of fortunes and factions that have washed over the town in a century and a half. There is Earl Cheeseboro's collection of geodes and arrowheads (“60 years in the making"'), old furniture and farm implements, Civil War musket balls, some minutes of the local lodge of the Modern Woodmen of America, a cast-iron kettle once used to render lard, a thousand-gallon wine cask, and a copy of "Voyage en Icaria" by Etienne Cabet, founder of the French Icarian commune in the 1850s.
From where Mrs. Ortman stands, just inside a double door to the pressing room, the ground slopes away gently toward the vineyard where grapes hang in purple clumps. Beyond that is the state park where campers sit parked beneath the trees like aluminum dogs sleeping in the midday sun, then orchards that line the highway leading into town from the south. Hugging the highway is the Mississippi itself, moving but seemingly immobile, "cutting a great silver semicircle at one's feet" as Fawn Brodie once observed, and, past that, the hazy outlines of Iowa.
Mrs. Ortman has just finished explaining to some tourists about the heavy stone Rheinberger used to press the juice from grapes; "If this was Italy or France they'd have the little girls dancing in the grapes with their feet, like they do you know. I prefer the stone." A little girl walks past, and Mrs. Ortman interrupts herself long enough to call out, "Get your grapes!" It is an invitation phrased in the form of a question. "Better hurry!" As the child disappears into the vines, Ortman disappears into the pressing room, where another group of gawking visitors has assembled. The sound of her voice carries out over the vineyard. "When I was a young girl I was a gifted pianist. I was discovered by the pianist for the New York Symphony Orchestra. Oh, yes. He said I played a lot like a colored person—you know, with a lot of rhythm. He had a Steinway. Oh, that piano!” . . . . ●