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!” . . . . ●
Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.
One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.
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Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.
The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.
The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.
A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.
Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."
Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards, posters, and videos.
The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.
“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.
I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered."
The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like.
The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly.
An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than
Southern Illinois University Press 2017
A work of solid history, entertainingly told.
author of Abraham
Lincoln: A Life
One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.
Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018
A lively and engaging study . . . an enthralling narrative.
The Annals of Iowa
A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians
as well as local historians generally.
Journal of Illinois HIstory
A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.
A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.
Journal of the Illinois
State Historical Society
to read about
to buy the book
SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.
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The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to
The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.
Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order
by book title.
Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.
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