New signs draw visitors to trail center

A new visitors center will soon be completed in what was once the Mormon pioneer community of Winter Quarters in eastern Nebraska, and new freeway signs in the Omaha area directing visitors to the facility should make it easier to find.

The facility is now called the Mormon Trail Center at Historic Winter Quarters, but with such a long name, the highway signs simply read "Mormon Trail Center," with directions for travel underneath.Installed June 28 by the states of Iowa and Nebraska and the city of Omaha, the signs were placed on Interstate 80 and 680 in Nebraska and Interstate 29, 80 and 680 in Iowa. The center is located on the north edge of Omaha, just a few blocks south of Interstate 680 at exit 13 (30th Street). This exit is immediately west of Mormon Bridge, which spans the Missouri River, in close proximity to the site of the old ferry crossing used by the pioneers.

Winter Quarters has long been relegated to the pages of history, but from 1846-48, thousands of refugee Mormons trudging across mid-America toward their promised land made their homes here, albeit temporary. But, sadly, hundreds also died here and are buried in the Mormon Pioneer Cemetery adjacent to the visitors center, which is expected to be completed by next April 1.

A temporary visitors center is currently housed in two trailers across the street. The trailers were placed on the site after an old visitors center was torn down. The cemetery and portions of a pioneer grist mill are the only remains of what was once the bustling city of Winter Quarters, which had some 5,000 residents.

The community was abandoned in 1848 after the Saints went West, but not before harsh, adverse conditions took their toll. The sexton's records indicate 365 people are buried in the cemetery, but it is estimated that another 235 are also buried there, making a total of 600 who lost their lives at Winter Quarters.

Despite adversity, Winter Quarters was not a bleak place. Schools were conducted; socials, theatricals, concerts and dances were commonplace; there was an air of optimism, and at times, gaiety.

Elder Eldon Fletcher, director of the visitors center, said that all the guides serving at the site have reported they have had people on their tours who came because of the freeway signs.

"We're here because of the signs," Elder Fletcher quoted the visitors as saying. Previously there was only one sign in Nebraska and one in Iowa that promoted the pioneer cemetery at Winter Quarters.

A "tie-the-ribbon" ceremony was held at the site on July 4, commemorating the installation of the signs, said Elder Fletcher. The governor of Iowa, Terry E. Brandstad, and other officials, attended the ceremony and spoke. "Instead of having a ribbon-cutting ceremony," explained Elder Fletcher, "we had a ribbon-tying ceremony." A ribbon was tied to a cutout of the states of Iowa and Nebraska, which indicated, Elder Fletcher said, "that the states are working together to promote the Mormon Trail and the center. This gave us good exposure in the media."

Because of the new signage and interest in Iowa's sesquicentennial celebration this year, which included events in Council Bluffs across the Missouri River (see separate articles in this issue), attendance at the Winter Quarters site has increased, noted Elder Fletcher. He said during the first eight days in July, 2,000 visitors came to the center.

"About 60 percent of the visits are by non-members and 40 percent by members," Elder Fletcher explained. "But we have a lot of school children who visit, and if you exclude them from the numbers, we have probably 70 percent non-members and 30 percent members.

Currently four missionary couples and two sets of sister missionaries, from the Nebraska Omaha Mission, serve at the visitors center.

The new visitors center has 11,000 square feet of floor space on the ground floor and will include the Mormon Trail from Nauvoo to Salt Lake City in the exhibit area. "As you enter the exhibit area, you will see a facade of the Nauvoo Temple," said Elder Fletcher. "As you leave you will see a facade of the Salt Lake Temple."

Also to be included will be a re-creation of William Clayton's camp on Locust Creek in Iowa where he wrote "Come, Come, Ye Saints" and a map of Winter Quarters. A log cabin, wagon and a handcart will also be placed in the center. The handcart has its own story.

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