Candy fort depicts first Christmas

The year of 1847 was a time of many firsts for the early pioneers after entering the Salt Lake Valley, including spending their first Christmas in their newly constructed pioneer fort.

"Most people don't know about the pioneer fort," said Esther Henrichsen, who serves as a gardener for Church facilities and was asked to create window displays for the Joseph Smith Memorial Building."It was here that more than 1,600 pioneers celebrated their first Christmas in the Valley."

In keeping with the theme of the sesquicentennial celebration of 1997, Sister Henrichsen and her husband, Kirk, created a scale replica of the original pioneer fort, measuring 5-feet by 11-feet, where the early pioneers were housed.

But instead of using wood, they created 600 wagons, 200 tents and 500 cabins out of candy and cookies. The replica is displayed in the lobby of the building near the southwest window.

The purpose of the replica is to depict how the fort would have looked as the pioneers awoke on Christmas morning in 1847.

"Christmas day was on Saturday," Sister Henrichsen explained. "The pioneers worked that day. It had been a mild winter so they worked on the fort and plowed their farms.

"They celebrated Christmas on Sunday by holding a meeting, then standing around a sagebrush bonfire in the center of the fort and singing songs like, Come, Come, Ye Saints. They rang the Nauvoo bell and fired a cannon. There were no gifts, but there were probably many good feelings. Some described the day in their journals as their `finest Christmas.' "

One of the challenges in replicating the fort, Sister Henrichsen said, was deciding how to build the replica.

"We chose candy because it was the cheapest material to work with," she said. The candy model is intricate in its creation, but reflects the simple, frugal circumstances of pioneer times.

The replica depicts the state of affairs as they could have been on that Christmas day, such as a work area on the south end of the fort where logs were cut and prepared to expand the fort, and other small details such as wagon ruts etched in the frozen mud.

Still, other details include chimneys made of cinnamon sticks, tents made of apricot leather, soil composed of graham crackers and Oreo cookies, wagons made of marshmallows, and log cabins made of grape licorice. The fort rests upon a chocolate frosting base.

Sister Henrichsen directed the efforts of many full-time missionaries, as well as other volunteers, who donated an estimated 500 hours creating the replica.

Sister Henrichsen was particularly well suited for the assignment. While the research for the fort required approximately 35 hours of study, she has actually been preparing for six years while completing a masters degree in landscape history.

"I gained appreciation," she said, "for the courage and obedience of these people to stay and build a fort in difficult circumstances after their leader had returned to Winter Quarters."

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