Wagonmaster declares: `Wagons, ho!'

On a cold and damp morning - not unlike the day when the Mormon pioneers left Winter Quarters for their Zion in the Rocky Mountains 150 years ago - a modern wagon train rolled out of Florence, a suburb of Omaha, April 21 to retrace the steps of the pioneers of 1847.

"Let the wagons roll!" Nebraska Gov. E. Benjamin Nelson had exclaimed moments earlier at a fog-enshrouded send-off in Miller Park in north Omaha. "Westward ho, wagons go!" declared Omaha Mayor Hal Daub. The governor and the mayor, along with Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve, spoke to participants and spectactors before the wagon train pulled out. But the official "Wagons, ho!" came shortly after 8 a.m. when wagonmaster Joe Vogel of Red Cloud, Neb., gave the command for the wagon train to move out.Despite fog that blanketed the park, there was considerable anticipation among participants before the wagons rolled. The wagonmaster moved through the camp atop his horse, giving last-minute instructions over a bullhorn. Photographers and reporters from several news organizations - one cameraman came from Austria, a freelance writer from Japan and a broadcaster from England - interviewed those waiting to begin the trek. Most of the participants were dressed in period clothing. Particularly popular for news photos were young children who were dressed as their ancestors might have been in 1847.

In the damp, foggy morning, barely touched by daylight, the 30-minute sendoff gathering was held at the site in the park where two days earlier President Gordon B. Hinckley adddressed the participants and gave them counsel to follow on the trail.

The contingent moving out of Florence was the second wagon train to leave the Middle Missouri Valley in commemoration of the pioneer trek. On April 19, another wagon train left Council Bluffs, Iowa, and will follow the south, or Oxbow, Trail. This trail was followed by many of the pioneers who left a few years later than 1847 and traveled south of the Platte River until they crossed to join the other route, known as the "Mormon Trail."

The south wagon train will meet up with the north group on May 7 in Kearney, Neb., and from there until they arrive July 22 in the Salt Lake Valley they will travel together.

President Hinckley, as he spoke at the send-off of the north wagon train on April 19, remarked: "One hundred and fifty years ago this was a very vital place. There were people scurrying around, working night and day, forges were roaring, horses were bring shod, the last steps were made to provide for the wagons, food was being stockpiled, everything that they were taking with them was being piled onto those wagons. They were on a journey of destiny. They were creating history. They were involved in a great and significant and wonderful thing.

"How thankful I am for the vision and the faith, for the strength and the capacity, for the resolution of our pioneer forebears who left here at this season of the year in 1847 to go to a place they were not acquainted with in any way."

President Hinckley then told the modern-day pioneers, "That which you are doing is not going to be easy. You have more than three months of long and difficult travel ahead of you."

He counseled that there be unity among the participants, and there "be no explosive anger of any kind, or ill feelings one toward another, but love and brotherhood and respect. Pray together and work together and be respectful of the desires and comforts of one another.

"We look forward to meeting you when you complete the journey," the prophet continued. "We will be there [in Salt Lake City] to say hello as we are here to say goodbye.

"May God be with you, may His watchful care be over you, may you be happy as you re-enact one of the great movements of all time - the emigration of the Mormon pioneers from Winter Quarters on the Missouri . . ." to the Salt Lake Valley.

Elder Ballard, in his remarks at the Miller Park send-off, said: "This is a very important part of our history. The legacy of our pioneer forefathers is a very important legacy to every member of our Church. Because of the faith they had in every one of their footsteps we believe we have the strength, the vision, the values and the teachings that make The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints the vibrant, growing, expanding kingdom of God on the earth.

During his comments, Elder Ballard called Gov. Nelson; Mayor Daub; and Joni Vaughn, coordinator of the Omaha's celebration of Winter Quarters in Historic Florence, up to the podium. He told them, "I don't know if I have the authority to do this or not, but I'm going to make you honorary Mormon pioneers," a comment that brought much delight to the wagon train participants, who showed their approval by loud applause. He told the three that they "were entitled to be counted as Mormon pioneers and I'll carry that back to the First Presidency and the Twelve and somehow we'll get it written some where so you'll be numbered among us."

Elder Ballard then said he was going to give wagonmaster Vogel a Book of Mormon, a copy of which he also gave to the wagonmaster of the south wagon train, Russ Leger, two days earlier. Neither of the wagonmasters are members of the Church. Elder Ballard gave Leger a copy of the book when he addressed the south wagon train at a similar send-off gathering in Council Bluffs on April 19. "When you're out on the trail and it starts to get a little difficult, which it will, look into the Book of Mormon and you'll find some answers, you'll find some strength to carry on until you come to the Salt Lake Valley," he told Vogel at the Florence send-off.

"May God bless this great effort and every one of you who go on the trail," he said as he concluded his remarks. "You go with our blessings and our prayers."

Elder Ballard then, along with his wife, Barbara; Elder Hugh W. Pinnock of the Seventy and president of the North America Central Area, and his wife, Anne; and Gov. Nelson climbed into the lead wagon, and history was about to be re-enacted. The train of wagons, followed by those pulling and pushing handcarts and scores of others walking behind, traveled the 1.3 miles along 30th and State streets in historic Florence to the Winter Quarters visitors center. There, the dignitaries waved goodbye, and the train headed west from the city of Omaha toward the plains of Nebraska.

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