LDS and Iowa historic commemorations have converged this summer with two wagon trains tracing the route of the Pioneers from Nauvoo, Ill., 150 years ago to this city near the Nebraska border where they made their grand encampment in 1846.
Iowa is observing its sesquicentennial this year, and the trek of President Brigham Young and his followers across 13 of its counties is an integral part of the state's historic legacy.That Iowans appreciate the legacy is evident from the response to the commemorative wagon trains.
"The communities through which they've passed have just come out in force," said Elder William D. Price. He and his wife, Sidney, are Church public affairs missionaries coordinating Church involvement in this year's Mormon Trail sesquicentennial observances in Illinois, Iowa and Nebraska.
"The beauty of what has happened this year," he said, "is that it was conceived, organized and executed by non-Latter-day Saints who are seeking their own history and in that process discovering the Latter-day Saints."
From the observances, residents come to understand their local history better, "but when they start to explore the question of why this occurred, they get into the Restoration of the gospel," Elder Price explained. "At our request, full-time missionaries have been visible at the wagon train campsites. They've been making friends and in the process have gathered many referrals."
The two wagon trains commenced June 17, as participants, wagons and handcarts were ferried across the Mississippi River on a flatboat from Nauvoo, Ill., to Montrose Iowa.
There, the Pioneer Mormon Wagon Train Association camped for a week and then embarked with about 18 wagons, though 60 were enrolled and participated at various points along the route, Elder Price said. He estimated about 30 percent were members of the Church. The trek ended in Council Bluffs July 12.
A private company, JL2 Inc., sponsored a wagon train that left Montrose June 17 with with 13 wagons and ended with 8 on July 4. About 50 percent of its enrollees were Church members.
Elder Price said communities along the route "painted up and dressed up" to welcome the wagon train participants.
"There is fresh paint on barns that have not seen fresh paint in years," he said. "When we'd come into a town, people would be standing along the roadsides to offer water to the walkers, to greet them to their county, offering to move their support vehicles for them so they'd have more time to spend in town."
An intimate historic sense was felt, he said, when the larger wagon train camped in Murray, Clarke County, in the still-visible wheel ruts made by the original wagons 150 years ago.
The trek observance culminates this weekend with the grand encampment celebration in Council Bluffs. That celebration includes the dedication of the reconstructed Kanesville Tabernacle - where Brigham Young was sustained as the second president of the Church - and a re-enactment of the mustering in of the Mormon Battalion. (Coverage of the Council Bluffs events will be in the Church News July 20.)
Each community along the route sponsored a celebration to welcome the wagon train participants. Here are some highlights:
- At Lake Rathburn, Appanoose County, June 23, an interfaith service was held, sponsored by the Columbia Iowa Stake. Among the speakers was Elder Hugh W. Pinnock of the Seventy. He is president of the North America Central Area. A children's choir performed the pioneer handcart song, "For Some Must Push and Some Must Pull."
- A modern-day recreation of William Pitt's Brass Band performed a concert June 25 at the Van Buren County Courthouse in Keosaqua in the exact courtroom where the original group of musicians from the Camp of Israel performed 150 years before.
- On July 1, wagons camped and about 1,000 people gathered at Locust Creek Camp #2 to remember the writing of the hymn "Come, Come, Ye Saints" on that spot by William Clayton 150 years ago. The previous evening, Sunday, June 30, in nearby Seymour, a 150-voice community choir performed the hymn at a program in the high school gymnasium. Stanley Kimball, a Church member and a history professor at Southern Illinois University, told of the writing of the hymn by Brother Clayton and the eight-year effort in recent years to discover and mark the spot where it was written.
- On Independence Day, July 4, the 80-voice Heart of America Choir composed of Church members in the Kansas City, Kan., area performed at a celebration in Osceola, Iowa, that had a pioneer and patriotic theme. Joining with the singers was a chorus of students from Mormon Trail Elementary School in Garden Grove, a city founded by the Saints on their westward trek. Organizers said it was the best concert that has ever been presented in Osceola. Members of the larger wagon train attended.
- Also on July 4, in Omaha, Neb., participants in the JL2 wagon train were involved in a parade that went from Miller Park in Winter Quarters to Dodge Park in Omaha. Gov. Terry Branstad of Iowa spoke at a ceremony marking the placement of signs on major freeways in the Omaha-Council Bluffs area directing visitors to the New Mormon Trail Center in Omaha. Also speaking at the ceremony were the mayors of Omaha and Council Bluffs. Nebraska Gov. Ben Nelson sent a representative.