For his efforts to preserve sacred Church historic sites and keep in memory the sacrifice and obedience of generations gone by, President Gordon B. Hinckley was honored May 11 with the Junius F. Wells Award by the Mormon Historic Sites Foundation.
"I feel more like a piece of history than a conservator of history," he said to the delight of approximately 200 gathered in his honor.
"I suppose my interest in (history) comes of the fact that my grandfather was a pioneer," he said. "He came as a young man across the pains, lost his wife when they were only a few days out, dug her grave and buried her somewhere in what is now Nebraska, and picked up his infant child and brought her into this valley."
In a video presentation that recounted the various reconstruction efforts in Palmyra, Kirtland, Nauvoo and other sites such as Martin's Cove and Cove Fort, President Hinckley was recognized for his ability to be "forward thinking while at the same time anchoring the Church with a sense of its rich past."
Historic sites, it was noted in the video, are not an end, but a means of developing faith, making it possible for future generations to learn of Joseph Smith.
The award is named after Junius F. Wells, who was born in 1854, son of Daniel H. Wells, second counselor to Brigham Young in the First Presidency. Though generally obscure in Church history, Junius Wells is regarded as the father of Church historic site preservation.
His efforts began in 1905, the centennial year of the Prophet Joseph Smith's birth. Under the direction of President Joseph F. Smith, he purchased 283 acres in Vermont that included the Solomon Mack farm, birthplace of the Prophet. There he erected a magnificent granite marker and built a cottage to recognize the Prophet's place of birth. Later, he oversaw the erection of monuments at the grave sites of each of the Three Witnesses of the Book of Mormon.
President Hinckley told how Joseph Smith "reposed in (Daniel H. Wells) great confidence," making him second in command of the Nauvoo Legion, although, at the time, he was not yet a member of the Church.
"Very few people know very much about Junius Wells," continued President Hinckley. "He was really a very tremendous man in his own right."
When Junius Wells was 21 years old, President Brigham Young asked him to organize the Young Men's Mutual Improvement Association. Later on, at age 50, Brother Wells was sent to do something to honor the memory of the birth of the Prophet.
"And so, Junius F. Wells went back to Vermont. He had a great and marvelous dream of what he could do," President Hinckley said. After purchasing the Solomon Mack homestead, he traveled over Vermont until he found a quarry with a very choice piece of granite. It was cut and finished in an obelisk shape 38 1/2 feet long, one foot for each year of the Prophet's life.
President Hinckley recounted the "tremendous task" of moving the monument from the South Royalton railroad station up the hill 300 feet on dirt roads to what was then known as Dairy Hill of the old Solomon Mack farm.
"They built a wagon with steel rims 20 inches wide and an 8-inch axle and loaded this huge piece of granite weighing 40 tons, and began to move it, first with six horses, then 12 horses, then 20, and finally 22 horses pulled that load up the hill," he said.
When the wagon became bogged down in a swampy field, and every effort to free the wagon failed, people asked Junius Wells, "What are you going to do?"
"He said he was going to pray," continued President Hinckley. "He pleaded with the Lord and told Him how he was stuck and didn't know what to do."
During the night, temperatures that had been very mild, dropped to below freezing, solidifying the swamp, making it possible for the horses to pull the monument up the hill.
A device was rigged up to put the monument up straight. "That is where it stands as it enters the third century of its position there," President Hinckley said.
Later in life, having never accumulated much money, Junius Wells felt it his daily duty to read to a blind woman.
"Thanks be to the Lord for such men as Junius F. Wells," said President Hinckley.
The Mormon Historic Sites Foundation is a nonprofit organization aimed at preserving significant Church historical sites. Its Web site is: mormonhistoricsitesfoundation.org.
E-mail to: [email protected]