Among the more than 60 historic pioneer homes and buildings located at the This Is The Place Heritage Park is a replica of Mary Fielding Smith’s small brick home. Mary, the widow of Hyrum Smith, and her young son Joseph Fielding Smith traveled the 1,300 miles from Nauvoo, Illinois, to the rough desert valley that is now Salt Lake City.
Whenever President M. Russell Ballard, her great-great-grandson, visits the humble dwelling, he is humbled by the impact and influence she had in “making this valley blossom as a rose.”
“It’s a very tender thing for me,” President Ballard, Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, said of visiting the structure.
President Ballard and others involved in the building of a new Pioneer Center at the entrance of This Is The Place Heritage Park hope visitors will feel a similar sense of connection when they visit.
“One of the things we hope happens when people come here is that they’ll start thinking about their forefathers — to study and know about them and appreciate them and see their accomplishments,” President Ballard told the Church News shortly after dedicating the Pioneer Center on Friday, March 26.
In addition to President Ballard, who offered brief remarks prior to dedicating the facility, Friday’s event featured words by Ellis Ivory, the chair and executive director of This Is The Place Foundation, and Utah Gov. Spencer J. Cox. Stephen M. Studdert, the fundraising chair for the Pioneer Center, was called away to care for his wife who had recently had surgery but sent his son, David Studdert, to read his remarks for him. Other Church leaders also attended the event.
President Ballard recalled how in 1996 following the sesquicentennial celebration of the pioneer’s arrival to the Salt Lake Valley, Ellis Ivory took on a project — ensuring that honoring the pioneer legacy would continue through the Heritage Park.
At that point in time the park included Brigham Young’s home and a few other cabins. Today, the 450-acre site includes more than 60 pioneer original and replica pioneer structures as well as the Native American Village, demonstrations of pioneer trades, pony and train rides, interactive activities and more.
“We would not have what we have here today without the vision of this wonderful couple,” President Ballard said, referring to Ellis Ivory and his wife, Katie Ivory.
Ivory said his work on the Heritage Park through the years has grown in him a deep love for the pioneer story, which includes his great-great-grandfather, who was part of the advance company that came with Brigham Young.
President Ballard told the gathering of about 100 attendees they must never forget their roots. “We must never fail to teach our children, our grandchildren, our great-grandchildren, the price that our forefathers paid to make their way to this valley, and to make this desert to blossom and grow and be this wonderful, wonderful place,” President Ballard said.
It took 17 months to complete the 21,000-square-foot structure, which will act as a welcome center where visitors can learn and be introduced to the park.
In addition to housing the Guest Services and Ticket Offices for the Heritage Village, the center includes a complete diorama of the 450-acre site located in the eastern foothills of the Salt Lake Valley.
One of the primary purposes of the center is to tell the story of This Is The Place Monument, which commemorates Brigham Young’s famous statement that the Latter-day Saint pioneers had arrived to where they would begin to build their Zion: “This is the place. Drive on.”
Screens in the new facility play footage of the obelisk monument’s July 24, 1947, dedication and includes displays of newspaper clippings covering the event. Another section of the building honors Mahonri Young, the sculptor of the monument.
Floor-to-ceiling windows on the west side of the Pioneer Center frame a view of the monument with the Salt Lake Valley below.
“This was not meant to be a museum,” explained Niels Valentiner, the Pioneer Center’s architect.
If elements of the Pioneer Center are reminiscent of other Church structures, it’s because Valentiner has designed many of them, including the Rome Italy Temple.
The building is a mixture of contemporary utilities and historic artistry. For example, the center utilizes multi-media displays, including one 10-by-30-foot screen while heavy timber trusses and the exterior stonework of the building hint to the pioneer period.
One important feature includes the life-size bronze sculpture titled “Then and Now,” which depicts a family moving forward while the young daughter looks back at two pioneer children behind them. The scene represents how individuals must “learn about history in order to make a better future,” explained Ivory.
In his message, Gov. Cox shared a Latter-day Saint pioneer story from his own family, who have farmed San Pete County, Utah, for generations. But regardless if someone has ancestors who lived in Utah seven generations or has just moved here, “I don’t care, because this history matters,” he said. “It’s your history now. If you live here, you’re a Utahn, and this is your history, and this is your legacy, and it is something to be proud of.”
During the dedicatory prayer, President Ballard prayed that the building would be “a great center of all religions, of all the cultures of all visitors who come to the state of Utah as a place where they can come to know us and come to know the pioneer story.”
One example would be Sister Harriet Uchtdorf, wife of Apostle Dieter F. Uchtdorf, and their daughter, Antje Uchtdorf Evans, who attended the dedication.
“It’s such a great honor to be here today and see this amazing new building honoring our pioneers, which is so dear to our hearts,” Sister Uchtdorf said.
Evans said even though they are from Germany, they feel a connection “because it inspires us. It makes us want to be better … when we see all these stories.”
For sculptors Roger and Stefanie Hunt, having their work featured in the new center isn’t just “a dream come true” but also miraculous. They had to complete in seven months what would normally take three years. “It was an absolute miracle,” Roger Hunt told the Church News. “It’s been an amazing privilege,” added Stefanie Hunt.