Episode 145: Ellis Ivory, executive director of This Is the Place Heritage Park, on history, heritage and faith

As Pioneer Day in Utah approaches, Ellis Ivory joins the Church News podcast to talk about This Is the Place Heritage Park and the Church’s pioneer legacy

On July 24, 1847, a company of early Latter-day Saint pioneers piloted their way into the Salt Lake Valley. The leader of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Brigham Young looked upon the valley and was said to declare, “This is the right place; drive on.” These early pioneers were joined by Latter-day Saints from around the world.

Near the location where Brigham Young gave this prophetic declaration now stands This Is the Place Heritage Park, a Utah state park populated with historical homes, dedicated monuments and interactive exhibits to help individuals and families explore the early history of the Salt Lake Valley.

This episode of the Church News podcast — released near the anniversary of the pioneers’ entrance into the valley — explores history, heritage and faith with Ellis Ivory, the executive director of This Is the Place Heritage Park.

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Ellis Ivory: We used to think we were going to have the Williamsburg of the West. Ours is such a different story because, in their case, there’s sort of one story, and it’s a great story. And we’ve got lots of little substories that we can tell, and every building we do, or any new monument, teach principles, and it just gives me such a wonderful feeling to be able to have people come up there. I would just add, even our folks at the park, our full-time employees and volunteers, it’s a very diverse bunch. And I think it also is representative of the park, because it is a park for everyone. And likewise, I think the Church is for everyone, and certainly the principles, because that’s basically what we can talk about up there.


Sarah Jane Weaver: I’m Sarah Jane Weaver, editor of the Church News. Welcome to the Church News podcast. We are taking you on a journey of connection as we discuss news and events of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.


Sarah Jane Weaver: On July 24, 1847, a company of early Latter-day Saints pioneers entered the Salt Lake Valley. Then-President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Brigham Young looked upon the valley and was said to declare, “This is the right place. Drive on.” These early pioneers were joined by Saints from around the world, establishing a headquarters for the Church, an intermountain hub for the nation and a heritage in history to be revered for generations. Near the location where Brigham Young gave his prophetic declaration, there now resides This Is the Place Heritage Park.

On this episode of the Church News podcast, as we near the anniversary of the pioneers’ entrance into the valley, we explore Utah’s history and heritage with Ellis Ivory, the executive director of This Is the Place Heritage Park. Welcome to the Church News podcast.

Ellis Ivory: Thank you. It’s great to be here.

Visitors look at a large model of the This Is The Place Heritage Park after President M. Russell Ballard, acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, offered the dedicatory prayer for the new Pioneer Center at the park in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 26, 2021. The model if featured in the center. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News


Sarah Jane Weaver: I’m so glad you would take the time to join us. And as we start, I’m hoping you can tell us a little bit about your own pioneer heritage and how you came to help so many people in the state understand and learn about the heritage that we all share.

Ellis Ivory: Well, and as you were talking about this wonderful pioneer week and the celebration on the 24th — my great-grandfather actually came in two days early. He was on the advance company, the reason being that he joined the Church back in Pennsylvania and came to Winter Quarters and there met Brigham Young. And he was a single man, and they invited him to be part of the first exploring company. So, he was the one that camped that first night on the 22nd with Green Flake and the two others down on 17 South and 5th East. I like to call it the first Ivory home. His name was Matthew Ivory.


Sarah Jane Weaver: How was it that you came to be involved with This Is the Place Heritage Park?

Ellis Ivory: Well, despite that history, I should have been more respectful. I had an older brother that was really into history, and I sort of left that to him. I said, “Look, you take care of the dead people, I’ll take care of the live people.” And so, that led me to other Church work than being into history. But then, in ’06, I got the opportunity by being called or appointed to come up to the park because they were, you may recall, they were threatening to shut the park down. And it’s very unusual to be a state park that isn’t a lake or a mountain; it’s just a whole big bunch of buildings and homes. And so, that was my opportunity to learn more about our wonderful history.


Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, and you already referenced it, but you’re the founder and retired CEO of Ivory Homes. But the park took a little bit of building up. We’ve done some development up there and such since you took over.

Ellis Ivory: Well, we have. The whole idea was “Here was this wonderful state park with the great mission to tell people more about our history.” And yet, when I got there, I found that very few people were really coming there. I used to talk to people, they’d say, “What are you doing now?” And I said, “Well, I’m at This Is the Place.” “Oh, I love that place.” “When’s the last time you were there?” “Oh, 20 years ago.” And so, it was time to get people to realize that it’s more than a monument. And so, that’s what got us going to do new things, to try to entice people to come up and see the park and feel the Spirit as well as learn the history.


Sarah Jane Weaver: And so, now the park has not just the monument, but it has houses and interactive activities so people can go up and take their families and learn about the pioneers.

Ellis Ivory: Yeah, our whole hope is that, “Come up to the park and bring your family, have fun, but learn just a little bit of history” instead of just, “Come up and learn all the history, and you might accidentally have a little fun.” So, we have panning for gold, we have the splash pad. Everything we do up there has a theme, like the splash pad, which is so important during hot summer days. It’s called Irrigation Station. And right by the splash pad, there’s a big story that tells about how important irrigation was to the pioneers when they came in, because many people said, “Well, you’ll never raise crops in this big desert out here.” And of course, they did.


Sarah Jane Weaver: And when I think of my own pioneer ancestors who actually came across the plains and raised crops through irrigation, my thoughts always turn to England. I’m a Cannon. You spent three years in England serving as a mission president in Manchester. What did that experience teach you about the faith of members today who might be pioneering in Europe the way early pioneers established Zion in the Salt Lake Valley?

Ellis Ivory: Well, that’s certainly true. We loved that. The years were ’79 to ’82, so it’s a long time ago. There had been an interesting history with the Saints in England because, for many years, everybody from England or from Europe, their whole goal was to get to America. Then, there was the period of “Hey, stay there and build the kingdom there.” But when I got to England, we had three stakes. In all the leadership of the stakes and wards in our mission, there were only two returned missionaries among all those leaders. And they didn’t really go on missions; people just, you know, they’d go to school, they’d get a job. So, the whole idea was to try to get more people excited about seeing the Church grow and build. And so, it was a tremendous three years; it was like a three-year vacation to go there and just concentrate on that one thing.


Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, and as you have learned about the pioneers, what has that taught you about faith?

Ellis Ivory: Well, again, just being up here, you naturally learn as you’re doing things to try to create exhibits or things that will stimulate people to look more into the history and appreciate it more. But my feeling is, as we try to build things there, I’m always thinking about, “How did they build? How did they ever build that temple, which is just incredible?” I’ve been studying more about that, where Brigham Young — for several years after they were first saying, “We’re going to build a temple,” and they were starting to go to the design — he said, “Well, I know one thing: It’s going to be built out of adobe bricks.” And he was really into that. And so, when you think of that, then through the inspiration, the idea that there’s some other better product up here in the mountain.

And the fact that they built it out of the beautiful granite is one of the reasons it stands today. And one of the reasons they’re having such a hard time, I think, in doing all the excavation, everything that has to go underneath. But one thing you mentioned about Brigham Young when he came in the valley, and he said, “This is the right place”; with those words, he did say, “Move on,” because he was also a developer. And I like to think about that. In my life of developing, I always would try to stay away from slopes and get into the level ground. And Brigham Young was saying, “Hey, move on. Let’s get down here in the valley, where we can build,” and that’s where they started building.

But still, it’s part of the challenge we have up there; with everything we go to build, there’s not a flat space in the whole park. The park is 450 acres, which includes the big mountain where we take people on treks, and it’s a beautiful piece. It’s one of the great things the legislature did, was to set aside that 450 acres back in the ’50s to be this close to Salt Lake City. The whole thing is really, really — I know the hand of the Lord was certainly in that.


Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, and you’re located right at the mouth of Emigration Canyon, adjacent to Research Park, the University of Utah, other things up on that east bench of the Salt Lake Valley. And you’re right there — there isn’t much flat ground up there. Well, and I’m so glad you mentioned the Salt Lake Temple. The entire membership of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints got to glimpse that foundation when President Nelson gave what I thought was a very historic talk in general conference a few years ago, when he asked everyone to strengthen their foundation and compared it to the work that was being done to shore up the foundation of the Salt Lake Temple so that it could stand for generations of time.

Certainly everything we do in the valley is built on the foundation of those first early settlers who came in and irrigated and worked. Is there a lesson that you think of when you think of the pioneers?


Ellis Ivory: Well, again, back to Brigham Young, because I appreciate this — just to do the footings and the foundation, they dug 16 feet deep. And the walls, which were going to be three feet thick, but then there were three feet on either side. So, it took eight months just to dig the ground for the footings, because all that dirt had to be dug out by hand. You’ve got to realize they didn’t bring in a trackhoe to get it done. And all of that gives me great appreciation for the pioneers, every step they went through that. We’ve always talked about it taking 40 years, but it wasn’t just one thing. It was every single part of that was terrific.

And Brigham Young, he, anytime they’d do anything, like finish the foundation, at every level, they’d have meetings, and they’d have these kind of rallies there to kind of get the troops going. And invariably, at those meetings, he would say, “We’re going to build something that’s great, and it’s going to last” — he didn’t say forever, but he would say, “it’s going to last longer than most of us will ever see.” He knew that he would never see it completed. Of course, he died in ’77; it wasn’t until 17 years later, ’93.

But when you think of that, with all of his vision and the desire for it, and yet he knew that he would never see it completed. Of course, you know what their history had been: Build a temple, then get kicked out, you know, first in Kirtland, then in Nauvoo, It took them longer to build those temples than they ever had time to enjoy them, especially in Nauvoo. And so, he said, “This one we’re going to build right.” And they did.

Visitors gaze at This Is the Place Monument through a giant window in the new Pioneer Center after President M. Russell Ballard, acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, offered the dedicatory prayer for the center at This Is the Place Heritage Park in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 26, 2021. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News


Sarah Jane Weaver: And I love that those early efforts to build temples have resulted in a legacy of temple building that now includes 315 temples that are announced, under construction or dedicated all across the globe.

Ellis Ivory: Yeah, and we’ve heard the number 1,000 tossed around once in a while. I was in meetings, I remember, with Elder Neal Maxwell years ago. And when he was saying to us there — and I was a lot younger then — he’d say, “You could live to see 1,000.” That came from him back probably 30, 40 years ago. And I think that everybody then thought, “Oh, man,” but it’s probably going to happen.


Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, yeah, you know, kids my age grew up learning to name all the temples. And it’s because there were just low double digits. So, through your work at This Is the Place Heritage Park, you have helped ensure that your children and grandchildren and so many in the next generation can also come to understand this heritage. Why is that important?

Ellis Ivory: Well, again, that’s another one of, sort of, our themes up there. And that is “Then and now.” There’s a really nice little sculpture in the new Pioneer Center building. And it shows one little family looking at the past, and then this other family going ahead. I think the whole theory is you learn from the past in order to have a better future. And they can see and learn something at that time.

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Sarah Jane Weaver: That’s really, really interesting. I want to shift gear a little bit, because it hasn’t been too many years since you were my boss. You served as chairman of the Deseret News Publishing Company board of directors. And the Deseret News is Utah’s oldest continuous-operating business. And I love that when the pioneers came across the plains, they put a printing press in the wagon and brought it here because they felt like this business was important.

And so much has changed. I started here in 1995. You know, I had a computer, but it did not have spellcheck on it. It was a computer that I shared with several other staffers. You could type your story up, you mostly wrote your story out longhand, and then you would come and type it up. But it was much better than my colleagues who came a generation before that used typewriters. And then things changed so quickly. So, from what I started in the ’90s, by the end of the ’90s, we started to get the internet, and we were glimpsing changes.

The Deseret News, that had always published in the afternoon, went morning and started publishing in the morning. And then almost immediately, we had all these opportunities for reach outside of the Salt Lake Valley, you know, where in the past, you had to put a physical newspaper on someone’s doorstep, now we could go digital. But it also resulted in an industry that required so much change and so much transition, and also some kind of hard times.


Ellis Ivory: It is interesting to think that the pioneers get here in ’47, and in 1850 is the year — the beginning of the Deseret News. I mean, that, when you think of all the things they had to do, but to care that much about that type of communication and the need for people, so many things that they had — and especially led by Brigham Young, when you think of the fact that he, with basically no education, still is the founder of all three big state universities — I mean BYU, Utah and Utah State, not to mention the Social Hall, which we have replicas of. We have the replica of the Deseret News’ beginnings and the press up there. And so, when people come to the park, they can just feel and see those things. Instead of just reading it in a book or seeing it on TV, they can actually feel what the old pioneer days were like.


Sarah Jane Weaver: Is there one story or one anecdote that you’ve learned about the pioneers that you think sort of represents our heritage?

Ellis Ivory: My grandmother — and this will make me seem like I’m pretty old — but our family lived in Fountain Green, down in Sanpete County, Utah. And my dear grandmother, after she’d had eight children, wanted to be a nurse, and she came up and went to Dr. Ellis Shipp’s school. She was actually pregnant and had one little kid. And then when she went back, after getting her education, she became the midwife nurse in northern Sanpete County. But she also had one more child, and even though he was a boy, she named him after Dr. Shipp, Ellis, and that was my dad, even though his name was Ellis Clark, and he went by Clark, but he gave me the name Ellis.

And we have a great reverence for Dr. Ellis Shipp. And we have the Desert Hospital up there, where people come, and it’s a really, really interesting place to visit and see the old tools that they operated with and so forth. But we’re also in the process of building a little new statute to Dr. Shipp, because she has such an amazing story. Have you ever heard that story?


Sarah Jane Weaver: I have read that story a lot. And we’ve published it in the Church News. We’ll link to it in the podcast, because her efforts and the efforts of so many others who made sure that the Salt Lake Valley had everything that we needed for health and growth and stability, I think, is so important.

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Ellis Ivory: It is. It’s just, to me, one of the great stories of those early years.

Sarah Jane Weaver: I’m related through marriage to Martha Hughes Cannon, who also was one of those early, early doctors in the pioneer era. My family, which includes three daughters, love to celebrate her, because she not only practiced pioneering medicine, but she also ran against her husband for the legislature and won. 

Ellis Ivory: Yeah, I remember.

The new Pioneer Center and This Is the Place Monument are pictured at This Is the Place Heritage Park in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 26, 2021. The center was dedicated Friday during a ceremony in which Gov. Spencer Cox spoke. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News


Sarah Jane Weaver: So, and you know, we’ve carried that legacy on with so many medical facilities today: the University of Utah, Primary Children’s Medical Center, Huntsman Cancer Institute, so many people from the Intermountain West come here to receive medical treatment. Looking forward, what else can you tell us about the park? Are there projects in the works?

Ellis Ivory: Yes; we’re building a fort. Brigham Young decreed that every city, every town, should have a fort, because obviously, they had need of protection as they were, unfortunately, taking over this area. There were some of the former residents that weren’t too happy to see that happen. So, Cove Fort is an example, and it’s so well preserved. And so, our fort that we’re building is going to be one-fourth the size of Cove Fort, but it’s going to have big, 15-foot-tall stone walls. And then we’re going to have little models made of all the other forts — there’s even a fort in Las Vegas; some of it still remains.

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And I think the idea of telling the full story. And when people come to the park, the fact that it is a state park run by a foundation — and is certainly supported somewhat financially, and certainly, the support of the Church is there — but it is a state park, and it is for everyone. And we want to tell the full story. And so, this is going to be completed this fall, I hope, with all the construction timetables, because there’s quite a bit of work to the scope of this thing. But that is our latest project. It’s going to be called the Heritage Park Fort, which sounds kind of like —

Sarah Jane Weaver: There you go.

Ellis Ivory: But that’s it.


Sarah Jane Weaver: And you also have a village up there that is dedicated to Native Americans.

Ellis Ivory: We do, indeed. That was built about 10, 12 years ago, and we have a — we went a little overboard and built this teepee that’s over 50 feet tall. And it’s built out of reinforced concrete with lots of steel. And so, there you can come and hear the story of the Native Americans. And we have the other features there; both the male and the female hogans, and lots to learn about with their medicine wheel and everything about the Native Americans, who were very important.

And one thing that’s interesting about that is Brigham Young was not just the President of the Church and the governor of the territory, but he was in charge with the federal government for Indian affairs. And he was the one always petitioning Washington to try to get more help for the Native Americans. In other words, it wasn’t like just kicking them out; he was concerned about their lives. And sometimes, people miss that chapter. You can tell I’ve done a little bit of reading about Brigham through these years. It’s — I always think of President Hinckley, who would always say whenever he wondered about, you know, what to do, he would look on the wall and say, a picture, of “What would Brigham Young do?”


Sarah Jane Weaver: And I knew that President Hinckley had said that. We have a picture of Brigham Young that hangs in the Church News offices, and we sort of ask ourselves the same question: “Brigham, what should we do?” He certainly was progressive and moving forward. Always. It’s interesting to me that when you go to the state park, it sort of feels like you’ve gone right back in time. People are dressed to period dress, the streets are dirt as you kind of walk around. Is that the intent, that you hope people will have somewhat of a pioneer experience?

Ellis Ivory: We do. It’s a real challenge to keep the pioneer feeling and experience and then keep the conveniences of modern worlds, such as air conditioning and concrete sidewalks and so forth. So, we’ve tried to provide those things so that when people come up, they can get a good feel of the history, but they can enjoy it and tell others to come back.


Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, and one of the first times I had ever really been to the park when I thought, “I’m starting to glimpse what our heritage means” was in 1997, when the sesquicentennial of the pioneers entering the Salt Lake Valley was held, and a pioneer wagon train came down the canyon and into the park. And there was so much excitement. Now, President M. Russell Ballard, who is Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, was the chair of the Church’s sesquicentennial committee. In those years, he’s been such an advocate for the pioneers and a personal friend of yours. How has he advocated for the park and for the preservation of our pioneer history?

Ellis Ivory: Well, when I do give talks around, I invariably use his phrase, which is “We can’t lose this history.” That’s what he’s always saying. And Katie and I spoke out at the Daughters of Utah Pioneers, their national convention here, and that’s the theme. And that’s President Ballard, and he, boy, he means it. And the other thing that’s amazing is that he appreciates so much people who have contributed to make the park what it is. There’s nobody like him to sit down with people, and he’ll remind them how blessed they are, and it’s time for you to share some of your blessings with the rest of the people by preserving what we have there, and that — he’s been an amazing partner.

Children run through This Is the Place Heritage Park as the wagon train enters the valley during the Latter-day Saint pioneer trek reenactment in Salt Lake City in 1997. The group traveled from Winter Quarters to Salt Lake City over a three-month period, tracing the pioneer trail. | Jeffrey Allred, Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News


Sarah Jane Weaver: And on that note, we have a tradition at the Church News podcast: We always end with the same question, and we always give our guests the final word. And the question is “What do you know now?” And so, after working for so many years to preserve the heritage of early members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and others who settled the Salt Lake Valley, as well as a life of service in the Church, what do you know now that you’ve learned from the pioneers? And we’d love for you to also share your testimony of the Church in that.


Ellis Ivory: I think I can do that in this way, Sarah, that is to say — as I got up there in ’06, is where I did it, at that point, mostly through obedience to being asked to do something we’ve always wanted to show our gratitude to the community for the blessings that we’ve had. I don’t forget where I come from, in Fountain Green, and never dreamed that I’d be sitting here, and during those years, to see the vision of what — both looking back and looking ahead. I just love to get up in the morning and go to the park. It’s to the point I’d rather be there and do that than I would golf. And, frankly, I think as time goes on, I hope I get better at that, but I’m getting worse at golf anyway, so I might as well spend the time there.

All that really comes to my testimony, because I’ve always loved the Church. I’ve been very grateful from the early days; I was the first one in my family that ever went on a mission or ever went to college, and through dear friends, I got active and got into the Church. And I’ve loved it all my life and appreciated what it means in our lives. But I think this new dimension of appreciating the heritage has added greatly to that, and it just gives me such a wonderful feeling to be able to have people come up there.

I would just add, even our folks at the park, our full-time employees and volunteers, it’s a very diverse bunch. I love the people; we have some of the really, really fine nonmembers of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and then people with no church, and whatever they are; I just love that. And I think it also is representative of the park, because it is a park for everyone. And likewise, I think the Church is for everyone, and certainly the principles, because that’s basically what we can talk about up there.

We used to think we were going to have the Williamsburg of the West. Ours is such a different story because, in their case, there’s sort of one story, and it’s a great story. And we’ve got lots of little substories that we can tell, and every building we do, or any new monument — such as the pioneers of 1847, the three Black pioneers that came in, and Jane Manning and so forth — there’s lots of interesting stories that also teach principles when people come.

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Sarah Jane Weaver: You have been listening to the Church News podcast. I’m your host, Church News editor Sarah Jane Weaver. I hope you have learned something today about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by peering with me through the Church News window. Please remember to subscribe, rate and review this podcast so it can be accessible to more people. And if you enjoyed the messages we shared today, please make sure you share the podcast with others. Thanks to our guests; my producer, KellieAnn Halvorsen; and others who make this podcast possible. Join us every week for a new episode. Find us on your favorite podcasting channels or with other news and updates of the Church on

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