KIRTLAND, Ohio As one pearl on the string of historic sites restored and operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Historic Kirtland welcomes visitors to step back 170 years to a time when the fledgling church was establishing itself in this small village northeast of Cleveland.
Long known and visited by Latter-day Saints on their way to the Hill Cumorah Pageant, staged each July in Palmyra, N.Y., the town has been a "rest-stop" for travelers who wanted to see the Kirtland Temple (now owned and operated by the Community of Christ) and visit the Newel K. Whitney store. Kirtland served as headquarters of the LDS Church from 1831 to 1838, when church founder Joseph Smith directed the growing body of Saints to gather in Missouri.
While the area was the setting for many foundational events in church history the faith's first temple was built, its priesthood quorums organized and the missionary effort for which it is well-known today had its genesis here until recently there was little to keep travelers from merely stopping for ice cream and a quick visit to the temple and the Whitney store.
Basic doctrines and church organization were established here, yet many visitors have had difficulty grasping the depth of LDS heritage in this area until now.
The dedication in May of Historic Kirtland by church President Gordon B. Hinckley capped 20 years of restoration work that accelerated dramatically once the rebuilding of the Nauvoo Temple and historic village in Illinois was completed last year. While the church doesn't release financial figures, local officials have pegged the cost of the project at more than $10 million.
Now visitors to the Ohio site "have a reason to stay," said Elder T. Bowring Woodbury, director of Kirtland Visitors Center.
The center, built as a replica of a grist mill that is accurate to the 1830s time period, is the first stop on a tour of the village and boasts a 30-minute film detailing the early history of the church in Kirtland. Six years in the making to ensure historical accuracy, the film sets the stage for what visitors will see and learn as they walk along the streets and visit the buildings within the village.
Just east of the main entrance to the Visitors Center is the Little Red School House, an early gathering place not only for Latter-day Saints, but for the entire population of the town. Restorationists found the building's original site in August 2001 after painstaking investigation and digging revealed a brick foundation five feet below the ground surface.
Civic meetings were held there in the evenings, in addition to class work during the day, according to missionary guides, who detail some of the happenings at each historic site from the text of early pioneer journals and church history.
Walking west from the center, visitors cross a bridge over Stoney Brook, with the east fork of the Chagrin River where early converts were baptized visible to the north. Once across the bridge, visitors look left to see the reconstructed ashery and sawmill, complete with a working waterwheel, built on the river's edge. The sound of the waterwheel's constant churning adds authenticity to the feel of the village, particularly as visitors approach the mill and realize that it was constructed to actually be operational.
Liability concerns keep the saw quiet for tourists, but Elder Woodbury said President Hinckley was delighted to see the saw cut through a huge log during his tour of the village in May. Lumber from the mill was instrumental in framing the Kirtland Temple, just up the hill, and guides explain how pioneer craftsmen fashioned the curving temple pulpits from wood milled at the site.
Next door, the ashery capable of actually producing potash gives 21st century guests a visual lesson in the tedium of production processes during the 1830s. Guides explain how hardwood logs were harvested and hauled to the building, then cut and burned to ash in the incinerator. From there, the ash went through a series of refining heat and water processes to produce potash an essential ingredient used to manufacture glass, soap, leather goods, gunpowder and paper.
Proceeds from the enterprise helped fund construction of the temple and the printing of church literature.
Historian Steven Olsen, manager of the Historic Kirtland Restoration Project and associate director of the Church Museum of History and Art, said both the sawmill and ashery are functional "because that's how you know you've got it right."
Inside the ashery, "the hoppers and furnace are there and accurate. We didn't put the chemicals (required to make potash) in there because they're caustic and smelly. So we've done a little show biz there for the sake of visitors having a historic experience." The ashery's furnace was also constructed so it could work if need be. Using historic brick, wood and other building materials was important to those who re-created the buildings, but "because it was a reconstruction and not a restoration, it still had to meet all the modern codes for new construction."
Olsen said re-creating the sawmill and ashery was "one of the most satisfying restorations I've ever been involved with. The research we had done was complete enough to do the restoration with confidence" that the buildings would as closely replicate the originals as possible. He said the ashery is the only facility of its kind in the United States, and likely in all of North America.
Walking north to Whitmer Road and then west, visitors come to an intersection the busiest in Kirtland until the church funded a $3.5 million highway project to move the main road west of the village where the Newel K. Whitney store, Whitney's home and the John Johnson Inn are located. Restoration work on the store, which was literally the economic and spiritual center of Kirtland for several years, was completed in 1984.
The upper room of Whitney's store was the site of many meetings detailing the organization and doctrine of the church, and housed the School of the Prophets, where early church leaders were instructed by Joseph Smith and others. Jenny Lund, senior educator for the Church Museum of History and Art, said restoration of the store was simplified by the discovery of Whitney's handwritten ledger and account book. An inventory of what the shopkeeper ordered, bought and sold, allowed restorationists to replicate the commodities that were available.
Whitney's first store was built across the street west from his larger business, and that building has also been restored. Curators believe his business partner, Sidney Gilbert, and his family probably lived in that smaller store, and that Whitney's parents lived there in subsequent years. Joseph Smith also lived there, and church members believed he received several revelations from God in the building.
South of the smaller store is the John Johnson Inn, the first brick building in Kirtland. Built by Peter French in the mid-1820s, it housed travelers to Kirtland for several years. Modern building codes made authentic restoration of the interior impractical, Olsen said, noting that the width of stairwells required would have taken up too much of the interior space. The inn now houses a small theater and computer kiosk, where visitors can look through a database of about 1,800 LDS families who lived in Kirtland during the 1830s.
Walking north from the inn on what is now called Smith Road, visitors come to the on-site Family History Center, where journal accounts of early Kirtland residents and other materials are available for researchers to peruse.
And while it is not part of the church's restoration of the historic village, few visitors would feel their time in Kirtland complete without a short drive (walking is discouraged along the busy highway) up the hill to the temple. Completed in 1836, the building is open for tours. Owned and operated by the Community of Christ (formerly the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints), it now houses a variety of interfaith and community events.
Additional sites of interest to LDS visitors in particular include the Isaac Morley Farm, a few miles east of Historic Kirtland; the restored John Johnson home and farm in Hiram, about a 40-minute drive south of Kirtland; and the Stannard Quarry, (just off the main highway south of Kirtland about two miles), where limestone for the temple was cut. A pond and walking path co-developed by the LDS Church and Lake County welcome visitors to the quarry with shade and a picnic area.
Locals believe with the dedication of Historic Kirtland, visitors will have a reason to stay in the area for more than just a whistle-stop visit.
Karl Ricks Andersen, a long-time Kirtland resident and former stake president in the area, started talking to top church leaders three decades ago about restoring church sites there. Last year, LDS sites in Kirtland attracted about 45,000 visitors half of them in July he said. Ten years ago, the sites saw only about 20,000 visitors annually. But with Historic Kirtland now complete, Andersen believes annual visitor traffic could easily double.Comment on this story
He's not alone in his projections. Bob Ulas, director of the Lake County Visitor's Bureau, said the project is "so breathtaking and unique, it's going to drive up to 40,000 new visitors a season," both locals and those from out of state. After a tour in May, he praised the way the church applied "state-of-the-art visitor industry applications to a unique historical chapter that is very compelling.
"It's enlightening and moving. With the creek running through the ashery, the sawmill and the school, there's a sense of serenity and discovery that is truly unique," Ulas said.
Though Kirtland has no hotels or restaurants because it doesn't have a sewer system, surrounding businesses are already benefitting. One local hotel doubled its size in anticipation and has already booked several bus tours.The project has also brought a "historical awareness" to the area, Ulas said. "Most people didn't realize all that transpired here."