Historic Kirtland

Restored Ohio village captures an earlier time and season in LDS Church history

Published: Sunday, June 29 2003 12:00 a.m. MDT

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.