"I feel more like a piece of history than a conservator of history," President Hinckley said after receiving the first Junius F. Wells Award. "I am grateful to see this day."
Members of the LDS Church know President Hinckley has long been interested in the faith's early history. During his tenure as church president since 1995, he has led efforts to restore and upgrade a variety of LDS historic sites, particularly in the East.
President Hinckley on Wednesday spoke about Wells, who under the direction of President Joseph F. Smith in 1905, purchased 283 acres in Sharon, Vt., including the Soloman Mack farm where Joseph Smith was born Dec. 23, 1805. Wells erected a granite marker there, 38 1/2 feet high, President Hinckley said: one foot for each year of the LDS prophet's life.
President Hinckley said the crew couldn't transport the 40-ton monument across a swampy field to the site. He said when Wells was asked what he was going to do, he responded, "I'm going to pray."
That night, Hinckley said the temperature dropped enough that the field froze and the horses could cross.
"Today it stands there as pristine and beautiful as ever before," President Hinckley said of the monument.
In closing he remarked, "To preserve the memory of the past is my humble prayer."
Kim Wilson, chairman of the board of the independent nonprofit Mormon Historic Sites Foundation, said President Hinckley has perhaps done more to preserve LDS Church history than anyone before him.
"We've felt for some time that we'd like to take this moment to honor President Hinckley for his singular effort," Wilson said. "We're delighted, President Hinckley, at your vigor."
Wilson said he hoped the award would become an annual way to honor those who work to preserve church history.
Under Hinckley's direction, a temple was dedicated in Palmyra, N.Y., on April 6, 2000 the 170th anniversary of the church's formal organization in nearby Fayette. The temple is close to the boyhood home of church founder Joseph Smith and the grove of trees where he said he saw God the Father and his son, Jesus Christ, in vision.
During the temple construction, major upgrading was done to the church-owned Smith home and farm, as well as to a visitors center and pageant facilities at the nearby Hill Cumorah, where Smith said an angel directed him to a set of gold plates containing an ancient record now known as the Book of Mormon.
Shortly thereafter he announced the Palmyra Temple would be built, and expanding on dreams his own father, Bryant S. Hinckley, had for Nauvoo, Ill., President Hinckley stunned Latter-day Saints with an announcement during his closing address at LDS General Conference on April 4, 1999, that the Nauvoo Temple would be reconstructed.
First built by poverty-stricken Latter-day Saints in the early 1840s, it was dedicated in 1846 just as the bulk of church membership began a major exodus from Nauvoo and migrated west to the Salt Lake Valley. It was destroyed when an arsonist set fire to it in 1848.
The reconstructed temple was dedicated in June 2002 amid crowds in the hundreds of thousands, and the building, along with a major church reconstruction project of early homes and businesses in the tiny town, continues to draw tens of thousands of visitors annually.
More recently, President Hinckley oversaw the expansion and reconstruction of early LDS historic buildings in Kirtland, Ohio, where the faith's first temple was dedicated in 1836 and still stands (though it is owned by the Community of Christ). The Mormon Historic Sites Foundation was a major partner in that effort, which involved realigning a highway to accommodate visitors in the re-created village of early Kirtland.
A replica of the John Johnson Inn was reconstructed, along with a new visitors center that resembles a 19th century gristmill used by early church member Samuel Whitney. Restoration of the Newel K. Whitney home was also finished, and replicas of a former tannery, ashery and schoolhouse were built.
President Hinckley dedicated the buildings in May 2003, telling church members gathered at the site and via satellite throughout the region that "there is something unique and wonderful about what happened here. Nothing like it has occurred anywhere else in the history of the church, either before or since."
He felt similarly about an section of Wyoming wilderness the church has now leased from the Bureau of Land Management, known as Martin's Cove. The area is hallowed ground for Latter-day Saints, who have often heard President Hinckley speak of early converts to the fledgling faith who were making their way to Salt Lake City via handcart when early winter snows trapped them in the cove in the fall of 1856. Nearly 20 percent of the 1,075 emigrants died of exposure before rescue parties reached them.
Today, about 50 older couples now volunteer full-time at the site, part of which was purchased a few years ago by the church to allow construction of a visitors center that chronicles the history of LDS migration along the Mormon Trail through Wyoming.
Worldwide media interest in the Mormon migration across the Great Plains was generated in the spring of 1997, when a re-enactment of the trek was sanctioned by the church to honor the 150th anniversary of the first LDS pioneer party's trek to the Salt Lake Valley.
President Hinckley dedicated the Mormon Trail Center at Historic Winter Quarters, Neb., the day before the wagon train departed, then directed that a temple be built there, in part to honor early church members who suffered and died during the arduous trip west. It was dedicated in April 2001.
The most recent preservation project that local Latter-day Saints are widely aware of is the retrofitting of the historic Tabernacle on Temple Square, which was dedicated in 1875. Now underw ay, that project was made possible by construction under President Hinckley's direction of the LDS Conference Center as a larger venue for the faith's general conferences and weekly Tabernacle Choir broadcasts.
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