Trades on Historic Nauvoo’s Main Street

Exterior of Browning Home and Gunsmith Shop

Visitors to Nauvoo’s Main Street find stories of faith in the shops of craftsmen from the 1840s.

In the 1840s, Nauvoo’s Main Street bustled with activity. People and horse-drawn vehicles moved goods from the riverfront to stores and shops, while family-owned businesses opened their doors to customers. The restored homes and workshops along this street represent just a few of the many trades that were part of Nauvoo’s economy. Exploring their stories reveals the faith that Nauvoo residents expressed through their daily work. Unlike settlers in other Mississippi River towns from this time, Latter-day Saints weren’t just interested in making money and caring for their own families. Their work was a way to keep covenants with God to build up His holy house and His kingdom by caring for one another.

Stoddard Tin Shop

Before stainless steel and plastic, tin was once a common material in homes and businesses. In 1842, Sylvester Stoddard opened a tin shop on Main Street that sold tin buckets, cups, and even lengths of stove pipe. Besides these ordinary household items, master smiths in the Nauvoo Tinners Association prepared some special pieces for the Nauvoo Temple. Their work included the horns and ears of the oxen in the temple baptismal font, a tin covering of the temple dome, and a gilded angel as part of the building’s symbolic weathervane.

Stoddard Tin Shop

Tinware on display at the Stoddard Tin Shop. Funnels, pans, cups, lanterns, and many other household items that might be made of plastic or stainless steel today would have been made of tin in the 1840s.

Browning Gun Shop

Like Sylvester Stoddard, Jonathan Browning was a craftsman who worked with metals. He joined the Church in Quincy, Illinois, after meeting Latter-day Saints fleeing Missouri in 1839. Already a well-established gunsmith, he sold his business and moved to Nauvoo, where he put his blacksmithing skills to work to build up the city. Once it was clear that the Latter-day Saints would be moving west and would no longer have use of firearms issued by the Illinois State Militia, Browning began manufacturing a number of rifles for the people to use on their journey. As an expression of his faith in Jesus Christ over human strength, he inscribed on the stock of each rifle the words “Holiness to the Lord—Our Preservation.”

Historic Nauvoo

Missionaries demonstrate gunsmithing at the Browning Gun Shop.

Riser Boot and Shoe Shop

Between the Browning Home and the riverbank, dozens of weavers, tailors, hatmakers, and shoemakers once set up their shops. Only one small brick building has been restored to represent this vibrant facet of Main Street. Here George and Christiana Riser’s faith was demonstrated in a different way. After marrying in 1842, George hired a journeyman shoemaker named Ebenezer Kerr to help him in his business. Ebenezer was a Latter-day Saint, and from him, George learned of the recent persecution of the Church in Missouri. The idea of a restored gospel interested both George and Christiana enough that they sold their business and moved to Nauvoo. Interest turned to deep conviction through their experiences with Joseph Smith and other Latter-day Saints. They were baptized in the icy Mississippi River that December.

George honored his covenants by employing others in need of work. He convinced his half-brother John to come to Nauvoo, where John learned both the shoemaking trade and the gospel. He was baptized shortly after his arrival, and the brothers later served a German-speaking mission together in Ohio. George also employed three newcomers to Nauvoo, writing, “I felt to extend my business & give them employment that they need not go away for want of employment and not particularly for my individual interest.”1

Boot Shop

The restored Riser Boot and Shoe Shop represents dozens of shops along Main Street’s busy garment district.

Post Office and Print Shop

Like other Nauvoo residents, business owners along Main Street faced a challenge to their faith in Jesus Christ and His restored Church after the death of Joseph Smith. As it became increasingly clear that the main body of Latter-day Saints would have to leave Illinois, some chose to sell their property and travel back to established cities like Cincinnati and New Orleans rather than venture into the wilderness. As a result, early in 1845, John Taylor became aware of a large brick home and store for sale. He wrote in his journal that it would be ideal for use as a print shop. For three years the Church had published the Times and Seasons, a biweekly newspaper that was vital for building community and sharing prophetic counsel with Church members living in and outside of the Nauvoo area.

That spring the Church did buy the property and invited John Taylor, as editor of the newspaper, to move his family to the new home. Throughout the summer, John worked on a new brick building next to their home that would serve as the newspaper editor’s office. The large brick home became more than just a single family’s residence. Joseph Smith’s cousin Elias Smith, who served as the foreman of the print shop, moved into a spare bedroom so that he could be close to the printing operations. Since he served as Nauvoo’s postmaster as well, Elias also moved the post office into the print shop.

Interior of print shop

The print shop published two newspapers in Nauvoo: one for the Church and one for the community.

The Taylor home with its adjoining print shop and post office became a communication hub in the middle of this busy street. During the summer of 1845, John Taylor welcomed representatives of Nauvoo’s many trade associations into this home, where they discussed ways to build up the city’s self-sufficiency during growing opposition from their neighbors. A second, local newspaper, the Nauvoo Neighbor, was a way for tradesmen to advertise new goods for sale, job openings, and meetings for various tradesmen.

The last edition of the Times and Seasons was published in February 1846. Thereafter, John Taylor and Elias Smith left the two presses, type, and other supplies in Nauvoo and moved west with the main body of the Latter-day Saints.

Main Street’s Legacy

New ways of printing, shoemaking, and working metal have replaced the 19th-century technology on display in the restored homes and shops along Main Street today. But the story of Main Street is more than just a story of antiquated technology. It is a story of hardworking men and women who found ways to share who they were as Latter-day Saints in their everyday work. Their faith-filled efforts to love God and to love their neighbors in the 1840s are still evident in the few brick buildings that remain along this street.

Exterior of red brick buildings covered in snow.
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