Pioneer Life in Historic Nauvoo

Historic Nauvoo

Amid the hard work of transforming swampy Commerce, Illinois, into Nauvoo, Latter-day Saints made time for social activities, educational pursuits, civic meetings, music, and even sports and games. The reconstructed Cultural Hall and the nearby Pastimes Pavilion and Family Living Center offer some glimpses into daily living and special occasions for the children and youth growing up in Nauvoo in the 1840s.

When it became clear that the Latter-day Saints would gather to build a new city in Illinois, they went to work. The land surrounding Commerce, Illinois, transformed as the people cut down trees, drained standing water, plowed and planted fields, surveyed roads, and built homes and shops. Amid all this work, the people also made time for other activities. In civic meetings, school classes, social events, and holiday celebrations, or just in the daily chores of shopping or housework, Latter-day Saint families made choices that expressed their faith in Jesus Christ and the virtues of a covenant-bound community.

Establishing a Homestead

In the 1840s, living on one of Nauvoo’s one-acre town lots meant much more than building a house. Fences and ditches, outbuildings, a dooryard, a kitchen garden, orchard trees, animal pens, and often a well or cistern were also part of the homestead.

Gardens and outbuildings outside of Lyon Drug and Variety Store

Gardens and outbuildings outside of Lyon Drug and Variety Store.

Meeting the ongoing needs for food, fuel, clothing, and shelter meant work at home required everyone’s help. Children worked along with their parents. Young children often tended a garden, looked after animals, or helped with cooking, laundering, and making soap and candles. If their parents had skills like weaving, pottery, or barrel making, the children might take up the trade from their parents. Otherwise, they might apprentice elsewhere in town.

Missionary demonstrating candle-dipping

Demonstrations of candle making and other children’s chores take place in the Family Living Center.

Shopping for a Variety of Goods

Because Nauvoo is a city on the Mississippi River, many goods made elsewhere could be brought into town by steamboat. Shoppers would often be able to buy goods on credit and pay for them through produce or labor provided to the shopkeepers.

Like the proprietors of other general stores, Windsor and Carlos Lyon stocked the shelves of their variety store with goods imported from places such as St. Louis, Missouri, and Cincinnati, Ohio. The Lyon brothers were eager to be paid in cash because cash was easier to carry with them on purchasing trips. But as at all stores in Nauvoo, they accepted payment in kind. They even advertised an exchange of wheat for dry goods. Other acceptable items for exchange included fur pelts, hams, tanned hides, feathers, honey, lumber, potash, chairs, or homegrown produce. All these goods could be resold locally or in larger markets elsewhere.

Turkey and China on display at Lyon Drug

Homegrown produce was sold alongside imported wares at the Lyon Drug and Variety Store.

Cultural Arts and Social Events

In a grand ceremony in April 1844, Nauvoo’s Freemasons dedicated a new public building known as the Masonic Hall. As with other large celebrations, the day included a parade with music from Nauvoo’s Brass Band and speeches from Hyrum Smith, Heber C. Kimball, and other prominent citizens of Nauvoo. Later in May, actors Thomas A. Lyne and George J. Adams directed a series of theatrical performances in the large new hall. The newspaper reported that the plays were all “well attended each evening, and the audience expressed their entire satisfaction and approbation.”1

Poster for Pizarro broadside.

Pizarro was one of several plays performed at the Cultural Hall in 1844.

Over the next two years, the Freemasons held meetings on the third floor while the ground floor hosted musical performances, art exhibits, dances, holiday celebrations, and other social events. In its review of one musical concert held at the hall, the Nauvoo Neighbor commented on the “electrifying feeling” in the room and asserted that “God was there.”2

Other rooms in the large hall were available for classes, church meetings, or other civic gatherings. For instance, in the spring of 1845, Hosea Stout, the city’s chief of police, met there to organize ward volunteers to help oversee public safety. In the same upper rooms, William Hathaway and Eli Kelsey held school for pupils ages 3 to 13. Having such a large, multipurpose building truly added to the cultural fabric of the community.

Scovil’s Bakery

Just as many social events today are often not complete without refreshments, so it was in Nauvoo. Lucius Scovil was a prominent business owner and a member of Nauvoo’s Masonic Lodge. He served on the building committee for the lodge. To raise money for the building, he opened a bakery on his property. Once the hall was completed, the bakery continued to offer refreshments for dances or other events held next door.

Scovil Bakery exterior

The reconstructed Scovil Bakery stands next door to the restored Cultural Hall.

Games and Pastimes

Some social activities were less formal than a concert or dance. Neighbors and friends, then as now, found ways to have fun. While adults organized quilting bees, debating clubs, and band rehearsals, children played tag, walked on stilts, ran races, or chose teams for an early version of baseball. Youth and adults might play table games such as nine-pins, checkers, or fox and geese.

Table with games at Pioneer pastimes pavilion

At the Pioneer Pastimes Pavilion near the Cultural Hall, families today can play some of the same games popular in 1840s Nauvoo.

Whether at work or at play, shopping, studying, or socializing, the people who built up Nauvoo found ways to share the joy of gospel living in their homes and with their neighbors.