Paying Tribute to Mormon Church's Ohio Roots

The New York Times/February 12, 2010

Kirtland, Ohio - Tim Powell remembers when the "Utah Mormons" first came to town with their plans in the early 1990s.

They wanted to recreate a historic village that would explain the role this city played as the Mormon Church's headquarters in the 1830s and celebrate the fact that the faith's first temple is here.

"Kirtland is one of our best kept secrets, and we wanted to remove that cloak of secrecy and remind people of the importance it played in our history," said Karl Anderson, 72, who helped push the church's $15 million effort to renovate or rebuild 10 buildings or sites in and around Kirtland.

Mr. Powell, who has lived in Kirtland all his life and been on the City Council for 14 years, and some others did not like the idea. He had read how Mormons had swept into two other towns that played significant roles in the church's founding - Palmyra, N.Y., and Nauvoo, Ill. - resulting in conflicts with non-Mormons.

"In other places you could see the Mormons were taking over those towns," said Mr. Powell, 55.

Mr. Powell fought the church's project every step of the way, worried, he said, about allowing such a relatively large tourist development in the middle of town.

But now, eight years after it was completed, Mr. Powell concedes that he was wrong. "I was a skeptic," he said. "But now that the dust has settled, I think people are pretty happy with it."

About 100,000 people, most Mormons, visit the site annually.

What the Latter-day Saints have done in Kirtland is akin to the church's historic efforts in both Palmyra - where the church's founder, Joseph Smith, first had his visions as a teenager in 1820 that led to his writing the Book of Mormon - and Nauvoo - where Mr. Smith was killed by a mob in 1844.

In all three towns, starting in the 1970s, the church bought buildings and land where historic Mormon events had occurred and began turning them into sites fit for religious pilgrimages. All Mormons are encouraged to visit each site to learn more about their faith and the sacrifices early leaders made.

During his time in Kirtland, according to the church, Smith received half the revelations that are found in one of the faith's three sacred books, Doctrine and Covenants. At one point during his seven years here, Smith and another church leader were dragged from their homes and tarred and feathered, a moment depicted in a short film about the town's history shown to visitors at Historic Kirtland.

But before the church opened the site in 2002, the city was seen by most Mormons "merely as a way station on the journey from Palmyra to Nauvoo," said Steven Olsen, senior historic sites curator for the church, formally known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. "And one of the things we've tried to do is correct that."

By rehabilitating original buildings like the Newel K. Whitney General Store - where Mr. Smith lived for a time and had the revelation that Mormons should not smoke or drink alcohol or caffeine - and rebuilding long-lost buildings like a sawmill, the curators try to explain the town's significance in vivid terms and allow people to walk in their prophet's shoes.

"When Joseph Smith arrives in Kirtland in 1831, he's the head of a loosely organized group of followers," Mr. Olsen said. "When they leave Kirtland in 1838, the church has a fully recognized ecclesiastical organization."

The church also addresses the reason Smith and most of his 2,000 followers left Kirtland, citing the Depression and the failed bank the church had started.

And while the tour has attracted the many visitors the church had hoped, non-Mormons say any fear of Mormons taking over the town have evaporated.

City and church leaders alike say there are several reasons that the conflict never escalated here, including the fact that even though the Latter-day Saints only opened a church here in 1981, a smaller branch of the Mormon Church, the Community of Christ, has been here largely uninterrupted since the 1830s.

"We were familiar to people; we lived here already, they knew us, and that benefited" the Latter-day Saints, said Ron Romig, a Community of Christ member and director of the Kirtland Temple Visitor Center, where people come to learn about and then tour the well-preserved 174-year-old temple, which is owned by the Community of Christ, not the Mormon Church.

In addition, unlike Nauvoo and Palmyra, which are both rural town centers, Kirtland and its 6,600 residents are just one town among a sea of suburbs 20 miles east of Cleveland, and the Mormon populace has spread into the surrounding area.

"I can count on my fingers the number of Mormon families in Kirtland; maybe a dozen," said Mario Marcopoli, 77, the city's mayor from 1980 to 2000.

But another reason why tensions never escalated is the personal relationship Mr. Marcopoli developed with Mr. Anderson and other Mormons.

Mr. Marcopoli, a retired college engineering instructor and administrator who is a "non-churchgoing Catholic," said his approach was simple. "I didn't know who the Mormons were and it wouldn't have mattered anyway," he said. "To me, I don't see any difference in religions. I look at people, and these were unbelievably nice people."

Moreover, where some residents saw unwanted development, Mr. Marcopoli saw an opportunity.

The city's motto had long been "City of Faith and Beauty" - it has 11 churches of various denominations - and Mr. Marcopoli recognized that Historic Kirtland could help give the city an identity, and he spent years convincing his opponents of that.

"He understood our vision and had a vision of what this could mean for his city," said Roger Butterfield, 67, a Mormon leader and current director of Historic Kirtland's visitor center.

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