When the new Mormon Trail Center at Winter Quarters, across the Missouri River in Omaha opens next April, it will house an authentic replica of a handcart. But it won't be a handcart that goes directly from the builder to the visitors center; it'll be well-worn, one that was pulled and pushed 300 miles across the rolling green hills of southern Iowa.
The handcart was one of several handcarts included in the sesquicentennial wagon train that followed the Mormon Trail as closely as possible from Nauvoo, Ill., to Council Bluffs, Iowa. The wagon train was part of the 150th anniversary commemoration of the trail, as well as the statehood of Iowa and the founding of Council Bluffs. (See July 13 Church News for article and pictures on the wagon train.)Sixty-two-year-old Montell Seely, a Castle Dale, Utah, a cattle and sheep rancher, led the handcart trekkers as they inched their way across what was once the frontier of America that their ancestors traversed in 1846. However, few, if any, handcarts ever left Nauvoo. The first handcart company left Iowa City, Iowa, in 1856. Iowa City was the starting point for the handcart companies because by that time it was the terminus for the railroad.
The Church-owned handcart was built by Steve Pratt, a craftsman who lives in the Cove Fort, Utah, area, who replicates historical artifacts after researching pioneer letters and diaries. In addition to the handcart, other replicas of Brother Pratt's that will go into the Winter Quarters visitors center include a covered wagon and a working odometer.
On the Iowa trail, the wagons and the handcarts both pulled out of Montrosse, Iowa, on June 24, but traveled different routes to reach their destination in Council Bluffs. Each night the two groups camped together near one of the communities along the way. At the trail's end on the campus of Iowa School for the Deaf in Council Bluffs, they were applauded and cheered by several hundred well-wishers and curious on-lookers who turned out with cameras and camcorders to record the arrival of the modern-day pioneers as they came into town on July 12. The wagons rolled into camp only a few minutes before the handcarts did.
"I am extremely thankful to be able to do this," said Brother Seely on the final night of the trek, as he relaxed on a farmer's lawn near the old Mormon community of Macedonia, some 20 miles east of Council Bluffs. As he talked, the music of a bluegrass band filled the night air. It was a time of celebration.
As the train passed through the communities of southern Iowa, townspeople would come out and greet the train and cheer the participants on. When the train camped each day, usually in late afternoon, tables and tents would be set up to sell commemoratives of the trek.
Townspeople would come to the camp to look over the items and visit with the participants. The local townfolks would feed the participants supper and then usually some entertainment would be provided, like the blue grass music or square dancing.
Brother Seely is a square dance caller. "The other night I had eight squares dancing in the street." Most, he said, were townspeople.
"This is a-once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," he enthused, using a phrase that was frequently uttered by members of the train, as they made their journey back into Mormon history. "This has been the most physically taxing thing that I've engaged in over an extended period of time.
"Ever!" he emphasized.
"At the end of the day, we would be totally exhausted as the pioneers must have been.
"But it has also been such a spiritual experience," continued Brother Seely, who is activities chairman in the Castle Dale Ward and historical clerk in the Castle Dale Utah Stake. "It has made me personally acquainted with my ancestors without having met them in person. Some of the time we were following the exact tracks the pioneers followed. I now have a greater appreciation for them."
Brother Seely referred to the scripture in Malachi (Mal. 4:5-6): ". . . he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers. . . ."
"We usually interpret that to mean family history and temple work," he said. "But I feel that scripture has a much broader application. My heart certainly has been turned to my ancestors. I have made a concrete bond with my great-great-grandparents through this activity."
Five of the modern handcart pioneers made the entire trek. Participants could either go the whole distance or any portion of the trail. Many came out for just a day. Mike Foley, wagon train director from Montrose, Iowa, said, "We had as many as 40 wagons that participated at one time or another, and we had 107 walkers who pulled or pushed handcarts at some point in the trek."
Even though the handcart people had to be physically fit to be able to walk across the state, "you had to have a mental toughness too," said Brother Seely. "You had to have a drive. Our drive was that we were showing our love, honor, respect and devotion to our pioneer ancestors.
"I would do it again, yes" said Brother Seely, his sun-bronze face partially hidden behind his gray, full beard and shadowed underneath his broad-rimmed hat. His son, Mark, 21, who recently returned from a mission in Alaska, agreed. Sporting a black beard, Mark related the reason he made the trek. "I was able to feel what my ancestors felt, and see what they saw." His great-great-grandmother on his mother's side was in the Martin handcart company in 1856. Youngest of the Seely family to make the entire trip was fourteen-year-old Janell.
Others walking the entire distance were Kent and Taylor Hurst, a father and son, members from Indianapolis, Ind.
Brother Seely said the handcart group averaged about 20 miles a day. They traveled every day except Sunday. The usual routine was to be in bed by 10 p.m. after all the visitors had left. They would get up at 5 a.m. and be on the trail by 6 a.m. However on several days to avoid the heat, the group got up at 1 a.m. and pulled their carts by moonlight. The group would have prayer night and morning.
Brother Seely said the reaction of townspeople as they came through the various communities "was fabulous. I can't pick out a word in the English language to express the welcome and how much the people in Iowa loved the handcarts."
The welcomes were warm and friendly.
After one such welcome, Brother Seely said he was approached by a man who declared, "I am sorry your people didn't receive this warm of a welcome in 1846."