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'Old Smith place':Re-creating setting of Prophet's birth

Local residents passed on knowledge of birth place

Decades after his birth — even years after his martyrdom — residents in Vermont knew precisely where the Prophet Joseph Smith was born. But to the Church, the site of the Prophet's birth was not known until 1895, when Junius F. Wells first visited Vermont in search of the site.

Home of Joseph Smith's birth was dismantled before Junius F. Wells arrived in Sharon, Vt., in 1895. Photo captures   remains of hearthstone and cellar stonework as the property appeared when purchased by Church in early 1900s.
Home of Joseph Smith's birth was dismantled before Junius F. Wells arrived in Sharon, Vt., in 1895. Photo captures remains of hearthstone and cellar stonework as the property appeared when purchased by Church in early 1900s. Photo: Copyright Intellectual Reserve

In 1905, a century after the birth of Joseph Smith, Maria Griffith, then 75 years old, told Brother Wells that she remembered picking roses as a child around the cellar walls of the "old Smith place," as her uncle, Ebenezer Dewey, called the property.

Other locals at the time simply referred to the Prophet's birth site as "the place."

"There can't be any mistake about it," testified Harvey Smith in 1905, "nothing can be any more certain than that is the place where he was born. It has always been known that that was where Joe Smith the Mormon prophet was born."

The home had long been dismantled by the time Brother Wells arrived. All that remained were the hearthstone, doorstep and a hole in the ground lined with stacked stones.

He interviewed local residents, such as Maria Griffiths who was born in 1830, and Harvey Smith, born in 1824 in nearby Tunbridge, Vt., as well as others who were a generation removed.

He searched public records and traversed the site of the old Solomon Mack farm to pinpoint the location of the humble home where the Prophet of the Restoration was born.

Grandmother Mack sends Alvin and Hyrum down the hill to home of Grandfather Mack to tell of Joseph's birth.
Grandmother Mack sends Alvin and Hyrum down the hill to home of Grandfather Mack to tell of Joseph's birth. Photo: Copyright Intellectual Reserve Inc./Milt Hanks

He documented the site with excellent photographs and professional survey maps. He recorded for history the precise location of the crumpled ruins of the home where the fourth child of Joseph and Lucy Mack Smith was born on the wintry day of Dec. 23, 1805.

He determined the basic dimensions of the home to be 22-feet by 24-feet, with a stone cellar measuring 8-feet by 20-feet. No direct documentation was found describing the exterior. For years, many presumed that it was a log cabin. Others thought it could have been a frame home.

In 1905, President Joseph F. Smith and the First Presidency commissioned Junius F. Wells to memorialize the site. Within a year, Brother Wells erected a 38 1/2-foot obelisk-shaped granite monument near the birthplace. He also built a memorial cottage directly over the site of the original home.

The cottage was stately in design with a large porch that wrapped around much of the building. Inside was a fireplace where pictures of the Smith family, including Lucy Mack, Joseph and Hyrum, hung.

When it came time to commemorate the 100-year anniversary in 1905, President Joseph F. Smith traveled to Vermont to dedicate the memorial site, much the same as President Gordon B. Hinckley just returned to the site to commemorate the 200th anniversary.

In the process of creating the memorial site, the footprint of the original home, as well as the stone foundation and cellar, were covered and perhaps altered.

Today, the monument is the focal point of this beautiful historic site nestled in the thick green woods of Vermont. The memorial cottage, which marked the site of the home, was razed in 1959, leaving many details about the site open for speculation.

Junius F. Wells, with scroll, stands on Smith home site.
Junius F. Wells, with scroll, stands on Smith home site. Photo: Copyright Intellectual Reserve

In preparation for the 200-year celebration of the Prophet's birth this year, three staff members of the Family and Church History Department, T. Michael Smith, Kirk Henrichsen and Don Enders, were assigned to create an accurate image of the Prophet's birthplace as it was in 1805.

"The 200th anniversary of the Prophet's birth has stimulated great interest in the circumstances surrounding his birth," said Brother Henrichsen. "I felt this was the year we should take the opportunity to learn more."

"For many years the style, exact orientation and specific location of the birthplace residence has been a matter of mystery and debate," continued Brother Henrichsen. "All we could say, for sure, was the succinct detail recorded in the Prophet's personal history, 'I was born . . . in the town of Sharon, Windsor county, State of Vermont.' "

Rebuilding history was largely a matter of locating and reviewing the photographs, survey charts and documentation made by Brother Wells that had been stored in various locations in Church archives and remained uncataloged. John Dumville, of State Historic Preservation office of Vermont, also provided valuable information.

"This was not off-the-cuff research," said Brother Enders. "It was concerted and detailed."

After reviewing the material, researchers from the Church's historical department are convinced that "sufficient evidence exists to create a relatively accurate image of the birthplace home."

A preponderant amount of information suggests that the home was a traditional New England style post and beam farmhouse with horizontal siding and a central chimney with two fireplaces, one facing the kitchen and the other facing the parlor.

The home probably included a small chamber or bedroom and a pantry. It was probably a one-and-a-half story structure with an upstairs garret for children's sleeping quarters and storage.

The history of the Smiths in this home begins sometime in late 1803 or early 1804 when Joseph Smith Sr., and his wife, Lucy Mack, sold their possessions including their former home to pay business debts. They moved their family of three children, Alvin, Hyrum and Sophronia, to a small, home on the farm of Solomon Mack, Lucy's father, who had recently purchased a 100-acre farm.

The arrangement may have been one of convenience since Solomon Mack was an adventurer who had little experience farming, and, who, after several accidents, was largely invalid. Joseph Sr., was a capable young man who needed means to care for his family.

Aerial view of former Smith property emphasizes slope of farm. Joseph Smith was born in rented home now memorialized with monument on this site.
Aerial view of former Smith property emphasizes slope of farm. Joseph Smith was born in rented home now memorialized with monument on this site. Photo: Copyright Intellectual Reserve

The Smith's rented home was located on the flat land near the top of a ridge. Several hundred yards down the hill was a second, larger home also owned by Lucy's parents.

The Smiths would reside here for about three years, during which time their fourth child, Joseph, would be born. At the time of his birth, it's conceivable that the children were sent down the hill to stay with Grandpa Solomon for the night, while his wife, Lydia Gates Mack, assisted their daughter, Lucy, during the birth.

For convenience and warmth, Lucy probably delivered in the parlor, where a large fire would have warmed the room.

Details of the birth are unknown, but one artist paints a heart-warming scene of Lucy's mother standing in the doorway, with young Sophronia by her side, as she waves to Alvin and Hyrum who are on a sled headed downhill toward Grandpa Mack's home.

The painting implies that the three children would have spent the night with their grandfather and had just returned to see how their mother and her baby were faring. The boys are now returning to tell their grandfather of the new baby boy.

The thick snow on the ground and ice sickles hanging from the roof suggest the bitter cold of a country birth.

Considering the dilapidated state of the home site when Brother Wells arrived in 1895 and the amount of detailed information he was able to gather and document during a decade of research, the completeness of his report is a testament to his thoroughness and exhaustive effort, said Brother Henrichsen.

In reporting his findings to the First Presidency, Brother Wells painted a word picture of the beauty of the area. He said: "Dimly marked on the hillside is the grass-covered road that formerly led down from the farm house to the Old Sharon road, along the right bank of the White Brook, a beautiful little stream, abounding in trout, that flows through the property and about equally divides the old Mack farm.

"The hill, so largely covered with apple trees in bloom, surmounted by the ruins of the farm house is very picturesque and beautiful. It is an isolated, quiet, lovely sylvan spot; surrounded by some of the most charming scenery of the Green Mountains, of which varied and extended views are obtained from many points of vantage on the premises."

Pictures of Lucy Mack, Hyrum and Joseph Smith hang over fireplace in memorial cottage.
Pictures of Lucy Mack, Hyrum and Joseph Smith hang over fireplace in memorial cottage. Photo: Copyright Intellectual Reserve
After locating the site of Joseph Smith's birth, Junius F. Wells erected 38 1/2-foot monument and built a cottage to memorialize the Prophet.
After locating the site of Joseph Smith's birth, Junius F. Wells erected 38 1/2-foot monument and built a cottage to memorialize the Prophet. Photo: Copyright Intellectual Reserve Inc./Edward Anderson