There was a little article in this morning's Deseret News about Florence Smith Jacobsen, who is 98 years old now, and going strong. Years ago, she was general president of the LDS Church's Young Women's Mutual Improvement Association. It's a worldwide organization for LDS young women ages 12 to 18.
She also served as Chuch Curator. It was in this capacity that I had my only encounter - via letter - from Sister Jacobsen. It was in the mid-'70s, when I was a seasonal ranger at Fort Laramie National Historic Site, located in Eastern Wyoming. As curator, Sister J asked me to do a little survey of local historic sites that were also of interest to Mormons, who pioneered what became known as the Mormon Trail in 1847. Specifically, she wanted me to drive to Chimney Rock, near Bayard, Nebraska, and see what kind of historical site it was, and how the state of Nebraska was maintaining it.
One day, we put our three youngsters in the car and drove to Bayard, Nebraska, about 40 or 50 miles from Torrington, where we lived. The historical site was maintained by the state with rustic restrooms, and a signboard, as I recall. I took photos. It was rudimentary, at best.
What happened then, I've never forgotten. You've probably seen photos of Chimney Rock, a distinctive formation that most folks traveling west from 1847 on, wrote about in their journals. It was a milestone of sorts to those trail pioneers, because they knew they were approaching the heart of the west.
Sam was our youngest child then. I think he was about two years old, a sturdy little guy. Martin set him down and Sam and his older sibs started walking toward Chimney Rock. It was some distance from the signboard, but away they went, glad to be out of the car. I watched them. Eventually, I called them back, because it was time to leave. The older two turned around, but Sam kept walking. And walking, on those short legs. He was quite determined to reach Chimney Rock (It was still at least a mile away), and didn't take kindly to being stopped.
In my mind's eye in 1974, I could see other little ones like Sam, walking and walking along the Mormon/Oregon/California Trail, 120+ years before our fact-finding visit. In their case, they had no choice, no warm home to return to, no safe bed to sleep in, no guarantee that there would be anything for them at the end of the trail, or even if they would ever arrive in the Valley of the Great Salt Lake. Sam humbled me that day with his determination and courage. I've never forgotten it, and I still silently thank Sister Jacobsen for creating a memory. What a chuff I am. I have tears in my eyes as I write this, and I'm not particularly sentimental.
We also stopped at Rebecca Winter's grave, on the return to Torrington. In 1854, I believe, Rebecca Winters, one of the saints headed to Utah Territory, died of cholera. Her grieving family buried her by the trail, and stretched out a wagon tire iron, to arch over her grave. Years later, when the Burlington Northern Railroad was surveying the route by Scottsbluff to lay track, they came upon that tire iron arch, which had been crudely inscribed with Rebecca's name, date of death, and destination.
Kindly railroad officials managed to located Rebecca Winter's family in Salt Lake. Her descendants returned and put up a very nice marker, which also included words from that Latter-day Saint trail anthem, "Come, Come, Ye Saints:" It's the verse that reads, "And should we die, before our journey's through, happy day, all is well. We then are free from toil and labor, too, with the just we shall dwell. But if our lives are spared again, to see the saints their rest obtain, oh, how we'll make this chorus swell, All is well! All is well!"
The railroad kindly did a jog around Rebecca Winter's grave. Today, there is a nice area, plus more of a marker, as Rebecca Winters continues to touch passersby. All is quite well at that monument to pioneers.
Anyway, I sent photos and descriptions of what I found at Chimney Rock and the Winters' grave to Sister Jacobsen. I couldn't resist, though, and my native cheery temperament took over. I told Sister J that I was really sorry, but Chimney Rock was eroding, and there wasn't a thing I could do about it.
Sister Jacobsen filled her Church Curator's role with great accomplishment. She was responsible for saving the Lion House, the home for many of Brigham Young's plural wives. It had been headed for demolition, but she made a proposal to preserve it that was wise, and led to its renovation, rather than ruin. It remains a lovely landmark in downtown Salt Lake City. She also suggested the creation of the church's Museum of History, which is a wonderful place today. She also supervised the renovation of the interior of the Manti Temple. which I have always considered one of the most amazing pieces of historic architecture in the United States. We happen to be fortunate enough to live in the Manti Temple district and spend quality time in there.
So my hat is off to you, Florence Jacobsen, and you, Sam Kelly, for touching my heart in many ways. You're my heroes.