Preserving history with aid of historic sites foundation

By Shaun D. Stahle, Church News staff writer
August 9, 2003

After years of planning and negotiating, a logjam of concerns was resolved five years ago when the Mormon Historic Sites Foundation funded the redesign of busy roads through historic Kirtland.

Visitors now stroll safely among the new facilities built to recreate an important time in Church history, which includes a schoolhouse, ashery, sawmill, inn and visitors center.

Since organizing in 1996, the Mormon Historic Sites Foundation has funded numerous projects with a variety of faiths, communities and families to preserve Church history.

The foundation’s work has largely been behind the scenes and received little mention until President Gordon B. Hinckley noted its contribution during dedicatory services of the Kirtland facilities last May.

In Kirtland, rerouting traffic was the key to its development. Church and civic leaders had talked for years about improving historic Kirtland. Their discussions eventually came back to the danger posed by 60,000 vehicles criss-crossing the site each day only a few feet from the Newel K. Whitney store and home.

“During my first visit,” said Kim R. Wilson, chairman of the foundation, describing the dangers of the intersection, “we looked out the window at the flashing lights of emergency vehicles after an accident.”

Reconfiguring traffic required the building of two bridges and redirecting the traffic of several roads. The multi-million dollar price tag was prohibitive for Cleveland’s bedroom community of Kirtland in northeastern Ohio, and the state had slim hopes of completing the project before several decades.

Using its third-party status, and acting independently from the Church, the foundation raised funds. The money was escrowed, paving the way for road construction to begin. Once the traffic was rerouted, the Church was able to develop historic Kirtland.

The Mormon Historic Sites Foundation had its beginning in the early 1990s when Brother Wilson was called to the high council of the Salt Lake Ensign Stake. He was asked by the stake president to assist a community group working to preserve Ensign Peak, the prominent hill where Brigham Young and other early Church leaders surveyed the valley two days after arriving in 1847.

From Brother Wilson’s involvement the Ensign Peak Foundation was founded in 1992. This select group of attorneys, businessmen and university professors raised $700,000 for the creation of a nature and historic park at the base of Ensign Peak.

Following dedication of the park in 1996, “committee members could have slapped themselves on the back and returned to their previous lives,” said Brother Wilson. “But one brother with insight suggested that the experience we had gained could be used in other profitable ways.”

The Mormon Historic Sites Foundation was formed with the mission of preserving significant sites in Church history around the world. Though independent of the Church, they take their lead from the leaders, offering assistance in ways the Church may not be able to offer.

Among their recent ventures was the assistance to the City of Lexington, Mo., during the Saluda Sesquicentennial Commemoration held in April 2002. A memorial plaque, along with festivities, remembered the explosion of the steamboat Saluda in 1852 that killed 75 people, including two dozen members of the Church migrating west.

The foundation sponsored markers in Keokuk and Montrose, Iowa, as part of a commemoration held June 27-28 that acknowledged the role those frontier cities played in outfitting members for their westward trek.

In late August, the foundation will unveil a display at the Fairport Harbor Museum, near Kirtland, where many early members disembarked on their way to Kirtland.

The foundation also raised several million dollars for the relocation and refurbishing of the Oneida Stake Academy in Preston, Idaho, which was slated for demolition. (Please see the related link above for coverage of the Oneida academy groundbreaking ceremony.)

Among the many current plans, the foundation is working with the Community of Christ to mark two sites in northern Missouri; Haun’s Mill where many early members were murdered by a mob, and the cemetery in Far West where cornerstones were laid for a temple. Contributing to the preservation of history, they also publish a semi-annual scholarly journal Mormon Historical Studies.

“I’m not a great historian,” Brother Wilson said. “But I love Church history and have great appreciation for the faith and sacrifice of early members. As a foundation, we want to teach the next generation about the Church anyway we can.”

More information about the foundation and its projects can be found at the web site: