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Walking with the Smiths

It was the spring of 1839 when Joseph Smith and his family arrived in Nauvoo. The land was covered in trees and bushes—the ground was so wet it resembled a swamp. Four years later, the Smith family moved into the Mansion House that was built by Robert D. Foster. The home had many purposes, acting as a hotel, museum for mummies and papyri, a place for temple ordinances and, of course, a home for the Smiths.

Picture of the Mansion House
Photo by Greg Jolley

The mansion has many beautiful features—its white pine exterior and Greek style columns being a couple—but the showstopper was the landscaping. In the 1800s, gardens were grown to be functional. Emma Smith grew flowers to make dye, herbs to use in her cooking, and fruit trees to make preserves. The Smiths’ garden was a bounty of resources, but also served as a thing of beauty that complimented the grandeur of the home.

The Mansion House still stands today and was owned by the Community of Christ until it was recently acquired by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in March 2024.

In 2021, Neil Hansen, Plant and Wildlife Sciences (PWS) Department Chair, was approached by Bob Smith, a BYU employee. Smith called with a special request coming from the Community of Christ. They were planning a big renovation of Joseph Smith’s Mansion House in hopes to increase its longevity and create a more enjoyable experience for guests. Being a direct descendant of Joseph Smith’s younger brother, Samuel, Bob wanted to make sure this project did the home justice.

A large part of the refurbishment would be the surrounding gardens. Smith reached out to BYU’s PWS Department asking for help with the plans for the home’s new yard, making it come to life as a beautiful and educational experience for visitors.

Hansen jumped on the opportunity and recruited the help of other PWS professors. Greg Jolley, professor of landscape architecture, was approached by Hansen to accompany him to Nauvoo and help the Community of Christ come up with a plan for the Mansion House’s land. Invited along with Jolley were 18 of his students.

Picture of  students at the Mansion House in Nauvoo
Photo by Greg Jolley

The Nauvoo Mansion House gardens, while still functional and beautiful today, represent how the early settlers focused greatly on highlighting the existing beauty and bounties of the region. Gardens back then were not small, as they were the main food source for large families. Therefore, restoring the Mansion House garden was going to be no easy task.

“I don’t think a lot of them knew what we were getting into,” said Jolley. “It was all luck for them to be in the class the same time we got to work on this project.” The students spent their entire Nauvoo weekend at the property taking site measurements, snapping photos, and meeting with a Community of Christ apostle who is over all the properties the church owns. The goal of the project was to stay as true as possible to the original Smith garden and create a master plan that Community of Christ could use as a guide.

To begin planning, the students had to do some research on what gardening was like at the time the Smiths lived in Nauvoo. American families, including the Smith family, were greatly inspired by European estates of the time. Though they couldn’t afford to put an entire European garden on their property, they still implemented the design on a smaller scale. Ornamental gardens were gaining popularity in Europe, but America was still big on using home gardens for utility. Herbs and flowers planted in the garden could be used to make dyes, medicines, and teas. Vegetables and fruits were used for cooking. According to the landscape master plan, the more people there were to feed in a family, the bigger their garden had to be.

Map of Mansion House
Photo by Greg Jolley

The master plan was created with the people of Nauvoo in mind. The students wrote that to do justice to the Nauvoo heritage, they would have to successfully link stories and memories to “the living experience of their posterities.” The design incorporated several types of landscapes that visitors could walk through to get a better understanding of the Smiths’ everyday life: an herb and vegetable garden, orchard, flower garden, restored woodland, prairie, and rain garden. Each landscape would get its own block of land. “The master plan will create those same learning opportunities [guests have inside the home], but on the outside of the building,” said Jolley. “It’s a guide for them to create these spaces to educate people about Joseph and Emma’s everyday experiences.”

Herb and Vegetable Garden

A bushel of yellow tomatoes
Photo by Engin Akyurt from Unsplash

The herbs and vegetables for the Mansion House garden were chosen deliberately and with purpose. The BYU team chose a variety of heirloom plants that would’ve been grown in the 1840s. They used a method called companion planting, which is putting combinations of plants together to increase their yield. Their seeds carry over year to year, have bright flavors, have more color variety, and are known to be more nutritious than other vegetables. To keep the garden manageable and preserve historical accuracy, some of the heirloom varieties chosen were yellow plum tomato, green Boston lettuce, red celery, Dutch cabbage, and hollow crown parsnip.

An herb garden was placed below the kitchen window to show visitors how Emma Smith would’ve gotten the fresh herbs she used to cook meals for her family and mix up concoctions to help cure stomach bugs, hiccups, and sore throats. Herbs included in the master plan that were also common in the 1840s were basil, oregano, garlic, rosemary, and thyme—all of which are still very popular—giving guests a way to relate to the Smiths as they go through the experience.

The Orchard

The orchard, located on the south end of the property, was planned as a triangle-shaped plot of land covered in rows and rows of apple trees, cherry trees, and native paw-paw trees. When choosing the species of plant and the number they wanted planted, the students left no stone unturned. They chose to preserve two apple trees and plant 11 new ones; the existing apple trees represent Emma and Joseph Smith, and the 11 new trees represent each of their children. According to the master plan, the mix of Liberty and Gold Rush apple trees were to be planted in a triangle shape, with the existing apple trees at the point and the new saplings planted at diagonals behind them.

The Flower Garden

Blue and red flowers
Photo by Tanner Frost

In the 1840s, American flower gardens were circular plots with every square inch filled with colorful blooms, lush bushes, intricate statues, and bird gardens. Flowers were also the key ingredients in teas, dyes, and perfumes. The BYU team wanted to emulate that design for the flower garden at the edge of the Smith Mansion House property.

For the garden, right outside the home’s front door, they wanted to go for a more low-key, casual design—like the garden where Emma grew flowers to be used for dyes and other household projects. The 45 x 60 square-foot space would hold flower varieties, such as French Marigolds, Corn Poppys, Purple Verbenas, various annuals, and various perennials.

To give guests a true educational experience, the master plan suggested adding labels with QR codes in front of each flower species. These labels would take visitors to a website that would give them more information about the particular plant.

Restored Woodland, Tall Grass Prairie, and Rain Garden

To get visitors fully immersed in 1840s Nauvoo, the BYU team knew they had to recreate landscapes the people would’ve lived on when they first stepped foot in the valley: prairies filled with golden grass, dense forests, and sprawling wetlands. According to the master plan, the Rain Garden isn’t meant to only be a thing of beauty, but a way to control pollution, water runoff, and possible flooding. All three landscapes would have a mix of seeds matching what would’ve been growing during the time the Smith family was there.

Woodland flowers
Photo by Tanner Frost

According to Jolley, 75% of the students in his class had never been to Nauvoo. Learning about the history and the places Emma and Joseph walked was a special experience. They even got to attend a Latter-day Saint church service and meet all the Nauvoo missionaries. “The most exciting thing to see as a professor was watching the students learn about history and the way things were done at the time,” Jolley said. “It was fun to see them increase their knowledge and enthusiasm about how people lived back then.” Though the end of the weekend in Nauvoo marked the end of their involvement in the Mansion House project, the PWS students and professors look forward to seeing their plans come to fruition.