Plan a Visit to the Tiny River Town of Nauvoo This Fall
Nauvoo. The word means “a beautiful place” in Hebrew. Nestled between majestic bluffs and the Mighty Mississippi, this tiny river town in west-central Illinois lives up to its name.
“Nauvoo is on one of the most beautiful stretches along the entire Mississippi River,” says Sharon Nicholl, president of the Nauvoo Area Chamber of Commerce. “We have the best of both worlds in terms of natural beauty and fascinating history.”
Nauvoo celebrates its unique history year-round.
“Nauvoo offers a wonderful glimpse of history,” says Nicholl, who advises first-timers to make the Visitors Center their first stop. “People often have no idea there is so much to do here.”
History in the Making
Today, the population hovers around 1,100. But in its heyday, Nauvoo rivaled the size and political power of Chicago – thanks in large part to Joseph Smith, founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS).
Beginning in 1839, Smith purchased much of the land around the town, known as Commerce at the time, and led 12,000 followers to the area in search of religious freedom. But in 1846, facing the same persecution they had sought to escape in Missouri and Ohio, the LDS population left the area.
“Nauvoo is very significant to U.S. history,” Nicholl says. “The Western migration started at little Nauvoo with the start of the Mormon Trail.”
Over the years, more waves of immigrants arrived – many in search of religious or philosophical freedom. In 1848, the French-based Icarian movement pursued egalitarian communal living in Nauvoo.
While the Icarian movement lasted just six years, its followers were largely responsible for establishing a flourishing wine industry in the area in the mid-1800s. Savor that legacy at the iconic Baxter’s Vineyards & Winery, Illinois’ oldest winery. Founded in 1857 by Emile and Annette Baxter, the family-owned winery offers free tastings and self-guided tours daily.
A large German population later settled in the area. In fact, “German was the primary language spoken here until World War I,” says Nicholl.
The German influence remains an important part of Nauvoo’s cultural tapestry.
The historic Nauvoo Hotel – owned over four generations by the Kraus family – continues to draw visitors from near and far with its charm and famous buffet brimming with down-home cooking. Across the street, Grandpa John’s Nauvoo Café and Soda Fountain (named after the Kraus family patriarch) offers home-style breakfast and lunch, Italian sodas, hand-dipped ice cream and creative concoctions like Hot Chocolate Supreme, a tempting trio of flavors: chocolate, cinnamon and butterscotch.
Peek into Nauvoo’s Past
With a well-deserved listing on the National Register of Historic Places, Nauvoo’s historic district boasts more than 30 sites that offer a peek into the past. Every day of the year, the city offers free tours of the historic district, which includes restored shops, homes and public buildings dating back to the 1840s. In keeping with tradition, tours take place via horse-drawn wagon (or sleighs on snowy days). Volunteers don period attire to recreate the feel of 19th century Nauvoo.
“Nauvoo is such an interesting place – it has the look and feel of being back in time,” Nicholl says.
Interactive demonstrations of period skills like candlemaking and ropemaking bring history to life at the Family Living Center. Visitors can taste bread baked in a vintage brick oven, watch a blacksmith in action and browse the Red Brick Store for the same games and goods that filled the shelves in the early 1840s.
Because of LDS missionaries who volunteer in the historic district year-round, everything is free in Nauvoo’s historic places.
“The LDS Church has made this affordable for families,” says Nicholl. “Most of these missionaries are actually telling the story of their ancestors, and that is significant.”
In the summer months, thousands of visitors from around the world descend upon the tiny town to witness extravagant daily pageants celebrating Nauvoo history.
“Nauvoo is the crown jewel in LDS history – it’s on everybody’s bucket list,” Nicholl says. Beyond that, “Nauvoo represents a wonderful melding of culture, backgrounds and history. It’s like a small version of our country’s melting pot.”
Scarecrows, Pumpkins & Bootiful Nauvoo
History is always in season at Nauvoo. And as the leaves begin to turn, you’ll have even more reason to fall in love with Nauvoo.
On Saturday, Oct. 3, 2020, Nauvoo will host its fourth annual Scarecrow Stroll. Meander through the Mulholland Street business district where more than 25 scarecrows capture the spirit of the season.
The Saturday before Halloween, the Bootiful Nauvoo Pumpkin Walk draws thousands of visitors. Highlights include a parade, a pumpkin chucker and 500 artfully carved jack-o’-lanterns lining the streets.
“Our pumpkin walk is a huge event,” says Sharon Nicholl, president of the Nauvoo Chamber of Commerce. “The streets are lined with pumpkin art. It’s amazing to see at night.”
See more: October Events in Illinois
Plan Your Trip
To plan your visit to Nauvoo, find more information at beautifulnauvoo.com or call (217) 453-6648.