Something unexpected happened near Coolidge when families of a Gilbert Mormon ward re-enacted the historic and rigorous handcart journeys of Mormon pioneers across the West.
As planned for the second day, a mob with blackened faces and bandanna masks ambushed the handcart companies. They fired blanks and demanded that Joseph Smith be turned over to them to be tarred and feathered.
According to script, a 16-year-old boy stepped forward to receive the abuse in Smith’s stead and was covered in chocolate pudding and feathers.
But children (ages 7 to 11) on the trek "thought this was real, they really thought the men were there to hurt their prophet," said trek organizer Jeanine Smith, no relation to Joseph. "The children attacked the mob with poles they used to pull their handcarts." Some from the "mob" were hurt, one sustaining a cut on the side of his head.
"The children were absolutely fearless — they wouldn’t let these men harm their prophet," she said.
About 200 members of the 9th Ward of the Gilbert Val Vista Stake of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, under Bishop Greg Slater, carried out the trek Oct. 21-22 to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Smith’s birth.
As part of the adventure, they also erected a one-eighth scale model of the destroyed and recently rebuilt temple in Nauvoo, Ill., the church’s one-time "Zion" on the Mississippi River.
"The event was an effort worthy of those faithful pioneers," said Smith, who, with husband Brian, organized the twoday, 12-mile trek in the desert southeast of Coolidge. Traveling with 13 carts, the families dressed in 1850s clothing, slept under the stars, did campfire cooking and danced to the music of a string trio.
In the years after Joseph Smith was mortally shot by a mob in a Carthage, Ill., jail in 1844, Mormons largely abandoned their Midwest enclaves for Utah. Well into the 1850s, waves of settlers unable to afford covered wagons and oxen made the trip west pulling and pushing handcarts laden with their belongings.
"I had ancestors who were true Mormon pioneers, who crossed the plains in wagons and handcarts," said Smith, whose grandfather, Lorenzo Wright, operated Wright’s Markets in Mesa, some of the community’s first grocery stores. Ancestors on both sides of Wright’s family made up founders of the city, while earlier ancestors were close friends of Joseph Smith in his years in Ohio and Illinois.
Unlike many handcart reenactments commonly performed by Mormon youth, the Gilbert ward’s venture had to include all ward members, the bishop insisted.
Stuart Reber, who served as "trail boss," checked aerial maps for Pinal County and came up with mostly uninhabited areas to hold the trek.
"We had regular ‘restoration moments’ where we taught the handcart company about the Prophet Joseph Smith," said Smith. Playing the role of the prophet in the skits was Hyrum Wright, who is bishop of the singles ward in the Val Vista Stake and is director of the Arizona State University Institute of Religion.
One youth, Lindsey Hatch, said the pioneers had enormous struggles, and she kept thinking, "I can’t wait to get home. I wonder what the pioneers thought. They didn’t have a nice house to go home to. They never stopped working."
Nelson Morris said he admired the pioneers’ willpower. "I really appreciate the pioneers more than I used to," he said.
Months of reading about the pioneers before the trek heightened Sam Wright’s regard for his ancestors. "I read about the lives of the saints, read the scriptures, read about the Prophet Joseph, learned about the trials during that time and pondered a lot," said the 15-year-old son of Hyrum Wright. "When the mob came, they wanted to tar and feather my father (as Joseph Smith)," he said. ". . . I put myself in my ancestors’ shoes: What if my real father was being hunted to be tortured? How would that make me feel? What would that cost my family?"
A centerpiece of the weekend was erecting a replica of the Nauvoo temple, a project led by Kelly Stott, a cabinetmaker. The original temple was started in 1840 on a bluff in Nauvoo. It was finished in 1846 and occupied for just six weeks, then abandoned in an exodus sparked by anti-Mormon hostility. An arsonist burned that temple in 1848. But in 1999, current church President/Prophet Gordon B. Hinckley announced the temple would be rebuilt as close as possible to its original design. It was completed in 2002.
Stott followed those blueprints in making the oneeighth scale temple at his home. The structure was disassembled and transported to the desert for the trek and reassembled by ward workers. Children braided rugs for it and designed temple adornments. The structure also will be used for the stake’s restoration celebration this month.
"I loved braiding with two adorable little girls — Hadley and Abbey — and enjoyed playing with sticks and chasing dragonflies," said Diane Pospisil, noting that it was a renewing experience "away from the hustle and bustle of daily modern life."
"It’s nice to hear pioneer stories, but when that story is about your own ancestors, it has a different feel," said Sharon Slater, daughter of the bishop.
While there were frequent complaints about trying to push and pull the handcarts through deep desert sand in places, Dean Young said he imagined it was snow. "I thought it was 2 feet of snow like the pioneers had."