We didn’t plan on being in Omaha on the day before Pioneer Day. To be frank, the approach of July 24 doesn’t generally trigger anything in my mind. I mean, the ward I went to when I was a kid usually had a picnic at Lake Poway sometime around the end of July that was loosely inspired by Pioneer Day, but it was mostly baseball and hamburgers and hot dogs, and rarely made any mention of 1847 or pioneers or anything.
But months ago, we’d decided that Omaha was a decent halfway(-ish) point between Rocky Mountain National Park[fn1] and Chicago, and so that was our stopping place on Friday night.
During our drive through Nebraska, it hit us that Winter Quarters was in Omaha. And, through the magic of an iPhone and Google, we figured out that the church has a visitors center at Winter Quarters, and that the visitors center was like 15 minutes from our hotel. So yesterday morning, we went.
Not to bury the lede too far: it was probably the best LDS visitors center I’ve been to. I’m not sure how many Mormons go to visit—I’m certain it doesn’t get Nauvoo- or Palmyra-level visitors—but that seems to work to its advantage. When we got there, we were greeted by a young sister missionary, who guided us to the short video, then took me and my family through the various displays.
One-on-one attention could, in some situations, be a bug, but here it was a feature. Our missionary guide was excited and enthusiastic, but not overbearing. She led us around, and spent a lot of her time engaging with my kids, while my wife and I looked at the artifacts and displays (more on that in just a minute). She had anecdotes and answered my kids’ questions.
At the same time, though, she didn’t seem to have a tight script. She didn’t tell us about the importance of families or about the Book of Mormon. She didn’t ask for referrals or take every story back to Jesus. She let the stories and the people and the displays speak for themselves, trusting, I think, that pioneers’ lived experiences were inspiring enough without her punctuation.[fn2]
Which leads to the second thing: the displays were pretty cool. They had a fair number of actual things that pioneers had brought across the plains, and well-written and informative explanations of those things. (My daughters’ favorite artifact was probably the china dogs.)
They also had interactive displays, including little covered wagons with blocks that represented various things that pioneers might have brought with them. My kids were supposed to figure out how much they could bring.[fn3] They had a wagon wheel with the rag to count distance, and Orson Pratt’s odometer. My kids proudly spun the wheel for about a mile. They had a handcart that the kids could try to pull over a handful of small rocks.[fn4]
Winter Quarters is basically one building. I said it compared favorably to other church historical sites (including Nauvoo and Palmyra), and I mean it. In one building, you learn about pioneers who travelled on covered wagons, who pulled handcarts, who came by train (I hadn’t realized it, but dozens[fn5] of Mormon emigrants would pack into a single car, without water or sanitation), and who came by ship.
Tl;dr: next time you’re in Omaha, you should definitely stop by the Mormon Trail Center at Winter Quarters. Also, happy Pioneer Day!
[fn1] (which, btw, is absolutely amazing, and you should definitely try to spend a couple days camping and hiking there)
[fn2] I don’t know if her approach was laid out by her mission president, or if it was her own idiosyncratic thing, but it contrasts enormously well to my last time in Nauvoo, where every senior missionary ended the tour by explaining how the family in the house ate dinner together because families are important and family dinners are important, &c, &c.
[fn3] A little earlier, our guide had asked my kids what they would bring with them. My oldest daughter said books. My middle daughter said art supplies. My four-year-old son said, “Everything.” And he managed to put all of the blocks in his wagon, so I guess he wasn’t kidding.
[fn4] The group just ahead of my family had five or six rambunctious children with it, who, in various iterations of four or five kids, struggled to move the handcard. I could see in my daughters’ eyes the desire to show them up. So, when the kids ahead of my family finished, my daughters proceeded to move the wagon over the rocks by themselves, something it had taken the other group (honestly, whose kids were bigger than mine) four kids to do.
[fn5] I’m almost certain my 10-year-old would remember the exact number, but I’m writing this at midnight, and she’s fast asleep. I hope.