The Pioneer Mormon Cemetery in Florence, now a northern suburb of Omaha, Nebraska, was not far from where I grew up. And depending on how I went to or came home from elementary school, the tiny cemetery was on my way. So, I did peak in a time or two when I was a kid.
After the Mormon leader, Joseph Smith and his brother, Hiram, were killed in the Carthage jail in Carthage, Illinois, the Mormons decided, under the leadership of Brigham Young, that they needed to abandon Nauvoo, Illinois, and head further West. In June of 1846, the band of exiles landed on the west side of the Missouri River and encamped there in what became known as the Winter Quarters. My great-great-great grandparents, Ezra and Catherine Vincent, were part of that migration. But Catherine was “great with child” so they crossed back over the river and settled in what later became Harrison County, Iowa. Their daughter, Julia, was the first female child of European descent born in the county. They stayed put in Western Iowa to farm and escaped the losses that many others experienced as they buried their loved ones along the journey to Utah. For many, the Winter Quarters where their journey ended.
Marking the portal to many small country cemeteries are simple gates made of metal letters stretched between two metal poles. But, the gate into the Pioneer Mormon Cemetery is more like a garden gate, except there are two exceptional bronze plaques flanking the gate memorializing the nearly 600 Mormons who are buried there in unmarked graves.
The plaque to the left, depicts a cloaked mourning figure hovering over the words inscribed for passersby to read, “IN LOVING MEMORY OF THE SIX THOUSAND DEVOTED PIONEERS WHO DIED ON THE PLAINS BETWEEN 1846 – 1869. THE BODIES OF NEARLY SIX HUNDRED OF THOSE BRAVE SOULS WERE BURIED WITHIN THIS SACRED ENCLOSURE.”
The bronze plaque to the right of the gate features a bas-relief depicting a woman leaning slightly back with both hands raised seemingly in awe with the rising sun behind her. Her feet indicate that she floats above the Earth. The inscription circling around the sun, reads, “I AM THE RESURRECTION AND THE LIFE, THIS MORTAL BODY IS RAISED TO AN IMMORTAL BODY.” Running down the side of the plaque is a Biblical passage, “THE DEAD SHALL HEAR THE VOICE OF THE SON OF GOD AND THEY THAT HEAR SHALL LIVE. JOHN V:25. Underneath that, “FOR THEY SHALL REST FROM THEIR LABORS HERE AND SHALL CONTINUE THEIR WORKS.” DOCTRINE AND COVENANTS, SEC.: 124:86.
Both bronze plaques were the work of J. Leo (1878-1946) and Avard Tennyson Fairbanks (1897 – 1987). J. Leo and Avard Fairbanks were the sons of artist John Fairbanks and Lilly Annetta Huish. Both sons were born in Utah. J. Leo was a painter, sculptor, and art educator in high school and college. Avard Fairbanks, the youngest of the eleven children in the Fairbanks family, was also a trained sculptor who started his art training at the age of 13, studying under the famed James Earle Fraser at the Art Students League of New York. He also studied in Paris at the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux-Arts, the Academie de la Grande Chaumiere, The Academie Colarossi and the Ecole Moderne. Avard had a long career as a professor of sculptor teaching at the Art Institute of Seattle, The University of Michigan, The University of Utah, and the University of North Dakota.
While teaching he also took commission and created sculptures that can be seen throughout the country, including St. Anthony’s Doughboy in Keefer Park in Idaho, the bas-relief panels on the bronze doors to the United States National Bank Building in Portland, Oregon, and a statue of George Washington for the Washington State Capitol. Fairbanks created several statues of the Angel Moroni for Latter Day Saints temples and many other sculptures commissioned by the LDS Church, including the centerpiece of the Pioneer Mormon Cemetery in Florence—a sculpture titled, “Tragedy at Winter Quarters,” created in 1936, which depicts grief-stricken parents who have just buried their infant child.
In a circle at the base of the statue is another plaque that features what appears to be an angel in the middle with her arms outward. On either side of her are the names of the Mormons who died and were buried in the cemetery during the Winter Quarters. This, too, was sculpted by Avard Fairbanks, as part of a moving memorial to the Mormons who lost their lives on the journey to Salt Lake City.