Stepping back in time

Handcart reenactment looks back on Mormon history.

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Connor McCarthy, 17, of Rochester, pulls weeds on Norton Farm. —Gabrielle Mannino

A group of over 60 youths and 20 adults from the Mormon church arrived at Norton Farm Friday, pulling seven wooden carts filled with no more than 17 pounds each of their earthly belongings.

After arriving on the ferry Thursday with a trailer full of carts, the group, dressed in traditional 1800s garb, including suspenders, long flowing dresses, bonnets, and straw sun hats, trekked to Camp Duarte, where they would stay for their visit. The group was separated into smaller “families” or subgroups, with a “Ma” and “Pa” in charge of each family.

According to Maryanne Zeller of the Mormon church, this event remembers the 1856 to 1860 exploratory emigration of nearly 3,000 Mormon handcart pioneers from Iowa and Nebraska into Salt Lake City, Utah. More than 20,000 other pioneers traveled by wagon and cart during the half-century migration, and approximately 85,000 Mormons traveled by boat from Liverpool, England, to America.

The Mormons left their homes in Europe and America to escape religious persecution and create more prosperous lives for their families.

In order to travel unencumbered, the adults were each only allowed to take 17 pounds of their personal belongings. Children were allowed only 10 pounds. Each of their items were weighed before the journey.

Instead of taking horse or ox-drawn carriages, some Mormons chose to travel with wooden handcarts built to the design of the second president of the Mormon church, Brigham Young. “The migration was filled with many tribulations, and many did not survive,” said Zeller.

Zeller explained the reason the 14- to 18-year-old Massachusetts Mormons reenact the migration is because it was an important event in Mormon history, and is considered a spiritual experience for all involved.

“The migration allowed the pioneers to become more acquainted with God,” said Zeller. “Now these youths get a chance to see what the pioneers did over 100 years ago.”

The reenactment isn’t just about getting a better historical perspective. According to Zeller, the experience is also about using the hallmarks of faith involved in Mormonism to create a better world. Being selfless and community-oriented are qualities associated with the religion. “There are so many parallels we can make with our youth today,” said Zeller. “These young adults can look back at the past, but also are creating their lives and looking toward the future.”

Jim Powell, member of the Mormon faith since 1978, said Norton Farm has been in his family since 1838. “It’s the quintessential Island family farm,” said Powell.

From left, Abigail McCarthy, of Rochester, and Kim and Mike Farner, of Hanover, dressed in historical garb for the pilgrimage. —Gabrielle Mannino

Powell said he is happy to see the next generation of Mormons celebrating their heritage and learning about their history. “It is great for teenagers to reenact history, because they get knowledge about the way it really was back then,” said Powell. “At the same time, they get valuable experience working on a farm.”

One of the core values of the reenactment, according to Powell, is the sense of community that it provides. “One of the biggest needs in the world today is getting people to work together in harmony,” said Powell. “We have English, Portuguese, Creole, and all different backgrounds here working together for a united cause.”

Malu Baird, 16, of Brockton, uses a row seeder, which makes lines in the dirt for seeds. —Gabrielle Mannino

Since the entire event is volunteer-driven, Powell said the group experiences a distinct facet of the Mormon faith in focusing on providing for one other, instead of focusing on individual means.

Dianne Norton, part owner of Norton Farm, said the experience gives the teens perspective and makes a large part of their ancestry more accessible. “This type of work teaches them humility and to remember their history,” said Norton.

Evan Smith, first counselor of the Hingham Stake of the Mormon church, said this reenactment is especially relevant to his ancestry. “One of my first ancestors who came to America traveled with his family on the trail,” said Smith. “He trekked across the plains after being blinded in a coal-mining accident.”

From left, Kim and Mike Farner, of Hanover, and Abigail McCarthy, of Rochester, dressed in historical garb for the pilgrimage. —Gabrielle Mannino

After Brigham Young became the second president of the Mormon church in 1847, the Perpetual Emigrating Fund was established by the church in 1849. According to Zeller, the fund sought to provide economic assistance to Mormons in their emigration into the Salt Lake Valley.

Trent Bilodeau, a 15-year-old MVRHS student and member of the Mormon church, said he used his ancestry as inspiration for making the trek. “I am related to James David Wilcox, who trekked West in 1847. I thought of him as I pushed the handcart through the rain and heat,” said Trent. “My discomfort was certainly minor compared to those early pioneers, but I know now what faith and commitment it took for them to keep going.”

Mike Farner, president of the Hingham Stake of the Mormon church, said the reenactment makes everyone involved think less about themselves and more about helping the community. “This really shows the youth how lucky they are,” said Farner. “It teaches them to be appreciative of all that they have.”