New Pioneer Children’s Memorial inspires reflection at This is the Place Heritage Park

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A bronze sculpture at the Pioneer Children’s Memorial at This is the Place Heritage Park depicts a pioneer family hiking up Rocky Ridge. (Calvin Petersen)

President M. Russell Ballard, acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, dedicated a new Pioneer Children’s Memorial at This is the Place Heritage Park on July 20. The memorial was built as a tribute to the hundreds of pioneer children who died crossing the plains. 

This $4 million project, funded by private donors, features more than 20 life-size bronze sculptures and 17 stones, each ranging from 10 to 15 feet tall with 660 names of pioneer children who died carved into them. 

The project began several years ago when a reporter approached Lane Summerhays, President of Days of ‘47, and asked, “Why do you do this Children’s Parade?” The Days of ‘47 celebration has included a Children’s parade for years, but the reporter’s question gave Summerhays pause as he thought about the reason for it. “We do it,” he said, “to try and remember these children, especially the children who lost their lives making that trek.” Over the next couple of years, every participant in the Children’s Parade received the name of a child who had died crossing the plains. “It brought a whole new level of awareness and meaning to that parade,” Summerhays said. But he, along with Days of ’47 Executive Vice President Greg James, thought they should do something more — something year-round that could bring remembrance to the people of Utah. 

“We live in a wonderful place, and there’s a reason we’re here, and there are a lot of people that sacrificed a lot so that we can be here,” Summerhays said. “Imagine those pioneer parents who saw a better life in America and made the very difficult decision to leave everything they had to lead their children to a better life. But, instead, they led them to their death. No grave markers — sometimes shallow graves laid on top of icy ground. But there could be a place with a headstone that honors those children.” 

During a Days of ’47 board meeting, Summerhays and James decided there should be a memorial to honor these children. They approached Melvin L. Bashore, a BYU researcher who co-authored a paper titled “Mortality on the Mormon Trail, 1847-1868.” Bashore had done extensive research on pioneer children and had a database of 660 confirmed children who had died along the trail.

After gathering the information, it was time to select a location for the memorial. This is the Place Heritage Park seemed like a clear choice. Summerhays approached Ellis Ivory, the park’s Executive Director, about erecting the memorial there.

According to Summerhays, Ivory responded, “You know, people are coming up here all the time wanting to do things at the park, and the answer is always, ‘no,’ but in this instance, this is something that needs to be done.” Ivory, of Ivory Homes, has been at This is the Place for the last 13 years. “I love the park,” he said, “and it’s a lot more fun than building homes.”

Speaking of constructing the Pioneer Children’s Memorial at the park, Ivory said, “it was a very important tribute that we needed to pay to those children and the pioneers in general.” 

Almost two years later, Nielson Valentiner, who was one of the main architects for the Rome Italy Temple, conceptualized the monument. Summerhays thought there needed to be stones with the children’s names engraved on them and scenes representing the pioneers crossing the plains. The plan was finalized with six bronze scenes and 47 pieces of art. 

Once the project was conceptualized and underway, the many hands working on it realized the memorial would be no small feat. Ivory said they weren’t even sure where to put the memorial at first. “Then one day,” he said, “I walked out to where the memorial is now and saw all the thick scrub oak. It just seemed like such a natural place.” With that direction, crews got to work. 

“Ellis Ivory, who knows how to get things done,” recalled Summerhays, “had construction crews in there all Winter long preparing the ground.” Ivory’s team trimmed back the trees and made a path. They also buried a 42 thousand gallon tank at the bottom of the hill to recirculate water back up the hill to flow through the memorial. Ivory recalled that the wet spring made it hard to lay turf that was ideal for the memorial.

They also installed video boards and audio recordings that tell the stories of pioneer children and families who crossed the plains and those who died trying. The stories were put together by Glen Rawson, who also did the audio presentations at the memorial. Rawson and Dennis Lyman co-produced “Saints” and “The Joseph Smith Papers.” At the memorial, guests can push a button at each statue scene and hear actors, sometimes voiced by children, tell the stories.

The larger-than-life sculptures had to be done right in order to tell a compelling story. Valentiner said that during conceptualization he thought of two artists with around 40 years of bronze casting and sculpting experience to do the job — husband and wife Roger and Stefanie Hunt.

The duo took on the project with less than a year to complete it. The goal was to have the memorial finished by Pioneer Day of 2019. Roger Hunt commented that the project was something that would normally take three to four years of work. In order to meet their fast-approaching deadline, the Hunts worked six days a week, from morning to evening, for almost a year. 

Roger Hunt explained that for this project, he and his wife produced the pieces in clay, then the pieces would go through a process at the Metal Arts Foundry in Lehi to be cast into bronze. Despite the deadline and difficult task laid before them, Roger Hunt said he and his wife were pleased with the results and “felt blessed from on high.” 

“We are astonished that we got the privilege to do this,” Roger Hunt said. “Artists always yearn for the opportunity to do a big piece, to get a monument or something. And usually that’s two or three figures or a single figure, and you pat yourself on the back. We got to do over 20 bigger-than-life figures. And we’re not world-famous artists or anything, but the architect just had a feeling that we were the ones that should do it.” 

A clay sculpture created by Roger and Stefanie Hunt depicts pioneers crossing the Sweet Water River. (Roger and Stefanie Hunt)

Once the pieces were complete, cranes lifted the bronze statues into place at This is the Place Heritage Park.

“What ties it together was Ellis and his various groups with the landscape,” Stefanie Hunt said. “So often, if you go get a painting on a wall without a frame, it really isn’t as effective. We produced the painting, but Ellis gave it a frame with the exquisite setting. What they did with the work that we created — it is monumental.” 

Reflecting on the finished memorial, Roger Hunt said, “A lot of people lost parents, a lot of parents lost children and all of us in this state and in the Church are indebted to those people. It’s really easy to forget that we’re reaping the rewards and benefits of their labors and their hard work and their sacrifice. The aim of the park is to simply remember that what we live with and tend to take for granted was hard-won. Our hope is that what we’ve done will stir people’s hearts simply to remember those who came before them.” 

Stefanie Hunt also brought up the fact that the memorial can serve to push people to do research about their own family history. She said one of the children who died shares her last name, which inspired her to do genealogical work and remember, regardless of if the child was a relative or not.

Once the bronze statues were in place amid the beautiful scenery of trees, grass and a meandering river, the large stones with the pioneer children names were placed. According to Ivory, some of the stones weighed up to 5 tons and were cut from the same stone used at the City Creek Center in downtown Salt Lake City. The names of the children were all carved by Delta Stone in Heber. Once they were in place, the entire memorial was ready for dedication.

Stones at the Pioneer Children’s Memorial at This is the Place Heritage Park feature 660 names of pioneer children who died while crossing the planes. (Roger and Stefanie Hunt)

Along with President Ballard, other members of the Quorum of the Twelve including Elder Dieter F. Uctodorf, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland and Elder Gerrit W. Gong attended the dedication. The Area President, Primary General President and the governor attended as well. Ivory noted how great it was to have so much representation from both the Church and the community. Around 1,200 people came to the dedication. 

“Maybe the best thing (about the dedication) was the One Voice Children’s Choir who sang ‘Pioneer Children were Quick to Obey,’” Ivory said. The theme of the song is that the children of today can be pioneers too. “Part of our objective is to have young people try to understand that there is something more to life than the little tool in their hands that they operate with their thumb. We owe Utah’s growth to the pioneers,” Ivory said. 

Ivory concluded, “I think we’d all agree that there were quite a few miracles that helped this thing to finally come about in a relatively short amount of time.” 

The Pioneer Children’s Memorial is now open at This is the Place Heritage Park. Additionally, a new website has been created for the monument. pioneerchildrensmemorial.org includes the stories of the children and the experiences of the artists and information about the bronzing process. The Church’s Family History Department is working with the website and soon visitors will be able to put their names into a search box and find out if they’re related to any of the children featured in the memorial.

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