Why would a man dismantle an old home, brick by brick, and then carefully rebuild it in another location? For what purpose would this same man collect, identify, and preserve over 50,000 negatives, and sort and file thousands of old pictures? Why would another man spend endless hours reading hundreds of letters, journals, and documents in search of little known facts and stories about individuals long buried and almost forgotten? And what kind of force unites these two individuals with others from various religious factions in a united cause?
Their common goal may seem simple enough – a desire to identify and preserve the history of their community. But the task becomes much more daunting when you realize that their area of focus is Western Missouri, an area steeped in early Church history. This area is often overlooked by many who are not fully aware of its importance – both past and future.
Missouri Mormon Frontier Foundation
The two men I refer to are Bill Curtis and Ron Putz – co-founders of Missouri Mormon Frontier Foundation, also commonly referred to as MMFF. Their first meeting in 1990 is a story in itself. Ron, a member of the LDS Church, was actively researching and compiling a list of Mormons who had lived in Jackson County and were later expelled during the winter of 1833. On that fateful morning, Ron planned to spend his day in the archives at the Community of Christ auditorium. On his drive over, a prompting encouraged him to go instead to the County Archives located in the Independence Courthouse. So he went.
As Ron sat working at a table in the courthouse, a very tall, lanky man with both pony tail and earrings approached the main desk. His name was Bill Curtis and it had been years since he had set foot in this particular building. In his hands were glass negatives and as he talked to the woman behind the desk, Ron became interested. The more Bill talked, the less Ron wrote. Phrases such as “being destroyed”, “tore it down” and “nobody cared” eventually piqued Ron’s curiosity because he also cared about historic buildings. Ron asked if he might listen in on the conversation and before long, he was asking Bill lots of questions though he was still not certain that this individual really knew what he was talking about.
Bill also had his doubts about Ron. Because of several bad experiences with Mormons, Bill had decided not to have any further interaction with anyone from that faith. But after their initial discussion, both men decided to talk again, and so phone numbers were exchanged. From this “chance” meeting, MMFF was officially organized in 1991 by two men who cared intensely about the preservation and identification of historical sites in Western Missouri.
My husband and I first became acquainted with Ron and Bill in the fall of 2001; ten years after MMFF had been officially organized. We were traveling through Missouri, doing research for our guidebook. A neighbor in Utah had mentioned that we might want to visit with a Church member named Ron Putz, then serving a mission in the Church Employment Center located next to the Independence visitors’ center.
As we visited with Ron, he decided to phone Bill and invite him to join us. From this initial meeting, a strong friendship was forged. My husband and I have since returned to this area on numerous occasions, and we always look forward to seeing Bill and his wife Annette, who live in Independence, and Ron and his wife Elizabeth, who live in nearby Blue Springs. We have driven together to the nearby areas of Far West, Adam-ondi-Ahman, Richmond, Lexington and Liberty, where these two men have pointed out many of the overlooked or lesser-known sites of historical significance. Their love for the people who once lived at these sites is evident in the stories they relate and in the markers and monuments they have erected.
MMFF is not a membership driven organization; but rather a project driven non-profit organization. Those who have visited Church sites in this area in the last ten years have probably seen the tangible results of some of their past projects. MMFF has identified and placed markers at numerous sites in this area, including John Whitmer’s grave in the Kingston Cemetery, two former home sites of Alexander Doniphan in Liberty, a millstone from Haun’s Mill in Breckenridge, Zion’s Camp memorial marker, and fourteen markers along a self-guided Missouri Mormon Walking Trail in Independence. Some of these markers include the W.W. Phelps printing office and home site, the Gilbert & Whitney Store site, and the Flournoy Home. It was in this home that Bishop Edward Partridge negotiated for and then purchased 63 acres of land now referred to as the temple lot. This was also the home that Bill and Annette rescued from demolition by dismantling and rebuilding it at another site.
I recently called and talked to both Ron and Bill, in preparation for this article. We talked about their non-profit organization, future projects, and the personal feelings they have for this area. Some of my questions and their comments follow:
Question: What was the first marker placed by MMFF?
Ron: It was the headstone placed at William E. McLellin’s grave.
Question: Tell me about the recently discovered grave of Hiram Page, located near Excelsior Springs. I know that MMFF has placed a marker/headstone at his gravesite. (Hiram was one of the Eight Witnesses to the Book of Mormon; MMFF is trying to identify and mark all of the witnesses’ gravesites.)
Ron: That was a bona-fide miracle. Bill should tell that story.
Bill: It really was an amazing coincidence. I had done research on Hiram Page. Some believed that he was buried in the local church cemetery, but I didn’t feel that was correct. One day I received a phone call asking if I was Bill Curtis, the man who had done research on the Pages. The caller identified himself and said that a grave was on his property. His family had always known the name of the person buried at their farm and the exact burial site, but they had never learned anything about the actual person. Recently, as the caller decided to learn something about this person, he typed in the man’s name – Hiram Page – on the computer and was amazed at the amount of information that came up.
After reading that Hiram’s name was listed as a witness in a book entitled the Book of Mormon, the caller even tracked down a book to verify his name was still listed. The caller also went to the Ray County Historical Society to learn more about Hiram Page and that’s where he found the research I had done on the Page family. The caller wasn’t even sure if I was still alive when he was trying to track me down. MMFF verified that it was the actual gravesite of Hiram Page before placing the marker.
The caller and his family were very enthusiastic and supportive of the project. You might also find it interesting to know that because this caller was interested in learning all he could about Hiram Page, and because he became more familiar with the local LDS people, he has since joined the Mormon Church.
Question: I know you have met with resistance at times in trying to place some of your markers. Which marker was the most difficult?
Bill: The Alexander Doniphan home site marker located across from the First Presbyterian Church. I fought hardest for that one. It took over a year of meetings and explaining before that marker was approved.
Question: Are all the markers placed by MMFF located in this region?
Bill: No, we placed a marker at the gravesite of Elijah Abel in Salt Lake City, Utah and also a marker at the gravesite of Julia Murdock Smith in Nauvoo, Illinois.
Question: Who pays for the markers?
Ron: Every project is subscribed to before it is placed. With each marker, we have been able to raise more than enough funds through private donations; businesses donate their time and install the markers at cost only, and in some cases the city has helped to install them.
Question: What are some of your upcoming projects?
Ron: We are working to identify and mark John Whitmer’s home site in Far West and the Far West cemetery. We are also working on locating and identifying the burial sites of Christian Whitmer and Peter Whitmer Jr., two of the Eight Witnesses of the Book of Mormon.
Bill: We are also planning this year to place a marker at the gravesite of Jane Manning James in Salt Lake City. She was an early convert from Connecticut who walked all the way to Nauvoo, and subsequently worked for the Joseph Smith family. Other projects include a workday at Haun’s Mill. We have done this before, as members of MMFF.
Question: Tell me about some of the people who are members of MMFF.
Ron: Ron Romig, a member of the Community of Christ, has been very instrumental in its success. He has done more to encourage cooperation between researchers than anyone. He has also opened up and made available documents in the Community of Christ archives. Ron and I even share the same birthday – December 8th. We have other board members who are Methodist, Catholic, Restorationist, and even anti-Mormon.
Question: How does it work – to focus on Mormon sites with so many who aren’t of the same faith?
Bill: We stay clear of theology – our purpose is to preserve history and not to judge.
Question: Bill, I know you are not LDS, but don’t you have an ancestor who was a member?
Bill: I am a member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. My great grandfather was Josiah Curtis. He was with Joseph Smith in the Hamilton House in Carthage and was sent by the Prophet to deliver a message to Emma. He also served in the Mormon Battalion.
Question: How would you sum up your feelings and the purpose of MMFF?
Ron: For many years, Church members have focused on the sites in Nauvoo, Palmyra, and Kirtland. Jackson County has been totally overlooked. Our goal is to make Independence and Western Missouri a destination rather than a two-hour stop on someone’s way to Nauvoo. There are over 50 Church historical sites in Western Missouri. In D&C 59, the Saints were told by the Lord that they were blessed just to set foot on this land. I hope people who come here will realize how fortunate they are. In his will, Brigham Young said that he wanted to be buried here, if the Saints were in possession of this land, even though he had never set foot in Independence. (The Saints were not in possession of the land at the time of Young’s death and he was buried in Salt Lake City.)
Bill: My goal is to help people from different factions work together for a common goal. If everyone would work at getting to know each other and try to be more open-minded and less judgmental – we could wipe out bitter prejudice. Through MMFF, we have learned to work together, developed respect for each other, and have become good friends.
Ron: Speaking of friends, because of the history linkage, Bill has become one of my best friends. Bill Curtis has done more in locating and learning the history of Western Missouri sites than anyone else. I am a storyteller more than a historian. You can’t honor those who lived here if you don’t know who they are and what they did.
I feel very fortunate to count Bill and Ron as friends. Those of you who visit the sites in Western Missouri are also the beneficiaries of their considerable efforts to collect and preserve the history, through the organized efforts of MMFF. To learn more about MMFF and to be involved in upcoming projects, visit www.jwha.info/mmff/mmffhp.htm. Bill Curtis is a former inner-city high school teacher and has written a book entitled, Jackson County, Missouri Mormon Historic Sites. He is currently working on a book about the historic buildings and history in the Independence area.