Well-known Nauvoo Merchant is Smith Descendent
Who is the “first and only graduate of the University of Nauvoo” in Nauvoo, Illinois?
On the wall of his bookstore in Nauvoo, Estel Neff proudly displays three diplomas he received from attending BYU Nauvoo. “I received the only diploma from the University of Nauvoo,” he said. His diploma “certifies that Brother Estel Neff has graduated with highest honors, having completed four years of study and lecture attendance at the BYU Semester at Nauvoo and is entitled to respect and admiration as a gospel scholar and Latter-day Saint.”
Estel also received an “Honorary Master’s Diploma, University of Nauvoo, . . . in honor of completing two years of outstanding study and attendance at the BYU Nauvoo Semester night lectures.” In 2001, the faculty of the Joseph Smith Academy awarded Estel “the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, Honorus Causa . . . in recognition of said Estel Neff’s having attended 8 years of lectures . . . and classes.” This degree entitled him to attend “future lectures ad infinitum at the Academy” for free.
Estel and Cecel Neff own and operate Neff’s Old House Bookstore with LDS, historical, and out-of-print books and LDS memorabilia. Visitors to Nauvoo often stop by Neff’s Old House Bookstore to make a purchase and chat with these long-time Hancock County residents. Estel Neff is easily recognized by his white hair and long, white beard. “My grandchildren wouldn’t know me without a beard,” he said. “I started growing it in 1975 for the bicentennial, and I’ve had it ever since.” Cecel Neff, Estel’s wife of 61 years, is a quiet, unassuming, but knowledgeable partner in the business.
Estel opened his bookstore in Hamilton, Illinois, in 1988 and moved it to Nauvoo ten years later when a building became available on Mulholland Street. This past month, the Neffs relocated their store to an attractive cottage at 1695 Mulholland Street in Nauvoo.
Estel’s Hancock County Heritage
Estel Neff’s third great-grandmother is Katharine Smith Salisbury, the Prophet Joseph Smith’s younger sister. When Joseph and Hyrum were martyred, Katharine and her family lived in Plymouth, Illinois, 35 miles from Nauvoo. On June 28, 1844, a messenger arrived at her home with the tragic news that her brothers were dead. Leaving her four children with friends, Katharine rushed to Carthage, accompanied her brothers’ bodies to Nauvoo, and spent a few days with their widows and her mother, Lucy Mack Smith.
In 1845, Wilkins and Katharine Salisbury moved their family to Nauvoo, and Katharine watched the Saints cross the Mississippi River on their trek west, but did not join them. The Salisburys relocated several times before settling in Webster, Hancock County. After Katharine’s husband died in Webster, she moved her family to nearby Fountain Green. Katharine’s son, Solomon (Estel Neff’s ancestor), remembered that no young folks would have anything to do with him while he was growing up. He was an outcast because of his connection to Joseph Smith and the Mormons. Solomon also recalled living in poverty and watching the Prophet Joseph give his family food, clothing, and money before they returned home after visiting Nauvoo.
Solomon Salisbury married Eliza Swisher, who died after bearing three children, one of whom was Estel’s Neff’s great-grandmother Ella Salisbury. Solomon then married Eliza’s younger sister, had three more children, and raised his family in Pilot Grove Township, about 15 miles from Nauvoo. Solomon joined the RLDS (Community of Christ) Church in 1872 and organized a branch in Pilot Grove. He served as the leader of the branch, preached in nearby communities, and became presiding elder over the Nauvoo RLDS District. When his aunt Emma Smith died, Solomon was a pallbearer at her funeral.
Estel Neff’s maternal great-grandparents, grandparents, and parents all resided in Hancock County. Estel’s grandmother, Hulda Sherman, was the postmistress of Ferris, a tiny town near Nauvoo with a barbershop, grocery store, bank, hardware store, blacksmith shop, and railroad stop. As a child, Estel’s mother Gayle Sherman carried the mail from the train to the post office to assist her postmistress-mother. Gayle’s parents attended the RLDS Church, and they expected their daughter to join. “But my mother was a rebel,” Estel said. “She wanted to do what she wanted to do. My grandfather was a church nut, and my mother got tired of riding in a cold buggy.”
Estel’s mother married Glen Neff, and they raised Estel and his two sisters in Rock Creek Township near Nauvoo. “My parents didn’t tell me I was related to Joseph Smith until I was at an age when I could keep my mouth shut,” Estel said. “Being related to Joseph Smith would bring persecution from the other kids in Hancock County.” Estel “didn’t go to any church when I was growing up. On Sundays I worked on the farm, milked cows, and cared for the steers and pigs. Dad was a modern farmer who had the first big pull-type combine. He did custom farming for others.”
While attending the University of Illinois, Estel wrote a paper about Joseph Smith and Nauvoo. “I had to write a paper that could be documented and connected with history. I didn’t tell the teacher I was related to Joseph Smith, but I lived in Nauvoo and the teacher thought it would be an interesting paper.” After grading the papers, the teacher picked out three to read aloud. “He said these were the best papers. Mine was one of them,” Estel said. “I got an A.” What happened to Estel’s paper about Joseph Smith? “My mom threw it away.”
Cecel’s Hancock County Heritage
Cecel Neff’s maternal great-grandfather, James Wilson, moved to Hancock County with his father in 1827. “James Wilson often related stories of his Indian boy playmates,” Cecel said. He later became “a pilot on the Mississippi River from Warsaw to Fort Madison, taking the boats over the Des Moines Rapids.” James Wilson was “one of the earliest white settlers of record to reside permanently in Sonora Township (next to Nauvoo). The first deed to this property was written on sheepskin.”
James Wilson married Jeanette Golden and settled on a bluff between Hamilton and Nauvoo. Cecel’s grandmother Alzira Wilson “grew up in the house her father built, which is next to where Estel and I live now,” said Cecel. “After Alzira married, she lived in the same general area where she grew up.” Later, Cecel’s parents raised Cecel and her brother in Hamilton.
Cecel’s maternal ancestors Abram and Sarah Golden settled in Hancock County in 1833, a few miles from Commerce (Nauvoo) and near the Des Moines Rapids. Abram’s cabin was the first to be erected after the Black Hawk War. This place, which became known as Golden’s Point, was a favorite scouting area for Indians crossing the Mississippi River from Iowa. The Goldens, who lived along the trail, often housed travelers going to Commerce, Niota, Fountain Green, Webster, Carthage, Warsaw, and Quincy.
Cecel Neff was raised in a religious environment. As a child, she attended a Christian church with her mother. She later joined the Methodist Church and took her daughters with her. Cecel taught Sunday School, served on women’s group committees, and helped with the bloodmobile. She still regularly attends the Methodist Church in Keokuk.
Childhood Memories of Nauvoo
Although Estel and Cecel did not grow up in Nauvoo, they had childhood memories of this community. Cecel attended the grape festival in Nauvoo on Labor Day weekend. She sat in her relatives’ yard and watched the parade go by. “There were lots of taverns in Nauvoo when I was growing up,” she remembered.
Estel recalled riding the ferris wheel on Temple Square. “There was a carnival for the grape festival back in those days.” During the Great Depression, “1936 was the driest year on record. Weeds in Nauvoo were over our heads, and the ‘flats’ was a dilapidated old place.” As a youth, “after we put up hay on the farm, we loaded into the car and went swimming in Argo Bay to wash off the sweat. We had no running water to take a bath at home.” When RLDS Church members from Burlington, Iowa, held reunions at the Homestead in Nauvoo, “three of my boy cousins came, and I got to be with them.” Since Estel lived with two sisters and no brothers, he relished these moments with his male cousins.
Marriage and Family Life
While attending the University of Illinois, Estel went home one weekend to help on the farm. “It had rained, and the Mississippi River was high. I couldn’t get across the bridge to see a girl in Keokuk. So I stopped in the Maid Rite shop across the street from Dadant’s in Hamilton, and I saw this cute girl waiting tables.” Cecel stated that Estel had dated one of her girlfriends and his sister attended high school in Hamilton-so she knew a little about this dashing young man. Cecel graduated from Hamilton High School, Estel returned home from the university, and they were married in December 1948.
The young couple began their married life farming in Hancock County. Although Cecel had never lived on a farm, she “learned how to milk cows and drive a car.” After residing in Illinois, Missouri, and Iowa, the Neffs returned to Hancock County to raise their five daughters in the Hamilton School District with a Nauvoo rural route address. Estel worked as a professional farm manager, owned a grain elevator and feed business, and sold grain bins and dryers in a tri-state area. Cecel stayed home and cared for their children.
In 1988, Estel opened his first bookstore in Hamilton with “mostly local and LDS church history books and antiques.” He said, “I grew up with and among anti-Mormons and I read lots of anti-Mormon books when I was young.” Yet, he learned that LDS customers were “human, good people.”
On April 5, 1996, at the age of 68, Estel Neff became a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Hyrum Mack Smith, a descendant of Hyrum Smith, flew from Seattle, Washington, to baptize him. “It was the biggest crowd at a baptism in the Nauvoo Ward,” Estel said. “Susan Easton Black was the main speaker at my baptism.” Estel became acquainted with Sister Black when she was setting up the Nauvoo Land and Records Office and noticed that someone was placing wreaths on Joseph and Hyrum’s graves. “She looked me up, and we’ve been friends ever since.” Estel added, “I’ve put wreaths on those graves for 19 years.”
When President Hinckley announced the rebuilding of the Nauvoo Temple, Estel Neff, who seldom misses church, “wasn’t at church, and I didn’t get to stand up and yell like the others did.” A couple of years before the temple was announced, the Mission President and several men from Salt Lake City visited with Estel because “I lived here all my life and they wanted to know what the people of Nauvoo would do if they spent a lot of money here. They asked how they should spend the money.” Estel suggested buying the Catholic girls’ school, which had just closed, for BYU Nauvoo to use. “Or, rebuild the temple. But that would take a lot of money,” Estel said. After that comment, “everyone was quiet. Then one of the men said, ‘We’ve got that kind of money.'” Soon the temple architect visited Estel, and Estel became friends with those in charge of rebuilding the beautiful Nauvoo Temple.
Estel and Cecel Neff have been married for 61 years. Before their 60th wedding anniversary, their children asked, “If we plan something for you, will you at least come?” So the Neffs celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary at the Holiday Inn in Keokuk, the same year as Estel’s 80th birthday. Today, Estel and Cecel Neff still work hard at Neff’s Old House Bookstore. They welcome visitors to stop by, pay them a visit, and check out their books and memorabilia. Estel may even show his guests the diplomas he received to become the “first and only graduate of the University of Nauvoo.”