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Palmyra

Historic Sites

Life on the Smith Farm

Jacob W. Olmstead

The fields, orchards, and groves on the Smith family farm were the landscape in which many of the very earliest events of the Restoration took place. Here in a grove of trees, God the Father and Jesus Christ visited the boy Joseph Smith Jr. Here in the family’s small log home the Angel Moroni appeared to Joseph and revealed the existence of the Book of Mormon. It is sometimes easy to forget that here, on the Smith farm, the members of the family experienced the mundane along with the miraculous. On this plot of land, family members labored long hours every day to provide for their collective needs.

Early Years in Palmyra

Palmyra, New York, circa 1842
Woodcut depicting early Palmyra

Upon their arrival in Palmyra in 1816-17, the Smiths found themselves in an unfamiliar situation. With no financial resources to purchase or rent land to cultivate, the Smiths, for the first time, attempted to eke out a living without a farm. The family rented a small home in town and worked together to lift the family from what Lucy Mack Smith remembered as “destitute circumstances.”1 Joseph Smith Sr. and his two oldest sons, Alvin and Hyrum, went to work as hired hands. Lucy painted and sold decorative oilcloth coverings for “tables stands &c.”2 The younger children chipped in to help make pastries, root beer, gingerbread, and boiled eggs. Joseph Smith Sr. offered these for sale out of a “cake and beer shop” in town.3

In two years, the family was finally able to begin arranging for the purchase of a farm—a 100-acre lot of dense forest two miles south of Palmyra. Between jobs as hired hands, Joseph Sr., Alvin, and Hyrum felled trees to provide materials and space to construct a small 1½-story log home near the 100-acre lot. Though the home resembled other frontier cabins in many ways, a few uncommon touches, such as a brick and cobblestone fireplace and a blue-green tint in the glass windows, show the Smiths’ concern for craft.4 During the winter of 1818–19, the 10 members of the Smith family moved into the 1,000-square-foot home.5

Establishing a Farm

Having a home to live in, though, didn’t secure stability. Making the five annual payments for the farm was not easy. For frontier families in that era, it could take years to develop a productive farm, and there was no guarantee of success. To achieve efficiency and balance, the Smiths carefully planned the layout of the farm. Following the best agricultural practices of the day in western New York, they went to work clearing two-thirds of the land to make room for crops such as wheat, corn, oats, and beans, a grazing meadow, and a large orchard.6 At the time, roughly 100 trees grew on each acre of their land, many two to four feet wide. Using blacksmith-made iron axes, Joseph Sr. and his older sons felled thousands of trees to build their farm.7

The Smiths preserved about 40 acres as woodlands, which contained as many as 1,500 maples.8 These trees played an important role in the farm’s development. Skilled in the art of maple sugar production, Joseph Smith Sr. and his family began harvesting maple sap and carefully boiling it into sugar almost immediately after their move to the farm. The sale of hundreds of pounds of maple sugar annually provided an important source of income.9

The Smiths dug and rocked this well on the Smith farm

In their first years on the farm, the Smiths also had to build miles of fences to protect their crops from roaming animals, dig and line wells with rock to provide for the family’s water needs, and construct outbuildings such as a threshing barn, cooper shop, tool shed, and privy. Though the youngest children would find some time for schooling in later years, Joseph Jr. recalled that during his own growing-up years, “it required the exertions of all that were able to render any assistance for the support of the family.”10

Lucy’s Work

About the time the first farm payment came due in 1821, Lucy was pregnant with her 11th child. At 46, Lucy gave birth to a baby girl.11 To provide a little additional space for the mother and newborn, the Smiths added a bedroom to the rear of the log home.

In the years just after Joseph Smith’s First Vision, life for the matriarch of the Smith family was very busy. In addition to feeding and caring for an infant night and day, Lucy would have spent much of her day preparing meals for her family in the log home’s cramped kitchen. With the help of the younger children, she would have had other daily tasks, including washing the family’s laundry, cultivating a large kitchen garden containing vegetables and herbs, drawing water, making butter and cheese, tending goats and chickens, and milking the cow.

Lucy and her daughters also would have taken primary responsibility for caring for the sick. Over the years, Lucy nursed her husband, children, and neighbors through fevers and serious illnesses. It was in the Smith’s humble log home in 1823, when her youngest daughter was two, that Lucy nursed her oldest son in the final days before his death.

It was in the Smith’s humble log home in 1823, when her youngest daughter was two, that Lucy nursed her oldest son in the final days before his death.

Alvin’s death was a major blow to the family both emotionally and economically. As the oldest son, Alvin had brought in the most income from “hiring out” his labor to other farmers and had also provided much of the early labor on a large frame home designed to give greater comfort and respectability to his aging parents.12 Alvin’s dying charge to his brother Hyrum Smith had been that he “go on and finish the house.”13

But the Smiths’ efforts to honor Alvin’s wish led them to overextend themselves financially. The cost of completing the frame home left them short on cash when their second land payment came due. After three short months in the frame home, they lost the title to both the house and the land. By the time the Book of Mormon was published in 1830, they were tenants on the farm they had cleared and developed, renters in the small log home they had built with their own hands.14

A Site for the Sacred

Today, the Smith farm reminds us that the Smiths were real people who experienced triumphs and tragedies together as they carved out a living in real places. Understanding some of the mundane details of their struggles and daily work on the farm helps us better appreciate the miraculous events that happened in their Palmyra years. The Sacred Grove was not an unknown or distant place, but an essential part of the Smiths’ surroundings where they obtained fuel, building materials, and sap. Moroni came to a room where the children slept, wearied from the day’s labors, among stored grain and corn. These places had been prepared to receive the divine by the labor and love of the members of the Smith family. 

 

Woodcuts of cabin construction and maple sugar production are courtesy of the estate of Helen and Scott Nearing and www.goodlife.org.

Footnotes

[1] Lucy Mack Smith, “Lucy Mack Smith, History, 1844–1845,” book 3, page 6; josephsmithpapers.org/paperSummary/lucy-mack-smith-history-1844-1845?p=36.

[2] Lucy Mack Smith, “History,” book 3, page 7; josephsmithpapers.org/paperSummary/lucy-mack-smith-history-1844-1845?p=37.

[3] Pomeroy Tucker, Origin, Rise, and Progress of Mormonism (New York: D. Appleton, 1867), 12.

[4] Dale L. Berge, “The 1982 Archaeological Investigation at the Joseph Smith Sr. Log House, Palmyra, New York,” in Regional Studies in Latter-day Saint Church History, New York and Pennsylvania, eds. Alexander L. Baugh and Andrew H. Hedges (Provo, Utah: Department of Church History and Doctrine, Brigham Young University, 2002), 195.

[5] Lucy Mack Smith, “Lucy Mack Smith, History, 1844–1845,” book 3, page 8; josephsmithpapers.org/paperSummary/lucy-mack-smith-history-1844-1845?p=38; Donald L. Enders, “A Snug Log House,” Ensign (August 1985), 17.

[6] Donald L. Enders, “The Joseph Smith, Sr., Family: Farmers of the Genesee,” in Joseph Smith: The Prophet, The Man, eds. Susan Easton Black and Charles D. Tate Jr. (Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1993), 217.

[7] Enders, “The Joseph Smith Sr., Family,” 219.

[8] J. W. Peterson, “Another Testimony [William Smith Interview],” Deseret Evening News, January 20, 1894, 11.

[9] Enders, “The Joseph Smith Sr., Family,” 223. Although Lucy Mack Smith recalled that the family produced about 1,000 pounds of sugar annually, it is likely the family consumed a portion of the sugar they produced.

[10] Joseph Smith, “History, circa Summer 1832,” 1; josephsmithpapers.org/paperSummary/history-circa-summer-1832?p=1.

[11] Lucy Smith was born on July 18, 1821, in Palmyra, New York.

[12] Lucy Mack Smith, “History,” book 4, page 3; josephsmithpapers.org/ paperSummary/lucy-mack-smith-history-1844-1845&p=45.

[13] Lucy Mack Smith, “History,” book 4, page 4; josephsmithpapers.org/ paperSummary/lucy-mack-smith-history-1844-1845&p=46.

[14] Lucy Mack Smith, History of Joseph Smith by His Mother, ed. Preston Nibley (Salt Lake City, Bookcraft, 1979), 91–99.