Nauvoo is a small town in Central Illinois on the Mississippi River.
I have lived in the Nauvoo area my entire life and finally moved into town in October 2021. I spent most of my childhood coming to Nauvoo to visit the historic sites during the summer and enjoying the time spent with my family at the pageant. Moving to Nauvoo for me was almost like coming back home because of the family I have living in the area.
Nauvoo has a unique history that you will not find anywhere else. From a Native American settlement, to land grant settlers, to Mormon pioneers, to Icarian immigrants, Nauvoo has a history of drawing people in that are looking for a fresh start in life. This is still ongoing today with many new ventures every year and new residents all the time.
However, this town and area of Illinois aren’t for everyone. Here is my list of reasons why you probably wouldn’t like it.
There is No Anonymity in Nauvoo
Small towns are where everyone knows your name, where you live, and who you are. Nauvoo is no exception to this.
Mail is not delivered door to door and must be picked up at the Post Office for the majority of the residents. A trip to the Post Office for mail is never a quick stop because you will inevitably see someone you know who will then stop and ask how things are.
They know your car. If they see it in your driveway and want to ask a question, they will stop. They know whose kid is whose and will call the parent when they see them doing something wrong. The ladies at City Hall know your voice when you call. If you come from a big city where you never see the same person twice this is going to be a big change.
The same person fills multiple roles in town so it isn’t unusual to have the EMT be on the city council and also the only Lyft driver in town. Oh, and if you need your lawn mowed, that’s the same guy.
What I love about this is when someone is sick not only does everyone know, but they are bringing soup. Someone falls down in the street and needs help, someone is there to pick him up and call his wife. You mention in the post office that you need help with something, that person will know who to call and will call them and it’s fixed before the end of the week.
People who live in small towns either love it or hate it. You might not like it if you are looking for anonymity.
Cell Phone Service is Spotty in Nauvoo
Nauvoo is notorious for poor cell signal. If you look at coverage maps for cell service there are gray areas and Nauvoo is typically one of those spots.
It wasn’t long ago that there was literally no cell service in town, but a new tower was added a few years ago and that has made a big difference. Internet service is similarly tricky. There are only two options for internet service and both seem to have ups and downs.
The city council has been working for several years on getting better internet and cellular coverage to town with grants. The new tower is one of those projects.
Most businesses in town offer free wifi for people from out of town who suddenly have no cell service. Residents are just used to this. It is getting much better.
It used to be that I could tell the minute I picked up cell service again because my phone would suddenly come alive with notifications about 2 miles outside of town. Now it will get notifications as long as I am not inside a building. But again, most people from bigger towns are frustrated by this.
Nauvoo is Kinda Churchy
If you haven’t heard of Nauvoo before you are probably not a member of the Latter-Day Saints. Joseph Smith, the founder of the LDS church, settled here in the 1840s and renamed the town Nauvoo, a Hebrew word that means beautiful place.
During that time Nauvoo was bigger than Chicago with over 12,000 people calling Nauvoo home. Joseph was killed in Carthage and the Mormons, as they were called, then ended up moving to Utah.
Today, most of the area by the Mississippi river is owned by either the LDS church or the Church of Christ and has been recreated to the 1840s. It’s a big deal if you are LDS to come to Nauvoo. In fact, over 150,000 people come every year to Nauvoo to see the village where Joseph lived. There are large musical plays called pageants every summer and it makes little Nauvoo a tourist destination.
Many residents are members of the LDS church that were so enamored by the town when they visited that they bought a home and moved here. The temple that Joseph built was destroyed by a tornado and arsonists, but it was rebuilt by the church and it is a prominent feature of the town.
Nauvoo is also home to one of the oldest Catholic churches in the area and used to have a catholic girls boarding school from the 1800s until 1997. There is a large Catholic presence in town. Not to mention the Christian Church and the Methodists. The Presbyterian and Lutheran churches recently closed but the buildings are still there and in use.
If you are not a church goer this might not be the town for you. You do not have to be a church member to live in town, but there is a very large church presence. I am personally not a member of any church in town, but I am friends with many who are. In fact, all of the church members from each congregation, or ward, are all friendlier than in any other place I have lived.
Crime here is very rare and most feel that it has to do with the church presence.
Most residents will leave town in July. July is the month of the LDS church pageant. The entire month of July. Every single room in town will be rented for the entire month, with many staying in campers at the campgrounds and even in neighboring towns as well. And did I mention this goes on for an entire month?
The restaurants struggle to keep up with demand; the roads and streets are full of people with most of the 150,000 tourists coming during July to see the pageant. Residents know this and, if they are not involved in some way with the pageant, most will avoid town during the month. It is a big deal.
Businesses rely on the tourists in July to help keep them afloat through the year, and nonprofit organizations man the food stand during the pageant that helps to bring in needed funds. The pageant itself is a huge broadway quality musical production telling the history of the church and is something to see even if you aren’t LDS.
Nauvoo REALLY Loves Halloween
After July the entire town focuses on Halloween. Nauvoo starts to celebrate on October first and will continue until October 31st.
It starts with the Scarecrow Festival. The entire business district on Mulholland Street will be decorated with scarecrows. A contest is held to pick out the best-decorated scarecrow and there are many creative ones. Everyone gets involved from the businesses to city hall. Scarecrows remain up for the entire month.
There is also a contest for residents for the best-decorated house, so as you can imagine the Halloween decorations on the houses are sometimes over the top.
And then there is Pumpkin Walk. Hundreds of pumpkins are carved into jack o’lanterns and lined up along Mulholland Street. At dusk, the pumpkins are lit and there is a large Halloween parade. Around 10,000 people come to Nauvoo every year for Pumpkin Walk. If you don’t like Halloween, you really won’t like Nauvoo because the entire town gets involved for the entire month of October.
Between November and May, the town is very quiet. After the summer and the big October events, Nauvoo seems like a ghost town in November. The fall breeze takes away the leaves as they fall from the trees and it seems like the crowds blow away as well. It goes from a tourist destination to a typical small town in Central Illinois.
A few of the businesses will close during this time, and many will shorten their hours. As a resident, most people either love this time of year or hate it. We get used to the chaos of having people in town and then it’s gone. If you like people, the winter is long and slow. If you don’t then you breathe a sigh of relief when it gets quiet. The streets that were full of cars are empty and although a few tourists still wander through to see the sites, it’s mostly just residents.
Nauvoo is Hard on Businesses
The feast or famine aspect of the tourist season in Nauvoo is very hard on a business.
The grocery store closed several years ago and is now occupied by an antique and craft mall. Businesses will open during the summer and then struggle in the off-season. Not every business can handle having several really slow months. Residents will get used to having a restaurant during the summer, but then it is either closed or will have limited hours during the winter.
Entrepreneurs will come in from out of town excited to open up because they have seen the town during the summer, only to be shocked by how dead it is in January. Some will only last a couple of years.
Although it is typical for businesses to close within five years of opening, the turnover seems higher in Nauvoo. Those that make it will be there until the owner retires. Sometimes people will take over and attempt to run the new business and fail because they don’t understand business in town.
It’s a cycle of new businesses opening and closing. It can be disheartening as a resident to see a business you have enjoyed close, but it also can be exciting to support a new business as they are just opening. There is always room for another business and there is always something new and different to try.
Nauvoo has Bugs
One thing most visitors comment on is the bugs.
As a lifelong resident of the area, this is hard for me to understand. Yes, we do have bugs outside. It’s outside. I have never lived in an area where there are no bugs outside. If you live in such a place let me know because I am really curious where that is.
There is a large river, ponds, creeks, and a lot of wooded areas surrounding Nauvoo. Many different bugs call these areas home and if you are outside you will see a few. Mosquitoes are a chief complaint, but with the river so close it’s hard to avoid them and I don’t think that they are worse in Nauvoo than anywhere else with a large body of water in the midwest.
The one bug even residents complain about often is the Mayflies. Mayflies show up in May, June, or July. I personally only remember them showing up once a year as a kid, but now they show up a few times a year randomly. When they come it is a huge swarm. I am not talking about a swarm of gnats that are a slight annoyance you can easily see and avoid. These are large prehistoric-looking flies that get all over everything and smell like fish.
Picture a scene from the movie The Birds and replace it with bugs.
Not quite that bad, but you get the point. The good news is the bug will only live for a day and the swarm will last for a couple of days. The bad news is that there are so many that they have had to use the snow plow on the Fort Madison bridge to clean them off.
They tell us it is a sign of a healthy river when we have a large swarm of Mayflies. Maybe this is just a story they tell us to make us accept the inevitable. At least they don’t bite, but they can be quite the nuisance. It’s useless to spray for them because when you see them they are dying anyway.
The trade-off is that we do have large amounts of lightning bugs which are really magical to watch. But you might have a few mosquito bites.
Nauvoo is Isolated
Nauvoo is in the middle of nowhere. It sits on a peninsula-like area on the Mississippi.
The drive into town along the river is beautiful. Without a grocery store, you will be traveling to another town for most groceries or other supplies. This is a quick trip to Keokuk, Fort Madison, Carthage, or Burlington. You have choices!
Because it really is the middle of nowhere you can travel in several different directions to find what you want. Walmart is a thirty-minute drive. Most residents will go around once a week for the big things.
There really is nothing in between the cities other than a few farmhouses, many corn fields, and some cows. For big-city people, this can be unsettling to feel so far removed from big-city life.
I think that shopping once a week is better for budgeting and stops excess spending.
I did live in Peoria Illinois for three years and when I came back the most shocking thing was not being able to get toilet paper at 10 pm when I ran out. You do get used to this when you live here and after a while, you don’t even think about it.
If you need to run to town for something then you run to town. And when you think about it, the trip to the grocery store when you live in town takes about the same amount of time with all the traffic. I personally prefer less traffic.
Airports as well are a drive. Typically most people fly into Saint Louis or Chicago which means that you are driving for 3 to 4 hours before you get to Nauvoo after your flight.
Again, this does take some getting used to if you are used to big city life, but as a resident, we are used to this.
There Isn’t Anything to Do
This is one of the chief complaints about Nauvoo, from residents and tourists alike. They look around at all the cornfields surrounding the town and say “what do you do here?”
I admit, the corn is rather boring. There are things to do, but you do have to know where to look. It’s like the kid laying on the couch complaining they are bored the day after Christmas. Wrapping paper and boxes laying all over the place beside shiny new toys and they don’t “have anything to do.”
I mentioned before about the historic area on the flats. There are over thirty homes that have been restored to the 1840s that are all free to tour. My personal favorites are the bakery where you hear the story of Mr. Scovil and sometimes get a cookie, the family living center where you get to make your own rope to take home and learn about pioneer life with hands-on demonstrations, the blacksmith where you get to watch them make a horseshoe and take home a prairie diamond ring, and the Red Brick Store which has a unique selection of items to buy the will remind you of the 1840s when you get home along with a cold bottle of rootbeer.
As a resident, my family will go when we are bored to tour a home and chat with the Missionaries who come from all over the world to work in the homes.
Our favorite thing to do though is the carriage ride. The LDS church has a group of horses that pull carriages through various routes through town while a guide tells stories about the history of Nauvoo. It never gets old.
During the winter if we have a large amount of snow they will hook up the sleighs and you can go for an old-fashioned sleigh ride with hot chocolate at the end. But you say historic sites are not for everyone and there really isn’t much else.
Well, there is an entire river. Many residents have boats or kayaks and will spend a lot of time on the river in the summer. The State Park in Nauvoo has hiking trails and there are many areas to walk through around town. Many residents take advantage of the many areas to walk and it’s a common pastime for many. Those are the free things.
If you are looking for businesses there is always a variety of things to do in Nauvoo at the local businesses. There are two wineries that feature many local bands throughout the summer. There is glass blowing, axe throwing, museums to tour, ghost tours, painting classes, movies, and many other ones that I am probably forgetting.
And then there are the events that I won’t list here because my list of things to do seems to have grown a little long.
Nauvoo may not have all the things to do that you would do in a big city, but as you can see there are quite a lot of things to do in town. And I haven’t even talked about things in the area. But again, this might not be for everyone.
Many others have come to Nauvoo and noticed something they think should be here and then started a business to offer just that. I personally think that is one of the unique things about Nauvoo, there is always something new to do.