1997 Neff International Reunion Memories
In 1847 the Mormon Pioneers arrived at Salt Lake City, Utah nearly two years after being driven from their prosperous lives in Nauvoo, Illinois. Among these pioneers were John and Mary (Barr) Neff of Lancaster, Pennsylvania who left their beautiful home to join the Mormon trek Westward. 150 years later, the descendants of John and Mary Neff opened their hearts, and their magnificent city, to host the 1997 Neff Reunion in Salt Lake City. Our reunion was a success which was enjoyed by 625 attendees, all sharing a mutual interest in Neff genealogy and history.
The John Neff Family Organization, founded by the descendants of John and Mary Neff, organized the entire reunion and all associated events. President of the organization, Alice Perry Neff, and her committee did an excellent job of providing a wide variety of activities for everyone to enjoy. For many Neff Genealogists, the most important activity had to be the unlimited, free use of the LDS Library which was right next door to our hotel! The LDS Library Staff offered friendly instruction and guidance to anyone requesting it. There were always Neff researchers patiently waiting for the computers and microfiche machines which were in constant use. Many of us left the library with the recently released PAF 3.0, which we purchased there for only $15.
Other well planned reunion activities included an evening with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, visits to Antelope Island, Gardner Mill Village, an open pit copper mine, the actual Mormon Trail into Salt Lake City, a silver mine, the John Neff Homestead, an Air Force Museum, Desert Village Park, a family picnic in the park, the Grand Reunion Banquet, and much more.
Both the Mormon Tabernacle and the choir music were as beautiful as expected. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir is one of the finest and best known choirs in the world, yet the singers (some of whom are Neffs!) are not paid for their wonderful work. They are all volunteers who perform solely for the enjoyment of their music. The casual atmosphere of their rehearsal, along with their good humor and frequent laughter, did not affect their obviously serious approach to perfecting their performance. We each left this rewarding experience with a pleasant memory that will long endure.
One does not visit Salt Lake City without also visiting the Great Salt Lake. (It is actually a just a small remnant of the prehistoric Bonneville Sea which covered many of the western states, the original shore line is still visible high in the Wasatch mountains). Our visit took us onto Antelope Island, the largest island in the lake. It was named for the large herd of Antelope which the Mormons found on the island when they arrived. This island, originally explored by Kit Carson, also has one of the largest herds of Buffalo (500-700) and is home to many other wild animals including mule deer, coyotes, bobcats, badgers, etc.. Our tour of Antelope Island was made unique by a lunch of surprisingly delicious Buffalo Burgers.
Gardner Historic Mill is one of several mills which John Neff built or helped to build in his lifetime. The mill exists today much as it was in his lifetime, but it and the surrounding buildings (some of which are actual, original pioneer homes) in the village are now shops, boutiques and restaurants. Of course, we Neffs were good tourists and left behind many of our dollars when we left the village.
The open pit copper mine in Bingham Canyon is so large that it is reputed to be seen by astronauts in space (actually that is not true, no manmade objects are visible to the astronauts). A mountain which once stood over the site of this pit was removed, and the pit itself is now as large as an inverted mountain. Copper is the main ore taken from this mine, but it also provides much gold and silver. Beside the narrow road to the mine is a small village of very old, but still original buildings (we found this to be a common situation in the west) including a saloon (we found this to be an equally common situation). We were treated to an unexpected experience when we stopped there; an HBO movie, Zeb and Rebecca, starring Debby Reynolds, was being filmed at the saloon as we watched.
The original Mormon trail through mountains is still evidenced today by two deep ruts worn into in the rocks. These ruts were worn by the repeated wagon wheels following the same narrow path across the mountain towards Salt Lake City. (Wagon wheels were made of wood, but they had a steel band around their perimeter which wore down the softer rocks.) An experienced guide lead our more hearty reunion attendees along the last miles of the Mormon Trail while relating in detail the trailside and campsite experiences of the Mormon pioneers of 1847.
In 1846, the Mormons were driven out of Nauvoo, Illinois in haste and, therefore, had very little food with them. In the fall of 1846, they stopped in Florence, Nebraska, only a few miles North of Omaha, until the spring of 1847. They built a camp there which became known as the "Winter Quarters" and they tried to survive on meager rations until they could plant crops in the spring. They all suffered greatly from scurvy due to their poor diet and many did not survive the winter. One of the hundreds who did not survive was 20 year old Cyrus Neff, son of John and Mary (Barr) Neff. Cyrus's death had to be especially painful for Mary Neff because her mother, Susanna (Brenneman) Barr, had just recently died after they left Lancaster, Pennsylvania to go to Nauvoo, Illinois in 1846.
We stopped at the winter quarters to locate the gravesite of Cyrus Neff who died 4 Mar 1847, but to no avail. The pioneer graves had been marked by simple pine wood crosses which have long since decayed; none of the pioneer grave sites can be identified today. We did find the record of Cyrus' death and burial and have given a copy of it to the Neff Historical Society, Inc. The cemetery has a poignant statue of a young, grieving Mormon couple comforting each other while fighting the cold winter wind after burying their child in the 1846 Winter Quarters cemetery, possibly near Cyrus Neff's grave.
While at Florence, Nebraska, the original Mormon Pioneers planted crops in the spring and built homes for the Mormons who were to follow. They also build the Florence Mill to grind grain. John Neff purchased this mill and his son stayed in Florence to operate the mill for the next group of Mormon pioneers. This mill still stands today, just off I-80, but it is in desperate need of repair.
The Grand Reunion Banquet at the Double Tree Hotel (formerly The Red Lion) was only a short walk from our hotel and the LDS Library. Our impressive dinner was complemented by a string ensemble and various vocalists. During the after-dinner festivities, Nadyne Neff Gooding volunteered to host our next Neff Reunion in Ontario, Canada in 2000 (Further details about the Ontario Reunion will be published here on the Neff Genealogy Homepage and in NEFF NEWS.)
Many of the Mormon Pioneers kept diaries of their daily thoughts and experiences. Two consistent themes in their writing were their admiration of the beautiful, varied landscape of the West and foraging for food along the way in 1847. Those of us who drove to our Neff reunion along I-80 from the East, witnessed the same beauty they described in their dairies. I-80 closely parallels most of the Mormon Trail and in some areas is paved right over the original trail. However, our hardship in 1997 was limited to "foraging" for good restaurants for dinner. I was constantly appreciative of the contrast as I drove along I-80 at 75 mph, in my air-conditioned Cherokee, with build-in compass, cellular phone, GPS, and consulting a highly detailed map. I probably could not have survived their everyday experiences under their conditions along the very same route. As we drove along I-80 to our Neff Reunion, re-enactors of the sesquicentennial year were following the exact Mormon trail in covered wagons. Near the end of their trip they said, "We found that we are not as tough as those pioneers...."