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Joseph Smith III met Melissa Lott Smith Bernhisel Willes in Lehi



Joseph Smith III (1832-1914), the eldest son of the prophet Joseph Smith Jr and Emma Hale Smith, and at the time the president of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, visited the Utah Territory town of Lehi in October 1885. He and his brothers travelled there from their homes in Iowa from time to time, where they met with members of the Great Salt Lake City-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who had followed Brigham Young from their homes in Nauvoo, Illinois, to settle in the intermountain west. The Smith brothers and others sought opportunities to address individuals and groups, hoping to convince them of the correctness of their views.

Presumably the RLDS president travelled from Iowa to Great Salt Lake City by train in 1885. By then he could have travelled south from there 30 miles to Lehi by train. Once in Lehi, he could have found accommodations with friends or in two, maybe three, Lehi hotels. He might have found a room at home of Lehi’s LDS bishop, David Evans (1804-1883) on the site of the present residence/restaurant at 288 West Main Street.

The ultimate destination of the RLDS prophet on 19 October 1885 was the social center of Lehi. That building, the Music Hall, was constructed by the Lehi Brass Band in 1871. Between then and 1887, when the Opera Hall was built on Main Street, the citizens of Lehi (almost all Mormon) gathered in the thirty-by-sixty-two-foot building to dance and sing, hear speakers or to be entertained by musical and dramatic productions. The most popular dance musicians were the Kirkham Brothers, or the Smuin Family Orchestras. In 1881 Lehi Elders Samuel R. Thurman (1850-1941) and David Evans Jr (1852-1923) debated two Reorganized Latter Day Saint missionaries on the topic: “Resolved: That Joseph Smith, III, is necessarily the proper president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints” before an overflow audience.

The Music Hall was demolished years ago, and is mostly forgotten. Alternative locations are given by various sources as the former site of the building. Lehi citizen Virgil Peterson (1894-1993) recalled the Music Hall from his youth. In 1886 he gave Lehi historian Richard Van Wagoner (1946-2010) valuable information on the location of the once-popular facility. The pair must have been standing on Center Street, perhaps on the sidewalk west of Wines Park.

According to Virgil Peterson, “The original Lehi Music Hall stood on the West side of Wines Park. They used to have plays, operas, and musicals in this music hall. It was a very popular building. It set back off the road farther than these houses as I can remember. It was quite a large building. No. I can’t remember exactly how it was built, but it wasn’t the old adobe. It could have been lumber, I just can’t remember that. It was built out on stilts in the back part. It was down a little bit about where the hill tapers off as I remember, but that’s a little hazy for me.”

That location, listed by Van Wagoner for the Music Hall is the most likely the actual one. Since 1883 the building had been owned by the People’s Co-operative Mercantile. In 1889 it was converted into an auxiliary store. Van Wagoner gives 529 North Center as the address for the facility, an indication that the Co-op auxiliary store was still in operation in 1913, the year street addresses were first introduced in Lehi.

At that address, the Music Hall would have stood between the home built by Alphonso W Davis (1882-1955) at 517 North Center, and the one built in 1952 by Ralph Winn Davis (1909-1985). The latter home  at 545 North Center Street was until recently, the home of the late DeVere Fowler. An associated building just west of the Fowler home is known, perhaps informally, as the Lehi Events Center. In recent years it has served as a monthly meeting place for the Lehi Sons of Utah Pioneers. Events include a meal and a program at which an invited speaker addresses the interests of the sons of the pioneers and their guests. Appropriately, the Events Center, built on ground within a few feet of the site once occupied by the Music Hall, is once again a “social center of Lehi.”


In 1885 the sites of the houses and the Music Hall might have been crowded with horses, wagons and carriages that brought the citizens of Lehi to hear Joseph Smith III speak. Some, including my own second great grandmother, Melissa Lott Smith Bernhisel Willes (1824-1898), probably walked from their homes in Lehi to attend. The RLDS official knew Melissa. She had been his boyhood caretaker in Nauvoo, and on 20 September 1843 in Nauvoo she had become one of his father’s plural wives. Joseph III mentions her in his autobiographical writings.

“I had been told I would not dare to see or call upon Melissa Willis (sic) and ask her about affairs in Nauvoo for she knew things, it was alleged, that I would not wish to hear. She came to our meeting in the Music Hall, and I was told of her presence. After the service was over I sought her out and secured permission to call upon her. In the interview thus secured I discovered that whatever claims she and others may have made about her having been married to my father, she could not uphold them, but instead plainly stated that she was the wife of Ira Willis, and had never lived with Joseph Smith as his wife, at his house or elsewhere. My interview with her will be related in detail farther on in these Memoirs.”

That interview took place in Lehi the next day. The author has written extensively about this in articles that are now part of the Wayne E. Clark Collection on the web site of the Lehi Historical Society and Archives,

Wayne E. Clark is a retired Auburn University professor with an intense interest in the early history of his home town. He can be reached at [email protected].

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