While my partner Mike and I were in southern Utah last week, we decided to swing through the fundamentalist Mormon communities of Hildale/Colorado City and Centennial Park.
Although I know a number of fundamentalists, I’d never met a member of the FLDS Church. We were more than a little nervous to go. In my mind were images from the fictional Juniper Creek compound on HBO’s Big Love — where unwanted strangers are followed closely by menacing Hummers, a sort of latter-day replay of the “whistling and whittling” vigilantes of Nauvoo’s final, dark days.
When we arrived, no Hummers menaced us, nor did anyone whittle us out of town. As strangers taking photos, we did get stares — stares which we, no doubt, were unconsciously returning. I can’t say it felt as innocuous as our trip the previous month to Amish country in Indiana, but it was much closer to that feeling than I’d imagined.
Short Creek, as the community was known prior to the incorporation of Colorado City in 1963, is a perfect place for a fundamentalist Mormon settlement. Straddling the Utah/Arizona border, the bulk of the settlement is in the Arizona Strip, a sparsely settled region of Arizona the size of Massachusetts, isolated from the rest of the state by the Grand Canyon. Fundamentalist Mormons make up a majority of the population of the Arizona Strip.
The area north of the border is incorporated as Hildale, Utah; the area south is Colorado City, Arizona. Immediately southwest of the city limits is the community of Centennial Park, home to a separate fundamentalist group known as “the Work.” (The FLDS Church and the Work/Centennial Park group fell out of communion with each other after a leadership dispute in 1984).
The contrast today between Centennial Park and Colorado City is stark. Centennial Park is a sprawling new suburb, brimming with mansions, each tens of thousands of square feet in size. The wealth, presumably derived from construction companies working as far away as Las Vegas and Phoenix, appears to be spread among dozens of families. Women and children were dressed normally and only the outrageous size of the many new mansions betrayed the fact that we were in a polygamist community.
Colorado City was more like I expected, although I was unprepared for the size of the community — there truly are a lot of fundamentalist Mormons. This much older town (founded in the 1920s) is laid out in traditional Utah fashion, with overly wide streets separating large square blocks — resulting in the unkempt, low-density feel so many Mormon towns share.
The houses in Colorado City were more normal in size, lacking the ostentation of Centennial Park. There were also a large number of unfinished homes, some of which were inhabited while others seemed abandoned. In that way, the community was reminiscent of towns we’ve visited in Argentina. Mike pointed out that this probably resulted from functioning outside of the normal monetary and credit system. When you have ready access to credit and you spend $100,000 building a house before you run out of money, you can borrow the $10,000 you need to complete the job. If you don’t have access to credit, like Argentineans after their financial meltdown and like FLDS members, when you run out of money, you stop building — even if it means the loss of your sunk costs.
As with most of southern Utah and the Arizona Strip, the natural setting is gorgeous. The communities are perched below a distinctive outcropping of the Vermilion Cliffs. One thing that surprised us was the number of businesses and institutions open to the public. We had expected a closed community, like the private FLDS town near Eldorado, Texas. Instead we found a rural town with all the public institutions you would expect: post office, town hall, police department, community college, grocery store, hardware store, restaurant, and other services like insurance agents.
Although the grocery store “Foodtown Cooperative Mercantile Corporation,” was communally operated and owned by the UEP trust, its goods were absolutely normal — precisely what you’d expect from any small-town grocer. Notwithstanding the FLDS Church’s reputation for being isolated from the modern world, their Cooperative Mercantile was well stocked with the latest types of chips — I bought a bag of Spicy Sweet Chili–flavored Doritos for the road.
The store was filled with FLDS women wearing the distinctive outfits that we have seen on CNN from Texas. Unlike the Little House on the Prairie garb worn by fundamentalists on the compound in Big Love, FLDS women have a very strange style all their own. To me their clothing resembles over-sized Victorian dresses, generally in a single vivid (often pastel) color. Long hair is universally combed up (often way up) and back. Unlike Amish country, where both men and women look different from regular American society, FLDS men appeared to dress like any other rural westerners.
The ongoing cold war between church and state was evident in the Arizona Attorney General’s outpost for women and children who want to flee polygamy and also in the campus of a community college established by the state. Another relic was the Colorado City Unified School, shuttered from lack of students when FLDS leaders ordered the community’s children to be home-schooled.
The most prominent building in town was the Leroy S. Johnson meeting house, an enormous structure, surprisingly reminiscent of an oversized LDS Stake Center — and only slightly less lovely. (For contrast, a typical LDS meeting house in southern Utah is shown in the above picture. The dominant architectural motif of both churches seems to be highlighted roofing.)
Although very brief, our visit to Colorado City was eye-opening. I’d like to go back and actually be able to spend some time talking to and interviewing the residents. If I do, I’ll be a lot less nervous than I had been this time around.