Observations from My Brief Visit to Colorado City

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.

May_2008_cc01_overview

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.

May_2008_cc02_town

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.

May_2008_cc04_store

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.

May_2008_cc03_church

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.

Comments

  1. Aaron L. says:

    Great account John. Do you think you would have been able (not necessarily welcomed) to attend FLDS service if it had been the right day/time?

  2. Lovely spot. I wish more blog posts would include photos. :)

  3. John Hamer says:

    Aaron (#1): I would very much like to attend a church service. They may not have let me in this time, just off the streets as an unknown person. But if I make some connections going forward, I think it would probably be possible in the future. I get the impression that one result of the crisis in Texas may be a change in policy, where the church decides to engage outsiders a bit more, if only to get their own side of the story out.

  4. Duke of Earl Grey says:

    No sales tax being collected at the FoodTown, eh? Interesting…

  5. Excellent post John. Thanks for sharing the pictures with us. All of them bring a much needed perspective. I think doing oral histories of both sides of the 1984 schism would be fascinating.

  6. Thomas Parkin says:

    #4

    I don’t believe Arizona taxes groceries. If you are taxed at a grocery store in AZ, it is a city rather than a state tax.

    Good catch, though. :)

    ~

  7. It looks like the FLDS have too many construction workers and not enough architects.

  8. Yet Another John says:

    Centennial Park is often referred to as the “Second Ward” by LDS members in nearby communities.

    While I’ll agree there are a lot of “crickers” (another local term for FLDS reflecting the original name of Short Creek), I’m not sure they consitute a majority on the Strip. The poplulations of Fredonia, Moccasin, Kaibab, Marble Canyon, and especially lately, Littlefield, probably equal their numbers. Maybe not, tho, upon reflection.

    Another big difference between Centennial Park and Hildale/Colorado City is in the dress of the women. Many wear more modern attire (altho still generally modest) and many wear make-up. I’m not sure of the type and length of education between the two places. In my conversations with women, the Second Warders seem more forthcoming and confident.

    As to the number of public businesses, that seems to have come about in the last 20 years or so. As you mention, a suprising number of places do business with the outside world. I guess our money helps the “cause”! Of course, they’ve never been shy about doing business with the world. Local contractors have had to compete for years with the army of laborers that a FLDS contractor can bring to the job. I have to say, though, they are hard and competent workers.

    Another note: the scenery in Southern Utah/Northern Arizona is indeed magnificent. Just last Wednesday my dad and two brother and myself stood upon the edges of the Vermillion Cliffs above Short Creek. Standing in one spot, you can see Mt. Trumbull on the Strip, Powell Point (just south of Bryce Canyon) West Temple and other landmarks in Zion Nat’l Park, Brian Head, and the Beaver Dam and West Mountains all while turning your head around! Beautiful.

    J. Stapley: I believe there is a man doing just what you suggested, compiling histories of Hildale/Colorado City and Centennial Park. He self-published a book called “The Polygamists” which recounts the FLDS origins and their history up to about 1997 or thereabouts. He has an “insider’s” knowledge of the place, lives there currently, but is a faithful member of the LDS church. He use to be a high councilman for the Kaibab Stake.

    One more comment and then I’ll shut up. The Short Creek are is not nearly as homogenous as it used to be. In fact, the current bishop of the Moccasin Ward lives in Hildale.

  9. Mark IV says:

    the current bishop of the Moccasin Ward lives in Hildale.

    mindblowing.

  10. I thought that this post was interesting, and I just want to add a couple of bits of information, one anecdotal and one personal experience. First, regarding the unfinished homes, I don’t think that that phenomenon results from anything similar to the what you saw in Argentina. I have heard (this is the anecdotal part) that they leave the homes in a suspended state of construction because this allows them to avoid paying some type of taxes on the properties. This is consistent with other practices that help the FLDS to survive such as having all the “single mothers” in town collect welfare checks. The whole spiritual wife thing is pretty convenient in that they are not legally married if they aren’t the first wife.
    The personal experience is this: about fifteen years ago, while I was still living with my family in Colorado, my parents were really avid beetle collectors. There is a species, Dynastes granti, that is found in the northern half of Arizona. We spent several late summer evenings milling around street lights in search of these big bugs in Colorado City because there were old reports of people collecting them that far north. I don’t know anything about the HBO series, but we were followed around town the whole time we were there. A group of young guys in out dated pick-up trucks with big walkie-talkies never let us out of their sight, but they never came and spoke to us either. As a young teenager, this made me pretty uncomfortable. At one point my mother went and spoke to the group to explain what we were doing there and we were bluntly asked to get out of town.
    Generally, the rest of your description seems very similar to my memory of Colorado City.

  11. My understanding is that the reason so many houses are stopped in the middle of construction is because state control over the trust fund has put them on hold- or at least into doubt.

    I might be wrong though

  12. cj douglass says:

    Thanks for the pics John. My mission encompassed Colorado City but we were not permitted to proselyte there – or even enter the city limits. I taught more than a few former members of the community when I was serving in St. George. It was pretty surprising – all of them claimed testimonies of the BoM and JS yet struggled to realize where to find a church/community where they felt they belonged. It was an eye opener for me in realizing the diversity and complexity in what we call “Mormonism”.

  13. Thanks John. This has been a treat.

  14. I have been to that Food Town in Colorado City. We stopped by there on the way back from The Grand Canyon. Our visit was pleasant, but a bit odd. We were followed in the store by curious onlookers. The crowd consisted of women and kids with a few teenage boys. What drew attention was my then toddler daughter’s reasonably modest sun suit ( sleeveless, but the knees covered by bloomers). The women made favorable comments about her sun suit. They thought it was cute. My teenage son lifted up the hem of his t-shirt to adjust his belt. He heard gasps from the FLDS teenage boys. We gather they were afraid he was just about to show some skin.
    It was kind of like being in rural China. We just smiled and said Hello over and over as we purchased a few things. It was a great educational trip for my older kids. As we left, we thought we were followed out of town by a pick up truck, but then again maybe not.

  15. Michelle says:

    I grew up in St. George, and in high school I belonged to a string quartet that was somehow invited to play at a party in Colorado City. (I don’t know who invited us or any specific details, I just showed up when our director told us to.)

    Anyway, it was interesting. It was at night, outdoors, and we just played our usual mix of wedding and classical music. There were some friendly people who came over to talk to us occasionally, and they were very nice. I’m thinking it may have been their version of a stake dance or some kind of social event–most of the people there seemed to be young men and women. I don’t remember any actual dancing, though. Just a bunch of young people hanging out, walking and talking, wearing old fashioned clothes, not a whole lot of interaction between the girls and guys, and everyone was pretty subdued.

    (This was a decade before Warren Jeffs took over the leadership there, and I’ve read that things changed a lot with him.)

  16. help the kids says:

    check this story..

    http://www.gosanangelo.com/news/2008/may/17/breaking-news-city-lone-texas-finalist-for-40/

    it would be nice if everyone with a little extra time could contact the Martifer Group in Portugal and ask them to not build the plant in san angelo, texas. Why would a company want to build a plant where a bunch of child kidnapping nazis live?

    try to get the email contact info so we can “help” them make a proper decision.

  17. paul ramsell says:

    I recently took a similar trip through Colorado City with a very modern-looking female colleague. We drove around town. Stopped at the store. Rad a stop sign.

    I came away with three big impressions: (1) we were not wanted there; (2) the homes were dumps — partially built, exposed sheeting, dormers without windows in them, etc..; and finally, the most interesting point, (3) tall privacy fences surrounded most homes.

    This latter point really struck me. This community didn’t seem like a place that had to deal with crime. Then why the tall fences. I left thinking it was to keep prying eyes like mine away. I can’t imagine any other reason.

    At the end of our drive-through we went to the store. My colleague was literally stared at every step she took. They were just fascinated by her.

    And me? I was fascinated by the two or three children with weird deformities on their feet. The place just isn’t right.

  18. Thanks for letting us all share in your trip, John. Fascinating stuff. Again, thanks.

  19. bigbrownhouse says:

    I visited Hildale/Colorado City in March, and my observations largely match yours. The natural environment is gorgeous, but the man-made element struck me as rather shabby and sad (to be fair though, it wasn’t much worse than many rural western towns in that regard.) Like a previous poster, I too have heard that the houses are left unfinished to avoid taxes. I don’t know if that’s true.

    In addition to being well stocked with groceries, the Mercantile has a great fabric department tucked off to the side. I didn’t get any stares in the market, but when I entered the fabric room, heads turned. There was a very strong “locals only” vibe.

    I stopped by a small store that could be confused with a snack shop or convenience store except that it primarily sells Costco-sized bulk food items. I was told by a woman in the parking lot “we’re not scary like the media wants you to think we are.”

    Photos here:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/bigbrownhouse/sets/72157605117578401/

  20. I have a co-worker that lived in Mexico for years. He said many people in the area he lived leave one part of their house unfinished because you only pay property tax on a finished house. So most families will leave one part of a wall open, or won’t paint the inside of the house, anything to show it’s unfinished. Maybe there is a similar law there, where you pay less taxes on an unfinished home?

    Great pictures, thanks.

  21. John Hamer says:

    Re: Unfinished homes. Mike was just speculating about credit, of course, but I still think it’s a reasonable explanation. My first thought was similar to Cicero’s (#11), that construction was halted when the courts took hold of the UEP trust. I also speculated that the unfinished homes and dumpier appearance of Colorado City in relation to Centennial Park showed the difference between a generally non-capitalist society where most everything is centrally planned by a single leader and a more capitalist society were individual patriarchs control their own property and clans.

    However, Cromike (#10) and jjohnesen (#19) may well be right — there is some unexpected tax advantage to leaving homes incomplete. When we went to Argentina, we were told that people did that to get out of taxes too. But when we actually talked to some friends who owned an unfinished house (attached to their finished house), it turned out that they were being taxed as though they owned two finished houses. In that case, the tax rumor was false and the real reason was lack of credit. Which highlights the need to actually interview people to find out the story.

  22. John Hamer says:

    Re: Whistling and Whittling brigade. We thoroughly expected the experience Paul Ramsell (#17), Cromike (#10) and JA Benson (#14) report and that we’d seen depicted on HBO.

    Mike and I were going hiking at Zion’s Canyon later that day, but we deliberately wore long pants and shirts (rather than the shorts and tanktops that we later changed into for hiking). I also came armed with a copy of my book and a kind of half-baked plan to hold it up and say, “look, I’m just a historian who writes about Mormon churches and I’m a pretty sympathetic observer!”

    Let me digress with a similarly “harrowing” experience. On my dad’s side, my ancestral homeland is New Jersey for some eight generations. I had a great-g-g grandfather who built twenty homes in downtown Trenton in the 1860s or so that still survive. Trenton is not the nicest city anymore. One time, ten years ago, my mom and I went on a family history trip to Trenton. We drove around the slums and took pictures of all the houses my ancestors had built. When we went to the house where they had lived — which we had every reason to believe had become a crack house — and we started taking pictures. A couple of enormous guys immediately came out of the yard and said “You can’t take pictures here!” My mother stood her ground, saying, “But we’re doing family history and his great-g-g grandfather build this house in 1856!” As if they cared. The guys said, “This house is the same as all of the other houses, you can’t take pictures here.” We didn’t argue much more, since we already had the pictures. What we won’t do in the cause of genealogy!

    Anyway, on our trip to Colorado City, it didn’t come to that. I don’t know if they W&W brigade was off duty, if they’ve been disbanded, or if we didn’t stick around long enough to attract their attention. However, I really had the impression in the grocery store that we went pretty quickly from being regarded as potentially hostile strangers, to being viewed with a little less caution. We just tried to be pleasent and smiled and made small talk. By the end, the cashier lady seemed to warm to us and called after us to tell us to have a nice day.

  23. sister blah 2 says:

    Fascinating, thanks. I’ve always wanted to go there but it seemed scary. Nice to hear that while it may be a little weird, it’s not too terribly scary.

  24. Homercito says:

    My long-haired brother used to deliver a truck-full of mattresses there every couple of weeks. As he unloaded, a group of long-sleeved watch-dogs would sort of surround him on the perimeters of the loading zone and stand there until he left. And yes, a truck would follow him out of town. Land of the Free, Home of the Brave . . . but only for the Chosen Few.

  25. bigbrownhouse says:

    I visited Hildale/Colorado City in March of this year. The natural environment was stunningly beautiful, the collective man-made element was different from anything I had ever seen. It was interesting to compare, just a few weeks later, images of YFZ’s massive lodge-like homes to Colorado City’s rambling jimmyrigged structures. Up toward the canyon near a securely gated compound were some large, gated finished brick homes that stood in stark contrast to most of their neighbors.

    This was the first time I’ve ever felt like a foreigner in my own country. That said, it wasn’t an unpleasant experience. The folks I talked to were polite and helpful. A woman in the Mercantile parking lot said “we’re not scary like the media wants you to believe.” For what it’s worth, I never felt like I was being followed.

    I spent some time in the Mercantile and the bulk food store down the street. The only time I felt really on edge was in the (incredibly well stocked) fabric store on the side of the Mercantile. There were probably 20 to 25 women gathered in this very long narrow room, and they stared me down like I had breached some inner sanctum. (Of course I then had to spend as much time there as possible.)

    Random observations:
    The cemetery was fascinating. So few last names!
    Except for a few small bands of children, I saw almost no one on the streets.
    I saw one man in the bulk food store and one man in the general store. Everyone else in the stores were women or children.

    Note to travelers: Looking for dinner on a Saturday evening, I was told the Mark Twain restaurant used to serve dinner but was now out of business. There were a few other places that closed after lunch, and the pizza place was strictly take and bake.

    Photos from the trip here:

  26. bigbrownhouse says:

    …trying again, photos here

  27. John Hamer says:

    Great photos, BBH! — I have half the same ones; it’s like we had the same trip!

  28. Very cool, John.

    Do the FLDS (and/or The Work) have internet access? Are some of them reading this post, right now?

    “Hey, look at that picture he took of Bro. Jessop’s house.”
    “Not bad for an outsider. Hey, pass me a few more spicy chili Doritos, will you?”

  29. Actually, taking a look at your receipt, I’m surprised you didn’t catch the coded message:

    “Dor Spy Chil.”

    Clearly they were telling you to chill out, outsider spy, or you would be shown the door.

    :)

  30. I have been through Colorado City/Hildale numerous times. About 2 years ago I drove through the cities on a Sunday afternoon with my Grandmother and Aunt – not a threatening bunch – and we were followed by a big black suburban with tinted windows (no other cars on the road – everyone else seemed to be at church). It stayed a good distance behind but definitely followed us until we left.

    Another time I pulled up to the church (pictured above), which appeared to be completely empty, and peeked in the door. I saw a “no tape or video recording sign,” and within 30 seconds a man pulled up behind me and asked what I needed. I asked (very politely) if I could attend church the following day, and he wouldn’t really answer, just asked me to leave.

    Every other time I’ve gotten some odd looks, but am generally left alone (or given a few minutes of polite conversation). There are a couple of cemeteries that I have spent some time persuing for (distant) relatives, and no one seems to care at all that I’m there [the grave of Rulon Jeffs is pretty striking. No pomp and circumstance there, boy].

    Fascinating culture, appreciate the post.

  31. Thanks for this! My husband and I stopped in Colorado City on May 14 – the day a FLDS second ranch in Texas was raided, although we didn’t know that at the time. We had no idea what the town would be like and were completely surprised by the whole female dress thing. I will never forget seeing a walled house with three swing sets visible, at which three women in blue pastel dresses and sunglasses were playing with their kids. We stopped in the grocery store – women shopping in groups of two or three. We also stopped in a Radio Shack across the street – the man in the store was polite but not friendly. He seemed to be on a walkie talkie of some kind, and from one of the posts, above, I think I know why. Nobody seemed to want to talk, which was the opposite of what we found in other parts of Arizona/Utah. We also drove across 389 to a section of the community that appears to house their church, completely walled off but very fancy, copper-lined trim, and a “business” strip. You couldn’t tell by their names what kind of businesses they housed; probably construction. At that point, we saw we were being followed by a white pickup truck and we left.

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