Polygamous towns gradually becoming conventional American community

More businesses, students and private property have plural-marriage town looking more like mainstream USA.

Colorado City, Ariz. • The train is running again in Cottonwood Park — the small engine pulling kids in miniature cars on the thin tracks of steel that circle the park.

The park looks good, too. After years of atrophy, tables and benches were painted for the July Fourth community party. Broken windows have been replaced in the restrooms and outbuildings.

On Central Street, the new Dollar General store is open. In adjoining Hildale, Utah, a dentist plans to open a practice.

A music festival is set for October. More parents are enrolling their children in the public schools. And George Jessop would like to start a restaurant.

It would be called "The Destination." Photos of the nearby national parks would hang on the walls. So would something else: long-sleeve shirts and prairie dresses — the traditional attire of the polygamous Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

Jessop knows that the tradition of polygamy in Colorado City and Hildale, collectively known as Short Creek, would attract visitors, too.

"This is just a little oasis that's just been discovered," Jessop said.

Short Creek, once known as an isolated enclave for polygamists who didn't say hello to strangers, is threatening to become a conventional American community.

More and more people are leaving the FLDS and the rigid prohibitions imposed by its leaders. Dissenters are reunifying with people who split from the faith earlier, and they want contact and commerce with the rest of the world.

Short Creek's location and its residents' history offer opportunities — and challenges.

America keeps rolling past

Short Creek sits on Utah's State Road 59, which becomes Arizona 389. It is one hour from Zion National Park and two hours from the Grand Canyon.

Smithsonian Butte National Back Country Byway stops just outside Hildale. There are nearby national forests on both sides of the state line. According to the Utah Department of Transportation, an average of 3,695 vehicles rolled past Hildale daily in 2015.

"There's enough money driving by everyday," said Harvey Dockstader Jr., president of the new Uzona Chamber of Commerce, which was formed to promote businesses in Short Creek and nearby rural townships. "We can turn this into a thriving community."

At the moment, Short Creek is doing almost nothing to make tourists stop there. The towns — Colorado City, with an estimated population of 4,821, and Hildale, 2,927 — have one gas station between them. Next to that station is the Merry Wives Cafe, which offers a menu of sandwiches, french fries and salads, and a Subway restaurant.

The only lodging is America's Most Wanted Bed & Breakfast, which debuted in 2014 in a compound built for FLDS President Warren Jeffs, who is serving up to life in a Texas prison for sexually assaulting two underage girls he took as polygamous wives.

Jessop sees the omissions as openings. As he sat at a picnic table with his wife, Miriam Jessop, and Dockstader in Cottonwood Park during a Fourth of July celebration, Jessop described some of his vision for Short Creek.

In addition to opening The Destination, Jessop, 49, wants to start a tour company to take visitors to petroglyphs in the area. Jessop manages Most Wanted and already takes some of its guests on such a tour.

Miriam Jessop, 47, wants the Uzona Chamber to sponsor more festivals and community events in Short Creek, like it did for Independence Day, to attract visitors and locals.

"It's about our kids," the mother of 12 said. "If we can't create a good community for our children, what are we doing?"

Creating a service economy will be a change for Short Creek. The towns' primary industries have always been construction and manufacturing, though with some unique FLDS characteristics.

Those businesses traditionally have been loyal to the FLDS and its communal form of living. Men who worked in the businesses often have been paid below minimum wage or were expected to turn over their paychecks to the church in exchange for housing, an opportunity to marry, good standing in their faith and a chance at eternal salvation. FLDS women seldom worked outside the home.

Dockstader said entrepreneurs in Short Creek will be willing to follow labor laws, but they may need an education on how to do that. He wants the Uzona Chamber to hold trainings on topics such as wage and tax compliance.

"There's still a great workforce, and a really great work ethic," Dockstader said. But he sees a more pressing cultural obstacle: getting the locals to patronize Short Creek.

The FLDS still comprise at least half the population in the towns, and they seldom shop at businesses not in favor with church leaders. Dockstader in 2014 opened a store in Colorado City called Home Spun Health that sells nutritional and health products. The store has yet to make money, he said.

"The FLDS will drive for hours to buy gas, goods and services, but they won't go across the street," Dockstader said.

"I understand their positions, and why they don't want to participate," George Jessop said. "They've got their heads in a vice."

The disenfranchised return

Dockstader and the Jessops are examples of the new unities being formed in Short Creek.

In the mid-1980s, the FLDS underwent a split over its governance. Those who wanted both spiritual and political power in a prophet, known as "One Man Rule," stayed with the FLDS. Those who wanted to be governed by a council formed their own community immediately south of Colorado City in an unincorporated area that has become known as Centennial Park. Today Centennial Park has about 1,200 residents. The Centennial Park group continues to practice polygamy, but wears conventional clothing and has largely assimilated into modern American life. The group also has not had the history of child sex abuse and lawbreaking that has followed the FLDS.

Dockstader, 50, and his family have lived in Centennial Park since 1987. For almost three decades, he didn't see or speak to the friends and family he had in the FLDS. But in recent years, as people have left the FLDS, the kids who grew up together before the split have reunited. Dockstader said he recently moved back to Colorado City.

"This is home," he said.

George and Miriam Jessop were loyal FLDS followers, but they gradually saw other families split, either because Jeffs evicted the husbands from the faith or sent husbands and wives to different FLDS enclaves. One day in 2012, the Jessops said, they had a conversation. Did they want to stay married and stay together, or did they want to wait for Jeffs to separate them? They decided to leave the FLDS.

For those following the Jessops out of the FLDS, there are more resources than ever. Families and old friends often help those leaving the church. Social-service agencies offer food, clothing and temporary shelter to families leaving the FLDS.

Also, anyone who grew up in the FLDS can apply for a home through the United Effort Plan, the trust that owns most of the land in Short Creek and which Utah seized in 2005 over concerns that Jeffs was mismanaging it. Since, 2014 the UEP has been selling homes in Hildale to trust beneficiaries at low costs. Those sales have encouraged former FLDS members to move back to Hildale.

The movement back to Hildale spurred the Washington County School District to open Water Canyon School in Hildale in 2014. Some 160 students were enrolled in kindergarten through 12th grade the first year. Principal Darin Thomas expects 400 students when classes resume in August.

Keith Leonard, a 67-year-old retired dentist from Arlington, Wash., recently bought an old dentist office that belonged to the UEP and is finishing remodeling it. Leonard will lease it to a dentist who plans to move his practice to Hildale — the first dentist in Short Creek in years.

"You don't need to go to a third-world country to see need," Leonard said. "Just drive down to Hildale."

Leonard was the mission president in St. George for the mainstream LDS Church in 2010, when people started telling him stories about life in Short Creek — evictions, separation from families, sex abuse, poverty. He said the FLDS is a "dying culture" and Short Creek is less marginalized than when he first started visiting.

"It's becoming more of a normalized community," Leonard said, adding: "It's got a ways to go."

The government's little role

While Hildale is gaining homeownership and the benefits that go with it, homes in Colorado City remain under UEP ownership. A dispute over subdividing has prevented home sales there. Entire city blocks remain as one parcel at the county recorder's office. The trust and the municipal government are litigating the issue in Arizona courts, with Colorado City refusing to approve subdivision plans because they do not include items such as curb and sidewalk improvements that the UEP argues are excessive and costly.

Representatives of Hildale and Colorado City government did not reply to interview requests.

Jeff Barlow, UEP's executive director, said Colorado City is slowing progress in the area. While residents are getting deeds to houses and spending money to improve them in Hildale, they are waiting in Colorado City.

Barlow points to his own experience. He left Short Creek after high school, joined the Salt Lake City-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, got married and moved back with his wife and three children in early 2015. At first, they had only an occupancy agreement, sort of a rental contract that the UEP created, to live in their home. Once Barlow and his wife were approved to buy their home, they began renovations and landscaping.

"For the most part," Barlow said, "construction had completely frozen under the Warren Jeffs regime."

Barlow, 38, said the sense of community in Short Creek is better than when he grew up there. Back then, everyone was FLDS and those out of favor with the leaders were ostracized. The community is more diverse and accepting now, he said.

"You can have a barbecue and anyone can come," Barlow said, "and it's fantastic."

Dockstader wants the reunification with Centennial Park codified. He would like Colorado City to annex Centennial Park to provide Centennial Park residents with representation in local government and more infrastructure and tax base to both sides.

To do that, and to make other political changes in the towns, including fixing problems highlighted earlier this year in a lawsuit the U.S. Justice Department won against Hildale, Colorado City and their police forces, will mean winning at the polls. FLDS followers still hold the elected and appointed positions in municipal government. Dockstader wants to get people registered to vote for the municipal elections in 2017.

None of the elected officials was seen among the thousands of people who were in Cottonwood Park on July Fourth. Dockstader contended residents in Short Creek do feel a love of country.

"It's time," he said, "for it to be nurtured and spread."

ncarlisle@sltrib.com Twitter: @natecarlisle

Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune The view of the Vermillion Cliffs towering over the twin towns of Short Creek (Hildale, UT, and Colorado City, AZ) is usually seen on news articles and the covers of books detailing the secretive world of the polygamous FLDS church. But as members continue to leave the sect, the towns are becoming more and more open. Here, a large fireworks display during a celebration that brought thousands out to celebrate Independence Day, on Saturday July 2, 2016.

Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune Girls riding a float representing Snow Canyon High School launch a water fight with boys passing by at the end of the Colorado City and Hildale Fourth of July Parade in Hildale, UT, and Colorado City, AZ, Saturday July 2, 2016. At rear behind a large wall is the Leroy S. Johnson meetinghouse, used by the FLDS Church.