From Polygamous Refuge To Tourist Town: Residents Adapt To The Transformation Of Short Creek
The community of Short Creek — made up of the twin towns of Hildale, Utah and Colorado City, Arizona — lies at the shrubby base of a red-walled desert mountain called El Capitan.
For generations, the dramatic and isolated landscape on the Utah-Arizona border has been a refuge for people who practice polygamy.
“My grandparents moved to the area in the 1940s to get away from the persecution and practice their religion in peace,” said resident Esther Bistline. She belongs to the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or FLDS. “We always felt safe. Everyone knew everybody else and there was a lot of trust.”
The FLDS had near total control over politics in Short Creek, and the church held almost all property in a trust called the United Effort Plan. The community had always kept the outside world at a distance. But after Warren Jeffs became president and prophet of the church in 2002, he doubled down. He forbade children from attending public school and ordered literal walls put up around homes. So-called God Squads patrolled the streets.
Ten years ago, Jeffs was sentenced to life in prison in Texas for sexual assault. Things changed quickly after that.
Three-and-a-half years ago, Hildale got its first female mayor. This Fall, the town will have its first wine tour.
“We do Cabernet Sauvignon, Barbera and Sangiovese,” said Cheyenne Oldroyd, the manager of Water Canyon Resort, as she stood next to green rows of a modest vineyard. She’s opening the community’s first winery in the Fall. Down the road, her resort owns 15 modern cabins full of travelers this June weekend.
A chimney across the street peaks above the grapevines. In dark lettering, the phrase “Pray and Obey” runs vertically down the brick stack. Oldroyd explained that it is a former Jeffs residence. “It’s kind of a cool attraction for people to see while they’re in the vineyard.”
Her family were never members of the FLDS. They moved to Hildale from St. George three years ago because they loved the area’s beauty. They guessed others might too and opened their resort last year.
“Within the last three to five years we’ve just seen so much growth, so much healing for everyone in the community and so much more of a welcoming presence for anyone that wants to come and visit this area. Because they know how beautiful this area is and they want to share it too,” said Oldroyd.
And there’s a lot to share. There’s the popular local hike through Water Canyon where Oldroyd’s resort gets its name. “We also have Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park, which is an awesome attraction for people who want to come and ride ATVs,” said Oldroyd. Within two hours of Short Creek is Zion National Park and the Grand Canyon.
And Water Canyon Resort isn’t the only new business aiming to attract the tourist dollar. That former Jeffs’ residence near Oldroyd’s vineyard is now Zion Suites of Hildale. On the Arizona side, there’s a brewery and new grocery store with an attached beer garden. The small airport in Colorado City is expanding to allow more flights.
As businesses change, the government is rushing to catch up.
Maha Layton’s family was excommunicated from the FLDS church when she was 15. Now she’s a member of Hildale’s City Council and tasked with creating the town’s first-ever zoning map. The council is also navigating the challenges left over from the time when property was held in common by the FLDS church
“The government itself and the community itself is actually in its infancy, where private ownership is relatively new to this community,” said Layton.
Shirlee Draper was born and raised in Short Creek but left the FLDS as an adult. Now she runs the non-profit Cherish Families that serves people with backgrounds in polygamy. She also sits on a board responsible for privatizing property of the United Effort Plan. She said there’s risks as the community opens up. One concern is limited housing.
“When I hear of when we privatize a home and someone takes it and uses that for an Airbnb, then I'm always really, really disappointed because I know the impact that that has on a particularly vulnerable and historically impoverished population. And housing is so foundational for stability and healing,” said Draper.
Airbnb lists dozens of properties in the area.
Hildale’s new government added a public school. And a federal program built a non-profit health clinic in Colorado City a couple years ago.
Councilmember Layton said she loves the nature-conscious tourists that visit. “You know it is great. I love seeing the diversity. It’s great to meet new people. And I love the type of tourists we attract.”
But as a public official, she’s cautious. “I think we have a critical movement here where there's a tipping point. So you bring all this tourism in. Well, we're still as residents trying to find our feet,” said Layton.
In Southern Utah, residents know quite well how tourism can change a town — like the gateway town to Zion National Park. “Go to Springdale. It's about tourism. That's what they are. And the residents come second,” Layton said.
Changing With The Times
Bistline, the current FLDS member, has already seen some of that change come to Short Creek.
“The businesses have changed. And they’re not owned by the FLDS anymore. And it’s really hard to get a job and work for somebody that you feel like has taken away from you,” she said.
She works at the Short Creek Cottage, a business set up by the non-profit Voices for Dignity that helps FLDS members with economic and educational opportunities. At the store, FLDS members sell baked goods and homemade products to tourists: jams, jellys, travel pillows and blankets.
“That’s our main source of income now, tourism. People coming and wanting to buy the crafts and homemade things,” said Bistline.
Voices for Dignity estimates that no more than 15% of Short Creek are still FLDS. More people likely still believe in FLDS doctrines, but it’s hard to say as the community is in such flux.
There’s talk of paving a road from Springdale to Hildale, cutting down the trip to Zion to only 20 minutes. That means Short Creek could still change a lot more.
“If it does, I guess we’ll just have to change with the times,” said Bistline.
That change will depend on whether tourists respond to the growth Short Creek is experiencing.