article

11.08.09

Polygamy Tourism

For $69.95, a pair of former Mormon fundamentalists will give you "The Polygamy Experience": a tour of some of America's most isolated and mysterious communities.

For decades, residents of Colorado City, Arizona, practiced polygamy in relative isolation. The town sits about 354 miles northwest of Phoenix, on a red-tinted desert flatland sandwiched between the north rim of the Grand Canyon and Zion National Park in Utah. It was settled in the 1930s by a sect that broke off from the mainstream Mormon church in the late 19th century because church progressives, in hopes of attaining statehood for Utah, had renounced founding prophet Joseph Smith’s revelation that to get to heaven you needed at least three wives.

The tour originates in St. George, and for four hours Holm delivers a spiel that fuses personal narrative with Mormon history and outhouse jokes.

The breakaway polygamous sect called itself the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or FLDS, and thrived in the isolated region. Few outsiders knew or cared about the enclave, but allegations of corruption, welfare fraud, and sexual abuse spurred recent crackdowns and a shower of criminal convictions that have brought unwelcome worldwide attention to the secretive cult.

On Friday, 38-year-old Raymond Jessup, a sect member, was convicted in Texas of sexual assault of one of his wives, an underage girl, who had moved with Jessup from Colorado City to Yearning for Zion Ranch, a new FLDS colony in west Texas. In 2007, the current FLDS prophet, Warren Jeffs, 54, was convicted in Utah of being an accessory to the rape of a 14-year-old "sister wife."

All of this unwanted but very real public attention prompted two brothers who are former members of the FLDS to launch a polygamy tourism business last month.

Heber Holm, a 52-year-old gravelly voiced contractor from nearby St. George Utah, and his brother Richard, a former Colorado City town council member, bought a 29-passenger bus to drive tourists through the secretive town where they grew up. They called the tour the “The Polygamy Experience,” and it costs $69.95 per person. (Discounts apply for kids, oldsters, and groups.) Heber Holm doesn’t know how many people, exactly, have taken the tour, but he shuttles tourists through the polygamous enclave three days a week. The tour originates in St. George, and for four hours Holm delivers a spiel that fuses personal narrative with Mormon history and outhouse jokes. When the bus inches past 15,000-square foot multiwing, multistory locally constructed fenced-in homes, it resembles a Hollywood tour of the stars’ homes. Tourists stop at the local dairy to buy homemade cheese and eat ice cream, walk through historic cemeteries, amble through the park by the creek, where FLDS members hold massive family reunions. (The Arizona Attorney General’s Office estimates 37,000 polygamists live in the mountainous American West, with splinter groups in Mexico and British Columbia. )

Before the return trip to St. George, the final tour stop is lunch at the Merry Wives Café. Members of the so-called Second Ward, a splinter group of about 1,000 polygamists that broke away from the FLDS in the 1980s, operate the cafe. The Second Ward tends to be more welcoming to outsiders than the FLDS. This explains why, so far, Second Warders and a few former members of the cult who doggedly hang on in Colorado City are the only locals who have publicly voiced approval of the tour. The FLDS spokesman, Willie Jessup, did not return several telephone calls seeking comment, and the town mayor, Terrill Johnson, recently had his telephone disconnected.

Colorado City lost about 1,000 people when Jeffs, the prophet, sent many men and women to the Texas compound, Yearning for Zion Ranch, in 2006. At the time, wives were reassigned to different husbands and told by Jeffs that resistance to their new husbands would result in eternal damnation. In 2008, Texas authorities removed more than 400 children from the white-walled compound, and placed them in foster homes. The children were returned to their mothers a few weeks later. Worldwide buzz over the cult intensified when several FLDS moms in prairie dresses and Dairy Queen up-dos gave press interviews, speaking in whispery tones meant to emulate Prophet Jeffs.

The prairie dresses comply with Joseph Smith’s dress code and hid long underwear called “temple garments.” For a while, FLDS women sold prairie dresses over the Internet. Some of those polygamous seamstresses may have grown up with Heber Holm. He moved away from Colorado City, and his 11 mothers and more than 60 brothers and sisters, when he was 16. The FLDS has long been notorious for running young males out of town to ensure a steady supply of wives for church insiders, but Holm says he and a younger brother chose to leave on their own.

The two teenagers rented a $40-a-month basement apartment in nearby St. George, Utah, and supported themselves as construction workers. And they both eventually joined the Mormon church.

“We weren’t kicked out of Colorado City,” says Holm. “We wanted out. Our father had passed away. Other men were telling us what to do. Most of the reason we left was teenage rebellion.” Heber Holm’s new anti-polygamy religion, coupled with his apparent adjustment to an outside world most FLDS members consider evil, meant that his return visits to Colorado City could be, well, occasionally awkward.

Now many members of the Holm family, including the brothers’ birth mother and full sisters, still live in Colorado City and remain loyal members of the increasingly reclusive FLDS. They feel “betrayed” by the tour, Heber Holm says.

“The tours have strained family relations,” he acknowledges.

In late October, Richard Holm opted out of the polygamy tourism enterprise, because, he says, he’s moving out of the area. Richard Holm had thrived in the construction industry and had owned a motel in the area. He was banished by Jeffs in 2003 and his two wives and 17 kids were re-assigned to another brother.

You’d think Richard Holm would have an axe to grind, but when he and Heber launched their tours, they insisted the junkets were intended to foster understanding between outsiders and Colorado City townies.

Outsiders, says Heber Holm, often hold the misguided impression that FLDS members are “evil cult people trying to rape young women, or that they’re sexual deviants, that kind of stuff.”

And cult members tend to view outsiders, or “gentiles,” as evil.

“I was taught as a child never to talk to a gentile and to run if I saw one,” says Isaac Wyler, a 43-year-old wheat farmer who was banished from the cult by Jeffs in 2004. Wyler still lives in Colorado City and says the tour couldn’t have come at a better time—the town’s construction-based economy has “dried up.”

“Most of the people on the tour end up buying something,” he says, “and we need that.”

Arizona journalist Terry Greene Sterling is writer-in-residence at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. She blogs about people in the shadows of America's kidnapping capital at http://www.terrygreenesterling.com.