The temple of the Yearning for Zion (YFZ) compound gleams, pure and white, in the sunshine of West Texas. I pull over on the side of Rudd Road, a bumpy asphalt strip that divides ranch land and homes, some as simple as singlewide trailers where laundry hangs on clotheslines beneath which pass young goats and other small livestock. In late April, mesquite and cedar trees are greening, and yellow flowers bloom beside the growing, sprouting prairie grass. This rolling land with mesas and arroyos can swallow you up in its vastness. Buzzards circle to the East, intent on something I can’t see.
The vast wildness of the landscape, hiding more than it reveals, may be one reason that the fundamentalist Mormon refuge was seeded here. The YFZ compound is another offshoot of current prophet Warren Jeff’s Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), which already has settlements in Arizona and Utah. I’ve read that each settlement, including this one, is guarded by armed sentries. Nonetheless, brave women somehow managed to flee these strongholds; a few have told or written about their lives in polygamy, perhaps most famously Carolyn Jessop, whose autobiography “Escape” tells of her depressed mother who beat her children—including Carolyn—daily. Eventually Carolyn was married off at age eighteen to the fifty-year old Merril Jessop, already husband to three other wives. It was Merril who, curiously, became the overseer of the Texas YFZ compound.
I can’t quite approach the compound. Equally as white as the temple are the media trucks and satellite dishes, taking up all but a passing lane on the road. I wonder if anyone among that group is photographing me. I may be a curiosity, as I don’t know how many “tourists” or bloggers have found their way to Eldorado, a name that I associate with the fabled “City of Gold.”
Gold is scarce, to my knowledge, in this town of about 2000, pronounced Eldorādo, with an expressive accent to that third syllable, a somber “a.” I learned the correct pronunciation from townspeople I met, after driving three-and-a-half hours from Lubbock (in the southern Texas Plains) to this region of rolling hills, mesas, and arroyos. I wanted to develop my own perspective on the situation regarding the fundamentalist Mormon sect that had purchased the land for the compound about 5 years ago.
The almost 1700 acres of the Yearning for Zion compound were bought by a man named Allred in 2003, supposedly for hunting, says a woman at a museum in Eldorado. I don’t ask the woman her name, nor do I ask anyone else’s name; I simply want to hear people’s ideas and opinions about this FLDS sect, without telling anyone that I write for and edit an ezine with an atheist/humanist perspective. Throughout my visit, I listened to people and then ducked into my car, to record what I heard and noticed.
In fact, even as I listened to this woman, there was a radio show on, featuring a minister discussing the proper interpretation of the Bible. Another woman in the museum, busily quilting, seemed in control of the radio, shutting it off only after I stayed for more than a few minutes to examine collectables. West Texas, though it has a libertarian strain to its philosophical spectrum, is a prime region for all Christian sects. There are signs and billboards on highways: “We Need to Talk. –God” and “Have Problems? Jesus Is the Solution.” As I turned on to Rudd Road, searching for the compound, I saw to my right a large crucifix and church.
“No one knew anything funny was going on. No one knew how many people were living in the compound—not for a while,” according to the woman. It wasn’t until a local pilot, flying above the 1700 acres, noticed foundations for buildings being put into place, that anyone became suspicious of the land’s real use. “They [FLDS] were planning to take over Eldorado,” she claims. “If you have time, stick around, and the pilot can fly you over the compound. You’ll get a better look.”
“No,” I say, “I have to get home.” I ask her instead about the museum, and learn that she is one of its curators, trying to keep some the county’s history preserved. Eldorado is in Schleicher County—sparsely populated with only a few hundred more people than the town. The town sits at the junction of highways 190 and 277. The highways in this region are often beautiful, lonely treks where the landscape is such a distraction that it’s fortunately rare to see another car or truck. The roads roll along with the hilly contours, rising and falling, and at the top of any incline is a view of sunlight and shadow alternating on—what seems—fifty miles of greening ranges, framed by windshield.
The museum is musty and dim, but there are dresses, purses, military uniforms, high-topped shoes, and shawls from the early twentieth century that are either in old display cases or atop them. I admire one purple dress from about 1910, and can imagine how vibrant it looked when first worn, like an iris in full glory. The curator, acting as my docent, points out blankets, products of wool manufacturing; she comments that Eldorado was famous for its woolen mills, which created and sent blankets to the military forces throughout World War II.
The town of Eldorado was established in 1895, and the museum preserves (on a very minimal budget) artifacts from across the social spectrum: those of ranchers, teachers, a beauty queen, prominent military and sports figures—they’re all featured. Generous families have their own display areas, with creatively arranged photos, clothing, books, dinnerware, jewelry or any worthwhile item that can fit onto a shelf.
I shake my head, pondering the contrast with known family history, on record at this modest museum, and the genetic testing that YFZ children are currently undergoing. Both the women and children of the compound have given authorities false names and ages, and for many there are no birth or marriage records. Thus it is impossible for civil authorities to determine, sans testing, who is full brother or sister, who half-brother or sister, who first cousin. Compounding this confusion is the fact that wives and children were sometimes shuffled from one patriarch to another, based on the whims of Jeffs, a true autocrat, ruling by intimidation; children may not know which man is their biological father. As there are multiple wives, children may bond with women who are not their biological mothers.
“Those poor kids,” the curator moans, grimacing. She recalls that whenever an expert in a technical field was hired to assist at the compound, he would at first find children and mothers working in superbly tended gardens, but they soon hurried away, vanishing into large cabins. She estimates that the youngest brides— fourteen to eighteen years old—are third generation polygamists. Can they know any other way of life? Can anyone really change them? She shrugs and waits for answers, which I can’t provide, though I say that perhaps kids younger than five have some chance to adapt, away from the influence of the patriarchs.
“In foster care?” she replies. “I don’t know about that. What are they going to do all day, watch TV? They don’t even know what it is.” Even as she is speaking, in fact, all 460-plus children from the compound are being removed to foster care, under court order—or so I later learn, back in my car, listening to the radio.
The Spartan lifestyle dictated by Jeffs forbade watching television or movies, listening to music, and playing some sports. Swimming was not allowed. Generally, children were educated only until age fourteen while being continually indoctrinated. One young girl who escaped the FLDS talked of Jeffs’ holding a funny and spirited child upside down in a classroom, supposedly to shake all the evil from him, but really to frighten other students into submission.
In a recording available on-line, Jeffs can be heard instructing children on sexual abstinence and plural marriage. His voice is strangely soft, as if he were intent on hypnotizing his audience. “The boys must leave the girls alone. The girls must leave the boys alone. […] The only ones worthy to go to highest glory in the celestial kingdom…are those who enter into plural marriage through the prophet of God.” (Watch Video)