ELDORADO, Texas – In early 2004, John
Grisham’s latest mystery and Ann Rule’s true crime best-sellers were the hottest books at the library in this small town in West Texas.
A few months later, the book Under the Banner of Heaven, which recounts the history of a polygamous sect on the Utah-Arizona border, landed on the Schleicher County Public Library’s waiting list as residents tried to learn more about their new neighbors, members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
“We had two murder trials in this county that didn’t cause near this much stir,” said Johnny Griffin, the county’s chief administrative officer. “We have absolutely no clue what’s going on.”
It may be that the doings of the FLDS immigrants won’t be much clearer today. For months, people in and out of Texas have been making dark predictions that the purported “end of the world” prophecies of the sect’s leader won’t come true, and that some sort of pandemonium could result.
Today, April 6, is the 175th anniversary of Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, from which the FLDS broke away decades ago, believing it had strayed from original Mormon teachings.
Last week, Schleicher County Sheriff David Doran, citing sources inside the ranch, downplayed doomsday predictions, saying the only activity planned for today was an FLDS church conference. By last Friday, though, the sheriff said he had learned that nothing was scheduled at all.
“It’s just another day on the ranch,” Doran said.
In the year since the FLDS arrived, two dozen copies of Jon Krakauer’s book and other works about polygamy have been added to the library’s collection, said librarian Jeri Whitten.
Today, many Eldorado residents speak knowledgably about the FLDS Church as well as Mormon history and beliefs.
Despite their newfound understanding, many of these Texans wish the recent arrivals would just head back to the twin cities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., where the FLDS is based.
“When anything is a mystery, you get apprehensive,” said rancher Mary Leigh Dunagan, who wonders what’s going on at the church’s 1,900-acre ranch a few miles outside Eldorado.
Both sides are uneasy. Public officials and others take frequent plane rides to check out the ranch, while a guard shack inside is manned 24 hours a day.
“They’re watching us,” Randy Mankin, publisher and editor of weekly The Eldorado Success. “That’s OK; we’re watching them.”
News broke a year ago that members of the FLDS Church were taking up residence in Schleicher County, population 3,000. The group, which still practices plural marriage – a religious principle abandoned by the LDS Church in 1890 – began putting up dormitory-like structures, workshops and other buildings. No outside workers were used; a limestone-mining operation and cement plant were set up on site.
Then, on Jan. 1, round-the-clock construction began on a temple, the FLDS’s first. The white, four-story building jumps out in the desert landscape, a symbol of a unfamiliar new culture in a place where most residents knew little about the LDS Church, let alone the FLDS.
Because of the talk about what might happen today, and an influx of journalists, FLDS officials have asked the sheriff and a Texas ranger to be on the grounds today, Doran said. Those officials also want a tax assessor to join them to finish inspection work.
But some Eldorado citizens still are worried. After pranksters put up signs Tuesday on a marquee in front of the county building (the first said, “Tomorrow Has Been Canceled” and the second, “Just Kidding. Tomorrow Has Not Been Canceled”), Doran had them taken down because worried residents were calling him.
Even one of the pranksters sees a dark side to the situation.
“Everything they told us has been a lie,” said Jim Runge, pointing out that the church’s agent told the ranch’s seller that the property would be used as a hunting lodge. “I think Warren Jeffs is unstable. It would be fine with me if they’d leave.”
However, the flock appears to be settling in. The ranch now includes the temple, about a dozen residential buildings, a meetinghouse, several workshops, a chicken house, a garden and crop fields. There is an ambulance, firetruck and garbage truck, and the grave of a resident who died of breast cancer last year.
Pilot J.D. Doyle, who offers almost daily flights over the ranch, called the FLDS construction workers “absolute masters” who have laid out symmetrical roads and put up solid buildings.
“These people know what they are doing,” said Doyle, who also is technology director for Schleicher County Independent School District. “They’re craftsmen.”
Despite their skill, the builders ran afoul of state regulations when they failed to get the proper permits before starting construction on a wastewater plant.
The ranch was fined $18,400 by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and work has temporarily halted.
The wastewater plant itself has become a sticking point with some locals. Stan Meador, who operates the X Bar Ranch, a nature retreat, worries about the effect on natural resources and groundwater contamination.
The secretiveness of the FLDS bothers many residents the most.
At Pat’s Hair Salon, beauticians and customers said they have never seen the newcomers.
“They don’t even come to town,” said retiree Nancy Lester.
Outside Amigo’s Dream restaurant, insurance agency owner Connie Andrews voiced what was on everyone’s mind: “The question is, why did you come here? Why Eldorado?”