LOCKNEY, Texas – Polygamist Samuel Fischer stood before a standing-room-only crowd in this small town Friday night to explain why he was moving his cabinet-making business from Utah to the Bible Belt.
For 90 minutes, Fischer spoke about his life, his faith, his family and the reason he has two “ladies.”
In doing so, Fischer made an extraordinary departure from the silence with which members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints guard their lives and beliefs.
“Either I could get scared away or I could come and face it,” Fischer said of his decision to meet with Lockney residents.
The meeting showcased the scrutiny that follows FLDS members like Fischer, who are settling elsewhere after a court takeover of properties in their historical home at the base of southern Utah’s Vermilion Cliffs.
Lockney is long on Christian faith but short on jobs, so Fischer’s arrival has triggered both hope and despair.
Until about two weeks ago, few people in the town had heard of the FLDS church.
Now, almost everyone in town knows about the sect’s peculiar practices – arranged marriages, exiled men and boys, teenage brides – and its beleaguered prophet, Warren S. Jeffs, who awaits trial on charges of rape as an accomplice for conducting an unwanted marriage.
1 town, many views
Fischer began looking at property in the area after a January ice storm trapped him for a couple days in Amarillo, a delay he took as a heavenly sign his future lay in the western Texas plains.
He focused on a long-vacant property in Lockney, where the Tye Co. once made farm equipment accessories. The facility had 176,368 square feet on 16.57 acres. The asking price: $740,000 – a bargain for someone used to Utah’s pricey real estate market.
Fischer found a town looking for an economic boost.
Lockney, population 1,878, is in the middle of the Texas panhandle, an area known for cotton crops and church-going people. It has been in slow decline since the 1980s, experiencing the same fate as other small farming towns across the U.S.: Population falls, business fades.
But Lockney has selling points: friendly people, a top-notch school district, a four-doctor hospital and at least six churches. At the Lockney Public Library, schoolchildren who want to use the computers refer to librarian Neta Marble as “ma’am.”
Alice Gilroy, editor of The Floyd County Hesperian-Beacon, said the celebration over Fischer’s plans short-circuited when someone pointed out he was from Hildale, Utah, the community associated with Jeffs. Hildale and Colorado City, Ariz., separated by an imperceptible stateline, have been home to fundamentalist Mormons since the 1930s; the sect considers polygamy a religious tenet. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints publicly disavowed polygamy in 1890 and has no ties to fundamentalist sects.
Gilroy laid out Fischer’s FLDS ties in her May 3 “By The Way” column. Fischer responded with a three-page letter in the Hesperian-Beacon that invited residents to Friday’s meeting.
“All this is new to us,” said Warren Mathis that Friday morning, sitting with three fellow farmers at the D&J Gin office. “We don’t like it. We’ve lived over all this time and we’ve been getting along fine without bringing all these people into it.”
Gilroy said many residents fear that if Lockney becomes known as an FLDS town, no one else will want to move there.
But there are other views.
“I don’t really care,” said Steve McPherson, one of the farmers at D&J Gin on Friday. To each his own, he said in so many words.
Dwight Thomason, the Coldwell Banker Realtor handling the sale, said Fischer’s plan for the property was “the best thing in the world that’s happened to Lockney.” “He’s going to clean it up and going to hire about 100 people, which is going to help the economy of Lockney, Texas.”
‘By my fruits’
As people began filing into the Lockney Community Center on Friday night, two couples joined hands outside the building and prayed.
Fischer stood just inside the center’s door, shaking hands with his new neighbors.
For a small town, Lockney makes its share of headlines. Seven years ago, the town made national news after the Lockney Independent School District’s board adopted a mandatory drug-testing policy for junior and high school students. The town’s justice of the peace was indicted Tuesday for allegedly shooting her husband three times.
Now comes Fischer, whose new home doesn’t provide the isolation FLDS have sought in South Dakota or the anonymity they have found in Las Vegas.
As his son Daniel, 16, passed out questionnaires, Fischer described how he transformed a teenage interest in woodworking into a viable business. Fischer, who is in his mid-50s, is the brother of Dan Fischer, an ex-FLDS member who founded Ultradent and a foundation that helps teens who have left the twin towns.
Fischer’s Westwood Products employs about 20 people in Hildale to make custom cabinets for high-end homes. He’ll rename it Techsun when it moves to Texas.
Fischer was vague about when he would hire workers or what kinds of benefits he might offer but assured residents he would have jobs for anyone interested – women and minorities included.
Some expressed doubts, asking Fischer to name other FLDS businesses that hire outsiders. He named one, a construction company in Mesquite, and said he employs two non-FLDS members as sales reps.
Fischer soldiered on through questions about his decision to homeschool his children, whether he would use local doctors (yes) and whether his family relied on welfare (no).
Asked if FLDS members might follow him to Texas, Fischer said he didn’t know.
“I’m not here to pave the way,” he said. “I don’t know if any of them will. I don’t know if a bunch of them will. . . . I am not here to build a compound.”
Pushed to clarify his ties to Jeffs, Fischer acknowledged him as his spiritual leader but said the FLDS church has no say or stake in his business.
Fischer said he has two “ladies,” using the preferred FLDS term for their legal and spiritual wives.
Fischer said he and his first wife had 13 children, including two they adopted. He then “adopted” his second wife and her then-nine children after her husband was ousted from the faith for adultery. He now has 24 children, 12 of whom still live at home.
“Is she your wife before God?” a woman shouted from the audience.
“I feel she is,” said Fischer.
At the end, Fischer asked for a chance to prove himself.
“Judge me by my fruits, not for what you read in the paper, not for what runs around in the rumor mill,” he said. “Judge me for who I am.”
Theresa Galvez came to the meeting more interested in job prospects than polygamy.
“They can live how they want,” she said. She felt the same afterward.
Fisher collected a half-inch-thick stack of job applications at the meeting. In between handshakes, Fischer said he thought he succeeded in allaying some fears and prejudices.
But some Lockney residents remained put off by Fischer’s lifestyle, unsettled by his responses and simply confused.
“I’m very concerned from the religious aspect of this,” said Vance Mitchell, co-pastor of the Assembly of God church in Floydada.
Others were disturbed that Fischer had been pushed to explain his beliefs and lifestyle.
“We live in America,” said Brenda Pool of Floydada.
A few set aside differences in faith to welcome Fischer and his family.
Lockney residents, Gilroy figures, will live up to the reputation that so impressed Fischer in the first place.
“They won’t be happy but they’ll adapt,” Gilroy said. “They know it’s a done deal, it’s sold, he’s bought it, and they’ll be kind to him and his family.”
Salt Lake Tribune Blog on Polygamy: The Polygamy Files
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