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Once zealously controlled by a religious sect, a small town tries to rehab its image — with beer

Once zealously controlled by a religious sect, a small town tries to rehab its image — with beer
Locals enjoy a craft beer at the Edge of the World Brewery and Pub in Colorado City, a town once largely hidden from view when it was controlled by a religious cult leader. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

The religious leader predicted many an apocalypse in his time as the head of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. There was supposed to be one in 2005. Then it was delayed until 2012. Scratch that; 2016.

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Each time, the destruction was to be the same. Earthquakes. Fire. Swift and dramatic — in the later years springing Warren Jeffs from prison and returning him to Colorado City, where his breakaway polygamist flock awaited.

But Jeffs, convicted in 2011 of sexually assaulting two child brides, is still behind bars, serving a life sentence. And a different kind of apocalypse is slowly descending on the town, fueled by hops, barley and grains.

Edge of the World Brewery and Pub opened in March on Center Street — a development unthinkable even a year ago. Last month, a vape shop opened across the street from the town hall.

In November, there will be four seats open on the seven-member Colorado City Town Council. Of the 11 candidates running, none is FLDS, assuring the sect no longer will hold a majority.

Unprecedented change is coming to Colorado City, and one need not be a prophet to see evidence of it taking hold.

None of this pleases Joseph Allred, a member of the current council and an FLDS member who is not up for reelection.

“When you bring in a lot of things America likes — particularly the vices like alcohol and tobacco and that sort of thing — you lose a lot of the enjoyments of the simple things,” he said. “I like the quiet of a small town. I like peace. I like no crime. I like neighbors helping neighbors. I think bringing a lot of those things in … makes a small town lose its values.”

A motorist drives down State Route 59 in Colorado City, Ariz., a town once ruled by Warren Jeffs, the leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
A motorist drives down State Route 59 in Colorado City, Ariz., a town once ruled by Warren Jeffs, the leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Freeman Barlow, who is running for one of the council seats, doesn’t see it that way at all.

A former member of the sect, he tells an all-too-familiar story about being exiled by Jeffs and having the leader turn Barlow’s own children against him. Under Jeffs, “apostates” were driven from the community through shunning. Barlow returned to town after Jeffs and his brother Lyle were locked up. Barlow left the FLDS church.

Colorado City, he said, is ready to rejoin the world and dump the values espoused in the Jeffs era.

“For us to even have what we have right now is amazing,” Barlow said. “I think we can do even more.”

But shaking the town from its past is proving to be a slow process.

Many roads through the town of about 5,000 remain unpaved after years of neglect. The gas station has pumps, but no fuel supply — it was cut off when Jeffs was running things. Many houses remain hidden behind tall walls built at Jeffs’ behest to keep residents from prying eyes. Other houses look half-finished, with exposed window frames staring vacantly across weedy fields. A pile of cargo trailers lies haphazardly along Highway 389 — a two-lane road that takes people west to St. George, Utah, and east to Lake Powell.

Hildale, Utah, the town across the creek and the Arizona border, has been moving faster at remaking itself after electing a majority non-FLDS city council earlier this year.

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Mayor Donia Jessop said the towns, which share services such as water and electricity, are known collectively as Short Creek. Because the sect still controls Colorado City, Jessop said, it’s been difficult to make changes.

“They’re not interested,” Jessop said while sipping on a light beer at the brewery on a late Friday afternoon.

She has been a force since winning election last year, immediately opening communication with the largest land owner in the Short Creek area, the United Effort Plan Trust, which is run by seven board members.

Homes constructed for members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that are half-built or abandoned dot the landscape of Colorado City, Ariz.
Homes constructed for members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that are half-built or abandoned dot the landscape of Colorado City, Ariz. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Together, the town and the trust began identifying homeowners who were far behind in paying property taxes and homes that had been abandoned.

Jeff Barlow, executive director of the trust, said that tax revenue would be critical to future funding of capital improvement projects in both towns. Jeff Barlow’s father is a cousin to Freeman Barlow. “There’s a lot of shared last names here,” Jeff Barlow said.

The trust was formed in the 1940s as a way for the towns to essentially share the land owned by the church, Jeff Barlow said. When Jeffs took over as head of the FLDS in 2002, he took control of the trust and asserted his power by kicking people out of houses he said they did not own.

Several former FLDS members sued the church in 2004, and Jeffs subsequently lost control of the trust. During their investigation, authorities uncovered abuses, scams and fraud that permeated the church — which at its height had about 10,000 followers.

Barlow said that the number of “apostates” returning are sizable and that most have settled in Hildale, given the secular nature of its city government. Getting cooperation from officials in Colorado City, where half the population is thought to still belong to the sect, has been impossible, he said.

But the trust has moved ahead where it can.

The main park in town gleams with bright green grass and new playground equipment. A train for children that circles the park is being fixed, and crews worked in the hot afternoon sun straightening and laying down the tracks for the Fourth of July celebration.

The Short Creek area sits in a canyon surrounded by dramatic red rock hills that offer hiking trails leading into Zion National Park. Last year, a glamping site opened at the base of several trails that provide views of the Virgin River. A bed-and-breakfast started doing business in the Hildale compound that had been constructed for Jeffs upon his “release” from prison.

But it’s the brewery that seems to be driving most of the talk about Short Creek’s future.

Freeman Barlow, left, a candidate for the town council of Colorado City, Ariz., meets with Donia Jessop, the mayor of nearby Hildale, Utah.
Freeman Barlow, left, a candidate for the town council of Colorado City, Ariz., meets with Donia Jessop, the mayor of nearby Hildale, Utah. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Gwen Darger, one of the owners of Edge of the World, said she knew it would be a statement to open a bar here. A Colorado City native, she had no business or brewing experience but believed the region was ripe for commerce.

She got Nick Dockstader, a local brewer, to begin making a stout, IPA and pale ale before Colorado City was able to deny the application to make and sell beer. Darger said they did an end run by going directly to the Arizona Department of Liquor Licenses and Control for approval. The state approved it in August.

“It was an avenue open to us, so we took it,” Darger said. “And to be fair, the city hasn’t given us any trouble.”

The brewery wasn’t sure what kind of crowds it would get. Darger said they started off by offering Arizona-based beers and gradually began to rotate in their own brews on tap. It’s still a small operation, though they would like to expand with outdoor patio seating and maybe even live music. The beers they’re brewing don’t even have names yet — though one early suggestion was Our Hefenly Father.

On a recent late afternoon, as the sun filtered through the brewery’s windows and trees cast long shadows on the brick facade, the place was full.

Keesa Aldrich, a bartender who has been at the brewery since the beginning, hustled between tables as people ate pizzas and pretzels while sipping beers. She moved from North Dakota with her 1-year-old daughter to be close to her ex-husband, a Colorado City native. She said she liked the small town and believed it would continue to grow.

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Sitting at the bar drinking a Mudshark Morning Buzz Stout, Derrick Holm looked around as large-screen televisions showed sports highlights.

Holm, 24, grew up in Colorado City under Jeffs. He said he’s sometimes bewildered by what is happening in the town that had been in the dark for so long.

“It’s still hard to believe,” he said. “The religion kept us from getting bigger and from socializing with each other. This has become a great place to finally meet people and just talk and hang out.”

He paused, both arms resting on the bar. Then he smiled. “It feels great.”

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