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Arizona Town’s Uneasy Marriage to Polygamy : Accepted Religious Tenet to Some Is an Oppressive Doctrine to Others

Times Staff Writer

Sixteen-year-old Meredith Jessop has a big decision on her mind--to leave the town where she grew up, or to stay. Going means rejecting a way of life that she has been told is the only sure route to heaven.

“Some of my friends have left already and I see they have a hard time out in the world,” Jessop said. The 10th-grader pondered these concerns as she was walking down a rural road on a recent Saturday morning.

If Jessop elects to leave this community of polygamists in the red-rock country near the Arizona-Utah border, she risks the wrath of her parents and ridicule from people she’ll meet on the outside who call her kind “polygs.”

If she stays--as she thinks she will--she’ll be given in marriage to a local man, a match over which she’ll have no say. Chances are she will not be her husband’s first wife, but will join a cadre of three or more wives and their children. Although she may take a job in the local uniform factory or general store, Jessop’s primary role will be to bear and to raise babies, submitting always to the rule of her husband.

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Mayor Dan Barlow said that Colorado City women and men choose the polygamous life freely, because they believe in the practice as a religious tenet.

But according to Ben Bistline, a self-described dissenter from Colorado City ways, “They (a handful of powerful patriarchs in town) try any way they can to brainwash and frighten teen-age girls into marrying before they turn 18.” As a result, Bistline said, an independent contractor with 15 children by his one wife, Annie, “There’s some pretty unhappy situations, some pretty sad situations.”

In two separate incidents, a 16-year-old girl and a 15-year-old boy recently ran away from polygamist homes, telling juvenile authorities at the Utah State Division of Family Life Services in nearby St. George that they felt oppressed by their parents’ religious ways.

Chuck Sullivan, protective service supervisor with the agency, said that although Colorado City leaders have told him the children are free to reject the polygamous life style, “The kids say they’re not (free to do so.)”

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Bistline said community leaders have a stake in indoctrinating young women into polygamy because the men exhibit status through the number of wives and children they accumulate. “There’s no religion in the bunch of them,” said Bistline, who said he does not object to polygamy as a life style. “It’s power and money (they’re after)--it’s that simple.”

Within Colorado City, there are several families and at least two religious factions that compete for power, according to Bistline.

Internal power wars are not the only causes of strife here. Meredith Jessop’s hometown has been in the news recently because of death threats thought to be made by a rival polygamist group. An unsigned letter received last month by Colorado City Marshal Sam Barlow (the mayor’s brother) said local polygamists should forsake their leader, 98-year-old Leroy Johnson, or “be destroyed by the sword of the Lord.”

Leo Evoniuk, self-proclaimed prophet of a Mexico-based polygamous clan, was originally suspected by law enforcement officials to be the source of the threat. The group had resorted to violence in the past--Evoniuk’s predecessor, Ervil LaBaron, was convicted of the murder of a rival polygamist leader, and was serving time in the Utah State Prison when he died in 1982.

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Evoniuk has denied responsibility for the letter, and sheriff’s roadblocks have been removed from Colorado City and its neighboring polygamous settlement, Hilldale, Utah. (The population of the two towns is about 3,000.)

Barlow, 54, said it is a testament to their dedication that the townspeople persist in their way of life, despite condemnation by people like Bistline, rejection by the Mormon church (which does not sanction polygamy), run-ins with the law (polygamy is illegal in most states, but practitioners are rarely prosecuted) and critical scrutiny by the public and the media.

“We’re confident in the thing we’re doing,” Barlow said. “When it comes to people’s personal lives and religious beliefs, we don’t care what people think of us.”

Colorado City is growing.

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The first thing a visitor notices is that nearly all the houses lining the red dirt roads are huge and rambling, with a homemade look. They seem to be in a perpetual state of being added-on to. The display of unfinished rooms and stacks of building materials piled outside the homes are evidence that the families within are growing at an explosive rate.

There’s one paved main street through the towns of Colorado City and Hilldale, which are divided by a river. Some of the local men work at one of two cabinet factories and a modular home plant in the area; a number of them make a living on construction jobs throughout southern Utah. Downtown Colorado City includes a gas station, cafeteria, post office and the Barco uniform plant, managed by Mayor Barlow, who also serves as fire chief. The hub of activity is the store, which stocks food and supplies in bulk for big families.

All day long, late-model sedans and pick-up trucks pull into the general store parking lot. Often, two or three wives share the marketing chores; and it’s not uncommon to see 10 or more children of similar ages along for the ride.

After the sprawling houses, the most striking thing about Colorado City is that there are children everywhere. On a warm Saturday, the yards were full of kids playing on stilts, swing-sets and trampolines. The wash lines were sagging under the weight of tiny jeans and skirts--one laundry line held at least 50 diapers.

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Although the men and boys dress like males elsewhere in the country, the clothing and hair styles of the women--except for their tennis shoes with Velcro closures--are a throwback to the ‘30s when the town was founded. Girls and women alike wear prairie-style dresses they make themselves from flowered material purchased at the general store. Some of the girls and women elect to wear slacks under their skirts for activities such as playing volleyball or digging asparagus.

No Makeup or Jewelry

Women wear their hair long, either in two braids or piled atop their heads and held with barrettes. They wear no makeup, earrings or other jewelry.

One of the few girls in town who dares to deviate from the dress standard is 17-year-old Diane Bistline, daughter of outspoken Ben Bistline. The Bistlines had to petition school officials so that Diane would be allowed to wear jeans to school. She also wears two earrings in one ear.

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“We have some students who are pretty anxious to prove their individuality,” commented Alvin Barlow, Dan Barlow’s brother and superintendent of the Colorado City School (which accommodates 1,250 children in grades one through 12). Alvin Barlow said the board has agreed to let students wear essentially anything their parents approve.

Mayor Barlow wears a beeper so that he can be paged to deal with civic affairs while he supervises the 70 women who work at the Barco factory, sewing nurses uniforms. (The sole male employee repairs the sewing machines.) Barlow also keeps in touch with town security forces via a walkie-talkie in his Buick sedan. Ruddy-faced, seemingly content and kindly, Barlow was wearing a tan sweater-vest over his shirt and tie on a recent afternoon.

‘I Don’t Feel Backward’

“My dad had three wives,” Barlow said. “Mom, Dad and all of them are dead now. I didn’t feel one bit backward about the way I lived. The kids from monogamous families were the ones that were funny to me.

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“How can it do anything but strengthen a home if you have two mothers?” he asked. Barlow said that some children refer to their plural mothers by the title “mother”; others address their fathers’ various wives as aunts. Barlow said his father had 32 children, most of whom live in Colorado City or Hilldale.

Although one source in town said Barlow has five wives and somewhere around 60 children, Barlow refused to discuss his family. His brother, Alvin Barlow, bristled when asked how many children he had, saying, “That’s a personal question.”

Dan Barlow remembers the last great raid by local sheriff’s deputies on Colorado City polygamists in the early ‘50s. Since then, except for isolated challenges, they’ve generally been left alone by law enforcement authorities, he said. “In this day of adult consent, it’d be the height of foolishness to break up a man’s family (by prosecuting him for polygamy). If the law ever went to the Supreme Court, it’d go down like a ton of lead.”

Sullivan, of the Utah State Division of Family Services, said there are several problems raised by the prosecution of polygamists. For one thing, there may be more practicing polygamists scattered throughout Utah and Arizona than live in Colorado City and Hilldale. “I don’t know how you’d start to gather them all up,” Sullivan said.

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If the states took a stand against polygamists by arresting the male heads of households, they’d be faced with the dilemma of what to do with the hundreds of women and children who would then be without providers, he added.

Matter of Dispute

Dan Barlow said that plural marriage was introduced as a plan of God in the mid-1800s by the founder of the Mormon faith, Joseph Smith. Whether or not there is a religious basis for polygamy has long been a matter of dispute among Mormons. According to one recent historical account, Smith had an “unconventional view of marriage,” and practiced adultery despite the objection of his peers and his wife, Emma.

Joseph Smith apparently told Emma that he had received a revelation that God sanctioned plural marriage. One account said that Emma never believed this claim. To show her distaste for the concept of plural marriage, she burned a written copy of the revelation in the fireplace.

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In 1890, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints rejected polygamy because the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled it illegal. “But there was a group of men--our fathers--who wouldn’t compromise on it,” Dan Barlow said. “Our fathers felt it was a religious issue.”

Believers in polygamy were excommunicated from the church. A group of polygamists led by Leroy Johnson found sanctuary in Colorado City, then called Short Creek. They arrived in the midst of the Depression. Johnson and Barlow’s father were among those who put their holdings into a common trust, called the United Effort Plan Trust. To this day, all the land in Colorado City is held in this trust.

When a young man wishes to marry, he asks the trustees for a lot, according to Barlow. If the request is granted, the man is free to build whatever he wants on the property, but he never assumes title to the land.

The policy seems to work for those families who stay in town. But it plagues those who’d prefer to leave. Bistline, for instance, said that his family is harassed so much for being different that he’d like to move someplace else. “We’d pick up and move if they’d pay us for our home. But for someone with as big a family as I have to abandon the house and go somewhere else is nearly impossible.”

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Bistline’s parents moved to Colorado City in 1945 to be near others who shared their religious outlook. Although they were believers in polygamy, they never practiced it, said Bistline, 51. When they joined the community, Bistline’s parents turned the assets from their house, barn and 10 acres of land in northern Utah over to the United Effort Plan Trust of Colorado City.

‘No Concept of Investments’

“The (town) leaders were poor managers, money-wise, with no concept of investments,” Bistline said. His father and several other men led a protest, complaining that money was being squandered by the town fathers. Bistline’s father died in 1949, ostracized by the community, with the money matter unresolved.

Ben Bistline was 15 at the time. His mother became the fourth wife of a man in town. Ben Bistline later married a woman he lived with for several years as a foster sibling in that home.

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Because he was known to share his father’s negative views of town management, Bistline said, “I never was accepted to the point where I was granted a second wife. It’s a political thing. Wives are given as rewards (to men who are in favor with community leaders).”

Bistline said he has raised his own children, nine of whom still live at home, to pursue their own beliefs about how to live. Only one of his children--a girl who is the first wife of a Barlow man in town--has chosen polygamy.

“The boys in this town are lucky if they get anybody (a wife),” Bistline said. “If Leroy Johnson has 17 wives, that means there’s 16 boys not going to get a wife. If they’re the least bit rebellious, boys are driven from the town. My own boys don’t have a hope of getting a wife here.”

Bistline’s nephew, 35-year-old Kerry Bistline, said in a telephone interview that a member of a prominent Colorado City family routinely tried to force him and other young single men to leave by hounding them for alleged illegal activities, urging them to join the military, and even jailing them on false charges. (Dan Barlow would not respond to a question about what becomes of young men who remain single.)

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Now married and living in Kanab, Utah, where he works as a log cutter, Kerry Bistline said: “I left because I decided I didn’t want nothing to do with it. I tried to believe it (polygamous principles) for a lot of years. It’s an unfair system.”

Bistline moved away from Colorado City 10 years ago, but he said when he thinks about his treatment as a young man there, “I still get mad. It really upsets me.”


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