A Remarkable Visit to the Yearning for Zion Ranch

By Craig L. Foster, Newel G. Bringhurst, and Brian Hales

In April of 2017 Brian C. Hales participated in a polygamy trial in Cranbrook, Canada. His testimony was not for or against plural marriage or the defendants, but only to provide the judge with historical background. While there, he met a Texas Ranger who had been intimately involved in the 2008 raid of the Yearning for Zion Ranch of the FLDS Church located about four miles outside of El Dorado, in the center of Schleicher County, located in the hill country of west central Texas. The Ranger invited Brian to the ranch if he were ever in the neighborhood. Craig L. Foster and Newell G. Bringhurst, who had both written extensively on the FLDS, were anxious to join him on October 28, 2017. Following is their account of this remarkable visit to the ranch.

We arrived in Eldorado, Texas, the closest town to the ranch, and met up with our Ranger guide who then drove us to the outer gate of the ranch. Yearning for Zion Ranch, with boundaries approximately one mile by two miles, was acquired by Davis S. Allred in 2003. At the time of purchase, Allred represented the YFZ Land LLC and claimed he would be building a business retreat. Within a short time, the outside world realized Allred had been the front man to an FLDS purchase and that there were going to be more than business executives and wealthy game hunters residing at the ranch.

Observers have wondered if this area was selected for the ranch partly because of its distance from large cities. San Angelo, the closest large city to the ranch, is forty-five miles north. San Antonio is two hundred miles to the southeast while Dallas is three hundred miles to the north east. The Ranger agreed stating that Texas land is cheap, they have limited government and their building codes tend to not be as strict so the FLDS were left to build pretty much they wanted. Existing documents also seem to confirm the assumption the FLDS were hoping they and their activities would go unnoticed. Jeffs stated, "We need to keep this particular property so private and sacred and secret that not even the faithful who are driven will know of this place, because this is where the sacred records are. The wicked, in their mind, feel like if they could destroy the records or get them turn over to the authorities, they could destroy us. ... The devil knows where we are, but through our faith the wicked and the righteous can be blinded and not find this place.''

At the gate, the Ranger pointed to places where warrants had been taped to the bars—the adhesive residue still being present. He explained how the FLDS leaders on the ranch would ignore the warrants, leaving them hanging there for months. Given Warren Jeffs’ orders to his adherents to ignore legal orders and warrants, it’s not surprising the taped documents were left hanging on the gate as if they didn’t exist.

After driving down a mile-long road, we encountered a second gate that opened into the compound. A guard tower stood conspicuously ahead. Once inside the ranch we continued down to the main buildings. While doing so, our Ranger guide pointed out the grain silos and a tall tower and platform on them. He said when the authorities arrived at the ranch, they saw a couple of men high up on the platform and worried if they had high-powered rifles this could be bad for them. Happily, throughout the whole raid and its aftermath, the FLDS were completely peaceful, if not always cooperative.

From a higher promontory the entire complex can be viewed. The temple loomed over the grounds being visible from all quarters. Our guide explained that the grid of the YFZ community is laid out like Salt Lake City with the temple at the center and all streets radiating out from there.

Within the boundaries of the ranch, members of the FLDS discovered an area of limestone sufficiently hard to be used in construction. Evidence of other nearby excavations that uncovered softer rock unsuitable for building exist. Rough-hewn limestones are used throughout for terracing and landscaping. Other limestone blocks were finely finished and used on the temple exterior, as well as the unfinished amphitheater.

Besides the temple, the most fascinating structure is an amphitheater that could hold perhaps 5000 people. Surrounded by a fence, an inner-outer court yard is formed with the amphitheater itself at the center.

The stage portion of the amphitheater is curiously constructed, with no obvious changing areas or set production spaces allocated to the left or the right. It would appear that plays and concerts were not anticipated. Apparently, Jeffs ordered the construction of this amphitheater for the leaders of the world to gather to recognize him as the Lord’s anointed and to hear him preach. The heavy duty overhead supports are consistent with rumors that a larger-than-life stone statue of Warren Jeffs was destined to be positioned above for all to see.

Multiple log structures were already showing the wear of the Texas climate. The logs were said to have come from the FLDS community up in Bountiful, British Columbia and no doubt the dry heat have weathered these logs. The log structures were dwellings for plural families, perhaps several in one house. Most entrances displayed signs “ZION” above the doors, similar to the houses of the faithful in Hildale and Colorado City, known locally as Short Creek.

Our next stop was Warren Jeffs' home--one that he had lived in while in ranch prior to his imprisonment.

The office and entrance of Jeffs’ older home were unimpressive. The house was filled with bedrooms and two kitchens. Around forty-five of Jeffs’ estimated eighty-plus wives lived in the house.

In the opposite corner of Jeffs’ office we discovered a sub-apartment area with his spacious bedroom. Within its confines was a narrow stairway providing either a quick escape option or clandestine access by persons entering the house by a relatively unknown back door on the lower level.

Jeffs newer quarters was built in response to a challenge he issued from prison. He promised in the name of the Lord that if the house was completed within a specific time, he would be miraculously freed from jail and would be able to return and live in the new home. This was similar to what he promised Short Creek residents, that if they finished a three-home walled complex in Hildale before New Year’s day 2012, he would be miraculously be freed from prison and would be able to return and live there. A former FLDS member in Short Creek told how the men on the complex there worked around the clock to the point of exhaustion in order to finish the houses by the assigned date. Jeffs, however, came up with an excuse to why the prison walls had not come crumbling down and, of course, it had been the members’ fault.

This three level structure had perhaps 50 bedrooms, each with a bathroom and closet apparently designed for plural wives. In one corner of the H-shaped structure were two levels partitioned as a sort of apartment. There were six rooms for plural spouses besides a much larger bedroom.

Behind a set of shelves in the adjoining closet was a hidden safe.

Around the corner from this master bedroom was a special room with mood lighting and a dome ceiling. A raised area in the center and Jeffs’ documented behaviors spawned speculations it was a special room for consummating marriages and holding celestial comfort sessions with his "heavenly comfort wives."

We visited other houses and noticed another hidden room.

We visited the schoolroom where Texas authorities first set up to conduct interviews and take DNA samples. Our Ranger escort commented that he did not have pleasant memories of the school. When asked why they had selected the school he explained they had been directed there by FLDS leaders so they really had no choice. Part of the unpleasant memories was how uncooperative ranch residents tried to move underaged brides and other children from one house to another as they were being searched. The young wives often tried to mislead officers about themselves and officers felt overwhelmed by the number of people they had to deal with. They had entered the ranch assuming there were about 400 people and eventually found out there were around 1,200. Almost the number of residents in nearby El Dorado.

In the school building and in homes we found evidences of constant teaching. The headboard of the bed of one of Jeffs’ wives has a variation of the phrase both Rulon Jeffs and his son, Warren, often used, “keep sweet.” The headboard encouraged this wife to “keep sweeter and sweeter.” There were also other words of encouragement and reminder.

The temple annex located to the right of the temple in the photo below was more of an office building with offices on the second floor.

Just a week before the April 2008 raid by Texas law enforcement, hundreds of boxes containing marriage records had been transferred, possibly from Colorado City, Arizona, to be stored in a secure vault of the Temple Annex.

Due to time constraints (from the three-day expiration of the search warrant), instead of breaking into the safe, they tunneled through the wall seen behind the Ranger.

Also there were a couple of levels of the annex dedicated for use as a printing establishment for FLDS books and other publications. The Ranger explained that, tellingly, as they entered the temple annex, they found men shredding documents and others did their best to hide documents but did a poor job of it and ended up only calling attention to themselves and their efforts to hide documents.

During the tour on October 28, 2017, we had the opportunity for an in-depth visit to the FLDS Temple. Of all the structures on the Yearning for Zion ranch, none was more striking than the temple.

Like the Salt Lake LDS temple, the clasping hands motif is engraved on the exterior of the FLDS temple.

The interiors of LDS temples are known to non-members who tour the facilities prior to dedication or who view official photographs released by the LDS Church. Furthermore, the FLDS undoubtedly consider this building no longer suitable for their ritual observances. While having the utmost respect toward FLDS beliefs in religious space, but in the interest of documenting a fuller history of the FLDS involvement at the Yearning for Zion ranch, a few photos of the temple interior are shown below.

The basement contains a baptismal font that was intended for sacred ordinances for both the dead and living, but may have also been used by Warren Jeffs for less than sacred purposes.

The first floor has rooms with cabinets and drawers, perhaps an area for changing clothes and storing things?

The outer corridors on both ends of the first floor are equipped with several sinks apparently for handwashing. There are no bathrooms in the temple.

The central area of the first floor opens into an assembly hall with pulpits at both ends.

Possibly styled after the Kirtland Temple, a smaller rostrum with multiple levels and pulpits lies at one end.

At the other end is a grander multi-level podium.

The highest level is equipped with a slide-in-place curtain, again reminiscent of Kirtland.

The stairway and décor were lavish considering the outside desolation. With the exception of white carpet see in a couple of special locations, blue was the only color of carpet seen throughout the complex in every house, building, and room that had carpet installed.

A single raised bench immediately after ascending to the second floor left us wondering why it was designed and placed where it was. Not knowing for sure, it was suggested the raised bench and steps might have been used for ritual washing feet before entering further into the temple.

Four large rooms comprised the bulk of the second floor. Two were unadorned.

A few stairs upward lead to a room with wall murals reminiscent of some LDS temples. There were paintings of what appears to be either a setting from Eden or the millennium. Someone had covered the murals, which had been subsequently uncovered.

Through the door and down a few short steps is another room with murals, this time depicting the lone and dreary world where a cougar chases an antelope and lions are fighting each other.

A white spiral staircase ascended to the third floor adorned only in white.

The primary room of the third floor is impressively spacious and no doubt was used as the Celestial Room. The round ceiling elements are skylights that can be opened electronically. The doors at the end lead into three smaller rooms.

A room off to the other end contains a fold up bed. It was not, however, the infamous bed in which Jeffs consummated his marriage with underaged girls. That bed was built to specifications given by revelation from Warren Jeffs to his followers who followed the specifications exactly. The altar-bed was constructed of oak and painted white. Among the instructions Jeffs provided, was "The bed will be a size big enough for me to lay on. ... It will be covered with a sheet, but it will have a plastic cover to protect the mattress from what will happen on it." At the time of the 2008 raid, Texas authorities found the bed, still set up at one end of the large white room. The bed was removed as evidence and is no longer in the temple.

During the tour, we were able to climb up to the tower turret and view the surroundings.

Looking north to the promontory, there is a large fenced field that was to serve as a cemetery. Currently three bodies are buried there and reportedly hamper the ability of the state of Texas to sell the property. While the cemetery represents an opportunity for the FLDS to create difficulties for the state of Texas, it is likely that their respect for their deceased loved ones would make them want to grant a reinternment to a location closer to their current families.

This was an incredible experience for which all three of us are greatly indebted to a kind and dutiful Texas Ranger for taking his valuable time and sharing his knowledge. Numerous photos were taken and notes written as both Brian and Newell continue to be interested in aspects of modern plural marriage and Craig and his co-author, Marianne T. Watson, are currently working on a book-length historical overview of Fundamentalist Mormonism.

All three walked away from this visit with both respect for what was accomplished at the Yearning for Zion Ranch and sadness for what happened there. The ranch represents a remarkable effort from a small group of apparently sincere and hardworking individuals. Those adherents accomplished amazing things in a short time and under difficult conditions as they followed one of the darkest leaders who claimed to be connected with the restoration (Proverbs 29:2).


For more information regarding Rulon and Warren Jeffs, the FLDS and the beginnings of Mormon Fundamentalism, see Newell G. Bringhurst and Craig L. Foster, eds., The Persistence of Polygamy: Fundamentalist Mormon Polygamy from 1890 to the Present (Independence, Missouri: John Whitmer Books, 2015).

For more information on the origins and practice of Mormon plural marriage, see Brian C. Hales, Joseph Smith’s Polygamy (Salt Lake City, Utah: Greg Kofford Books, 2013) and Brian C. Hales and Laura H. Hales, Joseph Smith’s Polygamy: Toward a Better Understanding (Salt Lake City, Utah: Greg Kofford Books, 2015), as well as Newell G. Bringhurst and Craig L. Foster, eds., The Persistence of Polygamy: Joseph Smith and the Origins of Mormon Polygamy (Independence, Missouri: John Whitmer Books, 2010) and The Persistence of Polygamy: From Joseph Smith’s Martyrdom to the First Manifesto, 1844-1890 (Independence, Missouri: John Whitmer Books, 2013).


See also:

Lindsay Whitehurst, “Warren Jeffs gets life in prison for sex with underage girls,” The Salt Lake Tribune, http://archive.sltrib.com/article.php?id=52354441&itype=CMSID, accessed November 2, 2017.

Karisa King, “Polygamist diary describes secret bed used for sex assaults,” MySA, March 4, 2016, http://www.mysanantonio.com/news/local_news/article/Polygamist-diary-describes-secret-bed-used-for-4078569.php, accessed November 2, 2017.

Craig L. Foster, “Plural Wives of the Mormon Fundamentalist Leaders,” in Newell G. Bringhurst and Craig L. Foster, eds., The Persistence of Polygamy: Fundamentalist Mormon Polygamy from 1890 to the present (Independence, Missouri: John Whitmer Books, 2015), 501-502. While approximately eighty-four wives are identified, it has been estimated that Jeffs may have had over one hundred wives.

Craig L. Foster, “Proclamations and Prophecies from a Prison Cell: How Warren Jeffs Continues to Control the FLDS,” 2015 Annual Utah State History Conference, copy in authors’ possession.

Lindsay Whitehurst And Nate Carlisle, “Jeffs tells girls to cooperate with sister wives, including in sex, tape reveals,” The Salt Lake Tribune, August 3, 2011, http://archive.sltrib.com/article.php?id=52310537&itype=CMSID, accessed October 30, 2017.

"Corporate retreat or Prophet's refuge,” The Eldorado Success, March 25, 2004, https://web.archive.org/web/20050707083014/http://www.myeldorado.net/YFZ%20Pages/YFZ032504b.html, accessed October 30, 2017.

Karisa King, “Polygamist diary describes secret bed used for sex assaults,” MySA, March 4, 2016, http://www.mysanantonio.com/news/local_news/article/Polygamist-diary-describes-secret-bed-used-for-4078569.php, accessed November 2, 2017.