The Juanita Brooks Lecture Series

From Isolation to Destination: The History of Washington County

by Karl Brooks and Douglas D. Alder

St. George Tabernacle
4 October, 1996

Val Browning Library
Dixie College
St. George, Utah
with support from the Obert C. Tanner Foundation



About Juanita Brooks

Juanita Brooks was a professor at Dixie College for many years and became a well-known author.

She is recognized, by scholarly consent, to be one of Utah’s and Mormondom’s most eminent historians. Her total honesty, unwavering courage, and perceptive interpretation of fact set more stringent standards of scholarship for her fellow historians to emulate. Dr. Obert C. and Grace Tanner had been life-long friends of Mrs. Brooks and it was their wish to perpetuate her name through this lecture series. Dixie State College and the Brooks family express their thanks to Dr. and Mrs. Tanner.


Dixie Pioneer Heritage

by Karl Brooks

My mother once told me that writing ahistory is like dropping a bucket into a large, full well, lifting the bucketout and dipping a cup full out of the bucket and then taking one sip out of the cup. That is what we have done, to take the small sip in writing this book.

I’m certain some people will be offended by the book because we haven’t given, in their opinion, sufficient emphasis to their family, or this or that particular facet of county history. Our response will be that we left that part for you to do, so get after it.

The early history has been written so many times, researched so carefully and provided great looks into those days, that we felt it unnecessary to repeat it, rather review it, update it, reinterpret it, focus a little more on later years and take a cautious look into the future.

As I said earlier, my topic will be on our rich pioneer heritage and Doug will look to the future.

I once heard a story of a Swiss colony which may have included some of my own ancestors that were converted to the gospel in Switzerland about the time St. George was founded in 1861. Many in that Swiss company came directly to the valleys of Washington County after only a brief stop in Salt Lake City for further directions. According to the story, a small group of these pioneers gathered on a hillside overlooking the lush greenery of their Swiss valley. There they stood and sang as a farewell the favorite missionary hymn, “Elders of Israel.” I can imagine that they sang with conviction when they came to the chorus, “Oh Babylon, oh Babylon, we bid thee farewell. We’re going to the mountains of Ephraim to dwell.” I can also imagine the irony they might have felt not many months later, standing on another hillside, overlooking these valleys of sagebrush, sand and rock. In terms of their struggle with the elements, they had good reason to believe, that rather than leaving Babylon, they had found it—more fully than any of them might have imagined. Even Salt Lake City, which was called a desert, must have seemed something like the Garden of Eden by comparison. At least up there they had a little water for irrigation and the soil held at least grudging promise of fertility. But here they were and here they stayed, each to find out in his own way (as each of us must in our own way) what Eliza R. Snow had meant when she wrote, “Think not when you gather to Zion, your troubles and trials are through, that nothing but comfort and pleasure are waiting in Zion for you. No, no, ’tis designed as a furnace, all texture to try, to burn all the wood, hay and stubble, the gold from the dross purify.”

From that furnace certainly came some of the purest gold of the kingdom.

The legacy we have received from those platinum pioneers includes so many things it is difficult to list them. Some are physical, such as Temple, Tabernacle, Cotton Mill, Opera House. Others are in our attitude such as courage, obedient, resourceful, honest, industry, love, commitment, education, cooperative, conservation, give toward common goal, volunteer, faith, sacrifice. Still others include dedication to their leaders, to their church and to their government.

Brigham Young had great latitude in making decisions, even marginal ones, because of the commitment of the people to do what they were asked to do. The feeling of sacrifice for community is reflected by the early people’s willingness to bond or subscribe to see that all projects would work. Tabernacle, Temple, Courthouse, Cotton Mill, Opera House. Bond elections for schools, water projects, power projects or Dixie Center-type projects still pass with regularity.

The Sesquicentennial next year in 1997 will and should be a different celebration than the Centennial we are now celebrating. The Centennial is 100 years of statehood and should have less mention of the church than the Sesquicentennial, which is 150 years of the L.D.S. church in Utah. So at the end of the 100 years of statehood we take stock of the success Utah has had during that time and at the same time review the 150 years of the Mormon people in Utah and recount some of the trials and successes of the Mormon church and its people. We tell stories of courage and faith and fortitude, of success in the face of seemingly insurmountable difficulties. Nor do we lack for material. Such stories are plentiful, but we need to show these people realistically as tough frontiersmen, sometimes disagreeing among themselves, quarreling on occasion, swearing under provocation, drinking a little once in a while, loyal to each other but cheating gentiles with impunity. We try to paint pink and white portraits of our leaders and smooth out all character wrinkles, and put powder and rouge on their leathered, weather-beaten faces.

We sometimes magnify their virtues and blot out their faults until they appear as luminous subdieties. We don’t want to admit that some of them chewed tobacco and used snuff, or that a group of local leaders spent a pleasant evening over a keg of wine. In our ignorance of the magnitude of the problems they were up against, we let these things take on too much importance. We want to fit these people into our ideas of what they should have been.

For example, we modern Utahns unacquainted with the frontier ourselves and eager to attract tourists, now emphasize the beauty of our state, its vivid coloring and wild sublimity. All of which is true to people in comfortable lodging and automobiles on surfaced roads. But to those worrying along through brush and sand, behind a team of plodding oxen, there was less of beauty and more of threat. And to eyes accustomed to the lush green of England or the wooded beauty of the Alps, this sterile sand and fantastically eroded cliffs held little charm. Translating this landscape into a permanent home is one thing, and admiring it for an hour in the glow of a brilliant sunset is quite another. The design on the back of a rattlesnake is beautiful; in color and pattern. The back of a Gila monster is a thing of art. But to a barefoot girl startled by the rattle, or to a boy, putting his hand on the precarious edge of a cliff to encounter the beaded softness of a Gila monster, there is no thought of beauty. A coyote moving in long, undulating leaps through the sage is beautiful, but he ravages the sheep herd, and his wail fills the night with loneliness and fear.

What I’m trying to say is that we talk of our forbearers with no background against which to evaluate them. They were faced with a realty of which we know nothing. They were good men, true. But they were hard men. They had to be. Some were selfish and grasping, some were mean. Most of them were God-fearing and full of faith, but they had been called to conquer an unconquerable land, to make a garden where it seemed that God had never intended a garden to be made. On their knees, yes, but only after they had given full strength to the struggle. Asking God for help, but not waiting for it in their desperate need to survive. Set down in this new environment, they must try one thing, and, failing, try something else.

What can we know about their problems? We can hardly imagine them. Most of us have never tried scooping out gourds for cups, or leavening bread with the white crust of alkali that seeps up from the ground. We know nothing of tanning leather, so we would not think of using the acid of the sour dock root of the desert. We don’t think of them saving the family urine to set the blue of their home raised indigo, or manufacturing their own castor oil and getting a product so potent that the cure was worse than the ailment.

“Sister E. N. Groves showed us a piece of cloth, the warp being cotton grown at the Santa Clara and the filling being the bark of a species of milkweed, the fibre being long, and almost as strong as silk,” so wrote James Martineau in his report to the Deseret News in September 1857. What could be more eloquent of their experiments?

Resourceful and persistent, they always put a brave front to the world, a regular Chamber of Commerce magnifying their accomplishments and soft-peddling failure. They were about to achieve great things. They might be having a hard time right now, but the dawn of better times was brighter on the horizon.

I have always been intrigued by this entry of September 7, 1860, in the Deseret News:

The Washington County Agricultural and Manufacturing Society held its first exhibition at Washington, the county seat. A splendid collection of fruits and other products were brought in. Among other things a cotton stock containing 307 bolls and forms and a sunflower which measured 3 feet in circumference. The ladies department also represented a very credible appearance.

A prospective settler in the north or an eager saint in England could not help but be impressed with that account. Land that could produce cotton and sunflowers like that must be fertile indeed, and an “Agricultural and Manufacturing Society” sounded alert and progressive. How could he know that in all the county there were but 79 families, widely scattered in eight tiny communities. The county seat had only 67 inhabitants “of whom only 18 or 19 intend to remain.” Why? Because the alkali spoiled so much of their crop and because the entire group were suffering from chills and fever.

“We went on to Washington,” wrote Robert Gardner the next year. “Here we found some of our old neighbors who received us very kindly... The appearance of these brethren and their wives and children was rather discouraging. Nearly all of them had fever and ague or chills as they are called. They had worked hard in this country and worn out their cotton they had raised on their own farms. Their women had carded, spun and woven by hand and colored with weeds this cotton. The men’s shirts, the women and children’s dresses and sunbonnets mere all made of the same piece of cloth. Their clothes and their faces were all the same color, being blue with chills. This tried me harder than anything I had seen in all my Mormon experience. To think my wife and children mould all have to look as sickly as those surrounding me.”

Yet the report for public consumption had no word of this condition, no mention of the loss of crops by grasshoppers, never mention of the water shortage on the Santa Clara. It spoke of agriculture, without a suggestion that there were but a few irrigated acres in all the boundless expanse of desert, while their manufacturing would consist of handmade straw hats, moccasins, and cotton cloth. Putting on a brave front was good for their morale in the midst of difficulties. They had to encourage and sustain each other.

There were mistakes made, but to really appreciate what they accomplished we must know some of the things at which they failed.

Of course there were mistakes, tragic, heartbreaking mistakes. Let me briefly mention a few, like the attempt to manufacture iron in southern Utah. In the beginning it had great promise, but the odds were insurmountable. Within five years the project was abandoned. The mission to mine lead near Vegas was attended by as much hardship while it lasted, but it did not last as long or involve as many people. The establishing of Callsville on the Colorado to provide river access to the Pacific was another total loss. The large warehouse with its thick walls was still standing, a monument to mistaken judgment, until it was swallowed in the rising waters of Lake Mead. We might go on listing numerous trials and errors—undertakings that profited nothing either spiritual or material, to anyone. To admit this is certainly no slander on the leaders; it is only admitting their human fallibility and the magnitude of their task.

Some religious practices were also changed. The practice of polygamy was stopped, but on March 8, 1876, James G. Bleak, historian of the local mission, reported the census of St. George as follows:

Polygamists ---------- 69
Monogamists --------- 102
Doubtful -------------- 1
Total                 172

I don’t fully understand the interesting implications of that word “doubtful.”

Other experiments are intriguing also. Consider the Law of Consecration, a burning question of the ’50s that died of natural causes in the ’60s. The United Order in 1874 was in a number of towns in which everyone worked together for the common good, sharing equally in the profits. One story of the workings of the United Order is told of a lanky, fast-growing boy who had outgrown his pants. Sensitive about his appearance, he worked after hours stripping the bits of wool from the docked tails of the sheep. He continued to get it washed, carded, spun, dyed, woven and finally made into pants, without neglecting his assigned duties. When he appeared at the dance in this gorgeous habiliment, proud that the eight inches of his legs were covered, he was called in and reprimanded for false pride and covetousness that should make him want to have a new pair when others had none. He must turn the beloved trousers in to the Order, to be worn in turn by other youths who were also troubled by too long legs. Except in Orderville, the experiment was short-lived, rarely surviving the second year. So it was abandoned “until people could become unselfish enough to live it.”

Some may ask, “Why talk about these failed experiments and practices?” True, any society is entitled to be judged by its successes rather than failures, and yet the full background may help us better appreciate our pioneer heritage.

Grant that they made mistakes, smile at their search for the ideal society, admit their failures, discount them all you can for their provincialism and self righteousness, and you still have a residue of achievement worthy of our respect and emulation. We have plenty of which to be proud, a rich heritage and legacy for which we should be thankful as we celebrate our Sesquicentennial. To compare the Utah pioneer communities with those in neighboring states makes this more evident.

Take for example St. George, not because it is different, but because it is so typical. Here a choir was organized, a debating society active, a school established in a wagon box before there was a home in the valley. An election was held and a mayor and council were duly sworn into office; significantly, the mayor was not the ecclesiastical leader. While they were still living in their wagons waiting for the city survey to be finished and blocks and lots numbered so they could draw their numbers from a hat and find the location of their future home, they set up a lyceum course in their large sibley tent. The first lecture was on English grammar! Imagine men who had Gee’d and Haw’d at oxen all day and women who managed a camping-out household in December, sitting on the ground in a candle-lit tent to listen to a lecture on the better use of the English language. Could anything be more eloquent of their general character? There was a concert presented in a willow bowery, and a theatrical production in the same shelter on an improvised stage with blankets for curtains, so eager were they for cultural entertainment.

In Utah has been demonstrated the vitality of the American Way of Life, a demonstration of our motto “E Pluribus Unum,” out of many, one or from differences unity. Here many nationalities blended and fused. A Swiss colony from the verdant slopes of their homeland to the flaming southern Utah desert, Dane and Swede and Welch and English along with converts from all parts of the United States were bound together by their common religion, and in one generation had erased their racial and cultural differences to become Utahns first, and later, Americans. Each group brought its own peculiar customs and folklore and more to combine in the new environment, Joseph Orton, a shoemaker who had never seen beyond the fog of London, was called to St. George. He was so poorly adapted to frontier life that he made the whole three weeks journey from Salt Lake without being able to distinguish his own oxen, but had to wait each morning until all the teamsters had yoked up theirs so he could take the two remaining. Yet he could sing in the choir, play the flute in the band, act the comedian in the theater, and give the lecture on English grammar. In the same way, people from many backgrounds and trades made their own contributions to the new community.

They used a practical approach to life. The creative solutions to problems, the improvising to make it work are all significant in our heritage. The story of Sam Platt losing his barrel of molasses in a flood is a good example. A flood had washed it downstream. Because it was so important to their winter food supply they walked downstream looking for it, finding it on a ranch in Littlefield. The ranchers who found it could also use it so asked for evidence that it really was their barrel. After a few moments thought, Mrs. Platt turned to her husband and said, “Sam Platt, untuck your shirt,” which he did, showing a square of fabric missing. Mrs. Platt took a small stone, loosened the cork in the lid and removed a piece of fabric from around the cork, used to keep it from leaking. It fit perfectly into the tail of the shirt, convincing the rancher it really was their barrel.

The floor in the Opera House is a great example of creativity. The people wanted a level floor for dancing but a tilted floor for dramatic productions. I have had an opportunity to crawl under the floor and see the engineering and it was an amazing piece of work.

The use of wine for sacrament taught them how to make good wine, which provided a cash crop when sold to the mining towns nearby.

The lack of hard money wasn’t a problem in charging admission for plays, dances, or other admission events. One play showed receipts of $46.50 of which $1.50 was cash. The rest was paid in produce, with other produce used as change.

The distribution of water throughout the town was the result of much survey work and engineering with fairly crude equipment but it all worked.

Cooperation between different levels of government is rather unique here. Close coordination between cities, county, state, schools, and churches, rare in most parts of the world, is a way of life here. Many cooperative agreements between these types of government all combine to benefit taxpayers in providing better facilities and services at reduced costs.

With the first 150 years since arrival, and the first 100 years as a state behind us, we see more clearly than ever that not in the past lies our destiny, except as it helps us to understand our present and look ahead more clearly. As we look ahead we see so much to challenge us: natural resources to be developed, water to be controlled and land reclaimed, better schools, libraries and hospitals. We must learn to live in peace with our plenty, to love more purely, to see more clearly. We must learn to better understand our environment. We still have plenty to do, and as our added ability for erasing space has increased, we must see our relationship to the national and world picture, and assume our responsibility in it, not to bring the national and world values to us, but to take our value to them.

The hope and prayer of all of us is to keep the same work ethic, same vision, commitment and drive of our ancestors; these attitudes of success combine to give us our pioneer legacy, and to pass it on to those who will follow.


The Future of Washington County

by Douglas D. Alder

We are gathered once again to honor the name of Juanita Brooks and in doing so to spend an hour considering our heritage and our commitment and our direction here in southern Utah. This lecture series was initiated in 1984 with the support of Obert C. Tanner to invite this community annually to revisit the important topic of Dixie history. An illustrious line of 14 historians have occupied this rostrum; Dr. Brooks and I are somewhat hesitant to add our names to that list but have chosen to do so in connection with the appearance of the volume of history which we were invited to write by the Washington County Commission. It is part of the Utah State Centennial series of histories of each county and is entitled The History of Washington County: From Isolation to Destination. It is making its debut today.

As in the past, we are gathered in this stately Tabernacle, which is, in my opinion, one of America’s finest structures. There is an interesting symbolism of our meeting here—a symbolism involving the old and new Dixie. This building represents the sacrifice and genius of the pioneers of the 1860s and ’70s, the old Dixie. Their commitment to central planning and their expert workmanship brought this building into fruition to be the center place from which the community is laid out. It remains the center in the new Dixie. The building also represents the imposition of European culture on the Mohave Desert. Its architectural design is a direct link to New England and thence to England. One time 1 proudly showed the building to a scholar from England and he responded, “O yes, this is the Methodist Church in Manchester.”

The building also represents a key social idea of Brigham Young’s. In 1862 Erastus Snow informed Brigham that the colony was having such difficulty with irrigation that it was entirely possible that the settlers would starve to death in the coming winter. The president reluctantly decided to subsidize the settlement, but he did not just send food and supplies. He instructed the saints to build this building and thereby earn the subsidies that would come. Not only did that create this building, it developed building skills in scores of men, trades that were then used to build several civic buildings including the Temple, the Cotton Factory, the Courthouse and many homes. Lumber mills and stone quarries and limestone ovens and freighting businesses spun off the building of this great structure.

We are sitting in the Tabernacle in 1996, not 1896. We are enjoying its superb restoration, which recently recreated the building’s original interior. It is the center piece of the historic restoration of downtown St. George, of the new Dixie. The whole historic district and even the “Historic St. George LIVE” re-enactment is a tilt to the new Dixie, the tourism Dixie, the retirement Dixie, the second-home Dixie. This restoration is part of a transformation of downtown St. George from the merchandising center it used to be before shopping malls and supermarkets drew business away from the old center. The new downtown has changed to a handsome center based on banking, professional offices, restaurants, shops and tourist sites. The Tabernacle has become a community culture center as well as an ecclesiastical building.

Another element of that symbolism of old and new is that we are sitting here in the comfort of air conditioning—perhaps one of the most important factors that has made Dixie a destination. That technology is only one of the outside forces that came from the larger American economy, enabling Dixie to become a destination. Air conditioning has attracted newcomers to flock to southern Utah to live and visit; probably the majority of the audience tonight represent those newcomers who have been welcomed here by the long-time residents. So we are here in the St. George Tabernacle to ponder the connectedness of the past with the present and this building represents that very connection. It is the gift to us from the past which we are now using to change Dixie from a place of isolation to a major American destination community.

Dr. Brooks has focused on the importance of the pioneer heritage for us today. I am going to stress the importance of the past on the future of Dixie. That is a dangerous venture; people have always longed to divine the future. That knowledge has attracted writers, speculators, soothsayers, fortune tellers and more recently, planners. These latter professionals need to look ahead to anticipate the need for roads, airports, schools, colleges, water systems and the like. A whole discipline of futurists has emerged that do economic forecasting, technology designing, even government goal setting. These planners undertake their studies by first identifying the important trends from the past. They turn to historians to identify those trends. Once the trends of the past are identified, then the futurists have to decide which of the trends will continue and at what trajectory, and which will cease. They then have to undertake the additional task of deciding if new forces will emerge that are not just an extension of the existing ones.

In the history Dr. Brooks and I have just completed we identify several trends in southern Utah in the past 150 years:

I. Advent of Agriculture.

The transformation from a hunting-gathering society to an agrarian one and then from an agricultural society to an urban community, thus pressing all stages of human history into two centuries right here in this county.

The advent of Anglo-Europeans in Washington County displaced much of the tribal dominance of the area with tightly-knit villages which used cooperative effort to impose a Mormon culture throughout the desert region of Dixie. Later some of those villages became cities; others remain near their original size.

II. Mormons Become Dominant.

A nearly monolithic Mormon culture was implanted in Dixie beside the Paiute people. The Mormons quickly became dominant and remained so until the mid-twentieth century. There was one decade of exception, the 1880s, when miners flocked to Silver Reef. That influx of diversity did not take permanent root as the miners left following the boom busted about 1890.So it was not until the 1950s that non-Mormon institutions began to flourish. The coming of the “new Dixie” in the 1980s and 1990s saw significant diversity which became permanent.

III. The Application of Water Engineering to the Desert.

The subsistence agriculture of the first fifty years was achieved through tremendous efforts in building small dams and canals and rebuilding them continually as floods and silting destroyed them. The early twentieth century saw major reservoirs, tunnels, and canals undertaken over extended periods to open new lands to farming. The last fifty years brought larger reservoirs, wells, pipelines and treatment plants to support cities and towns but still only three percent of the land is arable.

IV. The Gradual Change from Isolation to Destination.

For a century Dixie was relatively isolated, excluded from railroad connections and from major capital investment. The people saw that simple life style as a virtue. By the mid-twentieth century tourism, movie production, recreation installations, and second home/retirement housing complexes brought consumerism to the county. A new Dixie College campus attracted students from throughout the region. Finally the 1-15 freeway ended the isolation; it brought cars and trucks in vast numbers traveling the corridor from Salt Lake City and Denver to Las Vegas and Las Angeles.

V. The Increasing Americanization of Dixie.

Many outside influences had a transforming impact on Dixie—golf, supermarkets, shopping malls, industrial parks, a nationally-linked airline, franchising of businesses, access to communication links—radio, television, news syndicates, fiberoptics, computer networks, financial services and investment—all these and many more absorbed the county intimately into the nation.

VI. The Increase in Population.

There were likely less than a thousand Native Americans in the county when Mormon settlers arrived. About 750 whites had moved in by 1861 when a large company arrived, doubling that number. By 1870 the county reached about 3000. Then in 1880 a thousand miners arrived in Silver Reef and remained a decade. At the turn of the century natural increase and some immigration stabilized the county at around 5000. Gradual growth doubled that number in four decades but the count leveled until 1965. A rather dramatic upswing caused an increase to 13,669 by 1970. Major urbanization then occurred, doubling the population each decade thereafter—26,000 by 1980, 48,500 by 1990 and well over 60,000 by the statehood centennial of 1996. These last three decades saw St. George increase as a percentage of the county population—from 33 percent of the county in 1920 to 58 percent in 1990.

Predicting the Future

If these are some of the trends of the past, what will happen to them and to the county in the future? It is not difficult to suggest that the dominance of agriculture is over (with the exception of the area near Enterprise) and will not rebound. Similarly, most anyone can predict that the development of water storage and delivery systems will continue to be central in the community’s existence. It is likely that more major reclamation projects will be undertaken. Clearly the third issue is also settled. Isolation will not return; people will continue to flow through the county in huge numbers via the freeway and airlines and many will continue to visit and resettle into the county. The trend of Americanization will not likely decline. As population increases, even more outside firms and franchises will see Washington County as a site for their investment and business, creating a competition challenge for local firms. Information networks are enveloping Dixie, binding the county into the national web.

The fifth issue has received a great deal of study. Probably the most quoted and the most conservative data comes from the Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget. Those are widely used and see 82,436 people in the county by the year 2000, with 48,686 of them in St. George. The year 2010 will see 124,325 in the county, 74,350 of them in St. George. The year 2020 will see 165,139 in the county, with 99,147 in St. George. These figures are much more than a simple extrapolation from the present. Many factors are considered—employment rates, job creation, construction rates, birth rates, rates of immigration to the area.

The sixth trend will also likely continue but there is a twist to it. Yes, more and more non-Mormons will move into the area, but so also will Mormons move in and, more importantly, be born in Dixie. The people of differing views will bring a richer diversity to the area but the percentage of Mormons will likely remain strong.

So are these the answers we can suggest to those who want to plan the future of the county, based on our history? That seems to offer no more insight than any mature observer knows. Is there nothing more to say? Yes there is a lot more, but it becomes more tenuous, the more one says. Just one example. As we sifted through thousands of pages of documents in Dixie’s history, we came across a statement by one venturous commentator, Joseph Walker. On 22 June 1950 in the Washington County News, he offered some predictions about Dixie’s future. He argued that Dixie would become famous as the gateway to the Arizona Strip much as Rapid City is the gateway to the Black Hills. Now, nearly fifty years later, it appears he was off the mark. He also predicted that Dixie College would become a small, elite liberal arts college attracting many out-of-state students from well-to-do families. That has not been the case. Then he suggested that the climate would draw people to Dixie; he finally struck home on that point. As we try to expand on the generalization about the historical trends, our points may be two-thirds wrong, like Walker’s.

The most discussed item for the future is the population growth. The very strong trend seems unstoppable. It has continued through two recessions unabated. Won’t it stop? Won’t a major real estate bust halt the growth? Park City went through such a bust. Isn’t Dixie going to be overbuilt? Won’t a national economic decline occur sometime soon to cool “booms” everywhere? Couldn’t a serious oil crisis in the Middle East put a halt to tourism and much of the economic health of Utah and the nation? Can this thirty-year trend of amazing growth in Washington County really be expected to continue another thirty years?

There are several arguments that support the expectation of another thirty years of population growth in Washington County. The main factor could be called “the graying of America.” People are living much longer all over America and are retiring in larger numbers. Some of the retirees have participated in financial planning programs so they have disposable income that allows them to live anywhere they choose, either full-time or part-time. Many are moving to the U. S. Southeast or U. S. Southwest, seeking residence in warm climates such as Phoenix, Sun City, Palm Springs, Scottsdale, San Diego, and Las Vegas. Beginning in the 1970s such retirees discovered St. George and promoters developed amenities for them. The climate and scenery are most inviting and the modest size of Dixie communities makes retirement here even more attractive. The question is whether this influx will continue, accelerate or decline. There is little to indicate a decline. Some of this is dependent upon the viability of retirement investment programs. Much is being written about the weak future of Social Security as support for retirement. Inflation could also undermine the comfort many expect in their retirements.

The growth of the county is not only made up of retirees, however. Their presence has stimulated a major construction industry to build many housing complexes and scores of commercial buildings. This has attracted young people to work in construction. The growth has attracted many businesses, including new malls, restaurants, industrial parks, expanded health care facilities, schools, government agencies, even industries. Many of the service sector and industrial employees are young and they in turn promote an increased birthrate. The county has many children and an expanding school population. The growth generates more growth and the county has a healthy mix of ages, a cohort that could hardly be improved.

What does this growth mean? The figures predict a threefold increase by the year 2020. This suggests that the area from Ivins through Santa Clara, St. George, Washington and Hurricane/LaVerkin will be one continuous metropolis. That raises many interesting issues. Will these governmental entities move toward more regional planning and further the fusion of regional services such as police? Cooperation already exists with water, waste disposal, electric utilities. Cooperation is underway in planning for the conservation of the Virgin River waterway. There is an increase of cooperation in long-range planning. This prediction of increased joint efforts is based on the high degree of inter-agency cooperation that has existed in Washington County, higher than many other Utah counties. This spirit is continuation of the same ethic from pioneer times which will be called upon for a further increase in the next two to three decades.

Another inevitable result of growth will be the shift of land use from agricultural to commercial and residential occupants. Cities will continue to seek the purchase of water previously used by farmers. Except for a few areas, particularly near Enterprise, farmers will not encourage their offspring to keep the family farm as their means of support. This trend of turning farms into housing developments will likely continue unless political and environmental agencies reverse it by preserving open spaces. Even then such preservation will be limited; the huge numbers of new people will require extensive housing developments.

The expansion of population and housing and commerce will place major demands on water. Somewhere in this process water will be the limiting factor. The question is whether this can be decided rationally or whether over-expansion will come first and outstrip the water supply, causing a major crisis. There is considerable disagreement about just what the water limit is. Clearly there is a finite amount of water. Water cannot be created; there is a set amount in the biosphere. The question is one of distribution. Specifically, how much more of the Virgin River winter runoff can be captured? How much more water can be recovered from wells? The Washington County Conservancy District plans to build a major reservoir in the Sand Hollow area before the year 2000. They have identified other desirable sites but environmental regulations make most of them unlikely. The more interesting debate is about the ground water aquifer. Some geologists feel there is much undeveloped opportunity for wells. That possibility will most likely be explored immediately. A dramatic possibility for more water is a pipeline from Lake Powell. It would be extremely expensive but some proposers suggest that Las Vegas developers are so desperate for water that they might help finance such a pipeline in trade for Virgin River runoff.

Given the assumption of continued growth for three or more decades, it is not difficult to extrapolate some more likely developments: a perimeter road system linking Ivins, Washington, St. George/Bloomington/Green Valley and Santa Clara that will divert some traffic from the inner St. George business district; a new hospital and perhaps competing hospitals; a new airport and adjoining industrial park (probably near the Arizona border); more golf courses; building of major hotels and a new convention center; an expansion of Dixie College, perhaps a branch campus in the eastern part of the county, four-year programs at Dixie College, if not an outright four-year status, including masters programs; an increase in crime and social problems (not necessarily an increased in the rate but an increase in the volume); increased traffic challenges leading to the building of parking ramps in downtown St. George and at Dixie College; many land trades between the state government and the federal agencies and the cities and county. Most of these matters are already in discussion.

One matter that could lead to conflict is taxation. During this period of boom, government entities have been able to undertake many infrastructure projects. The growth has generated increased revenue without the necessity of major taxation increases. School bonds have been passed based on anticipated growth, without raising taxes. Taxes have been placed on tourists to support a convention center and the various travel promotions. That ability to generate increased revenue may reach its limit but the growth would still require more roads and schools and utilities. So tax increases will be likely and that could generate an anti-tax movement which would polarize the cordial political atmosphere.

What consideration should be given to the issue of possible disasters such as a destructive earthquake, an extended drought, a significant weather change? Most natural disasters such as floods, tornados and earthquakes do not terminate communities. The response of most citizens is to rebuild, perhaps because their mortgages and investments are tied to their residence. Certainly the federal government often responds with help. An extended drought is another matter. The Anasazi Indians may well have left Washington County around 1300 A.D. for that reason, though a recent National Geographic article suggests religious motivations could have been the cause. The possibility of extended drought should be taken seriously. Growth limitation advocates would argue to draw a line well below the water limit. Development-minded people would ask: what is the limit? It is not likely that such possible disasters will loom large in immediate planning.

What about social disasters? A major national economic downturn would likely create a market correction rather quickly. The inflation of values in housing would halt. This would not require legislation; it would happen naturally. Serious riots in Los Angeles or Las Vegas might cause the flight of residents to new locations. St. George would get a portion of these people but so would scores of other places. Again these are eventualities that are difficult to build into a plan. One possible problem could be a locked horns conflict with the federal government. That was recently avoided in an agreement for a large habitat preserve for the desert tortoise. This came after extended negotiations. Another such confrontation could end in polarization. There are plenty of land issues about which the citizens and the federal government could disagree because of the huge portion of land controlled by the government. A greater concern would be some social disintegration within the county—a deep disillusionment with local government, a serious scandal undermining community values, some divisive issue such as the nuclear fallout problem. Much of the county’s history has been influenced by a willingness of the people to cooperate on most matters; the erosion of that spirit could be a serious liability.

All of these considerations add up to a cautious optimism. How many communities can count so many pluses as Dixie? A history of sacrifice, an ethic of cooperation, a people of talent, a good portion of good will, beautiful scenery and varied recreation, fabulous weather, great location, an amazing cohort of newcomers and a rich tradition of long-term families, tremendous inflow of capital, strong cultural institutions—these are all pluses. On the other side of the ledger are major water concerns, a fragile landscape, an unbalanced ownership of land by outside forces, major environmental concerns, and a growth rate that could become the unmaking of the present advantages.

A consideration of our history bears on almost all of these factors. It is our conviction that Dixie’s history is a good guide, one that we should continually examine as we charge into that future. Let our enthusiasm be tempered with the limits nature has placed on our land and with the insights our progenitors gained from their mistakes and their successes.