ST. GEORGE, Utah
You sense just how different this area is when you open the local newspaper and learn that two possible potheads were arrested and booked into Purgatory on charges of conspiracy to distribute 100 kilos or more of marijuana.
Although the March 2 story in The Spectrum didn’t note if the possible potheads found the correctional facility a soulful place to limbo between heaven and hell, Roadside America did find the jail built in an area called Purgatory Flats –– so named by overheated and witty Mormon pioneers –– inspiring enough to be highlighted in its “Guide to Uniquely Odd Tourist Attractions.”
Make no mistake: A visit to this desert city on the Utah-Arizona border for a weekend — it’s less than a two-hour drive from Las Vegas on Interstate 15 north –– is remarkably full of the unanticipated, a place with a strong Mormon influence that deserves far more than just the stop for gas along the freeway that it often receives from Southern Nevadans on their way to Zion National Park.
Shopping and strolling, often accompanied by costumed tour guides, in a historical downtown where antique stores, museums, art galleries and restaurants are plentiful, can keep you gawking and licking your lips all day long –– and wondering how the outlaw Butch Cassidy once fit in the tiny 19th-century jail now sitting in Ancestor Square in the city center. With historians pegging his height at 5 feet 9 inches, the famous thief –– played by Paul Newman on the silver screen –– must have endured headaches from hitting his head on the ceiling. There is no record of a civil rights complaint by Cassidy for prisoner abuse, however.
The downtown walking tour of nearly 30 historic buildings, some built as early as the 1860s and several having a Mormon influence, includes one completed in 1871 for the first “snowbird” to the area, Brigham Young, the president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who left the snow of Salt Lake City behind in the winter for the more temperate desert climate of St. George –– it’s about 10 degrees cooler than Las Vegas year-round, a fact that’s led many retirees to the area, making it the second-fastest growing metropolitan area in the United States during much of the 21st century’s first decade.
Need more exercise than a walking tour? There are 65 miles of urban trails for walking, running and biking and they’re well used. After a while, you grow accustomed to seeing cyclists and runners no matter where you look, many of them seniors who obviously won’t give in to old age without a fight.
Athletes from around the world have already found St. George as the city hosts the St. George Marathon, the Huntsman World Senior Games, the NJCAA Women’s Fast Pitch Championships and the Ironman St. George triathlon, one of only seven Ironman championship qualifier races in the United States.
There’s also golfing on any one of 12 manicured courses, and hiking and boating in beautifully cared for state parks. Snow Canyon State Park, like Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area near Las Vegas, is minutes from downtown. In the 62,000-acre Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, it is tucked amid lava flows and soaring sandstone cliffs with 38 miles of hiking trails, a three-mile paved walking/biking trail and more than 15 miles of equestrian trails.
If you can spend about $1,000 for a pampered long weekend at the Red Mountain Resort, a destination spa near Snow Canyon with scenery that takes your breath away, St. George has that, too.
Five minutes east of the city you can find what some experts have called the “most significant dinosaur track site in western North America.” You can see footprints left by early Jurassic giants 200 million years ago at the St. George Dinosaur Discovery Site at Johnson’s Farm.
Unfortunately, this growing area –– the population has jumped from 28,500 in 1990 to nearly 75,000 today –– also has more than its share of strip shopping centers, outlet stores, an anywhere mall, and seemingly enough chain restaurants and chain lodging to house and fatten up the more than 300,000 people of Iceland.
That is hyperbole, of course, but you get the idea. Although Washington County, where St. George is the largest city, is an area blessed with red rocks, blue skies and a diverse landscape, ranging from the desert floors of the Virgin River Gorge to the alpine wilderness of Pine Valley Mountain, it appears developers have the opportunity to do on large swaths of land what they do throughout the nation –– throw up strip centers and housing developments with such cookie cutter sameness that you can’t tell the difference between southwest Utah and southeast Texas.
Fortunately, given how the downtown area of St. George is largely just cut off from the nauseatingly bland by the natural landscape of the area, it is easy to forget the creeping suburban crud and focus on the history that surrounds you. That can start as soon as you arrive should you stay in either of the two bed-and-breakfasts in the city’s historical district. Although appointments in the rooms never let you forget you’re staying in places more than 125 years old, modern conveniences, including swimming pools, are standard.
The Seven Wives Inn consists of two neighboring homes and a cottage with 15 available rooms. Edwin G. Woolley, who built the larger house in 1873, hid polygamists in the attic via a secret door after polygamy was outlawed by the U.S. government in 1882. One of the polygamists was Benjamin F. Johnson, an ancestor of the innkeepers, who really did have seven wives, hence the name Seven Wives Inn.
The house next door, built by George Whitehead in 1883, is called the President’s House because it hosted some of the early presidents of the Mormon Church. Both homes were built out of adobe, and are historical landmarks.
My wife and I stayed at the Green Gate Village Historic Inn, which is run by Ed and Lindy Sandstrom. Behind the gates, you discover 14 buildings with nine wonderfully restored homes nestled around a village green. The Sandstroms, who delight in preparing and serving a sumptuous breakfast, are quick to tell you how their inn came to be known as the Green Gate.
It seems that in 1877 Brigham Young ordered white paint for the new St. George Temple and was disappointed when the shipped paint turned out to be green. Unable to return it, he gave the green paint to local St. George residents to gild their gates and fences. Only one of those green gates remains from 135 years ago and is on display in the inn’s formal garden. The other gates surrounding the inn are patterned after the original.
Just around the corner from the inn is Annie’s Vintage Garden, which carries antiques, new items, and vintage and consignment pieces and soon will sell French pastries in its Le Cafe. My wife was pleasantly surprised to find a beautiful, fair-priced sculpture of a black woman there and a valuable painting of a black cowboy at the Main Street Antiques store just down the street.
During our three days in St. George, where a recent census showed that less than one quarter of 1 percent of the population is African-American, the only black person I ever saw was my wife. People in town, my wife observed and I noted, seemed to go out of their way to be nice, always friendly and polite, both to her and to us as a mixed white/black couple.
The only time she grew visibly nervous occurred when we stopped at a traffic light around Dixie State University –– cultural events open to tourists are often held at its near-downtown location –– and came upon a glaring driver and passengers in a pickup truck that had a Confederate flag and gun rack in the back window.
“Let’s get out of here,” she said.
Dixie State, where old student yearbooks show pictures of students in black face, holding mock slave auctions and dressed in Confederate garb, made national news recently as the board of trustees decided to retain the “Dixie” name as the school changed from a college to a university.
Historians write that the St. George area has long been known as Utah’s Dixie, a nickname given to the area by Mormon pioneers, who came largely from Mississippi, Alabama, Virginia and Texas in the late 1850s, as they grew cotton in the desert climate under the direction of Brigham Young as part of a greater church effort to become self-sufficient. Although the area produced cotton –– 300 more families were called to the area by church leaders in 1861 –– the early settlers could not grow it at prices that were competitive, so the effort was abandoned.
In a piece about Utah’s black history on the official website of the LDS Genesis Group, which represents black members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the late historian Bart Anderson, long beloved in St. George, said many of the first black s in Utah’s Dixie came as slaves of the LDS converts from the South. Since Utah had both slaves and free blacks at the time, the settlers were allowed to keep their slaves.
A survey taken by a public relations firm helping school trustees consider a new name for Dixie State found that about 83 percent of the people of St. George wanted “Dixie” to remain in the name. Newspaper accounts about the debate over the name revealed that several residents could not understand why anyone would think “Dixie” had negative racial connotations.
Driving into St. George, you can’t miss a huge letter “D” on one hillside –– it’s lit up at night –– and the word “Dixie” painted on a cliff near downtown.
According to the official visitors’ guide for “Utah’s Dixie,” St. George was named in honor of Mormon apostle George A. Smith, known as the “Potato Saint” because he urged settlers to eat raw, unpeeled potatoes to cure scurvy. Although Smith didn’t participate in the town’s settlement, he selected many of the pioneers that settled the area.
One of the pioneers in the movement to ensure that downtown always keeps its historic character is Nicki Richards, owner of George’s Corner Restaurant and the Painted Pony Restaurant in Ancestor Square. Three days a week George’s, which gives a hardy small town feel to burgers and American food popularized at chain restaurants, hosts a rotating group of local musicians, who generally perform acoustic and contemporary rock.
The Painted Pony, generally accepted as the best restaurant in St. George, serves up award-winning Southwestern cuisine.
“We want downtown St. George to be alive,” Richards said. “We work at it.”
With the zeal of an evangelist, she talks about the Concert in the Park series, the Ancestor Square Concert Series, the Sunset on the Square outdoor movie series at St. George Town Square, the Art Around the Corner outdoor exhibit of sculptures throughout downtown, the Art Around the Corner’s quarterly Art on Main Street Stroll, which begins at the St. George Art Museum and then features artists and live musicians at participating galleries on Main Street, the free weekly concerts at the Mormon Tabernacle, the Downtown Farmer’s Market, the St. George Art Festival.
Many people who take advantage of the cultural events also end up walking over to Cappeletti ’s Italian Restaurant for food prepared by Andres and Lorena Cappeletti, transplanted Argentinians who flavor a steak in a way that’ll make you a repeat customer.
Because many St. George residents are engaged in religious activities on Sundays, weekend events are often held on Friday and Saturday. Information about the historical downtown and area attractions can be found through the St. George Chamber of Commerce at www.stgeorgechamber.com. Phone: 435-628-1658.
St. George –– named by AARP as one of America’s top 10 dream towns –– often becomes the place tourists stay when they visit the Tuacahn Center for the Arts, which has a beautiful outdoor amphitheater in nearby Ivins. The center stages theatrical productions –– last year they included “Aladdin” and “Hairspray” –– as well as a concert series featuring artists ranging from Martina McBride to Riders of the Purple Sage.
Also in Ivins is the Coyote Gulch Art Village in the Kayenta Community. The array of arts enterprises is easy on the eyes, hard on the pocketbook.
What isn’t expensive is the Urban Renewal shop in downtown St. George, which is a mixture of new and consigned furniture and vintage pieces. You can find items ranging from tandem bicycles and stuffed brown bears to huge period sofas and dining tables.
“No matter how big it is, we’ll ship it to Las Vegas for $50,” Jessie Fogarty said.
Jerry Christensen, the owner of Main Street Antiques and a man who seems to effortlessly engage every customer in a conversation centering on family, said he already has a lot of customers from Las Vegas.
“I see a lot of them again and again,” he said. “I get a feeling a lot of them come here just to slow down and talk about things their family used to love. I like going down memory lane with them.”
Contact reporter Paul Harasim at pharasim@review journal.com or 702-387-2908.