Old businesses line the highway before the turnoff for the Mill Creek Trailhead just north of Hamilton. Old Dutch Road passes dirt paths like Our Way, Luther Lane and Peaceful Way in the couple miles of barren land before the pine tree wall that marks the entrance to Pinesdale, home of Montana's polygamist, fundamentalist Mormons.
Outsiders have criticized Pinesdale for more than 50 years now, but the town has made it through without a hitch. Pinesdale's population grew steadily to 819 people from when Rulon Allred began the society in 1961 to 2009, Census Bureau estimates.
Now, for the first time, the society may be facing a challenge it cannot overcome. The fourth generation — currently college-aged — wants something new.
THE HUGE TREES almost hide the bigger houses lined with windows on all sides, like hotels. Trucks, minivans and four-wheelers fill the giant, generic garages. Baby strollers and tricycles litter many of the yards.
A large red snowplow is the only vehicle on the road. It drives up and down Main Street. The driver monitors the town as he drives by. He knows everyone here.
The main road leads past the cemetery on the way to Town Hall. The town's second biggest public gathering place is empty. A large conference room table sits in the middle of enough chairs for an Allred, an Allsop, a Jessop, a Stoker, a Venema and a Weidow — six of the biggest polygamist families in town. An office in the corner is empty in the middle of the day.
The biggest gathering place in town, Pines Academy, has the only paved parking lot. Hardly any cars fill the 50-yard, snow-covered lot in the middle of town. A yellow bus waits for its passengers in the cover of a couple of the large trees. The main entrance to the school looks old; a bell inside a wooden structure sits above the door. A fallen sign reads "Rulon Allred Memorial Park: est. 1961" in a playground next to the academy.
Down a hall, in the northeast corner of the school is the center of town. The church.
A LION AND LAMB lie together on a 20-foot canvas in the entrance of the Pines Academy auditorium. An immaculate white building eclipses the sun in the background of the ornate painting. Two other paintings of Jesus Christ and one of Joseph Smith hang on the walls of the biggest room in Pinesdale.
Many people believe that thousands of years ago, God revealed himself to Moses and Judaism was born. Others believe, on top of this, that God then revealed himself to Jesus and Christianity was born. Others believe, on top of this, that God then revealed himself to Joseph Smith and Mormonism was born. Others believe, on top of this, that on Sept. 27, 1886, God revealed himself to John Taylor and the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was reborn.
Around 300 people filed into the southeast corner door of Pines Academy in groups on a Sunday afternoon. One man, maybe a couple of women and a slew of school-aged children made up the groups of one to 20 people.
Eight-year-old boys with neckties and girls with dresses to their shins followed their parents' lead to their socially assigned pews. The sanctuary filled up from back to front in clusters. At 2 o'clock, a man stood up from a pew on stage and walked up to the lectern — between an American flag and a table covered in linen — to tell the tame crowd that it was time to begin.
THIRTY MILES AWAY in the nearest city, Mike and Julia Allred take a break from studying for finals at The University of Montana. Hundreds of shoes squeak around the University Center on a snowy afternoon. Tables for mainstream Christian groups call out to passing students. Study lounges are either full or locked. It's a normal day in the biggest public gathering place on campus.
The Allreds come from the family that is immortalized on the dangling sign in the park in Pinesdale. They just moved with their three children out of Julia's father's house in Pinesdale to their own place in Hamilton. They lived in Pinesdale until January, but they haven't considered themselves part of Pinesdale for a while.
They didn't participate in the church's social activities. Their children didn't attend Pines Academy. They didn't go to church. They haven't even been Mormon for years.
Mike has struggled with his beliefs for his whole life, teetering between a believer and a heathen.
"I was like the prodigal son when I came back," he said. "But then I left again."
Mike said his father is a leader of an FLDS group in Utah. He said that societies like Pinesdale tend to last for three or four generations. She is a fourth-generation Allred.
Julia says that about half of her generation is moving out of Pinesdale, trying to find something different — someone different.
About 30 UM students come from the six biggest polygamist families in Pinesdale.
Everybody was quiet. Everybody sang. Everybody took communion.
The FLDS church disagrees with about a dozen mainstream Mormon doctrines. The most famous difference is polygamy. Members of the Mormon church practiced polygamy, or plural marriage, for the first 50 years of the movement's existence.
However, in 1904, the Mormon church began excommunicating members who entered a polygamous union. Joseph Smith instituted polygamy early in Mormon history, but toward the end of his life he renounced the practice. It is estimated that 25 percent or more of Mormons practiced polygamy at its height in the late 1800s. Now, mainstream Mormons do not view the FLDS as part of their church and generally condemn polygamy as a practice.
Many FLDS members believe that men with more wives have a better chance of literally living with God in heaven. They believe in a group economic structure called the Law of Consecration or the United Order. They forbid men with African ancestry from receiving priesthood ordinations.
The Apostolic United Brethren is a polygamist Mormon fundamentalist church within the Latter-day Saint movement. Ten miles north of Hamilton, the AUB owns about a mile of land and Pines Academy is in the middle. The AUB lets people who belong to the church build on its land for very cheap: building cost plus property tax.
One of the largest FLDS religious gatherings in the world takes place in the Pines Academy auditorium every week. On Sunday afternoon, the first of three townspeople to speak, "Jessop", talked about not riding the coattails of family.
No matter who you are, he said, you can't reach the highest level of the celestial kingdom by following your parents' traditions alone.
Children were quiet and adults listened intently. The oldest unmarried men in the congregation — a group of high schoolers — sat together in a row in the back without chattering.
Sometimes it's hard to find the difference between truth and tradition, Jessop said, because sometimes truth is tradition and sometimes it's not.
BACK IN PINESDALE, a beat-up blue Nissan Xterra sat parked in front of the empty room-sized post office on a weekday afternoon. Lisa Jessop, a third-generation resident, pointed to three separate cracks and dents in the car, blaming animals her kids hit on the drives from Missoula and Hamilton.
She attributed the drivers in these accidents to faces on pins hanging above her head on the car's sun visor. Four of her 11 children have spots on the visor.
Her sister Robyn is a television star, the fourth wife on TLC's reality show "Sister Wives." Lisa Jessop lives as a sister wife in Pinesdale.
She wore black jeans, a scarf, pink gloves and a light layer of lipstick — not the typical ultra-conservative dress code. "We're more of a liberal community," she said. "I mean, we're still conservative but compared to the other fundamentalist sects."
Jessop grew up a Mormon in Utah and when her parents converted to the FLDS, she moved to Pinesdale with them. She was 14.
They moved in with a man who had nine wives, "or was it seven?" she tried to recall. "Well, he had a lot anyway."
She attended Pines Academy because she was afraid of what people at Corvallis would think of her and she got married to Michael Jessop (not the church speaker) because she wanted to get married and have kids before the end of the world. She said that Pinesdale members traditionally had an imminent eschatological belief: They believe the world, as we know it, will end soon.
"I hate the fear tactics," she said, but it's gotten better in the last decade as the community has opened up.
She was 16 when she married the 19-year-old Jessop in 1988. She said that she's happy none of her kids have gotten married too young.
Montana and U.S. law prohibits polygamy as bigamy. Montana law states "a person commits the offense of bigamy if, while married, he knowingly contracts or purports to contract another marriage." In 1878, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that religious affiliation does not protect people from criminal acts such as polygamy.
In Pinesdale, the men marry only one wife legally. Any subsequent wives are married only in the eyes of the church and, therefore, are not illegal. There is no divorce in Pinesdale.
Driving down Main Street, Jessop pointed out whether the houses have multiple families or just one. She said that she thinks the house sizes are pretty normal; the only difference is what happens inside of them.
Turning off of the main road, she climbed toward the snow-capped mountains and arrived at some clusters of houses. She pointed out a green, average-looking two-story house to the right. That's where her husband lives with his other wife, Paula.
One hundred feet farther down the driveway, she pointed to a long, gray house with pointy architecture. That's where she lives with her children.
It has three bathrooms and only seven bedrooms because she wanted a big living room. Once a week — sometimes Wednesday, sometimes Sunday — families in Pinesdale gather and talk about religious stuff, she said. She likes to have a big living room so there is a place for that time.
Michael has 25 children from his two wives. She bore 11 of them. She gets along with Paula, her sister wife, and their kids grew up playing together and get along very well, she said. There is a special bond between the full siblings, but the half siblings are still brothers and sisters. She has a good relationship with them too. "When they come home for the holidays, they'll come down to my house and give me a big hug," she said.
As she drove past the "business district," she waved to every car that passed without pausing in conversation. Stopping in front of Town Hall, she explained that this building started out as the grocery store, but now the Bulk ‘N' Bin is next door. It's only open one day per week and sells in bulk because the families are big, she said.
A sign that reads "Volunteer Fire Department" marks a building attached to Town Hall. Cars are always parked in there for something, she said, but the fire department is actually down the block. She said that volunteers do most of the jobs in town.
Most of the women in town have to get jobs. "It's a pretty chauvinistic place," she said, "but it costs a lot to have a big family." She worked part-time at Pizza Hut for many years, despite her husband's lucrative construction company, and now she's studying psychology at UM and works as a maid in Hamilton.
The men in the community mostly work in construction, she said. The Jessops are the builders and the Weidows are the plumbers, she explained. The families all have their niche, but Pinesdale is far from self-sufficient.
"Maybe in the early days that's what we wanted," she said. The men work in the businesses by the highway hoping for outside support. They own the "for sale" businesses lining the highway — construction businesses that have taken a huge hit in the economic recession.
"It's been hard here just like everywhere else," she stopped and looked at the pins of her children. Some of them are trying to start building businesses and others are going to school.
JULIA ALLRED STUDIES microbiology and Mike just finished a physics exam.
"I know I messed up the negative signs," Mike says. "I always mess up the negative signs."
"You'll still get an ‘A,'" Julia consoles her husband. She says that Mike is a perfectionist.
In the middle of the UC, the middle of campus, the couple sits close to each other. As they discuss their spiritual beliefs, they look at each other, but don't interrupt. They have each found their own beliefs, but they found them together.
"Everybody needs a reason to get up in the morning," Mike says. "It's not about religion; it's about life."
The couple left Pinesdale to attend school in Missoula in hopes of staying away from the closed community.
Beyond the church and the grade school, the bulk ministore and the hotel houses, Luther Lane and Peaceful Way, beyond the pine tree wall, dozens of former Pinesdale residents are looking past tradition for their own truth.
A Montana Kaimin feature, "Polygamy in Montana," that ran on April 1, 2011, contained multiple errors, all of which have been omitted or corrected in the online version. They are the following:
The article stated, "Pinesdale's population grew steadily to 742 people from when Rulon Allred began the society in 1961 to the 2000 census." The article should have stated, "Pinesdale's population grew steadily to 819 people from when Rulon Allred began the society in 1961 to 2009, the Census Bureau estimates.
In addition, the article incorrectly stated, "However, in the last decade, the small community in the Bitterroot lost 57 people. Most of those are under the age of 25," as well as incorrectly reported, "Since the last census, about a quarter of Pinesdale's population decline came from the 18–24 age group. Less college-aged people live in Pinesdale and a higher percentage of those who are still around are enrolled in a university."
According to the Census Bureau's statistics between 2000 and 2009, Pinesdale's population increased.
Further, the Kaimin misreported, "One of the largest FLDS religious gatherings in the world takes place in the Pines Academy auditorium every week."
The Pines Academy auditorium holds an Apostolic United Brethren gathering every week. The Apostolic United Brethren is not affiliated with the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
In addition, the Kaimin misidentified Rulon Allred as the great-grandfather of Julia Allred.