St. Johns: An Oasis Built on Bedrock


St. Johns:

Twin towers of steam rise high into the clear desert sky like a pair of smoke signals.

If you were to travel over the rolling hills of eastern Arizona, the first signal that you were approaching St. Johns would likely be the two white columns against the pale blue sky above the Coronado Generating Station.

Some places are immediately beautiful—even, as they say, breathtaking. St. Johns, Arizona, is not such a place. To the traveler who has passed through the dense lush beauty of the Coconino National Forest or the brilliant and rugged spectacle of the Grand Canyon, St. Johns’ beauty is not immediately apparent. Its residents, on the other hand, know its beauties well and are known for a loyalty to it that some describe as fierce.

The common theme among residents is that the town—a little over 4,000 people, 60 percent of whom are Latter-day Saints—is the best place on earth to rear a family. And it doesn’t make them unhappy to have you wish, at least once during a conversation with them, that you, too, could live there. Roy Wilhelm, a local philosopher and native resident who has written extensively about the town’s history, maintains that St. Johns is exactly the kind of town Brigham Young had in mind when he sent groups out from Salt Lake City to colonize the West. Evidence of the town’s commitment to family life, according to Brother Wilhelm, is everywhere you turn.

Growing Pains and Blessings

From the Valley—as the residents call Phoenix, 220 miles away—Highway 60 stretches eastward toward St. Johns. There it runs east past the new stake center, on the left, and past the high school’s imposing complex of buildings, playing fields, and facilities, on the right. For a town its size, St. Johns’ high school is so large and well-appointed that it appears out-of-place. Instead of crouching in a landscape of range cattle among sage, juniper, and cedars, the school might fit in better in some busy metropolitan suburb. From its spacious auditorium, complete with a hydraulic orchestra pit and computerized lighting system, to its longtime athletic hold on state championships in various sports, to its four-year string of academic competition champions for the region, the school is the fresh oxygen supply in the town’s bloodstream.

In 1977, when the Salt River Project installed the massive power plant out at the north end of town, the population exploded from 1,300 people to more than 6,000, counting the temporary construction workers. The growth demanded new schools as well as residential and commercial development—all of which more than tripled the structural geography of the city and increased jobs in nearly every sector. Some people who had grown up appreciating St. Johns could actually find work near home rather than moving elsewhere. But all was not rosy.

“Change came suddenly and dramatically,” recalls Marlow Day, St. Johns stake president, who runs a construction company. “The coming of the power plant brought both opportunity and loss. We needed an economic boost, and the many new jobs have been a blessing to us. But with the growth came also new challenges,” he says.

“The power plant and the growth associated with it have been far more good than bad,” adds Keith Shreeve, second counselor and an engineer, “but one problem, which concerns education, is that jobs out at the power plant offer attractive wages, tempting many young people. Some have even chosen to go to work there instead of finishing high school.”

First counselor Tim Hall, a lawyer and a father with children still at home, elaborates: “In many small towns, I can imagine that such employment and growth opportunities would not be seen as detractions or as having a downside. But St. Johns has always prided itself on its quality of education, on seeing that its youth got every possible educational and cultural advantage that it could possibly give.”

“The plant,” President Day clarifies, “didn’t cause the problems or distractions: it simply introduced an option for young people that wasn’t there before. Consequently, we’ve seen some things like declining commitment to education and to some of our other cultural values and disciplines.”

All three of these men are native sons of natives, and all three have professions that could benefit from growth in the economy of the area, yet they agree that not all growth has been all good for the community. Consequently, their efforts as a stake presidency have been to help increase members’ value of their heritage and encourage them to pursue quality in all things, be they spiritual or cultural.

These leaders’ families are typical of families in the stake. Involvement in music, drama, art, and athletics complements their children’s or grandchildren’s academic schedules. President Hall, for instance, has two sons who play the violin and one who plays the cello, and daughters who play the piano. St. Johns is a town where musical instruments far outnumber computer games. At cultural events and sacrament meetings, it is not uncommon to hear a string quartet, an instrumental or vocal solo, a choir, or an ensemble give a quality performance.

A Noteworthy Legacy

Several original families called by Brigham Young to settle there gave St. Johns its legacy of refinement. Anna Anderson brought the first organ to St. Johns in 1880, on which she performed and gave lessons. Her first efforts led to the town’s reputation as home to an uncommonly large number of musicians.

Anna’s son, Albert F. Anderson, went east to study pharmacy, and with him went his sister, Lettie, to the Chicago Conservatory of Music. When they returned to St. Johns, they helped raise the quality of and commitment to the arts there—a commitment that crescendoed from one generation to another.

San Juan, Arizona, as it was known at first, already had its first residents when Latter-day Saints were called to colonize in Arizona late in the 1870s. Solomon Barth, the founding settler, was a Polish teamster with contracts to haul government supplies. Mr. Barth and a number of Mexicans homesteaded and farmed what were then good bottom lands along the Little Colorado River. He also opened a general store and a hotel.

Under direction from Wilford Woodruff, who was living in Arizona at the time, Brother Ammon Tenney struck a deal with Barth to buy all his cultivated land. Members who could afford to do so were also encouraged to buy land held by Mexicans who lived there. During various transactions with the Mexican settlers and Barth, some misunderstandings developed, causing hard feelings.

As the Saints had found before the westward migration, their unity seemed to pose a threat to others. Criticism led to rejection—Barth and the Mexicans wanted them to leave. But both legal and illegal means of evicting the Saints failed to work; they held their ground—and the old settlers held theirs. Then, cooperation began to flower and finally bloom among the peoples of St. Johns.

The Saints faced many challenges in the wild country of the Little Colorado River, including its arid land, its recurrent flooding, and its remoteness. Yet there burned in the hearts of those who had been sent there a firm commitment to building a spiritual and cultural oasis in the high desert country.

On 24 July 1887, the St. Johns Stake was organized, with David K. Udall as president. D. K. Udall told his family now that the frontier was being settled, the last frontier that needed settling was the government. President Udall’s posterity have taken that statement as a charge and have been prominent in local, state, and national politics ever since that time.

Counselors to D. K. Udall in that original stake presidency were Elija N. Freeman and William H. Gibbons, a relative of Elder Francis M. Gibbons of the Seventy, who was born in St. Johns. Elder Gibbons’s great-grandfather had gone with Jacob Hamblin, Ammon Tenney, and others under Brigham Young’s direction to explore the Indian country of southernmost Utah and Arizona in 1858, including the area along the Little Colorado.

A measure of that same adventuresome spirit was revived in the 1970s with the coming of the power plant. The changes in St. Johns since the new growth have been largely good and largely welcome. “Everyone still knows pretty much everyone else, if not by name and family history, then at least by sight. A visitor to town is still as likely to be waved at by those who pass as is a resident. That’s just the way it is here,” says Harvey Wilhelm, a native who now lives in Salt Lake City, where he works as a government analyst. “People in St. Johns are intimate,” he says. “They care about you and want you to know it.” St. Johns people try extra hard to do well, Harv believes, because they have always thought that people elsewhere achieve more or have better opportunities. But he remembers arriving at college feeling as well prepared as many there and better prepared than most. “Standards are quite high in St. Johns,” he smiles.

Fortified by Change

Sharon Crosby, Young Women president in the stake, says, “Our five children grew up, went through the schools, and have benefited from programs that have helped them develop. The strong musical and cultural tradition here has been kept alive by very dedicated schoolteachers and Church leaders.

“People might look at the town’s growth and point to problems, but the stake youth programs have continued to be outstanding. We are glad for a great tradition and for a stake presidency who work so closely with the youth.”

Sharon and her husband, Steve, the stake mission president, are actively involved in the community. In 1956, Steve was among those who circulated a petition to the school board to integrate the Spanish and the “Anglo” elementary schools, which up to that time had been segregated.

“The high school had always been integrated, but the Spanish-speaking kids had gone to the Catholic grade school,” Steve explains, referring to “the early days of misunderstanding between the Mormons and the Spanish. But things have become much, much better. Now all children attend the new primary school.”

According to Nichi and Gladys Jaramillo, Catholics who are lifelong residents of St. Johns, the relations between the Anglos and the Hispanics have become very good in recent years. Nichi says, “Our people had been here before the Mormons came, and things didn’t get off to a good start. But it is better now than it ever has been. I hope they keep improving.”

Nichi’s assessment confirms the feeling among Church members in St. Johns that the two groups are working together more closely all the time. This was especially noted during a funeral earlier this year for Telesfore Peña, a Spanish brother who had joined the Church a few years before. The chapel was filled with both Hispanics and Anglos. So was the program. The cortege to the cemetery was led by a mounted posse of Hispanic and Anglo cowboys, with one riderless horse for the deceased brother.

“It was an important event for the town,” says Mayor Rusty Burdick. “I think that each time we can share and mix with each other, we come to understand each other better.”

Great Expectations, Great Support

Social critic Paul Goodman wrote in Growing Up Absurd that one of the biggest problems in raising well-directed children in modern society is the lack of meaningful work for them in the family setting and the family’s inability to help children feel they are truly needed and that their tasks are central to the family’s survival or well-being.

If this view is correct, families in rural settings like St. Johns have an advantage in that their children genuinely contribute to their families as they learn resourcefulness in caring for the family’s livestock, crops, and equipment.

“We don’t have animals,” says Tim Udall, “but we have planted a large and productive orchard.” He and his wife, Vangie, started several years ago to involve their four children in growing apples and selling them as a way to save for missions and education. “The kids have learned a lot about nurturing and caring for living things, as well as about the managing of money,” smiles Tim. “They all have a pretty good business sense already.”

Vangie adds, “For us, the great thing about St. Johns is the cooperation you feel between the community, the schools, and the Church. I’ve grown to love it. It’s home now.”

She grew up in Mesa and met Tim at Arizona State University, where they both earned degrees in Spanish. Both now teach in St. Johns.

Many dabble in the rigors and delights of animal husbandry and gardening in St. Johns—including Mel Palmer, seminary teacher and bishop. He and his wife, Adeline, make the rural formula work: eight children plus three pigs plus three calves plus two cows plus two horses plus lots of rabbits and chickens equals “a pretty happy family.”

But down the road, Norm Brown goes whole-hog. For Norman and Karen Brown and their four children, living in St. Johns allows the continuation of a family cattle-ranching business.

A favorite family vacation for the Browns is the four-day trail drive, when they mount up and herd cattle to the summer range. Norm’s father, Jack, now serves in the Arizona state legislature. But when Jack isn’t down at the capitol trying to improve the quality of life in Arizona, he’s with his family in St. Johns, enjoying the very quality of life he seeks to promote.

“Our children love ranch life, with all the work and play that goes with it,” says Norm, whose boyish grin and ruddy complexion reveal his own love of the outdoors. On 1,500 acres, he raises hay for his eight hundred cows, whose calves he sells as yearlings (when they are about eighteen months old). “Everybody gets a chance to help with milking cows and feeding pigs,” Karen adds. And each of them has a section of the huge family vegetable garden to care for.

“Loving to live here is more than a matter of agriculture,” says Ike Arnell, who was born in Bear Lake, Idaho, and patrols the highways as a sergeant with the Apache County Sheriff’s Office. Ike and his wife, Kaija, and their five children live in Concho—“just over the next hill or two”—where he serves as president of the Concho Branch. He and Kaija are heavily involved in the community, especially the school system. Kaija says that for them, St. Johns life is a matter of “feeling like you really belong, that your presence matters.”

Ike adds, “for example, we love feeling that our voice on the parent advisory board will be heard and that it will influence decisions.”

As a single mother, Valarie Webb sees St. Johns as a place where caring and friendly people have “literally helped me raise my children and have given continuity to their lives.”

Though Valarie is quite independent, she has felt grateful for the strength the ward and community shared with her as her two daughters, Kelli, 19, and Kimberley, 13, have grown up. “Since being divorced, I’ve had to work to support us,” she says, “and if I’d been in a larger city, I’d have worried about the girls the whole time. But here, people take each others’ children under their wings after school or as the need arises, and I’ll be forever grateful. Life here is simpler for someone in my position. Resources are shared here in a very loving way.”

One St. Johns native—Rex E. Lee—has become well known to Church members as BYU’s new president and the former U.S. Solicitor General. “I have yet to know anyone who comes from St. Johns who is not proud of the fact,” he says, “and who doesn’t attribute their accomplishments to the bedrock tradition of hard work, self-reliance, and individuality. When I was a boy, the most prominent man in the community was not the mayor, but the bishop. He exemplified for us the integration of our faith and the world we lived in. St. Johns may be insular, but it has always had a far broader scope. It’s a community with great expectations and an equally great base of support and encouragement.”

Each of us lives in a certain place and in a certain time. It may be that the better we define that place and time, the better-defined we ourselves become. This clarity seems to have worked for St. Johns. It may be that its residents looked out over that wild and forbidding land surrounding them and realized that it was up to them to make something of it. And they have.

[photos] Photography by Wayne Davis, Craig Dimond, Giles H. Florence, Jr., and J. Scott Knudsen

[photos] Richard and Beverly Waite with daughter, Grace, 12; on horseback, Tim Raban with son Tyler, 3, and Jackie, 5; view of St. Johns from Highway 60, with Coronado Generating Station on the horizon.

[photos] Young women on the bank of the Little Colorado River; (below) dancing at the San Juan Days festival.

[photos] St. Johns stake center; (below) Valarie Webb.

[photos] Stake drama practice; (below) everyone helps with the roundup.

[photo] Banners fly, welcoming all to St. Johns Days.

[photos] Rancher Norm Brown leads a cattle drive; (below, from left) Pacer, Tanna, Vangie, Tim, Leticia (sitting), and Lena Udall.