Last Wednesday, Journal photographer Sean Ryan and I took Highway 16 south through Hill City to Custer and continued on Highway 385 to tiny Pringle, where we veered onto Highway 89 for about five miles before turning west onto 18 Mile Road.
There our tires hit gravel for the first time. We had left the familiar behind.
As journalists, Sean and I have frequent, welcome opportunities to venture to out-of-the-way places, the kind most people never see. Our Wednesday trip to the compound of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints was precisely such an opportunity.
From that turn to the west, we traveled on 10 miles of gravel roads with low speed limits — 45 mph in straight stretches, 25 around some tight curves — and with patches of ice where hills and pine trees shadow the road. We didn’t want to miss a turn or go sliding into the ditch, so I took it slow and got passed by a big pickup.
We turned onto Pleasant Valley Road, 20 Mile Road and Farmer Road before we finally crested a rise and saw, spread before us to the south, the 140-acre compound.
The first surprise: A dirt road runs right through it. The road separates the west and east parts of the compound. The view into both sides is blocked by earthen mounds and by fences consisting of tightly spaced, 8-foot-long vertical wood planks.
Before leaving Rapid City, we had reviewed aerial photos of the compound and knew there are a dozen or more structures, including group homes, sheds and barns, but beyond the obstructions, we could catch only fleeting glimpses of buildings.
The other initially strong impression is that the compound appears to be in a perpetual state of construction. Everywhere along the road, there is equipment. An oil truck here. A backhoe there. A flatbed trailer. An unoccupied pickup sitting by the road, surrounded by fence-building materials. A stack of giant, cylindrical concrete structures, perhaps meant for use in some type of drainage system.
For several minutes I had been gawking and Sean had been shooting photos. Then our eyes were drawn to the most imposing thing on the site, the guard tower. It’s much like the guard towers at prisons — three stories high, with windows at the top providing a 360-degree view of the grounds.
Many in Custer County are wary of the compound, but I’ve interviewed some who seem protective of it and say the people inside just want to be left alone to practice their religion. Seeing the guard tower and all the opaque fencing and berms gives a different impression. Hutterites and Amish people want to be left alone to practice their religion, but they don’t wall themselves in and build guard towers. That goes beyond privacy and looks more like hiding.
What might the compound's leaders be hiding? At other FLDS strongholds, including a Texas compound that was raided and seized in recent years, the religion’s leaders were hiding polygamy and child brides who were bearing children for much-older husbands. The big, unanswered question about the compound near Pringle is whether the same thing is happening there.
As we drove south on the road that bisects the compound, we saw an especially large, mounded row of earth to the east. Behind that, we knew from aerial photos, is a massive, rectangular area scraped clean of vegetation with a square depression in the middle. Many outsiders speculate it’s the site of a future temple, but nobody seems to know for sure, and we couldn’t see anything but the mounded-up dirt.
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At the south edge of the compound, the road continues but disappears into a forested area. Other roads with “No Trespassing” signs split off into the compound’s east and west sides.
There was a pickup on the road to the east. It slowed and we slowed, obviously eyeing each other. I stopped, hoping somebody might come talk to us, but the pickup eventually disappeared deeper into the compound. The only other sign of life we saw was a beat-up white minivan quickly driving from the east side to the west side.
Other than that, we neither heard nor saw any human activity. It was eerily quiet considering estimates of the compound’s population range from 75 to 300, but I’ve read that people at FLDS compounds scatter and hide when outsiders approach.
We didn’t brave the road that continues south of the compound, at least at first. We’d seen on aerial images that the road dead-ends at a structure just south of the compound, and we didn’t know if that was part of the compound or somebody’s else property.
Instead, we drove just north of the compound and turned into the first driveway, where we met the guy who’d passed us earlier in a big pickup: Karl Von Rump.
When we got out of the Jeep, he was standing in his driveway and eyeing us with suspicion. He had a buzz-cut head and a full, scraggly white beard.
“Hi,” I said. “I’m from the Rapid City Journal …”
Before I could continue, Von Rump’s scowl turned to a smile and he broke out laughing. There aren’t many reporters who come to his neck of the woods, but they show up every so often, and he surely knows what they want. He apologized for passing us on the gravel road and invited us inside, where he offered us an Old Milwaukee beer (we declined).
Karl and his wife, Suzanne, who are both retired, live in a cabin that faces the compound at a distance of only 300 yards. They explained why there’s a road through the compound. “It’s a public road on private property,” Karl said. The cabin to the south is owned by a man not affiliated with the compound. There’s no other way to the cabin, and the compound cannot legally cut off the man’s access, so the road will apparently be there as long as the owner of the cabin holds out.
Karl encouraged us to drive through the compound to the cabin and assured us it was safe and permissible, so after the interview, we did. The road dead-ends at the cabin’s driveway, and the cabin is perched right on the edge of the breathtakingly beautiful Red Canyon. I wondered how many in the compound have never seen the natural beauty just a few hundred yards from their walled-up world.
Having seen all we could and needing to return to Rapid City, we hit the road, enjoying the sense of freedom and adventure that must be so foreign to so many inside the compound.