COLORADO CITY, Ariz. — Days after "tens of thousands" of books were reportedly burned in a polygamous border town, those who spent years gathering the books have voiced their resolve to carry on.
For Stefanie Colgrove, the woman who started gathering the books in an effort to open a library for the Fundamentalist LDS Church towns of Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah, there is no question of what will become of the planned library.
"I have one of those natures that if you ask me nicely, I'm more than willing to do anything, but you strong-arm me, you just sit back and see what happens," she said Tuesday. "I'm more determined than ever."
The books, which Colgrove and others had been collecting since 2007, were being housed in an old schoolhouse that they were hoping to convert into a community library.
Elaine Tyler, a volunteer for The HOPE organization, said she had personally received over $15,000 worth of books, including $10,000 worth from Barnes and Noble Booksellers. Colgrove said books she had were worth at least another $6,000.
"There were tens of thousands of books," Tyler said. "Barnes and Noble donated … a lot of nursery rhymes and Nancy Drew, fun children's books so these kids can fantasize and have a little bit of a childhood," she said. "And it's gone now. Up in smoke."
She called the incident "evil" and "cruel" and said she couldn't believe those who burned the books did so just after a federal judge made efforts to return property from a state-run FLDS trust back to control of the FLDS Church.
In the day we live in, destroying literature of any kind is unfathomable. Especially in America, this stuff doesn't happen.
"The only thing I can compare their actions to is Adolf Hitler's when he piled up books and burned them decades ago," she said.
Colgrove, an ex-FLDS member who moved back to the border towns to raise her family, wanted a library for everyone who lives in the area. The rumor was that FLDS leader Warren Jeffs years earlier had ordered the old library closed and all of the books disappeared, she said.
Plans for the new library stalled when the ownership of the schoolhouse came into question.
The schoolhouse is on FLDS Church trust property. The trust was formed in 1942 on the concept of a "united order," allowing followers to share in its assets.
The trust holds most of the property and homes in the twin FLDS communities. It was taken over by the courts in 2005 over allegations it had been mismanaged by FLDS leaders. Members consider sharing their assets a religious principle and see state intervention in the trust as a violation of their religious rights.
The state managers of the trust offered to donate the building to be used as a library. But two FLDS members recently came to a meeting about the issue and said the ownership of the schoolhouse is already the subject of a lawsuit and threatened another suit if it were made into a library.
Saturday, a bonfire was spotted near the schoolhouse. One witness said the flames were high enough to stretch above rooftops. Book fragments were found in the ash. The schoolhouse was locked and its windows boarded, making it difficult to know how many books were destroyed.
"I know it sounds corny, but when something you have been passionate about and strived for is taken away from you, the air just goes out of you," Colgrove said, recounting how she felt when her mother told her the news. "If it wouldn't have been my mother telling me, I would have thought it was someone doing a stupid practical joke on me."
She said her brain was numb simply trying to understand how someone could think to burn books.
"In the day we live in, destroying literature of any kind is unfathomable," she said. "Especially in America, this stuff doesn't happen."
Tyler said she feels she owes it to those who have donated to pursue action to bring whoever burned the books to justice, including filing a complaint with the Mohave County Sheriff's Office.
It was heartwarming to be part of the process of gathering and donating books. To see it to go up in flames is just heartbreaking.
–Paul Murphy, Utah A.G.'s office
"We're probably barking up a tree, but I don't care, I'm going to bark," she said. "People need to know what they've done. To burn books is inexcusable."
Paul Murphy, a spokesman for the Utah Attorney General's Office, personally took part in collecting books for the effort and making others aware of plans for the library.
"People from all walks of life came forward and said, 'I've got books,'" he said. "A lot of people really gave of themselves and some fool decided to burn them. ... It was heartwarming to be part of the process of gathering and donating books and to see it to go up in flames is just heartbreaking."
Murphy said he would characterize the incident as a "hate crime."
"By burning these books it represents hatred toward anybody who introduces new ideas into Colorado City," he said.
Murphy is hopeful the library will still be created and he will "absolutely" aid in any future efforts. "I hope this incident will help the library rise like a phoenix out of the ash."
In the meantime, Colgrove is holding out hope that most of the books weren't burnt, but simply taken away.
"I've been talking to an officer in Colorado City and he thinks there may be a lead as to where some of the books went," she said. "If that's true, you'll see the happiest person ever. Go put them somewhere, just don't destroy them."
Requests for comment from Colorado City marshals and an FLDS spokesman were not returned.