This aerial photo shows the foundation of a large structure on FLDS property in Eldorado, Texas. Some surmise that the church is planning to build a church or even a temple - which would be the faith's first.
Even in the middle of the night, the lights and sounds of a limestone-mining operation emanate from a private, polygamous enclave near the West Texas town of Eldorado.
At least a dozen buildings, one of them a cavernous meetinghouse, have been constructed on the YFZ Ranch by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, says Randy Mankin, editor of the weekly Eldorado Success newspaper.
There is speculation that the limestone would sheath a new church, possibly a temple, for the FLDS church, which adheres to tenets of 19th-century Mormonism that include polygamy. If so, it would be a first for the sect, which claims about 12,000 believers in communities on the Arizona Strip, British Columbia, Texas and, most recently, Colorado.
"I drove out there the other night, at about three in the morning, and it was going strong," Mankin said Friday. "There are big light towers . . . you can see the glow over the horizon."
Schleicher County Sheriff David Doran said he asked Merrill Jessop, who lives on the ranch, if a foundation that has appeared in recent weeks would be for a temple. "He kind of hesitated," Doran said, and would not confirm that.
Mankin, however, said the construction involves limestone extracted from the ranch land, and an aerial photo on his newspaper's Web site shows large blocks that appear to be appropriate for a stately building.
If the building is to be a temple, that would be a significant departure from previous FLDS teachings and beliefs. Until now, FLDS followers were told they were either unworthy to have a temple, or that the time had not yet come for one.
The FLDS is led by Warren Jeffs, who has lived in a compound in the twin cities of Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah. Jeffs is rarely seen by outsiders and, along with the FLDS church, is a defendant in two lawsuits - one alleging child sexual abuse and the other claiming he routinely exiles young men from the twin cities. Critics contend Jeffs wants to keep young FLDS women available for marriage to older, more established men.
If Jeffs has ordered a temple built in Eldorado, it may seem a more pure place than the twin cities, where Jeffs has ousted dozens of men for undisclosed failings, says Ezra Draper, who parted ways with Jeffs in 2003 and moved to northern Idaho. Some of those men have refused to leave their homes, which are owned by an FLDS church trust, and Arizona courts have upheld their right to remain in at least two cases.
That could mean that the ranch four miles outside of Eldorado offers "the control they are beginning to lose in Colorado City," Draper said.
Past FLDS prophets taught that a temple would be built in Jackson County, Mo., after the second coming of Jesus Christ. Temples then would spread to FLDS strongholds, including a site at the southwest end of Colorado City called Berry Knoll.
"It seems like it has always been our hope and prayer we would have a temple, but it was understood it would come after the Lord had come," Draper said.
Which leaves two possibilities: "Either he's [Christ] come and we just don't know it, or he [Jeffs] feels he can do whatever he wants," Draper said. "From a fundamental point of view, it actually mocks God."
Some observers believe Jeffs needs a new, tantalizing promise to dangle before followers after a string of failed prophecies - that the world would end in 2000, or with the arrival of the 2002 Olympics in Utah, or after the latest presidential election.
Creation of a temple would allow FLDS members to receive endowments and perform other spiritual work. "He has to do something to keep the people following him," said one man who spoke on condition he not be named.
Draper expects the faithful will likely be invited to visit Eldorado for short periods in order to do temple work.
Jeffs, who turned 50 on Friday, also may not want to face the prospect of his own mortality without temple blessings, some surmise.
A temple may provide the proper setting for Jeffs to be "translated in" if it comes to a showdown between him and the law.
"He's got to set himself up as a holy martyr," said the man.
"He knows the judicial process is aimed at putting him in jail."