Old South Debate Is Revived in the West

"Dixie" is painted on a bluff overlooking St. George. The region became known as "Utah's Dixie" after Mormons from the South settled there.
By Terry Greene Sterling
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, October 5, 2005

ST. GEORGE, Utah -- The Rebels Monument, a bronze statue of a mounted Confederate soldier grasping a tattered flag while assisting a wounded comrade, sits on the campus of Dixie State College in this southwestern Utah town. An American flag and a Utah flag fly high over the monument, but a third flagpole is empty. It once bore the flag of the Confederate States of America, the former school flag of Dixie State.

In this region, known as Utah's Dixie, the monument is a reminder of an ongoing dispute within the school and community between those who see Confederate icons as key to the area's pioneer identity and those who find such symbols offensive. The college, which for 12 years has been ridding itself of Confederate symbols, is at the center of the imbroglio. The latest debate has swirled around the college's former mascot, a Confederate soldier, which was removed from the campus in 2001 and replaced this semester with a red hawk.

Utah's Dixie seems incongruous in the West, but the name was coined by Mormon converts from the South, who just before the Civil War settled the area to cultivate cotton. "Little Dixies" are scattered across the country, retaining a strong Southern identity after being settled by migrating Southerners during the Civil War era, said William Ferris, senior associate director of the Center for the Study of the American South at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Flanked by the Mojave Desert, steep mountains and fierce canyons, Utah's Dixie was so secluded that after the Mormon Church banned plural marriages in the late 19th century, practicing polygamists remained in the area because it was an easy place to hide from the law.

But that isolation eroded in the last decade, as St. George experienced a surge in population to its current 67,680. The town sits 110 miles east of Las Vegas and about 300 miles south of Salt Lake City. Its proximity to Zion, Bryce Canyon and Grand Canyon national parks; low crime rate; temperate climate; and relatively low housing costs attracted newcomers mostly from the Las Vegas-Southern California corridor and retirees from all over the nation.

St. George is at the center "of wonderful places to hike, and a hub for my archaeological interest in Native American rock art," said Boma Johnson, 65, a retired Bureau of Land Management archaeologist who moved here six years ago from Arizona.

Destination spas, golf courses, chain stores and gated housing developments ring the historic downtown, a green oasis tucked beneath a tan bluff upon which the word "DIXIE" is painted. On another bluff overlooking the town, a large "D," representing Dixie State, lights up at night.

The word "Dixie," thought to have evolved from the name of a coin used in New Orleans in the 19th century, evokes different meanings, Ferris said.

To many, "Dixie" is a place name for the generic South. To others, particularly African Americans and those sensitive to their feelings, the name harks back to slavery, racism and the Civil War, which explains why it is fading from the South, Ferris said.

But that is not the case in southwestern Utah. The Dixie Directory, a regional phone book, lists more than 90 businesses and publicly funded institutions that carry the name, including the Dixie National Forest, a convention center, a high school, a grammar school, a hospital and the college.

"In Utah, the word 'Dixie' is associated mostly with growing cotton on the edge of the Mojave Desert," said Dixie State President Lee Caldwell.

"Here, folks didn't experience the Civil War or the tensions dividing the country."

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