RAPID CITY, S.D. — Odd things happen to the closest neighbors to a religious sect in Custer County.
For instance, one time the sect's leaders offered Karl and Suzanne Von Rump $1,000 to go on vacation.
The Von Rumps, a retired couple from Minnesota, have the kind of sense of humor that helps them live next door to the 140-acre, secretive compound watched over by a scary-looking guard tower and inhabited by an unknown number of seldom-seen sect members.
A noose hangs from the stairs that lead to the second story of the Von Rumps' cabin. But there’s also a sign that turns ominous into funny: “Come hang with us.”
Their home, in a remote pocket of the southern Black Hills, is off a gravel road that dead-ends a mile beyond their driveway. The first floor is a garage and workshop; above is a small, rustic living area.
The compound is 300 yards away, so the Von Rumps need all the laughs they can get. And they seem to get plenty.
Still, they’re concerned about what might be going on inside the compound — it’s run by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or FLDS, whose members have practiced plural marriage elsewhere, at times with underage brides — and the Von Rumps stubbornly wish the compound would disappear.
“I don’t think we can get a penny for this place, so, yeah, we’ll outlast them,” Suzanne predicted, “unless we both die.”
Karl is a retired machinist and Navy veteran, and Suzanne worked as a financial secretary. They were living in Faribault, Minn., in 1999 when they bought their 40 acres about 15 miles southwest of Pringle.
“I love it,” the buzz-cut, white-bearded Karl said of the rugged surroundings. “And the climate is wonderful,” he added, pointing outside to last Wednesday's sunny and mild weather.
The Von Rumps started building their cabin in 2000 and split their time between Minnesota and South Dakota for a while before settling permanently in what they thought would be a pristine, peaceful place to retire. They loved the sweeping view of the Black Hills from their property, including the peak of Pilger Mountain in the distance. Red Canyon is also nearby.
When they heard that a mysterious, cult-like group was trying to buy land immediately to their south, the Von Rumps quickly made a competing offer.
They were a week late.
The sale to an FLDS-affiliated corporation closed in 2003.
Since then, a friend has purchased land around the Von Rumps, protecting them against any northward expansion by the compound.
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Living next to such a place is, at times, very noisy.
The Von Rumps said when compound dwellers were tackling construction projects in the early years, they worked all hours. Karl and Suzanne and other neighbors complained to local government officials about the noise. Fed up, one pair of neighbors moved away.
As time has worn on, the compound’s leaders have grown more responsive to complaints, and they and the Von Rumps have forged an uneasy coexistence.
There’s still noise, as when compound workers are unearthing and busting up rocks. There are also weekly semitractor-trailer arrivals and departures.
When Karl wants to talk to somebody inside the compound, he goes down to the guard tower and makes an inquiry. A leader is summoned by radio and sometimes emerges from what looks like a space under the tower. The Von Rumps think there might be a system of tunnels beneath the compound; if true, that would help explain why so few people are ever seen moving around.
Another reason the compound’s inhabitants remain out of sight is the network of fences, fitted with tightly spaced, 8-foot-long vertical wood planks, and the berms. Most views of inside of the compound are obstructed.
The compound’s leaders sometimes try to be good neighbors but seem to lack a full understanding of the concept. They’ll incite neighborly anger by working noisily through the night on a construction project, then come plow the Von Rumps’ driveway after a snowfall.
Then there was the unexpected largess.
Once, when the compound was launching a particularly noisy project, the leaders approached the Von Rumps with an odd offer: Here's $1,000. Go away for a while.
Grudgingly, the Von Rumps took the money and a vacation.
The Von Rumps are among nine couples, individuals or organizations to petition against the compound’s pending application to the state for a third water well. They worry about too much use of the Madison aquifer in the typically dry area, and they wonder why a compound they believe to have only about 100 people and no animals needs access to 300 gallons of water per minute.
That’s enough to meet the needs of more than 4,000 people, according to the National Park Service, one of the organizations petitioning against the well permit.
Hope for the Von Rumps comes in the form of history. A similar, larger FLDS compound in Texas was raided and seized by the state in recent years.
Whatever happens, the Von Rumps say they’re staying put.
“Our view was absolutely gorgeous,” Suzanne said, “until they moved in.”