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Chesterfield, USA

Welcome to the unsung rural heartland that you've never heard of, just minutes from downtown Salt Lake City



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Chesterfield's evolution from homes fashioned out of tents, railcars and dirt-floor shacks to a community of small farm holdings began in 1848, when Mormon pioneers first crossed the Jordan River to populate regions that became known as Chesterfield, Hunter, Granger and Redwood—the four areas subsequently incorporated into West Valley City in 1980. "Chesterfield has always been proud and fiercely independent of spirit," former WVC Mayor Mike Winder told City Weekly in 2012.

In Winder's history of West Valley City, entitled Let's Do It, he wrote that, by World War II, a financially strapped Salt Lake County was encouraging families to buy small, $10 lots in Chesterfield to build homes. They did, but the construction materials they had were meager at best. By 1940, 110 families had made Chesterfield their home—some of them in impoverished conditions. "Twenty-three of the 110 families inhabited one-room homes," Winder wrote. "Some were dugouts. Some were tents. Others were fashioned from 'rags, packing boxes and burlap. ... A one-time chicken coop houses a family of nine persons.'"

Louise Griggs has lived in Chesterfield for 69 of her 72 years. When she was a child in the 1940s, northeastern Chesterfield was a wilderness of saltgrass, she says, with no trees or streets. Old train cars—ice hanging off their walls in winter months—served as houses. "The only fun place we ever had was the Jordan River to swim in," she says—at a place they nicknamed "Bare-ass Beach."

Griggs was raised by Ma and Clark Griggs but doesn't know how or why she was adopted. She had two older biological sisters who were 5 and 7 when they were found wandering downtown Salt Lake City in 1946, victims of neglect, according to local newspaper stories at the time. She has been unable to locate them. "My one dream has been to find Frances and Luann," she says. "I don't know who I am, to tell you the truth. I was not well taken care of, but I was surely loved."

At age 5, she'd go down to the river, pitchfork a large carp, then take the fish to an African-American family who lived on Redwood Road, sell it to them for a dollar and, after walking a dozen blocks south, buy a foot-long hot dog and french fries at Arctic Circle. Fifty years later, after extensive flooding of the Salt Lake Valley floor in 1983, Griggs again used her pitchfork, this time in conjunction with a flashlight, against river rats at night digging under her fence to get at her baby ducks. "The only thing I could do was pitchfork them and that's what I done."


People made fun of the poverty of Chesterfield children, she recalls. The homes had outhouses. Families would pack water from nearby wells and run their laundry through a ringer. "That's what makes me appreciate everything I have," Griggs says in her living room, one wall dominated by a row of photographic portraits of the eight dogs she has owned.

"You know how many people ask me that?" she says, regarding why she has spent her life in Chesterfield. She says one big reason is, "I love animals, and I can have them here." She has horses, dogs and goats, some of them rescue animals. She whistles and calls, "Come!" and two of three horses in a corral behind her small single-floor house trot to the fence to have their muzzles stroked. Griggs is one of the few old-timers remaining. "Most of the people here, a lot of them died or moved away," she says.


For decades, Chesterfield was largely left to its own devices when it came to policing. The Salt Lake County Sheriff's Office had only four officers covering Chesterfield, Granger, Hunter and Redwood. After West Valley City was incorporated, former WVC cop Carl Dinger says, "they started enforcing laws, going into [Chesterfield and other neighborhoods], and it was brutal. It was like the Wild West."

Cops saw Chesterfield as a downtrodden, poverty-afflicted community, close-knit and uninterested in assimilating into the rest of the valley, officers say. According to one law-enforcement officer, in the 1980s, Chesterfield's claim to infamy was that, "The best dope was out of Chesterfield, Utah. It was Ground Zero for meth labs—at least until the early 2000s, when the Mexicans took over manufacturing and white boys got out of the dope game."

The era of methamphetamine labs died in 2003 when feds heavily restricted pseudoephedrine—a key ingredient in meth found in cold medications. Still, West Valley City Police Sgt. Todd Gray says, throughout his career, one thing remained a constant in Chesterfield: "There were seven or eight families where you arrested the father, the son, the grandson." He says a few residents still pursue thieving as a lifestyle, venturing out at night on bikes and scooters to steal metal or copper. "It's a way of life for them, how they get money for drugs."

William "Billy Mac" McCarthy came to know a few of those families intimately when, back in the early 1980s, he was a patrol officer for West Valley City, working Chesterfield on his own. One evening in fall 2014, the now-60-year-old ex-cop drove around Chesterfield, detailing in a South Boston drawl his recollections to a reporter.

McCarthy grew up in a housing project in Brighton, Mass. A few of the criminals he regularly ran up against in Chesterfield reminded him of some of the tougher characters he'd grown up with back East.


He and a fellow patrolman, Carl Dinger—another outsider, from New York state—made Chesterfield a personal project, McCarthy recalls. Those they chased would tell them, Dinger was "the muscle behind the asshole," the latter being McCarthy. Each Halloween, one Chesterfield home displayed an effigy of McCarthy in blue overalls putting a second mannequin into a makeshift jail. Dinger says, "They hated Billy, because he arrested them all the time." But McCarthy says he took it as a ribbing by longtime adversaries.

Chesterfield residents, McCarthy says, didn't accept the authority of his WVC badge, seeing themselves as accountable only to Salt Lake County. Most residents, he says, "were good, hardworking people." Those who did break the law abided by a code of sorts: "In 20 years, I close to never saw them steal from each other," McCarthy says. "If they did, they never reported it to us. They'd never rat each other out, no matter how much you'd try to twist them or flip them." The bad guys knew the game as well as he did. "My job is to arrest you; your job is to commit a crime," he'd tell them.

As McCarthy drives around the darkening streets, peering at small, dark houses where men he had arrested still live, he recalls the constant question, "What do you want McCarthy? Why are you always fucking with us?" His answer, he says, was "Because you're easy." He'd sit in a darkened car in the early hours and wait for someone to flick a lit cigarette out of their car window—which he says is littering—or drive by without an illuminated license plate and pull them over.

When he'd inquire who the driver was, usually somebody he knew well, the response would be, "Fuck you," to which he would reply, as taught to him by a supervisor, "Not without dinner and a movie."

At the end of his drive around his one-time stomping ground, the former cop turned private-sector worker, grows nostalgic. "I'd chase them, arrest them, let them go. 'Get you on the next one.' Wish I was still working here."