In 1911, David Udall returned with his family to St. Johns, Arizona with the intent to stay. They had first lived in St. Johns in 1880, but David’s plural marriages to both Ella Stewart and Ida Hunt led to his prosecution and imprisonment. His second wife, Ida, spent two years in hiding with her in-laws, and even when David was released from prison, the family lived in impoverished conditions on the frontier’s margins, outcasts for practicing plural marriage. By the turn of the twentieth century, though, two separate Latter-day Saint prophet-presidents had publicly renounced plural marriage, and while members and leaders applied the first renouncement inconsistently, the second was firm. While the Udalls remained married and continued variously living together, with the Church no longer solemnizing new marriages, the most overt persecution finally waned.
From the 1880s onward, the Udalls had, whether together or separately, lived throughout northeastern Arizona, in St. Johns, Snowflake, Round Valley, Eagar, and Hunt. In 1911, however, with many of the children now adults and David committed to living in the area as president of the Church’s St. Johns Stake, the family worked together to build a “dream home” in the city. They hired contractors from Thatcher, Arizona, and the Udall sons—both Ella’s and Ida’s—labored with them, helping to haul material, craft cement bricks, and do carpentry work. Ella’s daughter Pearl also participated, cooking meals for the builders. During this time, most of the family lived in a house that Ida owned in St. Johns, a three-story edifice so drafty they nicknamed it the “Air Castle.”
In the spring of 1912, the Udalls finished building their new home and moved in. David estimated it had cost $8,000, including both building materials and furnishings, and he called it a “monument” to “years of effort in building up St. Johns, and what I deem more important… the solidarity of our family circle.” The family nicknamed their dream home the Elm Hotel, naming it for an elm tree that David had previously planted on the lot years before, in 1887.
The family’s unmarried sons lived in the Udall home until they married and went on to establish their own homes in St. Johns. Ida had a first-floor room and spent most of the next three years there—the last of her life. Later, when the Church called David to serve as a temple president in Mesa, he rented out rooms in the Elm Hotel while he was gone, finally fulfilling the nickname’s second half.
The building stayed in the family for generations. After David passed, his and Ida’s son Grover and his wife Dora bought the Elm Hotel. Dora’s niece Elma recalled that “she turned it into a hotel. She even got AAA approval,” added bathrooms, and started a restaurant. The hotel-motel operation outlasted the restaurant, serving customers as late as the 1980s.
When Grover and Dora passed away, the Elm Hotel passed into the possession of David’s grandson Keith and his wife Gwen, among whose family is the author Brady Udall, their grandson.
David’s elm tree on the lot grew to a tremendous size, and locals dubbed it the “centennial tree” for its old age. Elma Udall recalled that “it [took] five of us like this,” with arms outstretched, “to go around the trunk.” Unfortunately, after so long, the tree grew too big for the property. When it was more than a hundred years old, it began rotting, and out of concern it might fall on the house, the tree was cut down.
Eventually, another St. Johns local bought the house from the Udall family and lived there for a time, but they moved out after the attic caught fire. Today, one block to the east of the Elm stands a chapel of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and two blocks to the west is the Apache County Historical Society Museum. Though the house is in some disrepair, the Elm Hotel still stands.