The business got its start when Deon, working as a truck driver and driving south on Interstate 15, wondered how he was going to put the next meal on the table, when he saw a road sign by Spanish Fork which advertised that “Utah Monument Company is for sale.”
When Deon reached his Washington City home, he discussed with his wife, Raeola, about buying the company. She told him as long as he was available to work weekends, she would get the business up and rolling, along with raising their two children.
In the spring of 1964, they purchased Utah Monument Company, not knowing she was pregnant with their third child. The previous owners then set out to train the Connells how to operate the business which they first set up in Washington City near 200 West Telegraph St.
“So Dad drove truck and did the monument business after hours and on weekends while my Mom did the engravings on the granite (markers), and did the sales and bookkeeping,” Mike Connell said, adding that “I have a copy of the original St. George (Area) Telephone Directory for 1964 which lists Utah Monument Company in the White Pages.”
“The directory is my ice breaker for people coming in here,” Mike Connell said. “Depending on their mood, they can’t believe the directory is so small.”
After his father and mother committed to purchase the monument company, Mike said his father told him, “‘We didn’t know where we were going to come up with the $15,000 to pay for the business.’”
Deon said they paid $35 a month to rent the property. At the time, Deon said he was planning to go back to work in Las Vegas, but his wife told him she didn’t want him to work so far out of town, and she promised she would keep the work going.
At the time, two mortuaries operated in the St. George area – Cannon Mortuary and Spilsbury Mortuary, Deon Connell said, both of which immediately began doing business with Utah Monument Company.
Through that opportunity and because the monument company was located on what was then State Highway 91, the main artery from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City, business began to pick up. Meanwhile, as construction got underway on Interstate 15 through Southern Utah between 1970 and 1973, Deon Connell was able to get work with road contractor W.W. Clyde of Springville, Utah. He later went into the auto body business while continuing to run the Utah Monument Company as a sideline.
In those first few years of business, Raeola and Deon Connell were able to come up with the money to purchase the business, which eventually moved to St. George in 1968 and now operates out of the back of the Connell home at 510 East Tabernacle in St. George. Today, it is run by Deon Connell and son Mike Connell, while Mike’s wife, Koie, does the bookkeeping , since the death of Raeola in September 2012.
Three years ago, Deon suffered a stroke, but largely recovered. He told Mike that “‘The day I can’t pass my driver’s license is the day to put me out with Mom.’ ”
One of the unique aspects of the business is that all of its advertisement comes solely from word of mouth “and we are now working with five generations (of customers),” Mike Connell said. “When people Google us, my competition comes up. But when we do business, we do a lot of pay it forward work.”
For example, the Connell family had been trying to repay Brian Prisbrey, a cousin who had done a variety of heating and cooling work over the years for the monument company and never charged the Connells. However, some work was traded over those years – still the Connells felt they had not yet fully repaid Prisbrey for his kindness and hard work.
However, when one of Prisbrey’s employees, Lane Burgess, a 20-year-old cowboy, was killed in an auto accident between Barkley and Caliente, Nev., the Connells learned that Burgess had also been a best friend of Prisbrey’s son.
So the day after the accident, Brian Prisbrey told the Connells he wanted a headstone for Lane Burgess and that Prisbrey would pay for it. He said for the Connells not to send a bill to the Burgess family.
But Mike told Prisbrey, “ ‘We’ve been trying to get even with you and your family for 40 years. Don’t worry about it,” there is no charge.
Mike said the headstone will be delivered to Barkley, Nev., this week through Scott Hafen and D.J. Gull of Southern Utah Vaults. In addition, he said that Weston Bundy produced a drawing for the granite engraving.
“That’s how we advertise,” Mike said, is with these pay-it-forward experiences, and my family has always done that.”
Through the history of the Utah Monument Company, Mike Connell, who joined the company full-time in 2004, has never sent bills to its customers, “but our customers know the bill and those who have to make payments, we set up a payment plan and they remember to pay us.”
“We’ve never charged interest,” Mike Connell adds. “Sometimes, we have to make calls to remind people, but in nearly 50 years we’ve only had a handful of people who couldn’t afford to pay the full amount.”
He related how one customer had fallen on hard financial times and couldn’t make their payments on a purchased monument. Twenty years later, she came and brought $200 to Deon Connell. At the time, she said she didn’t know exactly how much she owed, and Deon couldn’t remember either. She then ordered another monument for she and her husband, “but her conscience was clear,” Mike Connell said.
Deon’s daughter-in-law, Koie, said Deon, Raeola and Mike Connell have put love and compassion into the whole operation. She said it is hand intensive labor, which includes transferring the design to stencil and then sand blasting the design into the granite.
And the business delivers 365 days a year, especially on Easter Day.
Deon said his daughter, Karen, used to say at show and tell in school that “ ‘On Easter, we’d take a picnic, but we always went to the cemetery.”
One of the more memorable monuments, the Utah Monument Company designed was for the seven man Air Force crew who were killed in April 1983 when the B-52 bomber they were flying in, crashed into Square Top Mountain. The Air Force, in connection with surviving family members, later commissioned the Connells to list all seven names on a monument to commemorate their memory.
“We delivered the stone to the St. George Airport,” then located on the West Black Hill, “and they had it on a sling and airlifted it to Square Top Mountain,” Mike Connell said.
Deon added that “One of the guy’s (deceased Air Force crew member) dads back East picked out the names and the design.”
The largest monument designed by Utah Monument Company was the William and Malissa Turnbeaugh stone, six feet tall by 2.5 feet wide, which was located in the Washington Cemetery on Memorial Day 2013. The Turnbeaugh family are ancestors of Deon and Raeola Connell.
The second largest monument designed by the family-owned company was the Carold and Fenton Tobler monument located in the Santa Clara Cemetery. Fenton Tobler served in the Las Vegas Temple and was a school principal in Las Vegas. His wife died on April 2, 2013.
The most unusual monument the Connells designed was one for the first African American pioneer in Parowan, Utah for “Faithful John Burton, born in 1797 and who died in 1865. John Burton was a slave of master Susan McCord Burton Robinson, whose gravestone was also designed by the Utah Monument Company.
Another memorable monument the company designed was for Albert Petty, one of the first pioneer settlers of Springdale, Mike Connell said.
Over the years, Mike said his brother Gary Connell, and his sister, Karen Connell, also helped with the business as they were growing up, but he said, “My Mom was the heart and soul of this operation,” and Koie adds that Deon has been the “grit and sand. He did the heavy work. He’d come home from his other job and then work this job and continued to work the monument job on the weekends.”
As one of the last of the Mom and Pop monument operations in the state of Utah, Mike said they all enjoy their work, and while Deon says it kept food on the table, he and Mike also agree that it’s been nice to help their neighbors and friends when they experience the loss of a loved one.