The family of a friend of mine own an entire abandoned mining town in the south. The highlight of every summer vacation there is the 4th of July, when they set up a bunch of watermelons in the windows and doors of the decrepit buildings, and speed back and forth down Main Street in pickups, taking potshots at the melons with their guns. (All of this is done in the spirit of high irony, I assure you.) So if you read the above headline and thought, “why would I want to own an entire town?”, well, there’s your answer.
Weirdly enough, buying a town isn’t as hard as you might think. Earlier this year, the town of Tiller, Oregon hit the market for $3.5 million. For that money, you get six houses, a general store, and an apartment, all spread over 250 acres. Kind of pricey, considering you could have another rural town, Swett, South Dakota, for the relative bargain price of $399,000. And Swett comes with the Swett Tavern, while Tiller only offers a church. Pretty clear choice there.
If you do opt for Swett, you’ll have some interesting neighbors. A nearby town, Scenic, South Dakota (talk about high irony), was sold in 2011 to an apocalyptic religious cult from the Phillippines. The Cult of Manalo, which was founded in 1914 by a guy named (you guessed it) Manalo, who claimed to be a modern-day prophet, reportedly hasn’t moved into the vacant town yet, but when they do, no one will blame you if you quickly turn off all the lights and pretend you aren’t home when they come by to introduce themselves.
In North Carolina, it would only cost you a little over a million to own your very own historic town, if you consider the “Hunger Games” trilogy to be historic. The slum scenes in the movies were filmed in the old mill town of Henry Mill Village, which recently went up for auction. (It didn’t sell.) At present, it’s the site of an unofficial Hunger Games tour, where for $50 you can dress up as your favorite characters from the movie and play “archery tag,” which, correct me if I’m wrong, just means shooting each other with arrows. Count me in.
Of course, if your tastes run a little more exotic, you could do some hamlet shopping across the pond. In Scotland, a beautiful little five house village just hit the market on the Isle of Skye; though from the outside they look like the sort of dirt-floored wretched huts where Mel Gibson used rocks to cave in the skulls of British soldiers throughout the first act of “Braveheart,” on the inside they’re actually quite modern, with heated slate floors and oil stoves. At only $1.6 million, it might be worth it to buy the place, disassemble the houses, and move them here. (This is actually a thing people do.)
If Scotland is a little on the dreary side for you, there are dozens of little towns in Spain you could have, some for the price of a midsized sedan. Most of them are in Galicia which, as a rural, agricultural area, is pretty much the Spanish equivalent to Iowa. (I know, I’m not really selling this very well, am I?) Life was so tough in Galicia, that the name itself became a Spanish term connoting hardship and deprivation. Not surprisingly, almost everyone who could leave, did – authorities estimate over 3 million people have left the region over the past century, leaving behind as many as 3000 empty villages. If you’ve got cash in hand, you could have your pick of the proverbial litter. While some of the more picturesque hamlets have sold for closer to a quarter of a million, a British man recently picked up the empty Galician town of Arrunada for only $50,000.
Of course, the catch is that after you buy the place, you have to live there. Most of these towns are empty for a specific reason – the Oregon town emptied out after logging subsidies dried up, the Hunger Games town was the victim of its failed mills, and the South Dakota towns went bust when the nearby mines did. Setting aside the question of what you’re going to do with your time (nothing/Netflix) or how you’re going to make money (you’re not), there’s the possibility that the “cheap town” phenomenon is just gentrification writ large, the dark underside of globalization. And even if you can shrug it off as the natural workings of the free market, there are practical concerns. If you thought you got side-eye from the locals when you moved into Shaw, just wait until a Galician peasant catches you Instagramming his donkey.