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for people who care about the West

A Utah realtor’s quest to sell a ghost town

 

Woodside, Utah

Mike Metzger strides through a row of cracked wooden headstones decorated with faded plastic flowers. The 35-year-old wears a button-down shirt and gray pants. He has lightly-gelled short dark hair and a trim goatee. "These graves are silent now," he says, staring wistfully at the camcorder. "But if they could speak, the stories they would tell." Metzger's gaze drifts toward the rusting fuel tanks and busted-up RVs that dot the desert beyond. Railroad tracks disappear behind crumbling hills, and a black horse limps across an abandoned bridge.

This is Woodside, Utah, population zero, and Metzger, a realtor, is trying to sell it for $3.9 million.

Six years ago, weary from declining health and wanting to spend more time with his family, the town's owner and sole inhabitant, Roy Pogue, decided to sell. There were no takers. People thought Metzger was crazy for taking over the listing last summer, the realtor says. "But I enjoy day-dreaming about how I market a property." Woodside, a former railroad re-supply stop with a geyser that was briefly a kitschy roadside attraction, is a more challenging sell than the modest ranch homes in nearby Price that Metzger usually lists. But he's not easily daunted: His first time in a whitewater kayak, he ran a class V section of the Price River and swam nearly every rapid. "We almost died!"

Metzger quickly realized few buyers would splurge for a vandalized gas station, a solitary patch of cottonwoods and 700 acres of sparsely vegetated desert in eastern Utah. (For $3.9 million, one could instead buy an eight-bathroom Park City mansion or a 10,000-square-foot trophy home on a western Colorado ranch.) He needed people drawn to the romance of owning their own town.

Last July, he took out an ad in the Sun Advocate, Carbon County's local paper: "Sheriff, Judge and Executioner Wanted For the Town of Woodside." It intrigued an editor, who wrote a story about Metzger's peculiar property listing. Soon, Metzger was giving reporters from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles tours of Woodside. The story even ran on a Hmong talk radio station in Minnesota. Metzger got a call from a realtor with Hmong clients looking for a place to preserve their heritage. (The Hmong are an ethnic group from China and Southeast Asia.) After touring the property and picnicking by the gas pumps, the Hmong visitors decided Woodside, in the Price River's floodplain, was a risky place to settle.

The next serious inquiry came from a production company looking for a movie set. The town has already made several silver screen cameos: A sleazy driver's truck exploded on its abandoned highway in the 1991 hit Thelma and Louise, and John the Baptist dipped Jesus in the Price River in a Mormon church film. But Woodside's remoteness, while appealing for certain shoots, proved impractical for a permanent set.

Woodside also caught the eye of Painless Productions, the L.A. company behind HGTV's Posh Pets: Lifestyles of the Rich & Furry. Painless was not interested in buying the town but in making a reality show about the ghost town realtor. Though the company won't confirm or deny it, Metzger says a producer asked him to send footage of himself showing the property, and I offered to film him during my tour.

In one shot, Metzger stands next to a collapsed billboard advertising the geyser, now dry. "Fifty to 60 years ago, this was quite the site," he says emphatically. He shakes his head. "I got nothing else." I suggest he talk about how Lady Bird Johnson's highway beautification campaign helped cripple the town by eradicating billboards. After 30 seconds, his screen presence dissolves into a goofy smile. "This dude's going to have to send me to school to do this," he sighs.

Next, we shoot a lightbulb-edged red arrow pointing to the service station -- "a real piece of Americana," Metzger boasts. We cross U.S. 6 to Woodside's residential side, where nearly 300 people lived before the railroad consolidated its operations up the road in Helper and the people left, too. At a weathered house, Metzger rests his hand on a rusty ladder. "A ladder," he muses in a profound tone, "but to where?"

It's been eight months since the media frenzy. There still haven't been any offers. But Metzger is optimistic. While he still plans to market Woodside as a whole town -- a generous description, he admits -- he's convinced the owner to sell the old gas station separately. And perhaps Woodside's mineral rights will interest an oil and gas company.

As for reality TV, Metzger doesn't seem cut out for it. Big sales are exciting, he says, but what he really likes is working with first-time buyers, who are thrilled to move into an $80,000 home. "I love seeing the twinkle in their eye," he says. "Little things like that keep you going."