Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Sierra, GOOD, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, including in the book The Future of Transportation.
The tale of Swett shows both the risk and appeal of being your own mayor.
Six acres, a saloon, and a possibly haunted house: All of this could be yours for $250,000, a zest for self-governance, and a willingness to live at the southern edge of South Dakota. The tiny hamlet of Swett is up for sale again at a bargain-bin price, 16 months after its listing at $399,000 garnered international headlines and a number of written offers, which all fell through.
“Some of the types of individuals who have been interested in the past included people who wanted to be their own mayor, people who wanted to live off-grid,” real estate agent Stacie Montgomery told Rapid City Journal. (Reality TV show producers and would-be hunting-lodge owners also expressed curiosity.) ”It’s not often that you see an entire town for sale,” she said.
It’s a striking illustration of both the hazards and appeal of living on unincorporated land with no municipal government. Living outside town limits often means fewer taxes or restrictions on what you can build and put in your yard. It also implies a certain spirit of self-reliance, likely be part of the attraction for Swett’s prospective owners.
Of course, a major challenge of self-governance is maintaining the town’s financial viability on your own or with your neighbors. Lance Benson, Swett’s present owner-in-name, has had a tricky time of that: Having purchased the hamlet in 1998, giving it to his ex-wife, and then buying it back in 2012, Benson reportedly lost Swett to the bank that held his mortgage earlier this year.
Swett itself hasn’t had the easiest history. According to its listing, a post office named for a farmer established the community in 1932, and the town reportedly peaked in the 1940s, with 40 people, a few houses, and a grocery store. By 1945, however, the government shuttered the post office, reasoning that Swett was too small to support it. Residents trickled away to larger towns, and Swett’s ownership bounced between hands for decades, eventually falling to a single person.
Now, a bank (and possibly some ghouls, according to locals) possesses Swett, and sadly seems to be doing a better job at managing it than past owners have. “They even installed shiny new town signs for Swett,” Montgomery said. “The old ones had bullet holes in them.”
It seems that it’s great to be your own mayor, until you can’t afford the town.