It was a brilliant summer day when a teenage Bob Pierson first laid eyes on Southern Cross. “It seemed quaint—a place out of time,” Pierson says of the loose gathering of cabins, sheds and other structures set on a grassy slope 7,000 feet up Cable Mountain and some 50 miles northwest of Butte, Mont. The weathered log and corrugated-metal buildings, some dating back to the turn of the century, when Southern Cross was an active gold-mining town, looked out on Georgetown Lake below, the Sapphire Mountains in the distance and stands of lodgepole pine on all sides. “The flowers were out, and there were robins everywhere,” recalls Pierson, now 42. “It really touched me.”
So much so that after three years of living on the outskirts of the town, he moved in, leased its abandoned assay office and started to fix it up. He has called it home ever since. But 24 years after his discovery, Southern Cross may be changing forever. In January three local businessmen bought the property from Magellan Resources, which had been leasing buildings to Pierson and 18 other full-and part-time residents for $150 a year each. In March the owners served eviction notices, giving Pierson and his neighbors 60 days to pack up and leave. “It was almost like the Old West, and you had until sundown to get out of town,” says Pierson.
The new owners say they haven’t finalized plans (recreational use is likely), but it’s clear that Pierson and his friends aren’t included. “[They] have been able to enjoy the ambience of Southern Cross and the larger Georgetown region for a mere $12.50 per month,” co-owner John Fitzpatrick said in a statement, noting that the rent didn’t even cover property taxes. “We have no obligation to subsidize their lifestyle.”
But residents won’t be going without a fight. Lawyer Roy Andes of Missoula, who once rented a cabin in Southern Cross, says that on June 22—with Pierson as lead plaintiff—he will ask a judge in Montana’s third judicial district court to quash the evictions. He’ll argue that for more than 100 years area landowners used low rents to encourage residents—who represented the only local source of labor—to stay. More recently these residents have, at their own expense, maintained the property and restored historic buildings.
Besides, says Andes, the issue goes beyond cheap rent. “The effort is not just to save a bunch of buildings,” he says, “but to save a continuous community stretching back 130 years.” (Chandler Simpkins, preservation officer for the Montana historic town of Virginia City, says that he knows of no other towns where the buildings are largely made of corrugated metal: “It’s unique architecturally.”)
Founded in the 1870s after gold was discovered in the vicinity, Southern Cross saw its population peak in the early 1900s at about 500, many of its settlers Finnish and Swedish immigrants. Most drifted away in 1941 after the mining operation shut down, but a few old-timers stayed on to lease homesites and were joined by occasional outdoorsmen drawn by the beauty of the place, its relative accessibility and such amenities as electricity, phone lines, even a county snow-plow service.
Bob Pierson has become such a mainstay in the town that locals now call him mayor. For him, Southern Cross fulfills a dream of outdoor life he had growing up in Manitowoc Rapids, Wis., the son of a draftsman and his wife. Pierson fell in love with the West while on vacation with his father and brother in 1970. He makes his living as a carpenter and spends the rest of his time repairing roofs, shoring up walls, landscaping, watching over part-timers’ homes and greeting the occasional tourist. Except for trips to see his family, he rarely strays far. “I feel like I’m abandoning things if I leave for a day or two,” he says. Now he’s hoping he won’t be leaving for good.
Michael Haederle in Southern Cross