CAMPO, Calif. — Now that the California real estate market is thawing out, might you be interested in buying a town?
For a mere $1,750,000--barely the cost of the fixer-upper in pricier ZIP codes--a buyer can own nearly all of this tiny mountain community 50 miles east of San Diego and just north of the Mexican border.
Bob and Betty Heslop--he's a retired Navy chief, she's a ceramist--have owned Campo for six years and have decided it is time to cash out and go fishing permanently.
"I'm getting rid of everything I own, except my wife," said Bob, 58. "I tried to talk her into it but she wouldn't go for it."
Betty, 53, married to Bob for 35 years, has heard the joke before. She is what you call a motivated seller. Still, she wants buyers to know that running a town, even one with a colorful and bloody history, is no walk in the woods.
"It's a lot of work," she said. "You're always on call."
The buyer will get 15 acres of land, a 28-unit apartment building, the Heslop's three-bedroom home, five warehouses and assorted buildings that accommodate a car repair shop, a coin-operated laundry, a Baptist church, hardware store, Betty's ceramics studio, Post 2080 of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, a thrift shop and a Post Office.
The buildings are mostly World War II leftovers from Camp Lockett, an Army base that was one of the last posts for the all-black cavalry units known as the Buffalo Soldiers.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Army rushed 3,500 men and 5,000 horses to Camp Lockett for fear that the Japanese planned to use Mexico to launch sabotage raids or a full-scale invasion. When that fear waned, the troops were sent to North Africa and the camp was used for several hundred Italian POWs.
At the end of the war, the Italians were sent home (although pictures of their religious artwork are still on display at a local diner), and the Army ditched Camp Lockett.
Bob Heslop figures Campo is just about to regain its strategic importance: this time economically, not militarily. The North American Free Trade Agreement, he reasons, makes Campo an ideal spot for a twin-plant manufacturing firm or maybe a truck stop.
"Anybody who buys Campo can call himself the mayor or chief of police or anything you want," Heslop said. "Where else can you get that kind of deal?"
As the Heslops wait for offers, Campo residents ponder the prospect of change coming to their hot-in-summer, cold-in-winter hideaway at the southern terminus of Cleveland National Forest.
"We don't want condos and apartments going up all over the place," said Stella Fulks, who tends bar at the VFW hall and is partial to country-Western songs on the jukebox. "That's why most of us came to Campo: to escape the crowd."
It's a common sentiment.
"I wish I had the money to buy Campo and keep it like it is, just like family," said Jerry Weber, 55, a mountain native and former aerospace machinist. "If somebody wrong ends up with it, we could end up with tract houses."
"I like it up here," said Misty Bennett, 18, making her daily trip to the post office "Being away from the flatland keeps me out of trouble."
Which is not to say that trouble never comes to Campo. The roads and trails surrounding it are favorite routes for drug smugglers.
In fact, on those rare occasions when Campo makes the local news, it is generally because the Border Patrol outpost in Campo has made a major bust. In one recent case agents caught a smuggler with 1,250 pounds of marijuana.
The Border Patrol station is one of only a handful of things in Campo not owned by the Heslops. Ditto the county-run ranch for troubled youths, the county fire station and general services yard, the San Diego Railroad Museum, and the historic Old Campo Store, which is California Landmark 441.
A plaque outside the store commemorates the gun battle of Dec. 5, 1875, between the Cruz Lopez gang and the Gaskill brothers Lumen and Silas, who founded Campo in 1868.
Lopez, a bandit and a French shepherd were mortally wounded in the gunfight. Vigilantes that night hanged two bandits while the sheriff was conveniently out to dinner. Residents like to brag that the Campo shootout was bigger and bloodier than the one at the O.K. Corral.
A re-enactment of the shooting is the highlight of Campo's annual Wild West Days celebration attended by several thousand people. The hangings are glossed over but the stump of Hangman's Tree is still there, a few yards from the store.
Such violence is all safely in the past, and despite the occasional drug bust, Campo residents cannot remember the last real-life bloodletting, a fact they point to as proof of the moral superiority of mountain people over city people.
"We don't have \o7 any \f7 drive-by shootings," Bennett noted.
The Heslops paid $1.2 million for Campo in 1988 and figure they have invested $400,000 in improvements, not counting sweat equity. Nine months ago they listed the town at $2.5 million but they dropped the asking price after not getting any bites.