CIRCLEVILLE, Piute County — Utah's best-known outlaw is about to get some official recognition.
State and county officials are taking steps to restore a pioneer cabin where the notorious — or beloved — Butch Cassidy is believed to have lived.
The cabin has been rotting away for about a century in Piute County. Today it's in obvious distress; it leans just a little bit to the north, toward the town of Circleville. In spite of its decrepit condition, county road crews have already carved out a parking lot for 20 cars and four tour buses between the cabin and U.S. 89.
"We took some counts," said Piute County Commissioner Darin Bushman. "We were getting between 60 and 90 cars a day stopping here, out on the highway."
Why would an old crumbling shack generate so much interest? It's because of the unusual appeal of the famous bad guy.
A 1969 movie about Butch and his gang is arguably the most popular western of all time. According to a list of top performing westerns at the box office, "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" is said to have earned $560,229,400, adjusted for inflation. That puts it in first place, well ahead of such classic westerns as "Shane," "True Grit" and "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly."
Played in the film by Paul Newman and Robert Redford, Butch and Sundance were real people in Utah history. The famous names they used more than a century ago, however, were actually aliases. Butch Cassidy's real name was Robert Leroy Parker. He was born in Beaver in 1866.
Many residents of Circleville believe the decrepit pile of pioneer lumber just outside town — now owned by Afton Morgan — is where Butch lived as a youngster.
"We'd just like to preserve the cabin," Morgan said, "mainly for people to see."
The Utah Legislature authorized $138,000 to disassemble the cabin piece by piece and put it back together in a more stable, restored version.
"It's slowly degrading," Bushman said. "It's not on a real foundation and it's slowly tilting and leaning and listing. And we just, we really wanted to preserve the cabin."
State parks and county officials met with the Morgan family recently to plan the project and to chew over the outlaw's colorful history.
One question is whether Butch ever really lived there. It's known that the Parker family lived there after moving from Beaver. But some Butch and Sundance aficionados believe Butch had already left the family by then to hit the outlaw trail.
"There's a lot of rumors of that," Morgan acknowledged. "But to the best of our knowledge, Butch come here when he was just a young boy. I've heard all the way from 8 to 12 years old."
There's another major question of historical debate: Did the law ever really catch up with Butch and Sundance?
The movie's ending is based on the standard historical account. Spoiler alert: The two infamous bad guys supposedly moved to South America and got themselves killed in a shootout with Bolivian soldiers in 1908.
"I don't buy that story, nope!" Morgan said. "We have people from Panguitch and people from Circleville and they claim they saw him in the ’30s."
Of course, there is somewhat of an ethical question surrounding the restoration of Morgan's cabin as a state historical site: Does it make sense for the state to be celebrating the less-than-honorable activities of a famous crook?
Morgan defends the idea — and he defends Butch.
"He was a bad guy in the sense that he robbed banks, robbed trains, blew up stagecoaches," Morgan said. "But he was a good guy in that he was kind to those that were broke and out of money."
Yes, the Butch Cassidy of legend is Utah's version of Robin Hood.
"Granted, he was an outlaw," Bushman said, "but he certainly was one of the most well-known citizens of the state of Utah."
Fred Hayes, director of the Utah Division of State Parks, said his agency will develop information signs for the historic site. He promised the division will do its best to get the history right.