WRITING INSPIRATION FOR LITTLE ALICE LANDERGIN: BRINGING SOLACE TO A GHOST TOWN
Why I Wrote About Tragedy, Loss, and Love
I think a lot of people are fascinated by ghost towns. I know I am. So when I heard that near Amarillo, Texas, where I grew up, there was a real ghost town, I wanted to go and see it and find out more about it: Who built the town and why did it became a ghost town?
The real ghost town is Landergin, Texas. It’s not on most maps of Texas and the Texas Panhandle—not since the 1930s. It’s located off the I-40 at Exit 28—42 miles west of Amarillo, 7.5 miles west of Vega, and 31 miles from the Texas-New Mexico state line. At one time, Route 66 ran through it.
At the time I went looking for it, there was no sign on the Interstate. I knew where it was, only by the County Road number, indicating where it was supposed to be. In recent years, the ghost town has become marked by large highway sign on I-40, for the benefit of truckers who are looking for the “Truck & Trailer Repair & Used Parts” facility and its junk yard full of crashed semi-trailer trucks—very appropriate for a ghost town. The abandoned truck-stop restaurant and gas station are fenced-in and surrounded by cannibalized vehicles. Next to this, there is a towering grain silo, plus a small office building for the silo—both also long-abandoned. That’s it. No houses. No old school house. And no trees.
The first time I went looking for the Landergin Ghost Town, I knew nothing about why it was called “Landergin.” Visiting from California, about sunset in the summer of 2014, I finally found it. I was by myself. When the sun went down, it was scary. There was no one there. The repair-and-parts place was closed. Everything was perfectly still and quiet, except for cars and trucks occasionally whizzing by on the nearby I-40. It was easy to let my imagination loose and feel flights of ghosts hovering about, especially around the towering grain silo.
“What’s their story?” I asked myself out loud.
Sometimes for a novel, an author feels that it’s necessary to invent a series of tragedies, in order to have the reader feel the pathos in the lives of the characters of the story. But in the case of the Landergin brothers, Pat and John, who in 1906 were the founders of the town of Landergin, I discovered that I didn’t need to make up anything. Tragedy after tragedy really did befall them.
In fact, their lives were already tragic, even before they were born. Their starving parents were forced to flee Ireland for New York during the horrible potato famine of the 1840s. As young men, the brothers John and Pat left their parents’ farm and sought their fortunes in Oklahoma—then called “Indian Territory.” They prospered, bought land and acquired a large cattle herd. Pat went back to New York for a bride and brought her to Kansas, where the brothers now had set up their large cattle ranch.
Then tragedy came: Harriet, one of Pat’s two daughters, died as a small child. Next, tragedy struck in the form of the bust years of the close of the nineteenth century. The Landergin brothers, having lost most of their wealth, went to the Texas Panhandle, to start over. They became very wealthy again, owning and leasing hundreds of thousands of acres of land in the Texas Panhandle, New Mexico and Arizona.
In 1913, they moved from their Oldham County ranch headquarters near their town of Landergin, and went to Amarillo, to build an enormous mansion on Polk Street. It was intended to rival the nearby Bivins House. Then tragedy struck again: Pat’s wife died before the mansion was completed. Next, John, the business manager, who had never married, died in 1923. Pat was not good at finances and had to begin to selling off ranch land to pay his debts.
The next tragedy for Pat came in the form of having no grandchildren from Alice, his one surviving daughter. For whatever reason, she couldn’t have children after she married. The huge mansion remained empty, except for Patrick, Alice and a couple of servants.
Pat decided to give money to the Amarillo School District to build a new elementary school near the Landergin House, and have the school named, “Alice Landergin,” in honor of his daughter, so that she could at least watch the school children play, even if she had none of her own. But Alice died in April of 1928, before the completion of her namesake school in June of that year.
Patrick Landergin died the next year, in 1929, most likely of despair, depression and drink. He and his brother John left no direct heirs. With Pat’s passing, the Landergins of the Texas Panhandle were extinct. The Harrington family bought Landergin House from the Landergin estate, and today it is known as the “Harrington House.”
After I read the history of the Landergin family, I said to myself, “No wonder I felt their pathetic ghosts floating about the grain silo of their ghost town.”
I don’t like tragedies. I like love stories and happily-ever-after endings. So I thought to myself, Maybe I can invent a story about the Landergins that will end in happiness, instead of tragedy.
What if there was a widowed niece of Pat and John to whom they had given a farm house and some land near Landergin … an invented middle-aged lady named “Julia Landergin”? … She seemed to be doomed to live the same life of tragedy after tragedy that had befallen her uncles. Her husband died in the Great War and she had no children. She was living by herself, alone, sad and bitter. Then what if her lawyer called her to tell her that she had two nieces that nobody knew existed—her brother’s granddaughters. … Julia’s brother Billy hadn’t died in the Great War, along with her husband, after all.
Suffering from “shell shock,” as they called PTSD in World War I, Billy had gone to New Mexico and married into a Navajo Indian tribe. In 1947, when he died in an automobile accident, he left two Indian granddaughters, Alice and Harriet Landergin. What if Julia went to Gallup next to the Navajo Reservation and brought the two little girls home, to raise as her own?
Then there could be a live-happily-ever-after romance story for the Landergin family. The two little girls could grow up, fall in love, get married and have the children that Patrick’s daughter couldn’t have. Then Landergin wouldn’t have to become a ghost town. And Patrick and John’s ghosts, who were floating in despair around the town’s grain silo, would find peace, watching Little Alice and Little Harriet grow up on Julia’s place near Landergin, and they would have families that could come and visit the ghosts—and bring them solace for their all their tragedies.
So that’s how my visit to the Landergin Ghost Town gave me the inspiration for the love story, Little Alice Landergin Brings Solace to a Ghost Town.