The conductor went back to his paperwork, and Artemus looked past him out the window where the woods, the moss, the houses—some of them on stilts now—passed in winter array, made soft and ephemeral in a light the color of old pearls.
That sublime passage is Howard Bahr from his extraordinarily beautiful novel, Pelican Road. And that’s one of many sentences that will stop you and leave you gasping in this novel of the old railroads of the south, specifically from Meridian, Mississippi, to New Orleans.
Howard and I have been serendipitously thrown together many times now, as if some higher power meant our association to be. Joe DeSalvo at Faulkner House Books was the first intercessor, putting Howard as emcee of a vibrant panel on civilians and the Civil War and putting me dazed in a mix of much more famous and deserving authors on that panel.
Occasionally I have been able to return something worthwhile to the friendship that started at that Faulkner Words & Music Conference in New Orleans. And this summer I was really itching to introduce Howard to a book, Curiosity’s Cats: Writers on Research, edited by another friend of mine, Bruce Joshua Miller. You can catch many of that book’s principals here on this vimeo at Subtext Books in St. Paul, Minnesota.
At Subtext, I had every writer present sign a copy of Curiosity’s Cats to give to Howard. Turns out, Howard, who teaches at Belhaven University in Jackson, was about to design a class in Research and Writing. See what I mean about higher powers? Very shortly Howard told me that not only did the book fit the class quite well, but also he would like me to come speak to the class, on November 3, why not?
As often happens, I learned a lot about what I have been doing and writing by talking with students who are trying the same. Howard’s students were from all over the country—Pennsylvania, San Antonio, Texas. Belhaven offers one of the few BFAs in Creative Writing, and its program is the only Christian college doing so. I’m tremendously grateful to have been afforded this time with the eight young writers gathered in that sunny loft at a huge conference table in Preston/Fitzhugh Halls.
Here’s what I learned about research and writing. In August of 2013, searching for what to write next and about to travel to Oregon for leave, I stumbled on the idea that one of Springfield, Missouri’s untold stories is that of The Albino Farm. I had already tried to tell something of Springfield’s Civil War in the novel Morkan’s Quarry. And I advanced my made-up Springfield to the 1906 Easter Lynching in a forthcoming sequel, The Teeth of the Souls, see 14-16.
Growing up, I was told The Albino Farm story on drunken escapades and nights of high school mischief. No one told a precise story; there was no “definitive” version. No one even told this preposterous, spooky lie well enough for there to be an intelligible beginning, middle, and end with a monster, a motive, and a moral. Yet this odd tale of albinos trapped and suffering or vindictively guarding a massive old farm on the northern border of Springfield abutting Greenlawn Cemetery persisted as local lore, however badly told and confusing. And worse the legend drew a destructive whirlwind of thrill seekers to the farm even after the twelve-room mansion was burned down by barbarians in 1980. In my rowdy days, there were defaced ruins out on the property, ruins of a silo and a substantial foundation to what must have been a great house. But the tale was always snipe hunt nonsense, or a whisper spoken to scare your girlfriend a little closer.
Noodling around on the internet revealed I was on the right track. Sarah Overstreet, a fine columnist and a solid journalist (we worked together at the Springfield News-Leader), had sought information on “The Albino Farm” in 2006. On that farm, there once lived in real life a very large Irish Catholic family, the Sheedy’s. Surprisingly, there were no direct male descendants bearing the name Sheedy after Mike Sheedy’s many sons lived, worked, and died, some on the farm. Those who inherited the estate were all descended of Kate Sheedy, one of Mike’s daughters, who married a sheet metal worker.
Not one of them, there were eight, would speak to Sarah Overstreet about “The Albino Farm.” This legend, generated from Springfield for untraceable reasons, based on absolutely nothing real, was so hurtful, so obscuring of what was an idyllic and truly remarkable farmstead and the family that owned and worked it, that even those descendants who did not carry the name Sheedy and had not been born on and had not lived on the farm refused to speak at all about it, even to a reporter with a long track record of responsible journalism.
Wow. There’s some story. There’s the chance to regain some dignity for a people obscured and wronged, intriguingly by a wild legend invented in my hometown. What a curse!
And so I began.
On the northern border of Springfield, Missouri, there once was a great house surrounded by emerald woods, lake, and meadow, a home place and farm that, to the lasting sorrow of its owners and heirs, acquired a nonsensical legend marring all memory of its glory days. The estate became known and is still known, if it is remembered at all, as The Albino Farm.”
In Oregon that August, I had the benefit of being around my two nieces, especially Lauren Grace. Lauren Grace doesn’t travel well on winding seaside roads in the mountains, but her mother, a former nurse who has inspired me before, thought Lauren Grace was old enough to tolerate the over-the-counter seasickness medication, meclizine, so Lauren Grace downed a tablet.
She and I rode in the front, and my wife, mother-in-law, and niece, Ashley Lynn, were in back as we toured from Pacific City to Netarts Bay. My mind was on all I had learned so far about the Sheedy’s and the farm and their pain, the crazy, cruel legend of the Albino Farm, a tale that mounded and grew like bindweed—hassling, obscuring, destroying. But I could not find an entry point, a point of view to carry the story, to transform it into fiction.
Lauren Grace and I had been chattering away about stories and Oregon. She is tall for her age, and is a child who will truly stop conversation in a room, she is that startlingly lovely, pale, long of limb, with blonde hair and blue eyes set just deeply enough to give around them a tenderness, a world-weariness, as if she already knows something of the future, which makes her an even more stunning child to behold.
Of a sudden she grew quiet, and I had long finished whatever I was blabbing about. The backseat was absorbed in its own topic. I glanced from the road, and was quite jolted. Lauren Grace, lovely child that she is, had lapsed into a slack-jawed, dead-faced stare deep into and right through me. And she retained that thousand mile stare eerily, frighteningly, piercingly for several curves and straightaways until I could bear it no more.
Sweetie, I whispered, are you all right?
It was Hettienne that the Sheehy’s worried most about. The young girl had been vigorous, giddy, with fine and flowing blonde hair and symmetrical if very long proportions and a penchant for any game that involved running and screaming. But in her thirteenth summer she suddenly exhibited episodes of catatonia, somnambulism, and jags of mystifying talk. Lost in these fits, Hettienne saw what was coming for the family—a chaos, a curse, the legend that would haunt her for the rest of her life.”
I had discovered my entry point to the story. To make fiction of the historical, I would give the Sheedy’s a new name, Sheehy, and give them an heir, The Last Sheehy, which is the working title of the novel now in its fourth draft of rewrites with an editor and publisher I much admire.
In December of 2013, Tammy and I spent a long visit with both our parents in Springfield, Missouri. This afforded me tons of time in the Springfield Greene County Library Center’s Local History and Genealogy Department. This lead me to the Greene County Archives over on Boonville Avenue, and there was the mother lode. On several snowy, cold days, with archivists Robert Neumann and Steve Haberman going to great lengths to help, I uncovered and copied a novel’s worth of documents about the Sheedy’s.
The Sheedy’s were a propertied, some would say privileged family. The progenitor, Mike Sheedy, bought Springlawn Park, a showcase of a farm, from Frank Headley, Jr. for $30,000 in 1923, according to the tax records, a whopping sum back then. And, fortunately for anyone who wished to find the real story of the Sheedy’s, Mike, his son Simon, and all Mike Sheedy’s issue were remarkably circumspect if not fastidious in the willing and devising of substantial properties in North Town Springfield and especially at Springlawn Park, which became known as the Old Sheedy Place, and later, to their sorrow, as The Albino Farm.
When the estate was finally unwinding, the descendants of Kate Sheedy, who inherited and quickly sold the farm, did something extraordinary. Kate and her descendants were estranged from the Sheedy family, evident in Mike’s Last Will and Testament in which she is significantly not devised a share but a mere sum of $200.00. The estrangement was observed still many decades later when Simon Sheedy dies and leaves Kate a sum of $4,000.00 rather than a share of the properties and holdings. No small sum $4,000 in 1958; that could have easily purchased a new Studebaker, maybe a Commander, back then. Tellingly that check, after many prodding inquiries from the family lawyer, was never cashed but finally returned to the attorney’s office “without comment.”
Helen Sheedy is shown above with all her family in a photograph probably taken at her confirmation day. This is a great photo to have in the Greene County Archives, really capturing the high-water mark of the Sheedy family. When Helen Sheedy died, there were no more issue with the name Sheedy, and so the estate went into probate, and those due to inherit the estate, all children of Kate, went to the extraordinary measure of hiring a firm to catalog every item in every room of the 12-room Sheedy Mansion.
Gold mine. When I discovered this, it was as good as video tape. I brought my copy of Helen’s will to Howard’s class, shared it around, along with pictures of the farm. Sometimes it takes only one item in an inventory, one comment to allow the writer entry into the real heart of the story. I reminded the class of Ernest Hemingway’s famous six word short story, though I paraphrase, “For sale, infant gown, never worn.”
There it is on the house inventory. “Six handmade quilts, never used.” If you have ever watched a relative hand stitch a quilt, you know the love and time such a work of home art represents. Then I read Howard’s class this from near the end of the novel. Hettienne Sheehy, inspired in large part by Lauren Grace, is the Last Sheehy. And in this scene she is with her husband, Wes Connelly, and two of her children. Aunt Helen Sheehy is dying, and the Connelly’s are taking a kind of final inventory.
The hallways even upstairs were designed for the wider dresses and bustles of long ago and now felt like rooms unto themselves. When she was a child here Hettienne had not even conceived of the huge rectangles as hallways, but saw the whole house as a honeycomb of adjoined rooms. Hettienne knelt now on a spent, rose-colored rug and examined a green vinyl-covered hamper, modern, clean. Who bought this and why? A platform rocker with a slipcover, an electric fan. Sleepless, alone, one of the aunts may well have used the hallway like a room. Even a sewing machine waited there in the corner with a piano stool before it. So this hallway had become a workroom. With all the doors and windows open, fall air lifted the rafters, and the ancient house crackled, like the bones of an elderly horse arising. Orange and brown and yellow from oak and hickory and sassafras blazed upon the ceiling of Helen’s bedroom, and Hettienne thought of her poor aunt, comatose. Margaret, Agnes, Simon, Mary, Old Michael Sheehy, all had died here in the home. And sleepless as a child, she had overheard in the dark of the night aunts and uncles whisper the prayer to one another for the Happy Death, meaning not in hospital. Now poor Helen was dying just that way. And the Connelly’s were wearing themselves out tidying the vast old house, and visiting the hospital in the afternoons and evenings.
“A trunk with a lock, but wait, it slipped open to her surprise, a lock that no one fastened. With the lid fully raised came the slight whiff of moth balls long ago evaporated, then warm but dry leather, brass, and cedar. James Sheehy was burned on a fragrant cedar block nailed inside the lid; he made this trunk then. Inside—she spread her long fingers upon them—quilts. Stacked, handmade quilts, folded perfectly with sheets of crepe inserted between each one. Carpenter’s Star, Summer Cascade Chevron, Amethyst Labyrinth, Indian Hatchet, Dawn’s Light in emerald and gold, Star-Crossed Nine. So long ago, Agnes had taught her the names of patterns, and on many sodden summer days Hettienne had helped Margaret and Agnes piece quilts, like maps of galaxies the two women hatched in their minds. These, untouched. Months, years of lonely labor, of loving plans gone to naught. Such love, and yet no children called for that warming comfort. Nine of them, never before used. One for each young cousin. One Sheehy, eight Ormond’s.”
I hope Howard’s students enjoyed seeing Curiosity’s Cats and archival research put to practice. If you write, I hope you’ll head to an archive soon. Indeed our job as fiction writers is to make it up. But in the truth of stuff, there is so much inspiration.