“I’d read up on the history of our country and I’d become fascinated with the story of the Alamo. To me it represented the fight for freedom, not just in America, but in all countries.” – John Wayne
Turning off Highway 674, the Texas Pecos Trail, we followed a kindly hunter who opened the gates and led us down the gravel road and across several cattle guards, clouds of dust obscuring the view of everything but scrub brush that stretched to the horizon.
The road curved left just before a ridge, and past crumbling adobe walls, we came to a stop at an old-timey trading post inside the dusty and iconic Alamo Village, about 10 miles northeast from Brackettville.
Once known as the place “where movies are made in Texas,” this weekend it will be where Western art collectors, John Wayne fans, Hollywood set designers, and the curious will come for one last chance to own a piece of history.
Tagged and on display for sale around Alamo Village are 32 wagons, movie-prop cannons, church pews from the Old Mission, four caskets, brass cash registers, painted tables and chairs from the cantina, more than 600 arrowheads, star publicity photos, scrapbooks and film scripts, faded furniture and signage, rusted tools, antlers, and toys and souvenirs from the site’s days as a tourist attraction.
“This is a sale you don’t want to miss,” reads the ad promoting the tag sale of old movie props, some from the making of The Alamo at the Village. Joanie Sellers Edwards, owner of The Nest Estate Sale Services, said she is expecting thousands to come from miles around, and warns visitors, “Don’t show up to tour. Come ready to buy.”
The first movie location ever built in Texas, Alamo Village was created for the 1960 production of John Wayne’s epic, $4 million movie, The Alamo. The actor, who would come to play Davy Crockett in the movie, had previously chosen a site in Mexico for filming until Texas landowner and Brackettville Mayor Happy Shahan and others convinced him otherwise.
In the movie, Wayne delivers the line, “When I came down to Texas, I was looking for something. I didn’t know what. There’s right and there’s wrong. You gotta do one or the other. You do the one and you’re living. You do the other, you might be right, but you’re dead as a beaver hat.”
Shahan spent two years constructing the replica Alamo battle site as it would have looked in early-1800s San Antonio, and then reconstructing it after floods in 1957 and 1958 washed away the adobe bricks.
About 300 yards from the Alamo compound, Shahan also built a frontier town and a deserted Mexican village. The general store, saloon, stables, jail, church, bank, hotels, and a blacksmith shop have served as the backdrop for dozens of classic Western movies, miniseries, documentaries, music videos, and commercials.
Between 1961 and 2009, Alamo Village was open to the public for tours and gun-fighting shows, and people came from all continents to experience the Old West, at least as it had appeared on the silver screen. The Shahans, Happy and his wife, Virginia, collected and displayed their Old West memorabilia until she passed away, at age 92, in 2009, when the site was closed, the gates locked.
Time and weather then took its toll. Rain and critters have damaged many of the façades and structures, built only as movie sets, and not for longevity. Walls are cracked and leaning, floors broken apart, and roofs open to the sky above, exposing collections and furnishings to the elements.
“We should have done this a long time ago,” said Jamie Raines, eldest of the Shahan’s seven children who own the ranch.
Raines lives in Breckenridge in North Texas, but was at Alamo Village with her husband Walt the day we visited. She watched stoic and reflective, sharing stories and remembering her own grandchildren at play, as items at the site were sorted, priced, and made ready for buyers.
Four generations of her family have owned and worked this ranch since 1927. At one time, it spanned 22,000 acres with goats, Angus cattle, and 8,000 head of sheep. During filming, herds of longhorns roamed freely throughout the set. At around 16,000 acres now, the picturesque ranch, bounded by the Pinto Mountains to the west, is leased for hunting and ranching.
“I knew it couldn’t last forever,” she said. “I just feel like this is … stuff that people enjoy, and we want to share it with them. But we’re proud of the heritage, we’re proud of our parents, the way they brought us up and showed us the way.”
Her father Happy can be seen with John Wayne in many of the black-and-white pictures taken on set, but Raines never met the famous actor during filming, having gone away to attend Baylor University by then.
Ranch hand Manuel Sanchez of Brackettville did, however, as did our camo-clothed guide in to the ranch, Wayne Nanney of San Antonio. Both recall meeting screen stars such as Wayne, Dean Martin, James Stewart, and Raquel Welch, watching talents like Johnny Rodriguez and Dottsy get their start.
Sanchez also worked as labor for spaghetti Westerns and films such as Lonesome Dove (1989) and Streets of Laredo (1995). Now helping to clear the buildings of their decaying treasures, he surveyed the mock town while resting on the long, covered porches of the cantina, where time seems to have stood still.
Inside the saloon, cardboard cut-outs of John Wayne preside over the dim space, tables littered with playing cards and poker chips. Murky bottles and shot glasses rest atop the copper-top bar.
“I pulled the trigger,” said Bobby Rieder, after deciding on Tuesday to purchase the bar and hutch – a centerpiece of the sale – for his home in West St. Paul, Minnesota.
“You’re going to have a piece of history that nobody else is going to have,” Edwards told Rieder as she tabulated his other purchases – arrowheads, an anvil, a cash register, scales, a corn sheller, and an old trunk. Asking price for the bar was $16,000. But as he plans to pick it up next week, the bar will remain on display throughout this weekend’s sale.
Edwards said her phone has been ringing nonstop with calls from interested buyers as well as friends who wistfully recall visiting Alamo Village as children. “They ask me, ‘Why are they doing this?’” she said. “But I understand the family’s dilemma. These structures were not built to last. They are giving a big gift to Texas. Otherwise, this would only be stuff for the burn pile.”
The sun was high as we drove back toward the gates, Raines waving and urging us to drive safely, the Village in our rearview mirror. Driving away from the busyness of inventory and price-tagging in the frontier town, we pass the faux Alamo and long barracks, where there’s an undeniable sense of solemn tranquility, even while its fate remains uncertain.
“We can never make [the Alamo] the same environment as it was in 1836, but by removing some of the traffic and changing the surfaces so it’s more natural, putting back the acequias, we can bring back some more of that feel,” McDonald said. “But you can’t ever completely transport it back to that pastoral feel you get in Brackettville.”
McDonald hopes Alamo Village will be preserved as a historic site as well. But, for now, the Shahan family has not decided what it will do with the site after the sale.
Prayer will guide them, Raines is certain, just as it did years ago when the family was asked to open the set to tourists on Sundays.
“There’s a spirit here,” Raines said. “You can feel it.”