Early one morning this past January, the gates of Alamo Village opened to the public for the first time in eight years. A long column of vehicles rumbled over the cattle guard, then snaked down a dirt road flanked by a vast expanse of guajillo and scrub brush. Headlights cast eerie shadows in the thick fog and sent startled deer darting into the predawn darkness. My truck was among the first in this convoy. We had driven several miles when the outline of a structure began to take shape ahead, and the crumbling adobe walls of the Alamo came rising out of the mist.
Well, not the real Alamo. The building before me was over two hundred years younger, two hundred miles west of San Antonio, and hadn’t been conceived by Spanish missionaries. This was the dream-made-manifest of John Wayne. Still, the sight of the fog-shrouded duplicate stirred something within me. I had dreamed of visiting Alamo Village since I was a kid. When the fifty-year-old park closed in 2010, I was sure I had missed my chance. But over the Christmas holiday, a friend mentioned a liquidation sale was being held on the property. For one weekend only, Alamo Village would be open once again. I figured witnessing the final chapter would be better than never having been there at all.
An attendant directed the vehicles to park in the large grass field separating the faux Alamo from the Western town Wayne had constructed to fill in for San Antonio de Béxar. Though we had been told to stay in our vehicles until the sale started at eight, a restless throng began to gather just outside the town’s perimeter, edging forward despite a volunteer’s pleas. “I’m out here working for a can of peaches,” the helper, identified as Jack on his name tag, told the crowd. “And I don’t want no one to get hurt. That’d just break my heart.”
Several folks were loudly bemoaning the fact that certain people had been let through the gates ahead of them—and my press badge made me part of the problem. “They lied about working here to get in early,” one woman accused. I suddenly understood why a lady sporting fuzzy Longhorn pajama pants had given me the stink-eye when I exited my truck. In a volume loud enough to ensure I heard, the fleece-swaddled woman told the man she was with, “If he grabs something I want, I’m going to knock it out of his hands.” I began to get the feeling that there might be one more battle at Alamo Village after all.
Right at eight o’clock, the little mob pushed past Jack and descended on the town. At first everyone restrained themselves to a brisk power-walk, but once the front-runners drew even with the first set of wagons, they plunged into full-fledged flight, sprinting down the grassy thoroughfare in the direction of yet-unknown treasures. “Feels like we’re at the Oklahoma Land Rush,” a white-haired man quipped, shuffling behind them.
I wandered around to get my bearings. There was the Wardlaw Hotel, the post office, general store, cantina, jail, and all the other hallmarks of a Wild West town. On the far end of the lane stood the John Wayne Museum. “This place sure is run down,” a man said, giving voice to what I’m sure others were thinking. Yellow caution tape webbed the door frames of several structures too derelict to safely enter. But these buildings were the exception; there were plenty of others to explore.
I headed for the gift shop first. The one-room building was brimming with souvenir shot glasses, commemorative plates, thimbles, and ceramic dolls with painted-on eyes—the kind of tchotchkes that tend to collect on a designated shelf in the home of every Texas granny. I examined one of the display cases. Inside was a miniature tipi that looked like a scented oil diffuser. The attached tag claimed the model was “made by the Cherokees,” though the tribe never lived in such structures. Next to it was a roll of John Wayne toilet paper. (“It’s rough! It’s tough! And it doesn’t take crap off anyone.”) I walked over to the toys and picked up a bag of plastic Texian soldiers. It was identical to the set I had played with as a boy, with Crockett, Bowie, Travis, and all the others locked in the same battle poses I had last seen them in decades ago. My reverie was broken by the sound of breaking glass as a fragile trinket was knocked off a table and smashed on the floor. Less than a minute later, something else shattered as even more people pushed their way inside.
The cantina was larger and not quite as packed. Against the far wall was an empty stage, where a teenaged Johnny Rodriguez began his music career. To the left of the entrance was an ornate bar that had been sold the day before to a Minnesota man for $16,000. On round wooden tables where countless card games had once been dealt, framed black-and-white photos were stacked on top of one another like mounds of husked shells. Famous faces that had once darkened the Village stared back at the people picking through the portraits: James Stewart, Raquel Welch, Robert Duvall, Dean Martin, Sam Elliott, Drew Barrymore, Willie Nelson. And in many of the photos, Alamo Village founder James T. “Happy” Shahan struck an amicable pose right alongside the stars.
Happy’s oldest daughter, Jamie Shahan Rains, was the one who had decided to hold the liquidation sale. Wearing earmuffs over her sensibly short white hair, the 78-year-old had been hustling about all morning, answering questions and stopping for hugs. Although mud stained one of her sleeves and the hem of her jeans, she had paused to apply two lines of pink lipstick. Though she said she doesn’t typically like to be interviewed, she agreed to tell me about the history and her memories of the place.
Jamie recalls when the area was still overgrown with black brush and huisache, long before any celebrities or tourists ever set foot on the property. It was here that Jamie’s father taught her to ride horses. When she was a little girl, too short to reach the stirrups, he used a rope to strap her to the saddle.
While Happy served as the mayor of Brackettville in the late forties, one of the worst droughts in Texas history took hold of the state. At the time, the Shahans were running cattle, goats, and several thousand head of sheep on their 22,000 acre-ranch just north of the town. With increasingly scarce resources to feed his livestock, he and his ranching neighbors faced the threat of losing their livelihoods. Ever the creative problem-solver, Happy turned to Hollywood to find the economic stimulation his region so desperately needed. He went from studio to studio pitching Kinney County as the perfect place to film a Western. In 1951, Paramount was the first to bite when they agreed to make Arrowhead south of Brackettville. Four years later, The Last Command became the first Alamo movie filmed in the area.
“The old-timers around here thought he was a nut,” Jamie told me. “But I want to tell you, my daddy became one of the most progressive—,” she stopped herself. “I don’t like to use that word ‘progressive,’” she muttered, then continued, “innovative ranchers you can find. My dad was a visionary.”
Around the time Arrowhead was filmed, Shahan got wind that John Wayne was searching for the location of the most important film of his career: a mostly self-funded ode to the historic Texas battle that would also mark his directorial debut. In fact, Wayne had already identified two promising locations. One was in Mexico and the other was in Panama.
“Dad heard [Wayne] was gonna make it in Mexico,” Jamie said. “So Dad got in touch with the DRT, the Daughters of the Republic of Texas. And they got a hold of [Wayne], and they said, ‘Mr. Wayne, you make that movie in Mexico, and we’ll shut the doors of every theatre in the state. It will never be shown in Texas.”
Wayne took the warning from the then-custodians of the Alamo seriously. Soon after, he and his film scout were bouncing along in the back of Happy Shahan’s pickup, traveling down the same dirt road I had driven into Alamo Village. The sun was setting behind Pinto Mountain when the envoy crested a hill at a place the Shahans call “Ten Mile” because of its distance from town. “Happy, stop the truck,” the scout said. The man got out and studied the wide-open prairie and the sunlight playing off the hill in the distance. “I believe this is the place,” he told Wayne.
It wasn’t until 1957 that construction began on the Alamo and its accompanying village. One of Happy’s only conditions for the project was that the Western town be built using real structures rather than camera-ready façades. Wayne agreed. Alfred Ybarra, the celebrated production designer, had done extensive research on the original Spanish mission and planned to recreate it with the utmost authenticity, and a crew of fifty-plus men was brought in from Mexico to faithfully recreate the adobe bricks by hand. The men were making good progress when a freak storm dropped twenty inches of rain on the typically arid land, and 32,000 of the bricks were washed away. They were remade, but not before Ybarra ordered a drainage system to be installed beneath the compound.
Despite a Catholic priest performing a benediction before filming began in September 1959, the flash flood proved to be the first in a series of near biblical tribulations. First, there was a flu epidemic that infected 80 percent of the crew. Then Laurence Harvey, the British actor who played Colonel Travis, had his foot crushed by a recoiling cannon. Around the same time, Shahan’s youngest daughter, Tulisha, was nearly killed in a car wreck involving several members of the crew. And five weeks into the 83-day shoot, a minor character was murdered by her boyfriend (frothing with jealousy over the small speaking role his girlfriend had landed, the aspiring thespian plunged a twelve-inch kitchen knife into her stomach). On top of everything, the Texas heat was melting the glue on Wayne’s toupee.
Things didn’t get much better when John Ford showed up. Two decades prior, the legendary director had launched Wayne from B-movie obscurity to stardom when he tapped the young actor to play the lead in Stagecoach. When the eye-patched Ford arrived on Wayne’s set itching to get behind a camera, the Duke didn’t have the heart (or the spine) to tell him off. Instead, Wayne spent a small fortune on a secondary unit, which he turned over to Ford with the task of shooting scenes well away from the action at the Alamo.
Ford wasn’t the only famous guest to visit the set. Governor Price Daniel came for a tour, as did J. Frank Dobie. The esteemed folklorist stopped by long enough to witness four hundred longhorns being herded for a scene. (Dobie was reportedly moved by the sight. “We’ll never see the great Longhorns again in number like this,” he said with tears glistening his cheeks.) Still, maybe the most famous Longhorn on the set was Coach Darrell K. Royal, who landed in his private plane, making good use of the runway which had been built to accommodate the frequent comings and goings of Texas royalty.
With so much public attention focused on Wayne, the pressure of directing, producing, and starring in the film began to weigh heavily on him. By the end of September, he was chain-smoking 120 cigarettes a day. In order to secure more financial backers, the Duke had taken on the role of David Crockett, foregoing the smaller part of Sam Houston he had wanted to play so he could focus on directorial duties. Even after donning the coonskin cap and leather fringe jacket, Wayne was forced to leverage everything he owned to raise enough capital to finish the movie. When principal photography wrapped on December 20, 1959, the original $5 million budget had ballooned to somewhere between $10 and $12 million, making it the most expensive film made at the time.
The Alamo wasn’t quite the blockbuster success that Wayne hoped it would be, but it wasn’t a complete bust either. Although critics picked apart the stodgy soapbox dialogue and bloated runtime, the film managed to earn seven Oscar nods and took one home for best sound mixing. And the movie did make money, thanks in part to an aggressive PR campaign run by a Texan named Russell Birdwell. In one ad, Birdwell boasted that Wayne had made “an inspiring film document about the greatest single event that has transpired since they nailed Christ to the cross.” Another stunt the hype-man pulled was lobbying Congress to award the Medal of Honor to the mission’s fallen defenders. Wayne was publicly embarrassed by Birdwell’s outrageous tactics, but, by the end of 1960, The Alamo was the year’s fifth highest-grossing U.S. film. Though it took longer than a year, Wayne did eventually earn his money back. And in 2015, decades after his death, the Iowa-born actor was officially declared an Honorary Texan by the 84th Legislature.
“I never did meet John Wayne,” Jamie—who was away at Baylor during filming—told me, a hint of regret coloring her voice. And though she missed her chance to rub shoulders with the Duke, the movie set he left behind had proven to have a lasting impact on the rest of Jamie’s life. Although Alamo Village hadn’t been open to the public in nearly a decade, she seemed to recognize the liquidation sale as the end as we watched people hustle by clutching their loot: a vintage schoolhouse desk, wrought-iron candlesticks, framed arrowheads, a sun-faded cardboard cutout of Wayne toting a lever-action rifle.
The scene had a surreal vibe, as if an episode of Antiques Roadshow had been overrun by a mashup of Western-movie fans and the FFA. Many had taken the event as an opportunity to cosplay their John Wayne fantasies. A conspicuous number of make-believe cowboys, many of them dressed in dramatic dusters, strolled around chomping on the nubs of cigars. But for all the wannabe cowpokes, there were quite a few of the real McCoys. Most of these authentically agrarian types had streamed in from the surrounding ranches in Kinney County, a brushy and isolated nook of the state where Jamie’s younger brother Tully serves as the county judge.
Although Jamie and her husband had spent the past 35 years working as schoolteachers in North Texas, she still fit in well with the camo-clad locals. “The community of Brackettville really showed up to support us,” she said, blinking back tears. While it was obvious by the swivel-headed looks that many of the attendees had come, like myself, to see the place before it was too late, the locals who had congregated had a completely different demeanor—one of nostalgia rather than curiosity. “I just want one of those matchbooks,” a woman told a quietly nodding cowboy. “You know the ones I’m talking about, like they used to have.” She paused. “I had to drag my husband up here, but as soon we got out, I was the one who started to cry.”
For the six decades that followed Wayne’s movie, the Village had been an important part of the region’s economy. Not only did the Western town serve as the set for over one hundred different productions with credits ranging from Lonesome Dove to several kung-fu westerns, Alamo Village was for years a popular tourist destination. Families from across the world would stop by on the weekends to listen to live music and watch staged gunfights. The Labor Day Horse Races drew capacity crowds. Brackettville residents had grown up working as extras on these films, held summer jobs collecting tickets at the gate, and spent afternoons watching the puffs of smoke rise from cap guns.
One of the locals who remembered the Village in its heyday was Jamie’s nephew, Dutch Wardlaw. A former college rodeo athlete, Dutch had entertained the weekend crowds with his stunt-riding skills. Sometimes he’d join in on the gun battles and had even dabbled in acting as an extra in Texas. “What I miss most,” he told me, “is just sitting in the cantina, eating lunch with my grandmother and grandfather. He’d always order unsweet tea with like eight lemons.”
Dutch was one of several of Jamie’s nephews and nieces who stopped by that morning. In fact, it had turned into an impromptu family reunion. Dozens of cousins and old friends had gathered to help with the sale and to reminisce about old times. They spoke about epic games of hide-and-seek and late nights spent listening to Tom T. Hall or Bobby Bare strumming on guitars. “This is how it used to be,” said Sissy Andrews, a niece who had come down from Granbury. “There were crowds of people wandering around here just like this back in the day.”
Members of the family related to me what had happened in the years since those halcyon days. Happy passed away in 1996, and management of Alamo Village was taken over by his widow, Virginia Webb Shahan, whose family were the original landowners. She, along with her daughter, Tulisha Wardlaw, ran the place with as much vision and vigor as Happy had. When Virginia passed in June 2009, it was only natural that Tulisha would take the reins, but that arrangement lasted only a short while. Tulisha died of cancer that September, just three months after her mother. Jamie explained that after this tragedy the family took some time to consider what they should do with the property. For a few months in 2010, they reopened Alamo Village, but soon the complicated logistics and liability of running the place caused them to close the park indefinitely.
News of the liquidation sale had elicited a strong response from fans across the country. Over 4,000 Facebook users expressed interest in attending the event. In addition to the Kinney County locals, costumed fanboys, Shahans, Webbs, and Wardlaws, there were members of the John Wayne Historical Society and the John Wayne Foundation in attendance, hoping to snatch a few mementos to auction off at one of their fundraisers.
Sissy Andrews had been given the task of keeping an eye on everything inside the chapel—not the Alamo mission, but a different white-washed chapel with a belfry in the middle of the Village. The early morning crowd had cleared out a good deal of the pews and artifacts in the first few hours. When I asked her about the rabid enthusiasm of the early attendees, Sissy replied, “You know the Trekkies for Star Trek? We need a term for Alamo Village fanatics.” She thought about this for a beat. “I guess Village People is already taken.”
Some of the buyers had professional ties to the set. One was Michael T. Boyd, a prolific costume designer who made his foray into the business by working on the 1988 IMAX movie, Alamo: The Price of Freedom. “This is where it all started,” Boyd said, adjusting his Smiley Burnette hat. “By 1990, I was making films all over.” Like me, Boyd had heard about the sale over Christmas and had promised himself that if he wasn’t working on a movie at the time he’d be here. “Once they take everything out of the buildings, it won’t ever be the same,” he said.
Three hours after the gates opened, the combative atmosphere of the early bird diehards had given way to a more congenial vibe as more and more families trickled in, less intent on seizing antiques than they were sneaking a few last glimpses of this real-life time capsule. A few kids poked around inspecting the cobwebs in the John Wayne Museum. One of the boys, no older than ten, had a Bowie knife the size of his femur strapped to a belt that was working overtime to keep his pants up. While chuckling at this, I spotted the grumpy lady in Longhorn pajama pants. She seemed to have run out of steam and was parked on a bench, her face still puckered in a scowl.
I still had a few places left to explore. I strolled down the main lane, noting that even the pine-box coffins were for sale. At the only bathroom, I waited in line behind two women in their upper fifties with toffee-colored hair coiffed into two perfect spheres. One stooped to roll the hem of her jeans until the turquoise shanks of her boots were showing. “He’s gonna owe me a steak dinner for this,” she told her friend, before stepping gingerly into the port-a-potty.
I kept walking past the post office and general store before I ducked into one of the stables. It was in particularly bad shape, and I heard a father tell his young daughter to be careful about touching anything inside. “Look out, honey, this place is falling down,” he said softly. “Is that why we had to come today?” she asked. He nodded. “It won’t be around much longer.”
As for so many Texans, the legend of the Alamo has gripped me since I can remember. I dedicated four of the twenty pages of my second-grade autobiography to my first visit to the actual Alamo. Even as a millennial who missed the Fess Parker craze of the fifties by nearly forty years, thanks to a trove of old VHS tapes, I too grew up enraptured by Parker’s coonskin-capped Crockett. Like so many before me—John Wayne, Stephen Harrigan, Phil Collins—I became obsessed. I rented every Alamo movie at the video store, read every book within my comprehension, and even wrote my own play about Crockett in the first grade. One of the single greatest thrills of my boyhood was discovering what I was certain was a valuable piece of pottery at Washington-on-the-Brazos. But later, as a history student at Texas State University, I became acutely aware of our tendency to smooth the rough edges off of historical people and events—polishing reality into something shiny, desirable, and easily contained within the confines of, say, a two-hour movie.
Although the facts of the historical event make an extraordinary narrative on their own, most of the modern tellings have been embellished, blurring reality into myth. The façade of the Alamo has long served as the perfect surface for the projection of society’s changing ideals, from Wayne’s Cold War jingoism to George P. Bush’s political ambitions. But as our myths of the Alamo have changed, one man’s vision of it has endured. Alamo Village is a simulacrum of a simulacrum: a copy of a construction that has been rebuilt and reimagined by generations of Texans. But as anyone who has ventured to the wax celebrities and fast-food arches near San Antonio’s Alamo Plaza in recent years can tell you, in many ways, the copycat version offers an experience closer to visiting the mission as it was in 1836. The Alamo taught many of us how to love its story—one we could step inside at Alamo Village.
Toward the end of my interview with Jamie, I asked her about the future of Alamo Village. She frowned. She wasn’t sure. At last she said, “We’re all educators. We might continue using it to teach Texas history.”
Certain I had seen everything I could, I glanced around unsure what to do next. I had wanted to buy a bag of those plastic Revolutionary soldiers for my nephew, but most of the items in the gift shop were only being sold by the lot, and I had no desire nor the cash to purchase half a store’s worth of decade-old toys. Plus, the credit card machine had stopped working, and people in line were complaining that they had been stuck there for two hours. A roll of John Wayne TP wasn’t worth that.
As I started the hike over to leave, Jack, the friendly peacekeeping volunteer from earlier that morning, walked up beside me. “Sad, isn’t it?” he said. He must have noticed my sullen expression. “Well, nothing’s here forever,” he said matter-of-factly, “except for the divine afterlife.” He gestured to nothing in particular. “This is just a testament to time.”
I reached the edge of the adobe walls surrounding the compound, dipped under the barrier of caution tape, and stood directly in front of the crumbling old mission. Pinto Mountain was in the distance. The sun had burned off the morning fog and the cream-colored bricks seemed to glow against their grimy counterparts. I knew I was staring at a phony, but I couldn’t stop a shiver from running down my spine. I knew that this was worth remembering.