Many in the Ozarks are familiar with the legend of the Albino Farm, a lore-overgrown estate just outside of Springfield’s northern edge. Tales abound about property, and how it earned its name. According to some, a long-ago albino caretaker lived there; others say horrific scientific experiments were conducted on the premises. Author Steve Yates has spent years writing about the Ozarks, and his most recent work — The Legend of the Albino Farm — shares his interpretation of the family behind the stories.
Many around the Springfield area are familiar with the legend of the Albino Farm. How did you first learn about it, which version did you hear?
SY: A friend from Greenwood Laboratory School first told me the legend in the early 1980s, almost the instant he secured a Missouri driver’s license, a car, and a gallon jug of Cosca Bolla red wine. My friend, Eric Anderson, knew every version—crazed murderous caretaker, sequestered and tortured people, people roaming the woods after frightening experiments. But I was a strange, obsessive child. Any human sorrow or genetic difference set me to reading. I had already learned a lot that the Brentwood Public Library had on hand in the mid-1970s about the genetic difference that causes hypopigmentation. So I was a combative and annoying companion when it came to this.
Did you ever visit there in your younger years?
SY: We drove all around looking for it, hours and hours, him telling every version he knew of the story, and me arguing. What better evidence do we need of the sinister draw of this legend? That’s what makes it such a menace. Despite what measure of good sense we might have, we seek the terrible thrill. We insist on wild-eyed stories. And in this case, the story transforms us, the legend-trippers, into violators, marauders, and vandals. We become the monsters. Of course, we were just young and looking for a good time. That never leads to anything dangerous or destructive, right?
The Legend of the Albino Farm: A Novel spans from 1946 to the early 1980s. It was a time when an extraordinary twelve-room mansion housed an intriguing, wealthy, and doomed family on a sprawling, 330-acre farm. By the late 1950s few Springfieldians visited there. By the late 1970s the mansion was abandoned, all its inhabitants had died, and vandals then burned it to the ground. Maybe a novel is the only way to visit what was lost.
Obviously, the Albino Farm legend differs from the actual Sheedy family story. Did you know much about the family before you began thinking about the farm as a possible book?
SY: I didn’t know a thing about them. When I started on this idea in August 2013 that was among the first questions I asked. What happened out there? Why did we swirl down on that place like vultures?
What about the family’s story grabbed your interest enough to devote an entire book to them?
SY: In just scratching the surface, I found a 2006 column by Sarah Overstreet, a journalist I had worked with at the News-Leader. In the story, she had found a distant descendant of the family. He refused to speak with her, save to say that he kept his silence about the real story because our legend had so obscured and destroyed a place he felt was paradise and a family legacy he felt was golden. He had given up on telling his own truth, even to a reliable and trusted reporter. What a sorrowful mystery! I was all in.
Living elsewhere, how did you go about conducting research on the book?
SY: Well, both my parents and my wife’s parents still live in Springfield, so we are home as often as we can be. I spent a lot of time in the Springfield-Greene County Library Center, where my mother-in-law Sheryl Gebhart works. There I had a lot of help from Brian Grubbs and his staff, and I even unearthed an article about the farm that no one had uncovered for the file kept in Local History and Genealogy, a fine, long piece by Cora Durbin Scott published years ago. I spent even more time at the Greene County Archives. That’s where all the Sheedy family wills are kept, and really that’s the mother lode. Those wills are elaborate and as exhaustive as some diaries might be. Especially the more recent family wills—Agnes, Margaret, and Helen— show clearly the money spent on security for a week every Halloween, and later on 24/7 security for months after Helen died and before the contents of the farm could be auctioned. Like bindweed, the legend was devouring and destroying everything. For those three spinster sisters, their lives transformed from idyll to Hell in just a decade.
Were you able to find any members of the Sheedy family who are still around?
SY: One of the strange things about this enormous and prosperous family— Irish Catholic immigrants Mike and Mary Sheedy reared nine children: five boys, four girls—other than Kate, who married a sheet metal worker, none of the children produced issue, and only two of the boys ever married, both late in life and with no resultant children. Most of Mike and Mary’s children chose to remain on the farm and lived in that enormous house all their lives. This may be one of the reasons (if not the reason) the wills are so exhaustive and revealing. Whenever any one of them died, rather than selling the property, paying the taxes, and cleanly splitting the proceeds, they instead took vast inventory of property detailed down to hogs, cattle, even shocks of wheat and oats, and then methodically described and devised all the property in place. Interestingly in his will, Mike devised upon Kate a mere cash sum of $200.00. And then when her brother Simon dies in the late 1950s, Kate is devised $4,000.00 by check, which, after several prompting letters, she returns, uncashed and without comment to the Sheedy’s family attorney. See? Drama! When Helen died, she was the last Sheedy to live on the farm. And then all Hell broke loose.
Obviously, as fiction, elements of the story differ from the real-life Sheedy family story. However, were their certain elements about the family’s actual story that you felt strongly about keeping as accurate as possible? If so, why did they stick out to you?
SY: Wills and letters, newspaper articles, death certificates, and obituaries can create a timeline of events, and even reveal a lot of estrangement and conflict. But documents cannot reach the human heart and its sorrow and joy, its baseness, ambition, delusion, and glory. In one way, a good metaphor for what I have written in this novel, for the family I made up, is that I really needed to change only one letter of the alphabet to get from the real Sheedy family to Sheehy, the fictional family I invented. But from another point of view, I changed everything by giving the family one more heir, Hettienne, to witness all the rise and fall of a great house and the seemingly cursed nature of a property we doomed with a legend.
What was your favorite part about creating the novel?
SY: Giving a little happiness and dignity to Hettienne’s aunties. One extraordinary outcome of Helen’s will is that Kate’s offspring became the beneficiaries. They insisted on an appraisal firm combing through the entire house and improvements and documenting and placing value to everything from antiques down to “green, plastic and vinyl hamper $3.00.” Discovering this inventory was like being handed a video of every single item the family ever accumulated and used. Bringing versions of Agnes, Margaret, and Helen to life as maybe only fiction can, that’s what I enjoyed. And of course, creating Hettienne to embody and witness the whole legacy.
What do you hope readers take away after reading the Albino Farm?
SY: A thrill. Aside from that, they can take the story anywhere they want.
You’ve written other works about the Ozarks. Why has this region especially captured your attention, and what do you think makes it a good region to write about?
SY: Born and reared in Springfield, educated in Springfield and Fayetteville, Arkansas, at the MFA program in creative writing there, and really I learned publishing at McIlroy House at the University of Arkansas Press, so… you dance with the one that brung ye. This is my fifth published work of fiction, and you can see the whole list here. Both novels, the short story collection that won the Juniper Prize, and the novella that won the Knickerbocker Prize, all of them have been set in the Ozarks for the most part. I sure look forward to coming home and meeting readers at these events like this one.
Thanks so much, Kaitlyn, for these great questions, and thanks especially for letting me spend time with readers of Ozarks Alive, which I tremendously admire.
Want to learn more about the history of the Albino Farm and other local legends? Check out this Ozarks Alive story about Springlawn Farm (otherwise known as the Albino Farm), Hatchet Man’s Bridge and Camp Winoka.