Monday, 3 May 2010

Buying a town full of memories

By Patty Fisher

Fran Moyer planned merely to pick up a few mementos at an auction in Texas last weekend.
Instead, she bought herself a town.
That's right, an entire town.
"I still can't believe it," she says, laughing and shaking her head. "I really never dreamed I would get it."
Just as soon as the giddiness wears off, she'll figure out exactly what to do with The Grove, an antique Old West-style town 30 miles southwest of Waco with a general store, blacksmith shop, saloon, bank and post office.
"I'm very curious to see how this is going to play out," she says.
Yes, who wouldn't be?
Moyer, who lives in San Jose and sings beautiful alto solos in my church choir, was born and raised in Texas. Her grandfather, WJ Dube, owned the general store in The Grove from 1917 until 1946. Both her parents grew up there. When she was a little girl, Moyer used to spend summers at her grandparents' home, plucking chickens, fishing in the stream and sitting on the front porch after supper, watching the night fall over the fragrant farmland.
"I can't describe how important that little piece of the world is to me," she says. "When you grow up like that you become very close to the land and it's just in your genes."
A town that faded away
Founded in 1859, The Grove was a thriving farming community until the 1930s, when the residents, in an effort to save it, unwittingly killed it
The state wanted to build Highway 36 through the center of town, but the locals balked because it meant paving over the municipal well, their literal lifeblood. So the state rerouted the highway, and The Grove, bypassed by the outside world, became a ghost town.
In 1972, an antique collector named Moody Anderson bought the old buildings, filled them with Texas artifacts and opened the Country Life Museum. The Grove attracted tourists by day, country musicians by night and filmmakers who used pieces of Anderson's collection as props for westerns like "Lonesome Dove." It became known as the liveliest ghost town in Texas.
Two years ago, at 80, Anderson figured it was time to sell his precious museum. He got no bidders on eBay, so he decided to hold an auction.
When Moyer heard about the auction, she couldn't resist going.
"I went to go to say goodbye to The Grove," she said.
On the first day of the auction, she looked at the thousands of tagged items: mounted buffalo heads, blacksmith tools, roll-top desks, oil lamps. She bought a few old photos, but saying goodbye turned out to be harder than she'd expected.
That night, she called her husband, Jim, a successful Silicon Valley executive, and floated the idea of bidding on the half-acre strip of buildings.
"I asked if he would mind if I spent a couple hundred thousand to buy my grandfather's store," she said.
What could he say? Fran's not an extravagant person. She drove her old Volvo station wagon for nearly 30 years. The Moyers don't live in a statement home. But this was a statement she just had to make, about the importance of roots and family.
A surprising outcome
The next day, when the bidding opened at $100,000, she raised her paddle, thinking that she was merely making a symbolic bid.
Another person quickly bid $150,000.
Moyer raised it to $200,000, hoping to bid up the price for Anderson, and waited for the other bidder to respond.
He didn't.
"Do I hear 250? Do I hear 225?" the auctioneer pleaded.
I suspect the fix was in. Everyone knew Anderson and the locals wanted the place to stay in the family. Moyer may have thought she was just a symbolic bidder, but perhaps the other bidder was.
When the gavel fell, she jumped up and down and screamed "like an idiot."
"I never dreamed I would get it," she said. "I have bought my most precious childhood memories."
So, now that she has her ghost town, what will she do with it? Her brother and other relatives still live outside of town, and she hopes they will look after the place for her.
"We want to fix it up, and since they sold all the furniture in the saloon, I guess we're going to have to buy some," she said. "The locals are all asking where they are going to play dominoes now."

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