this was the introduction
to a documentary about the
North Texas town of Ladonia
Tiny Ladonia, Texas, has a big mystery: Who was Miss Ethel McFarland?
Beyond the basic facts -- she was born in 1892 to saloonkeeper Bose McFarland and his wife Sude, lived most of her life in the family home on Main Street and died in 1960 -- beyond that, Miss Ethel's memory invokes opinions as numerous as the layers of paint peeling off the old Merchants' Bank building. Ask around among the 700 or so Ladonians: She was lovely, grand and musical ... or reclusive, sharp and embittered. Generous or miserly. Elegant or eccentric. Mercurial, meticulous ... and maybe even a hopeless romantic.
Few people saw Miss Ethel on the streets of Ladonia; fewer still saw the inside of her home. Her piano students were allowed only as far as the front parlor. She instructed merchants to leave their deliveries on a table just inside the kitchen doorway. Miss Ethel wouldn't appear less than perfectly attired, and for years she rarely appeared at all. Her wardrobe bore the labels of Dallas' finest stores -- Neiman-Marcus was a favorite destination for her frequent trips into the big city 70 miles away. We can only wonder why this very private lady collected so extravagant a wardrobe ... maybe for the return of her beau, Luther Mallow.
Ah, Luther Mallow, traveling salesman. He loved Miss Ethel when she was a beautiful young girl, and she promised to marry him and share his life in California. That was before Miss Ethel's mother took ill and required her daughter's constant companionship for the next 40 years. Luther and Ethel wrote often, but, time and distance being notorious thieves of love, their union didn't stand a chance. Toward the end of her life, Miss Ethel would learn that her beloved Luther had lived out his days in a nursing home in nearby McKinney. The news came too late for a final reunion ... or so most folks believe. A different version of the story tells of love requited, of monthly trips to McKinney long before their fires blew out. Luther Mallow, traveling salesman ... Miss Ethel McFarland, traveling sweetheart?
It's said Miss Ethel was the type of person who'd cut off her nose to spite her face, who lived in a hopelessly outdated house crumbling from neglect because she thought workmen were uncouth. Yet her last will and testament left Texas Christian University with its largest-ever unsolicited bequest, more than $200,000. Her tombstone claims she was "The Lady of Ladonia," but some who knew her say that couldn't have been her idea. Miss Ethel, they say, wouldn't have liked to call such attention to herself.
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