Thursday, September 24, 2009

Article #73 Great Grandpa and Saloons

If you dig for your roots, you’ll eventually find some colorful characters that are related to you. My great grandfather Wm. Marion Johnson Sr. was one of those: a mysterious stranger who deserted his wife and five sons in the late 1800s, and was never heard from again. He came from Knox County Ohio. William’s dad died in 1854 leaving a widow with eight children to support on the family farm. The youngest child was only three years old and the only girl among seven sons. William was the third oldest. Three of his brothers enlisted in the Civil War while he stayed home helping his mom on the farm. Two brothers were killed in the conflict and only one returned. After the war, Wm. left for Nevada probably by train to strike it rich in mining.

Land research showed him in 1870 in Elko, Nevada working several mining claims. Later through local newspapers, I found him in the saloon business in Gold Mountain, Nevada with a partner who had a distillery. Through census records, I traced his movements in gold rush towns starting in Nevada and ending in Frisco, Utah. His occupation is listed as a "saloonkeeper" in Spanish Fork and Silver City in the Utah city directories. He may have realized there was easier money to be earned working indoors in a saloon rather than in the dangerous mines far underground. (Photo below of Silver City in its boom years. In the center is the two story elementary school that my mom attended. Today its a ghost town with no buildings still standing.)

A saloon called for pool tables and other furnishings to enable his customers to relax and gamble some of their hard earned money while quenching their thirst. Despite all these activities, Wm. managed to marry a much younger local girl Olof who had emigrated with her parents from Iceland to Utah. He had six young sons with her before wanderlust struck again; and he was off to the Gold Rush in Alaska to get rich. After several years away thinking he was dead, his wife remarried. Unfortunately for everyone, the wanderer returned. Seeing the dilemma he was in, William disappeared for good and was never heard from again.

How did it change my life learning more about this unique relative? I came to realize that he was very human with weaknesses and problems who probably struggled to make a living. Being a saloonkeeper, he may have also had problems with drinking and gambling that complicated his life. I could sympathize with his wife and her struggles. They became real people to me and not just names.


  1. Enjoyed this bit of your history. It must be gratifying to "connect" the dots in one's history!

  2. Wondeful old shots. There's something about the sense of the historical that b/w brings out.

  3. And now they are real people to us.. I love that you have a great capacity for compassion Lin...