Memoirs of Thomas Walker Johnson, born 1854

Note:  This memoir was written by Thomas Walker Johnson, the second great-grand uncle of Lorraine Vermette Koch. His story of stagecoach robberies and saloon highjinks is great reading.

Memoirs of Thomas Walker Johnson

The Johnson family came from Missouri to California in 1853 with ox-teams and covered wagons.  I happened to be one year old when we started and we were six months on the way.  Our first stop in California was at the mines in Calavaras County.  We lived there fives years, then went to Napa, then to Sonoma County, and later to Solano County, where we took up government land.  During the time we lived there we experienced the great dry year of 1864.  I was just a boy at the time, but I well remember how all the men had to go away from home to find work.  There was no feed for the cattle, so they were all turned loose to care for themselves.  I was the only “man” left in the whole neighborhood to look after the women and what little stock we could keep.  The next winter there was an abundance of rain, but of course the cattle were poor and could not survive the cold.  Before the grass started, thousands of cattle died, and men made a business of going through the country gathering up the hides.  Spring came, and plenty of feed.  People were out in search of their cattle.  So many had died that anyone finding one with his brand on it considered himself lucky.

In the fall of 1868, our family moved to San Luis Obispo.  At Pleyto, we met up with the E. H. Smith family, also going to San Luis Obispo with their two little granddaughters.  Then and there I picked out the one I wanted, Lillie Raymond, and as soon as I was of age, I married her.  I still think my judgment was good.

In San Luis Obispo my father rented the John Harford ranch, just across the creek from the cemetery.  In the spring of 1869, Father bought a header and thresher, and first of any note in the county, except a little pepper box thresher, owned by Judge Leff.  People came in droves to see the new machinery, and some called the header the “cart before the horse”.

The first night we were in San Luis, we made camp at the foot of the hill, west of town by the big spring.  I was sixteen years old at that time.  As soon as we were settled, I went out to give the town the once over.  I strolled around, and finally sat down on a bench in front of the Murray saloon on Monterey St.  Suddenly I hearad a pistol shot and looked up in time to see a Mexican shot square in the eye by a Sonoranian – killed instantly.  I ducked around the corner, as I was the only witness.  The shooting occurred on the lot where the Anderson Hotel now stands.  The Sonoranian was captured, taken to jail, and then the Mexicans gathered by the hundreds, armed with every kind of weapon imaginable.  Of course they intended to take the fellow from jail and shoot him, but they hadn’t reckoned with Sheriff de la Guerra.  The veteran officer rode up and down in front of the jail on his big black horse, brandishing his six shooter, and talking to the men in their native language, until he had them calmed down, and persuaded them to disperse.

I was a stranger in your city and no one knew I saw the man killed.  Years after, when I was driving stage, a prominent lawyer, who had handled the case was riding with me one night.  We happened to discuss the shooting, and I told him I didn’t see how he ever cleared that fellow.  His answer was “Well, he had a big band of sheep, and I wanted  ‘em.”

Speaking of the Murray saloon, it was there that I got the worst scare of my life.  The saloon stood on the corner, across the street from the Anderson Hotel.  On rainy days the boys gathered in the saloon; it was the social center of the town, and there you met your friends.  The old timers remember that saloon – big fireplace in one end, the bar at the other.  The front door opened on Monterey St., and another door out back of the bar.  On this particular day, the room was crowded, all kinds of games going on, cards, dice, etc.  I was sitting back in the farthest corner, near the fire, and I remember there were great big logs burning in the fireplace.  Pretty soon, in walked John Buster.  Any of you old timers remember that old Sport?  Old Tom Barrett was tending bar; I think the saloon belonged to Tom, and Dave Dunbar at the time.  Buster said to Tom Barrett, “The ducks are flying thick today, let’s go hunting”.  Barrett agreed, saying he would be free in about an hour, and gave Buster a dollar to go out and buy some powder, saying he had everything else they needed.  These were the days of the old muzzle loader.  Pretty soon Buster came back with a can of powder and stepped up to the bar to show it to Barrett.  Barrett poured out a little in his palm, rubbed it and remarked, “Why, that’s awfully poor powder, we can’t use that”.  “What shall I do about it?” asked Buster.  “Take it back, I won’t pay a dollar for that”.  “I’ll be d—-d if I’ll take it back”, exclaimed Buster.  By this time the voices were getting louder and angrier, and began to attract the attention of the crowd in the room.  “Well, I don’t care what you do with it”, shouted Barrett, “Throw it in the fire if you want to”.  And as the heavy can was hurled into the fire by John Buster, over went chairs and tables; money and dice rolled around on the floor; men and boys stampeded in their efforts to reach the street.  I was about the last one out (not from choice, however) as I was so far from the door.  I was perfectly sure those big, burning logs were going to hit me in the back before I ever got out of there; in fact I could feel them.  Everyone was pushing somebody out of the way.  When I reached the street I saw old Jim Sutton rolling into the gutter, so I had to stop and help him, much as I hated to be delayed, for he worked for father and I thought I ought to save him.  We ran about half a block, and everybody that saw us started to run, too, not knowing what was going to happen.  About that time we heard Tom Barrett’s big, hearty laugh – you could hear him all over town – we looked around, and he waved us to come back, saying, “It’s all over, come on back”.  Believe it or not, it was all a put up job – all the powder there was in that can was what he had poured out in his hand – the rest was sand!”

Perhaps some of you remember when I drove the work teams around San Luis?  The mules wore bells over the hames, the only bell team in the county.  We hauled wool from nearly every sheep canp in the country.  Thirty or forty years later I met a little old man in Redlands, where I was living at that time.  I passed his house frequently and often tried to engage him in conversation, but my efforts at being friendly didn’t seem to be appreciated.  One day I asked him where he was from, and he told me he used to keep a band of sheep out on the Carissa plains.  I inquired if he knew Jim Jones, who was, you will remember, the major-domo of the Las Panza Rancho in the early seventies when I was hauling wool.  At last I had touched a responsive chord – he was not longer indifferent, but at the mention of Jim Jones’ name he started slapping me on the back, meantime dancing around and up and down exclaiming excitedly, “You know Jim Jones, you know Jim Jones!  You my friend, you know Jim Jones!”   Just a link with his past.

The teamsters as they rode along the dusty roads, urging their horses along with the heavy loads, always envied the stage drivers; those, fine, four horse teams with their shining harness and the well kept coach, always created quite a stir when they arrived in town, and were perhaps the most fashionable mode of travel of that day.

The run from San Luis over the mountain, sixty miles it was, to Pleyto, used to be drive by a man named Dave Green.  Dave was a good fellow, except that he frequently imbibed a little too freely, as he made his stops along the way, delivering mail and express.  Of course a crowd always gathered when the stage came in and inevitably there was a saloon or bar close by, and wherever men gathered in groups, the drinks had to be passed around.  Each one must do his share of the treating.  One day when Green was not quite himself, he got his horses started running as they were on the road over the mountain.  Going around a curve as they went down the grade on the north side, the coach turned over, throwing out the driver and Lawyer Wilcox, who happened to be riding with him.  The horses ran madly on, still more frightened by the screams of helpless passengers inside.  Green was in the habit of making quite a stop at the Darando Saloon, which was about half down the mountain.  So, as usual, when the runaway team arrived there, they made their usual stop; giving the frightened passengers a chance to get out.  They didn’t linger as long as usual this time, however, but started on again without driver or passenger, dragging the coach until there was nothing left of it.

Needless to say, Dave Green lost his job, and I was promoted from wool team driver to stage driver.  Those horses never quite recovered from their escapade and were always a bit skittish, especially if there was any noise or singing going on.  On one occasion, after I had repeated requested some woman to stop their singing, the horses became almost unmanageable, and as soon as I could bring them to a stop, I had to get out, go around to the stage door and threaten to put the women out and go on without them, before I could persuade them not to sing.

One day I happened to be driving along, and saw a tin can in the road ahead of me.  Thought I would see if I could come close enough to flatten it out.  Instead, it stuck to the wheel and caught in the brake block, making a terrible screechy noise.  The horses were so frightened that I couldn’t let loose of the lines to get down and take it out; although it served well as a brake, I had to set there until someone came along to help me.  Of course no one came for an hour.  When my superintendent asked why I was so late that day, I told him I had a hot box.

It was about that time that dick Fellows, the notorious bandit, was on the job.  For a while he kept up a sort of game of hide and seek with the stage drivers.  One night he attempted to rob George Richmond, the driver on the line from San Luis to Santa Harla.  However, he was on foot, so Richmond whipped up his horses and drove on.  This made Fellows so furious that the next night he stole a horse and stopped Richmond, relieving him of the express box, and for his extra trouble, he said he would just take his gold watch also.

After that he tied the horse in the willows near Arroyo Grande, and made his way to San Luis, got on my stage and rode to the end of the line, then took the next stage north from there.  Before reaching Soledad, he left the stage, and robbed the south-bound stage.  He told the driver, Jim Meyers, of having robbed Richmond and even told of taking the watch, and also told him about the horse he had left tied to the willows, and gave instructions for someone to go and take care of it, as he didn’t want the poor beast to suffer.  By this time the news of the first robbery had reached the newspapers, which also that day carried a picture of the notorious Fellows.

It so happened, that morning that a farmer started out in his wagon after a load of wood, accompanied by his hired man, who was a negro.  The farmer happened to have the morning paper with him, and he and the colored man had been glancing thru the pages as they journeyed along.  Suddenly they made the discovery that their passenger was none other than Dick Fellows, on whose head was a reward of one thousand dollars.  Then and there they stopped and tied him up.  He was convicted and sentenced to twenty years in Fulsom.  About sixteen years later I read of his release.  Needless to say, the two men collected the reward.

The next night, Mike Livingston, a shoe drummer, rode north with me.  He said to me, “You know Jim Myers was robbed last night, but I’m ready for any robber that stops us tonight, and I’ll shoot him, too”.  Whereupon he displayed a tiny little pistol, nothing more than a toy.  About fifteen minutes later, as we started up San Luis Mountain, we were held up, and had to hand over the express box.  Mike was scared stiff, to put it very mildly.  As soon as he could stop shaking sufficiently to speak, he said, “Johnson, Johnson, what will we do if we are robbed again, and we ain’t got no box to give ‘em.”.  “You might shoot them with your great big gun”, I remarked.  “Oh, no, I was only just foolin’ ” was his reply.

There are just a few of my boyhood friends left in San Luis, and I always enjoy a visit when I’m there.  One man I always call on is Ah Louis.  My father and mother always considered him one of their best friends.  At one time he cooked for them out on the ranch, and I remember that he made my wedding cake.

We have made our home in Whittier for some years, where we enjoy good health, and our home, and our friends.  Our children are all near by, so that with children, grandchildren, and great-grand children, we often hold a happy family party.