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Front Page » March 9, 2006 » Carbon Senior Scene » A Daughter Of Pioneers
Published 3,179 days ago

A Daughter Of Pioneers


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By TOM McCOURT
Sun Advocate reporter

Edith Johnston in 2003

From today's perspective, it seems unbelievable that just a few years ago people could find a pleasant patch of federal ground, build a house, plant a garden, and claim the place as home. It was called homesteading, and thousands of Americans did it.

Some of the old homesteads in Utah became prosperous farms and ranches, but many failed and were soon abandoned. Eastern Utah is dotted with dozens of crumbling old log cabins that sit silently in the sagebrush as the modern world passes them by.

The stories of most of those old, abandoned homesteads have been forgotten, but there are still a few people among us who remember some of those places. One of them is Edith Johnston. She grew up in the shadow of Eastern Utah's Book Cliffs, in three different little communities that have vanished or turned to ghost towns: Danish Flats, Cisco, and Dewey.

She was born Edith Ione Cato, on November 12, 1911. Her place of birth was a rooming house in Grand Junction, Colo. Her father was Charles Urias Cato. Her mother was Mary Ellen Westwood Cato. She is the oldest of seven Children.

When Edith was a baby, her parents moved to a homestead on the Colorado River about 15 miles south of Cisco. The place was called Dewey, and her father's parents, the Cato family, lived there at the time. While staying at Dewey, her mother gave birth to a baby boy, but there were complications, and the baby died in just a few hours. They named him Elvin, and buried him on a lonely gravel hill above the river. The family marked the site, and for almost 100 years they have visited the grave of that little brother they never knew.

In 1915 the family moved to Cisco, and in about 1917 Edith's father took up a homestead on Danish Flats, about eight miles northeast of Cisco. It was established as a dry farm, but supplemental water was diverted through a ditch from Cottonwood Creek, about seven miles away. The family planted a garden, trees, and alfalfa fields.

A family tradition says that Danish Flats was a garden in those early days. The grass grew as tall as a horse's stirrups and it rained often. Wildlife was abundant and the soil was good. The area was advertised as a dry farming area and opened to homesteading. Several families moved there and staked claims.

As a small child, Edith moved often between Danish Flats, Cisco, Dewey, and Moab. Her grandmother Westwood stayed in Moab in the winter where her younger children could attend school. Edith and her mother of 10 spent time with her there.

Edith Johnston in the 1940's.

She says she remembers traveling between Dewey and Moab as a child in a team and wagon along that narrow, twisting, river road. One time a rock slide blocked the road and they had to unhitch the horses and ride them into Moab, leaving the wagon on the other side of the rock slide.

Edith has vivid memories of the early days in Dewey, in the shadow of the old river bridge. There were only two or three families in Dewey at the time and it was very isolated. The old iron bridge spanning the Colorado was a favorite place to play. She says the banisters on the bridge railings were about a foot wide, but 40 feet or more above the boiling, muddy water. The kids used to run along those banisters and chase each other across the bridge. She says it scares her to think about it now, and she would never allow her children or grandchildren to do that today.

The youngsters were lucky, and nobody ever fell into the river. Edith says that her father and grandfather, Charlie and Quintus Cato, helped to draft the plans for that old iron bridge, and the blueprints are on file in the museum in Moab.

While at Dewey, Edith learned to swim in the mighty Colorado, and it served her well in later years. Shortly after she was married, her young husband, who couldn't swim, was swept into the deep current while learning to swim. Edith was able to race down the shoreline, dive into the river and rescue him from a sure drowning. She says she was able to catch him by his hair, just as he slipped beneath the waves, and she towed him back to shore, even though he was much larger and stronger than her. Living life in such a harsh environment had made her quite an athlete.

Edith has fond memories of living at the homestead on Danish Flats. The little community had about 20 families scattered over a wide area, and school was held there for about a year before being shut down because of the flu epidemic of 1918. It was never reopened. Edith started first grade at the school in Danish Flats, but had to do the year over again in Moab the following year.

She says one of the things she remembers most about 1918 is the sight of her grandfather Cato running across the farm fields to tell them World War I was over and her Uncle Neil could come home again.

Most of the homes and outbuildings at Danish Flats were made from old railroad ties scavenged from the Denver and Rio Grande line that snaked through the sand flats south of the farm fields. There was never a store, city center, or cemetery in the community. Commerce was conducted in the nearby town of Cisco, or people went to Green River, Moab, or Colorado for supplies.

The homestead at Danish Flats prospered for a few years, and then slowly dried up and blew away. Each year there was less snow and rain, and even Cottonwood Creek dwindled to almost nothing. In the mid-1920s people started to abandon farms and move away. By the dust bowl days of the mid-1930s there was nothing left but ruins. The Cunningham ranch at the mouth of Nash Draw is about all that remains of the once thriving little community.

The family returned to find the site of the old Cato homestead in the 1980s, but there was almost nothing left. Mother Nature had reclaimed almost everything that hadn't been pilfered over the preceding 50 years. The wind blows sad and lonesome over the old homestead today. Grass hasn't grown to a horse's stirrup there for a long time.

Edith says that the family was very poor while living at Danish Flats, and they supplemented their diet with wild game. She was just a girl when her father paid $4.25 to buy her a single-shot .22 rifle. She says bullets were precious, so she didn't waste any. She became a great shot and a great hunter.

Her family says that over the years they always drove deer to her during the annual deer hunt because she was the best shot in the family. Deer hunting became one of her passions.

Edith Johnston with a prize buck in the1950's. She said she would rather hunt than eat when she was younger.

"There was a time when I'd rather hunt than eat," she says with a wide smile.

While living at Danish Flats, Edith met Wayne Elbridge Johnston at a community dance in 1920. She was 9 and he was 12. His family had come from Kansas while he was just a boy, to homestead at the foot of the Book Cliffs. His family lived in a tent for a time, and then built a dugout into the side of a hill.

Edith's father didn't like that Johnston boy, and he tried to keep them apart. But just a few days after her 18th birthday, the pair eloped. They were married in Grand Junction, Colo, in November 1929. Her mother cried for weeks. The family feud was reconciled after a short time, and the family accepted Edith's new husband.

The new couple started life together on a goat ranch near Cisco. The goat ranch belonged to Wayne's family, and the couple leased the goats and worked with them for about a year before the herd was sold. Edith still has an Angora goat-wool blanket that she had made in Salt Lake City in 1930.

In November of that same year, Edith gave birth to a baby boy she named Von. The baby was born in log cabin in Cisco. Edith was assisted by her mother-in-law and a midwife. A doctor was summoned from Fruita, Colo. but he got there an hour after the baby was born. Dr. White had ridden the train from Fruita, Colo. to Cisco.

The road that would one day be Highway 6 was frozen mud, and nearly impassable during the winter months.

In about 1931, Wayne and Edith bought a farm along the Colorado River a few miles above Dewey for $99 in back taxes. They lived there for about four years and grew hay and corn to feed their horses and a milk cow. They made a living from their farm and garden, by fishing, hunting, trapping, and doing odd jobs around the area. It was a subsistence level existence, and they struggled through the dark years of the Great Depression.

They sold the farm a few years later for $1000, making a fine profit. Edith says she wishes now they had kept it. The little farm is called Fish Ford today, and is the place where river runners access the Colorado River below Westwater Canyon. There is a campground and boat launch area there now, and hundreds of happy tourists visit the site every summer.

In 1934, Edith's second son, Vion, was born in the same log cabin in Cisco. And for the second time, the doctor got there by train just after the delivery. Edith was again assisted by a midwife. It was a difficult delivery. Wayne tried to help, but when the doctor arrived, he found Wayne passed out on the cabin porch. He had to revive the young father before attending to the new mother.

Two daughters would be born to the couple in the mid-1940s: Vonna and Valynda. The girls were born in the hospital in Price.

Edith and Wayne Johnston at their home in Price, 1999

It was 1934 when Wayne got a chance to bid for a government contract to haul mail between Cisco and Castleton. Castleton is another old ghost town today, located in Castle Valley on the La Sal Loop Road East of Moab. Castleton was about 40 miles south of Cisco.

Wayne had a problem applying for the mail job. He didn't have a car and an automobile was required for the bid. There were no jobs to be had, and so he spent months catching wild horses and selling them to a government agent at Mac, Colo. for a dollar each. He finally made $200, enough for a 25 percent down payment on a new pickup truck that cost $799. He was awarded the mail contract.

While doing the mail run between Cisco and Castleton, Wayne began to buy livestock from farmers along the way to sell at the auction yard in Grand Junction, Colo. He eventually put a stock rack on his mail truck to better haul the larger animals. Soon, the livestock business was more rewarding than the mail hauling business and the Johnstons were spending nearly every Saturday at the auction yard in Grand Junction.

At about the same time, in the late 1930s, Wayne and Edith were looking for other business opportunities and they went to look at a copper mine several miles west of Blanding. The mine looked good, but the roads were little more than horse trails, and the Johnstons didn't think they could transport the copper ore and make a profit. They could have bought the mine for $500, but turned it down. A few years later, a couple of guys from Monticello bought the mine for $1000 and made millions. It was called the Happy Jack Mine, and high-grade uranium was one of the waste products the copper miners had been throwing away.

The Johnstons found a business partner in Grand Junction, and in 1939 they moved to Price and opened the first auction yard in the state of Utah. Business was tough for the first few years. The family lived in a converted chicken coop and put everything they had into the stockyard and auction business. They were cheated by their partner and almost went under, but in the end they prospered. Edith says that Wayne taught himself to be an auctioneer by selling things to telephone poles as he drove the dusty miles between Grand Junction and Price hauling livestock. The Johnstons ran the auction yard in Price until the mid-1960s, when it was closed and the auction barn torn down.

In 1949 the Johnstons leased the auction yard and journeyed to Alaska to seek their fortune. Wayne had always wanted to go there. The family packed their belongings, two babies, and a camp outfit, and traveled the newly constructed trans-Alaskan highway. It was a graveled road the whole way. Alaska was cold, wet, and not the great job market Wayne had expected. In just a short time he decided to come back to the warm and dry climate of eastern Utah and take over the auction yard again.

For years, the Johnstons collected rocks and minerals as a hobby, and they learned a lot about geology. In the mid-1950s they staked a uranium claim in the Yellow Cat area north of Arches National Park. They found some good ore and made a little money, but the whole uranium industry collapsed in 1957 when the government quit buying the stuff. The Johnstons went back to the auction yard.

Over the years, Edith became an accomplished seamstress and made beautiful handmade quilts. Her quilts were featured on a public broadcasting TV special. She also cut and polished gemstones and made wonderful silver and gemstone jewelry. She has an extensive collection of purple bottles, pioneer memorabilia, and frontier memories.

Edith and Wayne were founding members of both the Castle Valley Gem Society and the Castle Valley Chapter of the Utah Statewide Archaeological Society. She is also proud to be a member of the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers.

The Johnstons have 21 grandchildren, 41 great- grandchildren, and 7 great-great-grandchildren. Wayne died in 2002, and Edith still lives in Price.

Today there isn't much left of those hardscrabble homesteads of her childhood and early adult life, but Edith remembers them well. She speaks with a wistful smile and a far-away look that makes a person envy not being able to see the visions she sees, as she talks of those forgotten places and bygone days.


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March 9, 2006
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