Geneva Johnson, honored in Happy Camp
I felt I knew Dear Mad’m immediately when I read her wonderful adventure of living on her mining claim near the Klamath River. Obviously I didn’t know her personally, but it didn’t take me long to draw the obvious comparisons between Dear Mad’m and my own Dear Grandma Geneva Johnson. Geneva and her husband, Walt, bought their mining claim in the early fifties. Their claim, which consisted of two unfinished, rough cabins, sits above the Klamath River in a spot less than five miles from Dear Mad’m’s Bent Pine Claim. At first the claim was a getaway spot for the two city dwellers who loved fishing and hunting, but mining…not so much. Next the cabins became a home for Geneva’s aging father and stepmother. Finally, in 1970, those two rough cabins became Grandma and Grandpa’s full time home. They gave up their lovely home in San Francisco, complete with a fully finished basement where Grandma could do all her canning, and had a beautiful award winning yard, where Grandma not only created a space that was the envy of all her Garden Club friends, but also provided plenty of fresh vegetables to feed the family year round.
Grandma Geneva moved to Happy Camp with a lot of misgivings. She loved her San Francisco life. But with her wonderful, positive, “can do” spirit, Grandma Geneva tackled the job of living in the remote Siskiyou wilderness. She grew to fiercely love that run down claim, and although she never forgot her city friends, she quickly made new friends and created a wonderful home, quite literally on the edge of the edge of nowhere.
My Grandma Geneva isn’t really my Grandma, but since I never had one, I chose her. I am her Nora…we need each other. I moved to Happy Camp at 23, a brand new bride with a good education, but not a whole lot of common sense. At that time, in the summer of 1976, Grandma Geneva lived in a small cabin next door to me. Just as Dear Mad’m wondered how Up’N’Up and Nora could make it, I know Dear Grandma worried about me. I couldn’t cook, garden, sew, fix a broken anything, and had no idea how to keep the fire burning to heat my house. Thank goodness Dear Grandma, like Dear Mad’m, needed to be needed, because living 800 miles from my own family, I sure needed her. And I’m not the only one. All around Happy Camp there are adults and children who claim Grandma Geneva as their own.
Like Dear Mad’m, Dear Grandma has always had young legs. Now, at the impressive age of 99 those legs are complaining a bit, but they still refuse to act their age. A few years ago my friend Nena was working at both of the Happy Camp schools. One day I heard her going on and on about a beautiful yard she passed daily as she walked between both schools. Nena raved about the beautiful elderly lady who grew spectacular flowers and had a vegetable garden filled with vegetables and NO weeds. I knew immediately that elderly lady was Dear Grandma. She was well over 90, but that garden put all others to shame. Those young legs seemed forever young. But, when I caught her standing up on her counters, cleaning on top of her cupboards, I gave her a piece of my mind. Even young legs can slip. And who cleans on top of the cupboards anyway?
Dear Mad’m spent the first day on her mining claim creating a flower garden. I wasn’t there, but I would bet that Dear Grandma did the same. The two ladies share the wonderful ability to take a rough and rustic mining cabin and make it into a home. After a day toiling in her garden, Dear Mad’m said “I had a backache that made it impossible to straighten up-but I was happy.” Dear Grandma, after a very full morning of hard physical work, would spend the late afternoons resting her weary muscles by sitting out under the big oak, watching the birds and the wildlife, and enjoying the peaceful beauty of her wilderness setting. That yard definitely made her happy.
But not all wildlife was welcome. Like Dear Mad’m, Dear Grandma kept her trusty pistol close by to scare off unwanted wildlife. There were no cougar incidents, but bears were common on Dear Grandma’s claim. Three separate times overly eager bears tore off the screen door to the cabin in an effort to get inside. Once Dear Grandma banged a bear on the nose as it climbed through, and another time she grabbed for the closest thing, which happened to be a bottle of bug spray. After a thorough spraying to the face, that bear went coughing and sneezing back to where he belonged. Dear Grandma was afraid only one time during her time on the claim. She saw three bears down by her chicken coup. She hollered and two of them quickly ran off, but the third, a gray snouted old timer, came right at her. As he got closer and closer, and her hollering wasn’t helping, she knew she was in trouble. If she ran, that bear could easily catch her. But the old guy stopped to sniff, and when he did, Dear Grandma ran as fast as her young legs could carry her, into the cabin. Grabbing a 410, she peppered the intruder with buckshot, and he ran off.
The bears were mostly just a nuisance. After the third time they tore down her chicken coup, Dear Grandma gave up raising chickens. But unlike Dear Mad’m, Dear Grandma knew just how to handle unwanted rodents that trespassed in the cabin. No need to mess around with paper mache, with or without mustard. Just a little bit of Blue Vitrol on toast would just suck the fluids out of those pests. Don’t even try to buy it today! You know that stuff had to have some serious chemicals!
Like Dear Mad’m, Dear Grandma was made of stern stuff. Born in Illinois in 1913, the rough winters and farming life taught her to work hard and be resourceful. Her stories of using a rope, tied from the barn to the house, to guide them to the barn to feed the livestock, reminded me of something from Little House on the Prairie. But her family must have had a lot of sense, because in 1922 they packed up all their belongings and made their way to a new life in Santa Barbara, California. What a trip that was! They had to carry their own gas and water, and of course had to repair their many breakdowns on their own. Some places there wasn’t even a road, but rather wagon wheel ruts. The trip took over two weeks, but Dear Grandma still remembers the camping each night. One beautiful place in particular, Green River, Wyoming, she fell in love with…that is, until they had to abandon camp at dusk when black clouds of mosquitoes drove them away.
Dear Grandma’s training for a pioneering life continued in Santa Barbara. Her mother taught her to garden and can and sew. Dear Grandma claims she isn’t much of a seamstress, but making curtains or sewing a layette was fun for her. But man can that lady cook. Every dinner had multiple courses, and her “grocery store” was the shed out back. Amazing home canned goodies came out of that grocery store. Her mother taught her well!
As a new bride in the early thirties, Dear Grandma moved into the lighthouse in Santa Barbara. There, cleaning lights and polishing equipment became part of her daily chores. Once, while taking the cover off the light, Dear Grandma spotted a Japanese sub. When she reported the sighting, the man on the other end of the phone just laughed at her. It may have been a coincidence, but a short time later a Japanese bomb was found in a yard along the shore. That bomb didn’t explode, but it definitely wasn’t a laughing matter.
Living at the Light House in Santa Barbara may have helped Dear Grandma prepare for a life of solitude. Although she loves peace and quiet, and the serenity of the Klamath Forest, she is, at heart a party girl. Even at the age of 99 Dear Grandma loves a party, and her young legs willingly carry her to any place where her loved ones are gathered. In the old days she would brave the rocky roads and travel in to Happy Camp for a movie at the Del Rio or music and camaraderie at the Buckhorn. Like Dear Mad’m, sometimes the trip home was treacherous, with Dear Grandma at the wheel and Dear Grandpa picking up rocks off the road. Or vice versa.
The quiet solitude of each day on the claim was broken when Ginger, the mail lady, came by with the daily mail. When she could spare the time, Dear Grandma would hike up to the highway to greet Ginger and learn all the news from town. Sometimes a longer visit was in order and Dear Grandma would hop in the van and help out on the remainder of the mail route. But don’t tell, because I don’t think that was allowed.
Dear Grandma was willing to work hard during the day so she would have time to head to the river for some serious fishing. It must have been the beauty and peace of the river that drew her to her favorite fishing holes, because it certainly wasn’t the taste of fish. She still can’t stand to eat fish, and strongly dislikes the odor they create when she cooks them. But she loved catching them.
Dear Grandma has had a wonderful life. I so appreciate her willingness to continue to be needed by so many of us. These days, her difficulty with hearing causes her a lot of frustration because she wants to hear more about our daily lives. But there is nothing wrong with her memory. She clearly remembers every stage of a long life that has not always been happy or easy. But she will happily share with you stories of her wonderful life on the mining claim. She misses that place, and wishes she were there still. Like Dear Mad’m, she has lived the life she loved; a life that has given her much satisfaction; with flowers to fill her days with beauty, wildlife to observe, and friends who need her.