‘Nanny Bill’ Rides Again or
William & Maye Johnson Family off the Wilde Road
© Dan Royal, The Stump Ranch
The recent passing of Ernest S. Johnson, known to all as Ernie (1920-2007) brings to mind an early family in the Birdsview area, related to the author of this piece only peripherally. Ernie’s obituary mentions his graduation from Hamilton High School in 1939, followed by his tour of duty in the U.S. Army from 1942-1946 and his life long residence in Birdsview.
In an interview I did with Ernie in 2004 he shared…”I worked for Scott Paper (Hamilton)...four (of us) people took retirement (nobody knew it at the time) and within a few months Scott Paper let the word out they were done with logging. If I had stuck with them, I would have got $15,000.00 severance pay. I was there a little over 25 years with Scott Paper. They sold out to Crown Pacific. I wanted to drive truck and ended up as a grader operator 25 years. Drove in the winter time to move free loads in.”
Ernie’s home was off SR20, almost directly across from Lusk Road. The house was built and finished around 1950. Ernie’s common law marriage began around that time to Marie Pinelli and lasted close to 40 years until her death. Ernie married Rosalind (Roz) Sudderth in 1995 and she survives him at the family home.
Ernie and his siblings, Robert (1910-1992), Elizabeth Burton (1911-1958), Ruth Steen (1913-1998), Wilma Nuzman (1915-2002), Mack (1918-2004), and only surviving brother Cliff Johnson born 1924, currently living in Olympia; were all born to William S. Johnson and Maye McConnell. William, known as Will or Bill by some around the Birdsview was born in Franklin County, North Carolina in 1880. Recently married in Franklin, N.C. to Maye McConnell of Georgia they came to the Lyman area in 1908 following their nuptials.
The Johnson Brothers
The 1910 U.S. Federal Census for the Lyman Precinct finds William & Maye with their new child Robert living and (with Bill) working at the local sawmill, one assumes Lyman Lumber & Shingle Company in an area where lumbering was the principle industry of the area. He was also known to have logged when he first came into the area.
By 1915-1916 the family had bought their property and home in the Birdview area off of (current) SR20 and Wilde Road. Bill turned to farming at this time.
Ernie related in the same interview that…”[The father] Bill farmed to keep family feed. In the day there was no herd law. They would get up in the middle of the night to milk them, put them in shed, milk them in morning and turn them loose. Their cows and Charlie Daves cows used to run together. If there was a western wind you didn't have a problem hearing the cow bells. Used to be a lot of pasture out Wilde Road. Used to be pretty open all the way out to Grandy Creek.”
After several interviews around the area there were two items of interest about William S. Johnson that I needed to find more about. First, why did the neighborhood children call him ‘Nanny Bill’? Second, the story of Bill’s run-in with the train while riding his horse and wagon?
My inquiry to Cliff Johnson solved the mystery of the nickname pretty quickly, Cliff shared…”I can relate the history. When Billy (Bill’s grandson) was a little tyke (maybe 3-4 yrs) and Dad would go to Sedro shopping, at times he would bring back bananas. He’d give one to Billy, who called them nanas, or nannys. And from that, Dad became known as ‘Nanny Bill’. And since this was his Grandad, Billy also hung the moniker on his other Grandfather, Jim Wilson. He was known as ‘Nanny Jim”.
Cliff Johnson writes one of the more entertaining letters and stories a person would want to read. There is way too much to share from him in this small column. Hopefully a couple of paragraphs about his folks will show what I mean, including the above mentioned train run-in.
Cliff wrote, “For quite a number of years, the Great Northern Railroad had daily activity through the area. Primarily freight business, although it is remembered that there was at one time, one passenger car. The writer had his first train ride, with his mother, from Birdsview to Lyman, a nine mile ride! Logging and the cement plant at Concrete was the backbone of the railroad’s existence. Many cars of logs and cement made their way out of the valley on those steel rails. In the late 20’s and into the 30’s, there might be an occasional hobo venture into the area. The writer’s mother had the experience of meeting one. The railroad was about a quarter mile from the home. This fellow came to the house and asked if she had any vanilla. Since she wasn’t abreast of all the ways of the world, she thought perhaps he might have a sore throat, or some such. Vanilla, in those days was generally ‘real vanilla’, maybe twenty percent alcohol. So she got the vanilla bottle and a spoon, and handed to him. He didn’t bother with the spoon, but drained the bottle.
Another railroad event occurred which will never be forgotten. The writer was about school (or pre school) age. At that time the railroad crossing, about a quarter mile away, could be seen from the house. The crossing was at the top of a fill, with deep ditches on each side, and woods growing close to the track on the west – the direction from which the morning freight came. The writer was watching as his dad went up the fill to the crossing. Suddenly the dad was seen to jump out of the wagon and disappear into the ditch. Then the train came into view, taking the horses. Fortunately dad escaped without injury, but the horses were done for. Dad said the train never blew a whistle. But the railroad and their lawyers came out on top. How fortunate, tho, that he heard the noise of the train – over the noise of the wagon – and got out in time.
Ernies’ take was a touch more detailed during our interview in 2004 and suggested the blame was probably his fathers, he related…”[Bill] had graveled the early road where they lived (Wilde Rd.) with a team and wagon, big high wheels and a box out of 2X6's...was able to use a bar and dump loads... Old Mark Kemmerich’s place (now KOA Campground)...he had to maintain his own roads through the winter time...Mark came to get Bill to come over to gravel the bad spots on a Saturday...Bill hooked up the team of horses and wagon and took off...Wilma and myself [Ernie] were outside when they heard a blast out of Birdsview by the railroad crossing...the train had hit the team...killed both horses while dad had jump off...dad [Bill] had hearing problems and probably didn't hear the whistle...the train was off schedule...Ernie Jones had to come out with a rifle and put one of the horses down...the kids ran all the way out there...some lawyer took it up but they lost the case.”
years following the Fiftieth Anniversary of Bill & Maye Johnson. “Bill got bad
cold and got sick. Doctors gave him a handful of
pills which turned into pneumonia; he died in the old Sedro Woolley [Memorial] Hospital. Bill died in 1960. Had been in good health; Ruth and Ernie went to see him but he was in a coma, he never come out of it. By the time Ernie got home, they called and said he died.” Sadly, Bill & Maye’s daughter Elizabeth had passed away in California not a year before the Golden Anniversary. Ernie Johnson goes on to relate his mom lived into her nineties. She passed away 22 January 1977, concluding a well lived life.
Bob Johnson had continued on the family farm in Birdsview while working in logging, retiring in 1972 as a cutting foreman for numerous logging contractors. In addition to his logging through the years he operated a dairy farm on the old family acreage and raised Belgian draft horses well after his retirement. Bob’s wife, the former Nona Wilson passed after 40 years of marriage in 1970; Bob remarried in 1972 to Marion (Childs) Main, formerly of Anacortes and enjoyed their life together until his passing in 1992.
Bob Johnson was nominated in 1989 by his neighbor Ingrid Meyer as “America’s No. 1 Country Character” for a national contest by Country Magazine. The entry was printed in the Concrete Herald and the exert I am about to share fits nicely as a description of the Johnson family members I [the writer of this article] have met. It is not known whether Ingrid won the contest.
“Bob is not a very big or tall man, he is of small stature. His lean, thin face is wrinkled, telling stories of hardship, work, enjoyment, humor and a life time of experience. There always seems to be a gleam dancing in his blue eyes and the small crowsfeet surrounding the eyes are moving up and down and sideways when he tells his stories, true ones and not so true ones! His friendly mouth has an answer at hand for any comment, question or discussion. His brain works fast. Bob must have a small box up in his heads where he stores a lifetime of knowledge. His hands are strong, always busy. Now they are mending a fence, then tending a flower or chopping wood. Bob is well-known and respected in our small community, always lending a helping hand to people in need of just “neighboring.”
The “neighboring” skill seems to have been passed down from the father of the family. Too many folks to count interviewed by this author, who knew Bill Johnson, to a man, shared that if you ever ran into Ol’ Nanny Bill to be prepared to set in a minimum of a half hour of friendly chat, tales, gossip and goings on.
[Photo of Bob Johnson reads: “His reaction to some joke that I had given him.” Photos of the Johnson family have been courtesy of Cliff Johnson whom I am most grateful: the love of his family and the written word has been a real pleasure.]
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