Mattie- back row, standing, lady on the left in the darker dress. Sunday school Class
Mattie Johnson Neves is the mother of Lucy Alice Neves and the wife of Richard Carl Neves. Her father was Warren Marshall Johnson and her mother was Samantha Nelson Johnson.
STORY OF MATTIE JOHNSON NEVES
By Vera Neves Lass
I came in on this story in the middle, and as any movie fan will tell you, that’s not the way to get a proper perspective on a story. I was there at the ending. The beginning I know mostly from family stories and tales I’ve been told, and the one most concerned with these is now no longer with us to correct any inaccuracies.
This is the story of the life of Mattie Johnson Neves. I am her daughter. I am the tenth, though not the last, child born to her. But this is not only the story of her life. It is also the story of the two things which sheathed the soul of Mattie J. Neves- a deep and abiding faith in God, and a sense of humor. The first never wavered; but sometimes in the grey days, the sense of humor became so overlaid with grief that is seemed almost lost. then, in the good days, it flowered and grew and blossomed to a happy, infectious gaiety. Most people knew [her] best that way.
But I came in on her story in the middle – in 1920 I was too young to share with her the griefs that soon came. I remember only the twinkle in the deep, brown eyes, the readiness to go along with a joke, the pride she had in her children, the writer of poems, the gifted story teller, her sense of the dramatic colored everything she said. She never was able to retell an incident in a bald, factual manner, unadorned. A simple story came to life at her hands and became vivid and dramatic, as she “took all the parts”. We used to tease her that if her hands were tied she’d be incapable of speech. I remember her as a deeply feminine woman. She loved a flower on her hat and a pretty pin. She always loather her name- “Mattie”. I don’t know what name she might have chosen, but “Mattie” seemed to her to be plain and drab and ugly. And although the plain and drab and the ugly were a frequent pattern in her life, the soaring soul within her could never quite effect the compromise.
I think that the Puritan fathers would not have approved of Mattie J. Neves. How she loved pretty things! Her hands worked endlessly, embroidering a dresser scarf or crocheting an edging on a square of unbleached muslin or whatever came to hand whenever she sat for a moment. She was a proud woman, in an age when pride was often a luxury she could ill afford. I enjoyed and was amused by small vanities that were a part of her. She always insisted that her arms were unattractive, and until her later years always wore long sleeves to conceal them. Her hair was a beautiful, deep glossy black even until her death at age 58. She wished she could have been blond.
She was a teacher. her patriarchal blessing had promised her this gift, and that she would be a great blessing wherever she would be called to labor. She was a gifted teacher. And quite a
remarkable one! We were always delighted with the story of the harmonica band she organized in Byron in approximately the year ______. It was composed of a group of (deacons? Boy Scouts?) (Carla’s note– it was a Trail Builder group of boys) It also had some brass instruments. She didn’t know how to play any of the instruments herself, but she read the directions and blandly gave instructions to her students. It was a pretty good band, too, as the story goes. They traveled throughout the county, giving concerts or anyway some program selections. There are no doubt a number of Byron residents today who would have occasion to remember that harmonica band.
Mattie J. Neves was born in Lee’s Ferry, Coconino County, Arizona on April 15, 1882. Her father, Warren M. Johnson, was the ferryman there across the Colorado River. There were lumber wagons and carts to be ferried then. The story of the cargo that passed through by way of his ferry in the twenty-one years of his mission there would, I think, be the story of the settling of the West itself.
Warren M. Johnson was a convert to the LDS Church from the East. he had been well educated, for that time. He, too, had outstanding ability as a teacher. People who knew him have told us that he was almost a “perfect” man, with a strict code of ethics; that he lived exactly as he believed to be right, in accordance with every principle taught by the church.
I know her father was strict. Once when Mother had told me of some rather sever disciplining when she was small, in a burst of fury I flashed out that I would have “just hated him!” She was a little shocked. She assured me that he had been a wonderful man and they all had the greatest respect for him. Respect there was, and I can only hope that there was love in the small Mattie’s life, too. I know that in later years she found it difficult to be very demonstrative in her affection for her children. I never realized how delighted she was when we gave her a quick, impulsive hug or a good-bye kiss. After her death, I found two things of mine among other remembrances in her box of cherished keepsakes. The tears came then. One was a small Utah rose, carefully pressed and preserved that I had somewhat casually enclosed in a letter to her when I was away at school. The other was the letter I had written to reach her on the Mother’s Day she spent in a Montana (Billings) hospital. I had tried inadequately then to tell her of my love and gratitude. I think she knows now the things I could not say.
Of her mother, I know very little. I know that Mother adored her. I think of her vaguely as a sweet woman who probably accepted her husband’s word as law. I think it was she who brought sweetness into the life of her children at Lee’s Ferry.
Mother has said that Lee’s Ferry was a world of its own. There were fish from the Colorado River, vegetables from the soil, fruit from the orchards, cattle for beef and dairy needs. Self-sufficiency was a necessity. The nearest neighbor was ninety miles away. An 80-gallon barrel, made by my great-grandfather, Price W. Nelson, was there to be filled with honey. Her father ran a small store for the convenience of travelers, from which came the shoes and necessary clothes for his large family.
And large that family was! How we use to laugh when Mother entertained us with a demonstration of the way she used to set the family table. Her rapid recitation of the family names as each plate was laid was a facile bit of tongue-twisting that I could never duplicate. We listened closely to see if just once she might make a mistake, but she knew the litany well. In mush the fashion of “Peter Piper Picked”, it went something like this: “Ma, Pa, Aunt Permelia, Mary, Polly, Nancy, Melia, Alice, Roy, Warren, Stella, Frank, Mattie, Jody (he was Joseph Smith Johnson), Jerry, Price, Lizzy, Liddy, Lindy, Lucy and Elnora.”
When Mother was nine years old, her mother and family moved from the Lee’s Ferry area to Kanab. Mother always considered Kanab to be her home, and during the many years that followed after she was abruptly taken from it, she longed some day to return. Years later in Wyoming, we children used to hear of Kanab, and even the name always held a special magic
When she was thirteen, her father broke his back in a fall and never walked again. Knowing he could not handle the ferry, he sold his Lee’s Ferry home and moved his other family (there were two) to Kanab. Years passed. The papers began to carry accounts of the advantages of a new country being opened up in Wyoming called the “Big Horn”. Her father was interested in this area where irrigation could be accomplished and farming done with machinery. he decided to travel up north toward the Delta country to investigate.
Mother wrote of this journey:
“My younger sister Lucy and I were told that we were needed on the trip to take care of Pa and Aunt Permelia. It never occurred to us to disobey, so we bade goodbye to our dear mother and brothers and sisters. It was especially hard to leave our baby sister Elnora, and it was like tearing our hearts out to leave our schoolmates. We thought we were going on a short trip. Little did we realize that we were going on the long journey to the Big Horn, Lucy never to return to her old home.
“We finally arrived in Salt Lake with Lucy, Aunt Permelia and me taking turns driving the team. On ahead was a wagon with my half-sister and husband and baby. My two young half-brothers were in the wagon with us. Father was in the back of the wagon on his bed, and never in all that long, rough journey did he complain. Lucy and I did plenty of that when we could slip off alone.
“Upon the advice of Apostle Owen A. Woodruff, Father decided to go on to the big Horn. It seemed like the end of the world to us, and we felt sure that we would never see our mother and family again. Little Anna, our brother’s wife, was just as homesick as we were. She seemed to sense that she would never again see her loved ones. She died in Byron several years later, leaving four children: Wilma, Alice, Warren and Ida. Ida was brought up by my mother after she came to the Big Horn.
“When we finally arrived, after a journey of two months filled with heart-breaking hardships and the care of an invalid father, we looked like just what we were- a band of lonesome, homesick, worn-out pioneers.”
The story of those early years in the Big Horns is the familiar one of new country to clear and settle. The colony was busy at work with scrapers and plows along the canal in order to get water to the arid desert where now stand the towns of Lovell, Cowley and Byron.
The family of an invalid father had none of the comforts of the time and not all of the necessities. I remember Mother telling us of the time when the girls in the family were able to find work and earn a little money, so they bought some beautiful grey “outing flannel” and made dresses for themselves. Proudly they wore them to a party, with the happy eagerness of young girls with a rare new dress – until one of the other young ladies there rolled up her sleeve and simpered to them that her underwear was made of the same material. I have said that this is the story of a sense of humor. Years later, my mother was able to laugh at that incident. Anyway, a little.
But there were good times, too. In Byron there were dances, social, candy pulls. Mother wrote:
“Only there was always grieving in our hearts for our family. We were the only ones without a mother. Father drew land and located near Byron, and that fall we built a one-room cottonwood house. Jerry, my married brother, got a job on the railroad and had to leave before it was finished. One morning, Brother Joe Neville came by. I was up on a box sawing away for dear life, making a window. He said, “What are you doing? Making a cathole?” I dropped the saw and went and hid.
“It was sixteen months before mother joined us. She came out with a number of other people from Southern Utah, who with my two older brothers were driving cattle to the Big Horn. The trip from Kanab to Big Horn required three months. We were the happiest girls in the world when they arrived. I can never think of that meeting without wondering whether we will be able to taste that exquisite joy when we meet on the other side.”
I like to think that the heavens were radiant on that night when I am sure they did indeed meet again, Mother with all of her loved ones.
In her journal, Mother wrote:
“My father, with Hyrum and Charles Shumway and Charles Little and their families bought a tract of land on the big Horn known as Coburn. I was chosen as postmistress. My mother made a homestead entry where the town of Greybull now stands. Father kept getting weaker, but he never complained. He died and was buried at Coburn with only our neighbors to perform the last, sad rites. he was buried on the hillside. When the railroad came through the next year, the track would have come across his grave, so he was moved to the Byron cemetery.
“We went back to Byron, where we had learned to love our friends very dearly. We were very poor. We knew what it was to go to bed hungry. Mother wove carpets and did everything she could to provide. Hers was a wonderful example for her children.”
It was tall Richard Carl Neves from Burlington who captured Mother’s heart. They were married at her mother’s home in Byron in June. 1903. Mother’s blessing, given to her on January 21, 1904, promised that she would be the mother of many precious spirits. There were eleven of us – twelve, counting that baby she began mothering when he was ten days old after his own mother died. They were: Owen, Elden, Lucy, Richard Verle (died in infancy), William and Wilford (twins, died in infancy), Elnora, LaRena, Delna, Vera and Carla Rae – and Billy, who had come to us from Aunt Lucy, Mother’s sister.
I think there must have been happiness during those years, and gaiety, and laughter. Mother gave readings and Father “fiddled” on his violin. She chorded on the piano, and together they made quite acceptable music, I am told, in a day when entertainment did not come pre-packaged.
It was on their twentieth wedding anniversary that he was killed in Burlington. I was barely three; my sister, Carla, was born six months later. Mother’s own mother and her sister Lucy both passed away in that same year.
Those must have been bleak days for Mother and her family. I was too young to remember. There is no room here for the tribute due her three older children, Owen, Elden and Lucy. That is a story that needs the telling. As a child, I always took their leadership and strength and courage for granted. Now I know that these are qualities which must be earned.
Mother moved back to Byron some time later. I know that she always had a special love for Byron in her heart. She originated the title “Byron Briefs” and was the local newspaper correspondent for the Lovell Chronicle for many years. She was Primary president for ___ years, from __ to __. It was in Byron that she had her band.
Although there couldn’t have been much money, it seemed to me that life was good in Byron. Now I can only imagine the many adversities there must have been, but as a small child I was largely unaware of them, secure in the protection of older brothers and sisters. There was a great blessing in being one of the youngest members of my family, but I have never really felt that I have paid my dues, either.
Rena and Delna taught me to read before I went to school. We lived close to the river, and it was a rather routine occurrence to encounter an occasional rattlesnake. We were pretty wary of them, though, and I remember several meetings well, with the rattlesnake coming off a limp second-best, thanks to a well-aimed hoe in the hands of an older sister.
Ours is probably the average story of an average family. We grew up, we went to school, and one by one we made our own lives. Mother moved back to Burlington, and there the younger children grew up. I think we were happy in those years. I recall the Family Hours we used to have, which lasted all evening. We played the combs in what we modestly called our family orchestra. Rena played the piano and Delna danced and sang. Somebody went to the kitchen and burned the popcorn and somebody else made the honey candy that we always had to eat with a spoon.
Mother lived in Burlington most of the remainder of her life. She was twice Primary president, active in MIA, and was for twenty-five years a visiting teacher in Relief Society. I think she was also Theology leader for that period of time. She was the first secretary of the Primary in Big Horn County. She was the unofficial chronicler of obituaries there, graced by her gift with words. She directed plays, she made up words to songs, she sang a lovely rich alto in church choirs, and she wrote poetry.
On December 20, 1940, my mother’s story ended. She died at Burlington with the song, “O My Father” on her lips. [Grandma crossed this out and wrote “Nearer, My God, to Thee”.] It was during the months which preceded her final, agonizing illness that I think I knew Mother best. She was one gallant lady. She must have been in constant pain even then, but she came home from the hospital in Billings and attempted to enjoy whatever life was left to her. She bought a new dress or two for that frail little body, dressed up and pretended to feel wonderful for a little while. We had fun in those days. I remember with such gratitude that we even laughed a lot then. If there was some dark, deep foreboding I always managed to quickly look away. There was gaiety in the deep, brown eyes then, along with a quiet knowledge, too. I remember that she advised me carefully, and I think each of her children received a bit of quiet counsel during those final days which were to come later.
She died at Owen and Viv’s home with all her children at her bedside, amid a beautiful prayer for her release offered by our sister Lucy. Uncle Chester was then summoned to come quickly.
We all went upstairs, then, to try to sleep. I was only dimly aware of preparations being made downstairs. I did not know how we were ever to overcome the weight of the grief and exhaustion we all were feeling. I could not know what was to lie ahead for any of us.
I knew only that this was the loneliest moment of my life.