by Mattie Johnson Neves
I was born in Lee’s Ferry, Arizona. My father, Warren Johnson had been called there on a mission to stay until he was released as the ferryman across the Colorado River. He lived there for twenty-one years and ferried thousands of travelers across the Colorado in the old ferry boat owned by my father.
He was a convert to the church from the east, was well educated, talented, and had outstanding ability as a school teacher. He fulfilled and lived to the letter every principle taught by the L.D.S. church. To his wives and children, his word was law. Every Sabbath morning, we gathered for Sunday School, the hired men, and their families and every one of us. Not a stroke of work or play was done on that day.
Lee’s Ferry was my world. I knew no other. Father, Mother, Auntie, and our brothers and sisters and the children of the hired men were all we needed.
We had wonderful orchards, vine yards, gardens, cattle roamed the hills for beef and dairy purposes. The mighty Colorado yielded large white salmon in abundance. We produced from the soil everything necessary for the use of man. Our nearest neighbors were ninety miles away. There was fruit hanging on the trees from May until November. An eighty gallon barrel made by my grandfather, Price W. Nelson, was always full of honey. Father ran a store for the accommodation of travelers and for his own family. We always had shoes and clothing, but I never handled a nickel or knew what money was for until, when I was nine years of age, my mother and her family bade goodbye to the good old ferry and moved to Kanab, Utah, in order that the children might have more advantages.
Father had been teaching us since we were five years old so when we started school at Kanab, the “Johnson Kids” were several years ahead of the other children their ages, but what we didn’t know about contacts with the outside world would fill volumes.
When I was thirteen years old, my father had his back broken and never walked again In this condition, knowing that he could not handle the ferry, he sold our old home and moved his other family to Kanab.
Father was never satisfied with our condition here. He wanted his children to have the advantages of higher education.
The papers were full of stories of the advantages of a new country being opened in Wyoming, called the “Big Horn”. He wanted to get to a place where irrigation could be done, and where farming could be done with machinery. He decided to travel up north and look at the Delta country.
My younger sister and I were told that we were needed to go along to take care of Pa and Aunt Permelia. It never occurred to us to question or to disobey, so we bade goodbye to our dear mother and brothers and sisters. It was especially hard to leave our baby sister Elnora. It was like tearing our hearts out to leave our dear school-mates. We thought we were going on a short trip. Little did we realize that we were going on a long, long journey to the Big Horn, Lucy never to return to her old home.
We finally arrived in Salt Lake, Lucy, Aunt Permelia and I taking turns driving the team. On ahead was a wagon with my brother, Herry, his wife and three weeks old baby. Behind was my half sister and her 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 journey did I hear him complain. Lucy and I did plenty of that when we would 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 gain. Little Anna, our brother’s wife was just as homesick as we were. She seemed to sense that she would never see her loved ones again, for she died in Byron several years later, leaving four children, Wilma, Alice, Warren and Ida. (Ida was raised 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 difficulties and the care of an invalid father, we looked like just what we were, a band of lonesome, homesick, worn-out pioneers.
Everyone knows the history of the Big Horns for those first few years. It was not all thorns, there were roses, too. We became acquainted with the young folks. Our clothing was not what it should have been. We were almost destitute when we arrived. We got work and purchased some beautiful gray outing flannel and made some dresses for ourselves. We were proud of their fit for awhile, but one night at a party one of the girls rolled up her sleeve and showed us that her underwear was made out f that kind of material!
We had good times, but there was always grieving in our hearts for our family. We were the only ones without a mother. Father drew land located near Byron. That fall we built a one room log cabin. Jerry, my brother got work on the railroad and had to leave before it was finished. One morning, Brother Joe Nevelle came over to our place. I was up on a box sawing away for dear life. I was trying to make a window. He said, “What are you making, a cat hole?” 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 who came out from Southern Utah. My two older brothers were driving cattle to the Big Horn. They were three months on their journey from Kanab. We were the happiest girls on earth 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.
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 postmaster. My mother made a homestead entry where the town of Greybull now stands. Father kept getting weaker, but he never complained. He did not live to see his dreams for his children fulfilled. He died and was buried at Coburn with only his children and neighbors to perform the last sad rites. He was buried on the hillside. When the railroad came through the next year, the track came across his grave. He was moved to the Byron cemetery.
We went back to Byron, where we had learned to love our friends very dearly. We had our fun and amusements, but we were very poor, often going to bed hungry. My mother would not accept charity. She wove carpets and did everything she could to get along. Hers was a wonderful life, a worthy example for her children.
In Byron we had dances, socials, candy pulls. My sister and I had the usual number of admirers, but the man of my dreams was a tall, well built man from Burlington. We were married at my mother’s home in June, 1903. We lived together for twenty years. Near our twentieth wedding day (June 18) he was murdered. I have often wondered why this sorrow came to me and how I have been able to stand it. Six months after this terrible tragedy, on Christmas Eve, our little girl, Carla Rae, was born. Six weeks before she was born, my mother died down in Utah. Three months after she was born, while our family was attending the trial of the murderer of my husband, my sister Lucy died, leaving a family of eight and a ten days old baby boy. That boy is our Billy, who has been my own boy all of his life, and a brother to the rest of the family. He and Carla Rae were like twins, one just as dear to me as the other.
I think that the experiences I have gone through have made me more appreciative of the gospel of Christ and I can truly say that the Lord “moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform.”