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Tuesday June 26, 2007 Edition
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From Where I Lie

Tuesday June 26, 2007

By Larry Johnson

   I have a copy of a daguerreotype on my wall that dates back to the late 1870s. It’s a picture of my grandfather, Milo Johnson, driving three yokes of oxen. It’s in black and white, of course, and there is no background, only the stark silhouette of my grandfather and the six oxen. He is standing to the left of the cattle and artfully, it would seem, wielding a long pole that he is using to steer them. It is a very dramatic scene that looks more like a painting than a photograph, but it is the scene I always recall whenever I think of the old man.

   Although Grandpa Johnson died two years before I was born, I heard many stories about him from my father, mother and Grandma Johnson; and, over time, I began to get a feeling for his life and how he had lived it.

   Grandpa was born in Colchester, Vermont, on Porter’s Point. It was the Johnson’s ancestral home and my family had lived there since before the Revolutionary War.

   My line of the Johnson family came to this country in the 1630s as part of the massive migration, at that time, to the Massachusetts’s Bay Colony by the Puritans. Eventually the family moved to Old Saybrook, Connecticut, and then, later, to Vermont via Salem, New Hampshire.

   In 1856 my great grandmother was diagnosed with a “lung problem” that was blamed on the “bad air” produced by Lake Champlain, and the family was encouraged to move away from the lake to a more mountainous atmosphere.

   My Grandfather Johnson was about six years old when the family moved from Porter’s Point to Pitcairn, New York for the sake of his mother’s health. However, I have visited Pitcairn and it is my assessment that anyone moving there would soon be sicker than before. To be generous, it is a brush heap just west of the Adirondack Mountains.

   Almost immediately upon their arrival, my great grandfather was drafted into the Civil War where he remained for the duration. He was in every major battle and mustered out of the conflict as a Captain of Teamsters, a mover of heavy artillery.

   My grandfather, who was six or seven years old at the time, became the “Man of the Family”, as he was the eldest. To help support his mother and his siblings he went to work for a tannery, hauling bark with a team of horses. As a direct result of his employment, he had little opportunity for a formal education but, as time would prove, he became a shrewd survivor and a good provider.

   After his father returned unscathed from the Civil War, my grandfather struck out on his own and owing to the limited choices of occupations, created his own employment. He became a wood chopper, a deer hunter--- providing venison to the restaurants in New York--- and, as a result of his hunting activities, became an Adirondack guide for the rich and famous sportsmen of the time.

   But Milo was a farmer at heart and he came by it honestly. Agriculture, of one sort or another, had been the main Johnson vocation from the very beginning of our family history. Western upstate New York, post Civil War, was experiencing an economic depression, pretty much as it is today, and Gramps saw a way of making some money from this unfortunate happenstance. He knew that cattle were practically free for the taking in the farming country around Malone, and he also knew, from relatives in Vermont, that cattle prices were high in the Champlain Valley. It occurred to him that if he could buy cattle cheap in New York State and move them to Vermont, he could make some real money. The problem, of course, was getting them to their destination.

   Milo started buying cattle and when he had acquired all that he could afford, he and his trusty cow dog began the 250 mile trek through the mountains, driving dozens of young heifers. It took him weeks. Gramps said that he walked and ran that 250 miles ten times over, at least. Without a good cow dog it would have been impossible. The dog kept the herd moving while he ran ahead of the herd, shutting gates, finding forage and keeping the strays from disappearing into the ever-present forest.

   Finally, they reached the Crown Point ferry crossing on Lake Champlain and the cattle were ferried across, ten at a time. From there, Milo drove the entire herd into Middlebury where he sold them for a huge profit, enough to put a down payment on the farm in Weybridge where I was born and raised.

   Milo died when he was 84 years old and he left this world just as stubbornly as he had lived in it. Just a few months before his death he had come down with pneumonia and had been ordered to bed by Dr. Goodrich, our family physician. Gramps refused to take orders from anybody, even someone who had his best interest in mind. A short time after ordering my grandfather to bed, the good doctor was driving by our house and he spotted Gramps in the garden hoeing the weeds with a vengeance. He stopped the car and yelled at the old man, “Mr. Johnson, I want you to go into the house and get into bed this very minute.”

   Milo, without losing a stroke with the hoe, yelled back, “I’m going to hoe this garden until I die, and nobody’s goin’ to tell me different.” Unfortunately, Grandfather Johnson had no idea how prophetic his words were. A few days later he had a heart attack and he lingered on just a few more days before he died.

   Not a day goes by that I don’t give thanks to my grandfather for bringing the Johnson’s back to Vermont. Without his ambition and courage, I might be living in that god forsaken brush heap just west of the Adirondacks.   

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