Page 43 – Edith Johnston – part 1

I was thrilled to be given a copy of the “Memoirs of Edith Johnston” by two of Thompson Springs’ newest townsfolk. I’ve always said that our little community could use a few good people. Not too many mind you, but a few.

Tom Cox and Colette Johnston moved here a year or so ago and they certainly fit the bill as far as good people go. Edith Johnston was Colette’s grandmother, a true Book Cliffs old-timer and a person with a story to tell. Thank goodness Edith had the fortitude and the wherewithal to take time out of her day-to-day existence to spend the serious number of hours it takes to write down one’s memories.

I consider it remarkable that she managed to do what she did over the course of so many years and I am sorry that I never actually got to meet her. Edith began her little book in 1960 and called it done in 1996. That is what I’d call tenacity! Colette has graciously given me permission to include excerpts from Edith’s book in this column. I’ll of course only be able to touch on some of the highlights that struck my fancy, but I’ll bet any of you folks who wanted to read the entire story could get a copy of it. I’ll start off with page one of Edith’s memoirs:

As I grow older, I think of little instances that have happened in my life that someday, if they are written down, some of my family might be interested in them. This is January 1960. This fall I will be 49 years old.

My Mother, Mary Ellen Westwood, married my father, Charles Urias Cato, in Moab, Utah on January 18, 1911. On November 12, 1911 I was born in a rooming house in Grand Junction, Colorado. The rooming house is now called the Wick Hotel.

My folks were living at Cisco, Utah or along the Colorado River about 15 miles south of Cisco. My little brother Elvin was born at this homestead, but he was born too soon and only lived about 12 hours. My Grandpa, Quintas Cato, made a little casket that he was buried in on a lonely spot, on a gravel hill, not far from our cabin. This cabin has long since been destroyed, but the one about a half mile from there on the river bottom that my Grandfather Cato built is still standing at this date.

A few pages later Edith tells us about a few other adventures. It was around 1917 while they lived near Dewey.

Uncle Vere used to climb to the top of the Dewey Bridge towers and rob the bird nests. He would drop the eggs into us little girls’ aprons. Most always they would break, falling so far, but we would try to catch them. Then there were the times when we would run races on the banisters of the bridge spanning the river. Lucky never any of us fell off. I would have hysteria, should I have seen my kids even walking across the banisters. They were maybe a foot wide, but it was a 30- or 40-foot drop to the river.

Edith related as to how her family moved many times as she was growing up. They lived many places across the Cisco Desert, including Cisco, Dewey, Thompson’s Springs and Danish Flats. They were also in Moab, La Sal and the Monticello area at times. The family apparently moved from one small cabin or dugout to another several times a year depending on where the work was or where they hunkered down for the winter.

There can be no doubt that times were tough. Edith tells of walking to school in mud and how they never could afford overshoes. One time she was very distressed when she had to perform in a school play wearing shoes barely held together with a lot of twine. Meals were whatever could be rounded up, and that was especially tough when her father had to take jobs far from home, leaving her mother to do it all. I’ll again let Edith tell her own story in the next couple paragraphs. They are some of her memories prior to 1920:

One winter there was an awful lot of snow. We were snowed in. Daddy made a pair of snowshoes and went to Cisco (12-14 miles away) and brought back a sack of flour, baking powder, etc. Then walked to the Book Mountains, several miles, killed a deer, and carried it home.

Dining on venison must have been pretty darned unusual because she later wrote the following:

But the only food I really remember eating was bread, gravy, and cottontail rabbit. I remember when we helped put up the hay once as they mowed near the center of the field, kind of in a square. The rabbits would all go to the center in the thick hay. We’d all get out there with sticks and kill them. One time I remember we got 40. Boy we had the feeds then. I loved cottontail rabbit, and I think if it hadn’t been for them, we would’ve starved to death. I was married before I knew there was any other kind of meat.

There were some good times, of course. Edith tells about some fun times at school and the dances folks held at a drop of the hat in all the little schoolhouses in all the little towns. One such dance was held at the Carbon Black plant near Cunningham Ranch on Nash Wash. Edith relates:

My folks let me go, but I had Leda as a chaperone. Daddy said we had to leave the dance at midnight, rain or shine, and come home. It was 25 or 30 miles from Dewey to the dance. Mother had made me a new dress out of beige color pongee. It had red buttons for trim. When we got there it was raining, just pouring down. We sat in the car waiting for it to slow down. Being summer we had no wraps. Finally, we made a dash for the dance hall. By the time I got in my dress was drenched. It just hung like a wet rag on me. My most embarrassing moment. I never will forget how embarrassed I was!