Reading old voter registration and census pages can be more than informative, because we not only have found necessary facts but also encountered the names of other Cambrians who have become like old friends to us.
Local rancher and historian Dawn Dunlap has regaled many folks with tales she heard while growing up here and as an interviewer/lecturer. Geneva Hamilton’s “Where the Highway Ends” has been a valuable resource. And now, thanks to local Melody Coe, we have ready access to newspapers such as the original San Luis Obispo Tribune and the Daily Telegram, as she intently pursues stories often told in florid prose or just the bare facts.
Thanks to these fine ladies and their exhaustive research, we may continue to weave the tapestry that is the saga of Jeremiah Johnson (no, not the famous mountain man).
Johnson came to California from Michigan at age 24 like many, seeking gold in the 1850s, and he eventually worked his way to Central California in 1859 with James Monroe Buffum and a remuda of horses at the behest of Judge Isaac Foster, who owned property in Adelaida.
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Jeremiah’s younger brother was tragically murdered in the 1860s in his cabin in the Adelaida area; and Jeremiah and James both laid claim to land along upper Santa Rosa Creek, becoming farmers as well as stockmen. Buffum continued to homestead successfully there for many years, but Johnson chose to move on and establish himself on the empty land near present-day Main and Bridge streets before the town was established.
He began a small livery there and is listed as stable keeper in the 1867 census. By June 1870, he was registered in the census as Saloon Keeper, worth $2,000 (On the same page, prominent merchant George Lull lists his worth as $1,000. That particular census page is a favorite of ours, as it is the first time Cambria is officially listed by name following the U.S. government’s approval on January 10, 1870, after a succession of other appellations.)
“Old time” Cambrians who were born in the 1880s and interviewed by Dunlap in the 1960s, recalled that Johnson’s was known as the Washington Saloon, on the south side of Main Street east of Bridge. News reports indicate that Johnson hosted the 1872 primary election of delegates in his saloon before the Republican National Convention, which was held later that year in Philadelphia.
The Tribune newspaper from April 19, 1879 notes his marriage to Mrs. Elizabeth Anne Sprague, 10 years younger than he, who had emigrated from England in 1864. They socialized with fellow Cambrians at various occasions, such as the Masonic celebration “with a sumptuous repast” on St. John’s Day in July, 1881, with such familiar notables as the Guthries, Coles, Steiners, Mumas, Dodsons Franklins, Mayfields, Pickfords and Miss Jennie Bright.
That year, Johnson also served as a juror on the County Superior Court with William Leffingwell, Amos Smithers, Frank Gross, Calvin Campbell, John Taylor and others.
Over the years, he is listed variously as Stable Keeper and Livery Man; he also owned property on Center Street between Lee Street (now Burton Drive) and West Street, and a livery stable on Main Street west of Bridge with James D. Campbell Sr.
Jeremiah and Elizabeth lived in the little house across from the Presbyterian Church on Bridge Street at Wall (also known as Davis), which was originally owned by George Lingo. The latter had sold his Cosmopolitan Hotel in Cambria in 1875 and moved his wife and teenage daughters to San Luis because the town and miners were too rough for the girls. (Indeed, there once were five saloons in a two-block area of the town, according to Dunlap.) Johnson himself was involved in a shooting incident outside the Eagle Hotel in San Luis Obispo in 1877, two years before his marriage.
The Johnsons had no children and lived on Bridge Street until Jeremiah’s illness and subsequent death at age 92 on Jan. 5, 1918.
The San Luis Obispo Daily Telegraph followed with a series of reports of Elizabeth’s illness in December, 1918; the declaration of her incompetency and appointment of local Judge Albert S. Gay as her guardian in February 1919; and the ultimate disposition of the Johnson property in 1921.
She died on Sept. 9, 1924 at age 89, and was laid to rest alongside Cambria’s earliest resident and “the last of the Cambria pioneers” in the Cambria Community Cemetery, at the upper end of Bridge Street.
About the Museum
The Historical Museum at Burton Drive at Center Street is staffed by volunteers from 1 to 4 p.m. Friday through Sunday and from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday. The Heirloom Gardens are open all day, every day.