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May 25, 2010 > History: Erastus Johnson

History: Erastus Johnson

Erastus Johnson was born in 1826 in Maine, where he grew up as a member of a large family. The gold rush drew six of his brothers to California, and Erastus soon followed by ship to San Francisco. Anxious to find his brothers and hoping for news of their whereabouts, he stood in a long line at the Post Office waiting in vain for mail from home.

Since he had no mail, Erastus set out to find his brothers, Asa and Nathan, who were reported to be mining for gold. He took a steamboat to Sacramento, a stage to Grass Valley and then walked to where he found his brothers washing out gold dust. He tried mining for a week, washing out only about $30.00 worth of gold, so he decided to give up and return to San Francisco.

Erastus had some friends near Centerville so he went to see them. Centerville School District needed a teacher and he was hired for a salary of $1,200 for one year. During this year he married Mary Silsby whom he had met in the choir of the San Francisco Congregational Church. After school closed, they spent a few months in the city where their first child, Carrie, was born in 1855. Erastus bought a horse and covered wagon and delivered butter about the city, using ice brought from Alaska.

Erastus still wanted to be a farmer, so he went back to Centerville and bought 50 acres and useable buildings for $2,500. He returned to San Francisco, shipped the family belongings to Union City and brought his family around the bay with his horse and wagon. He rented another 50 acres, creating an irregular farm a mile long and then bought two horses to make a three horse team for plowing. He planted potatoes and wheat but had to carry a pistol and constantly keep shooting gophers to save any of the grain. In spite of all he could do, raising grain and potato paid little more than expenses.

Johnson kept about 50 chickens, two cows and a few pigs that brought in more cash than the grain and potatoes. He made about 700 pounds of butter with the cream from the cows which brought in about 60 cents a pound. The eggs from his hens sold for from 40 cents to $1.00 per dozen and became his chief source of income. He delivered the eggs and butter to the Union City Steamboat until it quit running. Then he had to drive 25 miles to Oakland and take the ferry to San Francisco to market his produce. He made the butter himself because it was almost impossible to get American hired help in the house.

One year he added teaching to his farming at $50.00 per month. This was apparently 1856 when he was the first teacher at Alviso School. He recalled that Lyman Beard was one of his students.

Another problem in farming was the wild mustard that grew up to 15 feet high with a stalk strong enough to hold a man. The mustard stalks had to be separated and thrown aside when binding the grain. There was a market for mustard seed so Johnson decided to gather and thresh it. He got a canvas, hired a man, hauled the mustard after grain harvest and separated the seed with horses and a roller. He shipped the seed to New York and netted about $1,000. His success became known, and the neighbors saved their own seed after that. His brothers, Charles and George, came from the mines the next year and needing something to do, joined the mustard harvest.

They decided to try harvesting mustard on the uncultivated prairie lands owned by non-residents. They took a team and reaper and began harvesting mustard but soon had lots of company. They camped out and worked long hours, barely leaving time to eat and sleep. In about three weeks all the mustard in reach had been harvested. The price had fallen, so they only netted about $600.

One night Erastus got lost in "the mustard forests." Even when he stood up in the saddle he could not see the lights from settler's houses. His pony finally groped his way out of the mustard about midnight. The pony was apparently in no hurry because he nibbled at the grass along the way.

Erastus had a fine mare for which he was asking $250. One of his neighbors said he would like to try her on a trip to Oakland to see if he would buy her. He took the mare with a promise to return the next day, but he didn't show up. Erastus learned that the man had sold his ranch and was leaving the country the next day, so he saddled his horse and sped to Oakland. He found the thief on the ferryboat and accused him. The man handed over the $250 without a word.

In the fall of 1858, Mary died, leaving Erastus with two children, Carrie age three and Everett age one. He buried Mary in the Presbyterian Church Cemetery where he was one of the first trustees. He placed a slat of the usual kind at the head of her grave to mark the spot.

Erastus put 16 horses on a traveling harvester and earned enough to pay for the harvesting of his 100 acres of wheat. He recalled that this was the first harvester built in the United States, patented and built by a Centerville neighbor. It cut the grain and threshed it at the same time, harvesting about 15 acres per day. This was probably the harvester built by John Horner. Erastus had some of his wheat made into flour (probably at the Vallejo's Mills) and hauled it to market in the new southern mines near Tulare.

Erastus did most of his farm work by himself, but when he needed extra help, he hired Mexican workers at about one-third the cost of an American laborer. He knew a little Spanish and became quite interested in his helpers. He read to them from his Spanish Testament and they listened eagerly as long as he read to them. They ate mostly meat and bread which made it easy to feed them because both were cheap and plentiful. They did not want any Yankee foods such as pies, cakes, sauces, etc.

Erastus sold his Centerville homestead and left California in 1860. A place that had once been so pleasant for him was no longer enjoyable without Mary.

Two years later an overflow from Alameda Creek drowned all the gophers and the price of land soared. Erastus came back to Centerville many years later and went to the Presbyterian Cemetery. The cemetery was nicely laid out and kept with many fine monuments, but he could not find Mary's grave. He hunted up the pastor who referred him to Deacon Hilton. They found Erastus' name in the records as deacon at the organization of the Church, but they could find no record of Mary's death and burial. He left disheartened and never came back.

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