Side Trail Story
Thomas Jefferson Jackson Johnson
Steve Levi


Side Trail Story

Thomas Jefferson Jackson Johnson was the best salt merchant in Alaska. He was a man without peer. This was because there were no other salt merchants in Alaska. He was the only one and if you wanted salt be it by the grain, cup or bag – and everyone did – it had to come from Johnson.

In reality he had the best job in Alaska. He was the purveyor of a product that sold itself. He didn’t have to strong arm anyone. Everyone needed salt, the natural licks were few and far between and the ocean was frozen over half the year. So if you wanted a cupful from a general store, a bag for jerky or a ton for a mining operation, it all had to come from Johnson. Every grain of it.

Like many merchants north of the Aleutian Islands, Johnson was a snowbird. He arrived on the first steamship of the season and left on the last one before the Bering Sea froze over. Between that first and last steamship he was a ball of fire, servicing his clients from Nome to Hootlani and up into the Yukon and Kuskokwim river watersheds. He bounced along the coastline and up the twin rivers delivering his commodity by the pound to schools, churches and military outposts, by the bag to general stores and trading posts and by the ton to the mining operations. He delivered his product, took his money and an order for the next season. Then he was gone, not to be seen until the next year.

During the summer he stayed in Hootlani because it was an ideal transportation hub. Tons of salt in bags were stored in the Portland Steamship and Lighterage Syndicate warehouse and bagged for his clients along the coastline and watershed banks. Then he would pack the deliveries into the cargo hold on the Bella Ann for the trip to St. Mary’s where all steamships plying the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers gathered. Though it had a deep draft, the Bella Ann was able land in St. Mary’s but it could not go too far up either river before it would hit sand bars, something that both rivers had in copious supply. The shallower draft river steamships could make it as far as Dawson but by the Year of the Big Snow Dawson had more buildings than people. It was going ghost. The farthest north city was Eagle and the largest was Barnette’s Cache.

Johnson was a fascinating character. Gregarious, talkative, amiable and though he did not gamble he did drink. He only drank the best and to keep peace in the civic family of Hootlani, he paid the taverns – all three of them – to keep his special Scotch behind the counter. He could have come with cases of the elixir himself but he preferred to let the taverns make the profit. He liked keeping good relations in the community where his salt was stored, particularly since he was not there six months out the year. He also paid a portion of the expenses of the fire brigade, again, because his salt was in a warehouse he could not monitor six months out of the year. “You get what you pay for,” he often said. “If you go cheap, don’t expect quality.”

Exclusive of salt he was also the best loved man in Hootlani. That was because he was an importer of cats. Everyone who was not traveling on foot wanted a cat. Anyone could have a dog. Everybody had a dog – and quite a few men had entire teams of dog. There were dog teams to spare but when it came to cats, there were never enough. Cats were highly prized because they loved voles and if there was any one thing that every structure in Alaska had it in prodigious supply it was voles. It was not so bad during the summer when the voles were out and about foraging for greens in the forest. But when winter came, the voles swarmed into every cabin and hovel with kith and kin. It was warm inside and there was plenty of food that dropped on the floor. If food didn’t drop on the floor, the voles encouraged its spreading by gnawing through bags, crates and cans. All day long. All night long. All winter long. They stayed in the shadows during the day but once the lanterns went out and the fire burned low, they scurried across the earthen floor looking for feed like a flock of pigeons in a public park.

But with a cat! One by one the voles would disappear and, with each missing vole, the cats got fatter. Female cats were the most prized because they produced kittens and no one was particular as to who the father was. Maine coon or Persian, farm or alley, as long as it ate voles it was welcome in any household, tent or tavern. Pedigree was not a concern; size was. The bigger the cat the more voles it would eat. More was better.

Milk was another highly prized commodity because bowls of it kept cats indoors. Fresh milk was not difficult to obtain after the Syndicate came to Hootlani. Once every two weeks the Bella Ann landed and along with the so-called fresh fruits and vegetables were canisters of milk. Everyone with a cat wanted milk and everyone without a cat wanted one. Fortunately Johnson was on the job and each trip brought a fresh collection of cats, mostly alley, which were snagged by lucky owners before they got off the dock.

Johnson was doubly beloved because he did not charge for the importation of the cats. His company simply rounded up strays in Portland – which made them welcome at the animal pound – and placed them on the northbound Bella Ann every other week. The Syndicate was more than pleased to take the cats north at no charges because of the inconsequential weight of the cats and their cages was more than offset by the profits of milk that cat owners would buy at just about any price in Hootlani. The Syndicate looked at cats as a cash cow. Each cat would more than consume its weight in milk and the money was in the milk, not in the cats. They were free, courtesy of Johnson and the Portland Salt Cellar, a pun which Johnson found clever.

Oddly, one of the side benefits of owning a cat only came to light the summer after the Bella Ann began landing on the Caribou River. To keep their cats content in the summer, owners began growing catnip. Even though it was a short-lived perennial, it grew some three feet in height and gave off a spicy aroma. While humans found the fragrance pleasing, to the cats it was irresistible. Even better, mosquitoes found it repelling. It did not take long for everyone to come to realize that if you had a cat you had the best of all possible worlds: no voles on the inside and no mosquitoes on the outside. The only problem you had was keeping the cat at home for these animals were notorious for being out and around six months out of the year. If they chose to change residence, there was nothing the previous owner could do about it – and nothing that the current owner would do about it.

But there was a kink to the character of Johnson which made him as oddity even in Hootlani. He was a Fabian and there had not been a man or woman in Hootlani who knew what a Fabian was the day before Johnson arrived. There was not a lot of enthusiasm for Fabianism after Johnson defined the term and goals of the Fabian Society. After all, this was Alaska, the land of people who did not fit in anywhere else in the world and if there was any one view to which everyone in Hootlani clung it was that the less government there was the better. Government brought rules and regulations, schools and churches, paperwork and taxes, accountants and jail cells. It was hard enough scratching for a living but once the government got involved, it would be well-nigh impossible.

There was a certain amount of truth to that vision of Alaska with territoryhood looming. The bulk of those in Hootlani were looking for the big nut. They had left wherever they had come from because there was nothing for them there and they had come to Alaska because, at the very least, it held the promise of being different. Every prospector was sure that fabulous wealth was to be found in the next shovel load of dirt. There was not a dime in any handful of dirt from where they had come but in Alaska there was always another stream or riverbank or slough bottom just waiting to be shoveled for gold. Where there was virgin soil there was hope and if there was anything that Alaska had a lot of it was virgin soil – at least six months out of every year.

Returning to the Fabian Society, they were in favor of a concept of social justice and things like universal health care and a minimum wage. No one in Hootlani was sure what “social justice” meant because there was no justice in the community at all. That was dispensed in Juneau, Nome and Eagle. “Universal health care” was misnomer because there was no health care at all because there was no doctor in town. The crippled and the weak died on the trail and the insane either got shot doing something, well, crazy, or were urged to keep moving. If the insane made it to Nome or Juneau they were shipped south to America but in the small communities they were tolerated just like everyone else with strange personal habits – and in Hootlani, everyone had strange personal habits. As far as the minimum wage was concerned, no one in Hootlani was a wage earner so that was that.

If this had been all there was to the Fabian Society, Johnson would have been classified as a kook, a rich kook but a kook nonetheless. But there was a strong Fabian undercurrent which everyone felt though few could put it in words. Everyone in Hootlani had come from a place where the rich had all the money and everyone else – men, women, families, workers and derelicts – had to scrounge for enough to eat. It was like the old refrain “It’s the rich what gets the pleasure/it’s the poor what gets the pain.” No matter how hard anyone worked they were not and would not be moving up in the world. There was also no way out. Once a farmer always a farmer; once a mechanic always a mechanic.

Adding to the misery was the fact that every working man and woman was making money for the rich. The rich would not be rich except for the work of the poor. The rich were basically squeezing the poor dry and there was nothing the poor could do about it. Everyone knew it and just accepted it as a fact of life. If you were poor you were going to remain poor. It was you lot in life.

What the Fabian Society offered was an organization that understood that there had to be an equalization of some kind. No one knew how that was going to happen but it was clear as Caribou River white water that the world could not continue as it was. Families were getting larger, immigrants were arriving in greater numbers, electricity was allowing factories to expand with a smaller workforce, trains were getting stronger and carrying more cargo and prices were going up faster than wages. There was some kind of a breaking point coming. Everyone knew it but didn’t know when, where or how it would happen. But it was inevitable. Maybe unions would get stronger? Maybe the Democrats would get off their rump and really take on the Republicans? But then again, the new President was a Republican and he was going after large businesses. This Theodore Roosevelt was quite a racehorse; quite a bit different than the half-dozen plow horses that had been in the White House for the past generation.

But that was all in the lower states. That was also why a lot of men in Hootlani had left the lower states. There was nothing there and no change was expected. The Fabian Society was a pipedream and everyone knew it. The rich were never going to give up their place at the top of the totem pole. Why should they? Who was going to make them? Certainly not a salt merchant from Portland trekking from village to town to hamlet in the far north. Maybe there would come a change. But that would not be for at least a decade or so. In the meantime it was fun to talk about being a Fabian but that was as far as it would go: talk.

But everyone knew change was coming to Hootlani. In the fall of the Year of the Big Snow there had been no church, no steamship dock on the Caribou River, no general store, no bank and no promise of a telegraph line. Now there were. Civilization was striding into the northland in seven-league boots. There was talk of the mines in Juneau and Nome being unionized. Unionized! In this day and age! What an age! Maybe, just maybe, this Fabian chatter was more than just loose talk. Who knew what tomorrow would bring? Until then, in Hootlani at least, it was every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost – and if you wanted salt in any quantity it had to come from Thomas Jefferson Jackson Johnson.