Thursday, January 8, 2015

Johnson Ranch House

"Lone Star Historian 2" is a blog about the travels and activities of the State Historian of Texas during his second year. Bill O'Neal was appointed to a two-year term by Gov. Rick Perry on August 22, 2012, at an impressive ceremony in the State Capitol. Bill is headquartered at Panola College ( in Carthage, where he has taught since 1970. For more than 20 years Bill conducted the state's first Traveling Texas History class, a three-hour credit course which featured a 2,100-mile itinerary. In 2000 he was awarded a Piper Professorship, and in 2012 he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Wild West Historical Association. Bill has published over 40 books, almost half about Texas history subjects, and in 2007 he was named Best Living Non-Fiction Writer by True West Magazine. In 2013 he was awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters degree by his alma mater, Texas A&M University - Commerce. 

On December 16, 2014, Karon and I were in Snyder for a signing and program. The subject of the program was “Gunfighting in Texas,” and the final part was about the last old-fashioned blood feud in Texas, the Johnson-Sims Feud, which erupted in Snyder on December 16, 1916.  During the afternoon before this anniversary program, Karon and I were part of a group that toured the magnificent Johnson ranch house, a 16-room mansion completed in 1910 and located 12 miles north of Snyder. 

Billy Johnson was a young cowboy riding point on an 1878 cattle drive when he discovered a spring-fed stream in northern Scurry County. Johnson put together a ranch of 47 contiguous sections, and as he prospered he helped to found – and soon became president of – Snyder’s First National Bank (the old building still stands on the northwest corner of Snyder’s courthouse square). Johnson and his wife, Nannie, had three sons and a daughter, Gladys, and the family lived in a two-story frame ranch house. 

But Billy Johnson decided to erect a home worthy of a cattle baron and bank president. This splendid residence was constructed a short distance east of the frame ranch house, commanding a sweeping view from the top of a mesa. A 16-room manor was built of concrete blocks, which were fashioned of gravel and sand from nearby Ennis Creek. Billy Johnson hired a man for a dollar a day “and keep” to count the shovels of sand and cement to make certain the mixture was sound for the blocks and the mortar. 

A master craftsman was employed to create a superb parquet floor in the parlor. To fasten the design, 1,500 pounds of nails were used to put the small oak pieces in place. The craftsman also hand-carved the oak banister on the big stairway. The second-floor landing served as a sitting room. A music room off the ground-floor parlor boasted an Edison record player. Also on the first floor was the bedroom for Billy and Nannie, and the only bathroom in the house was nearby. A large basement below the kitchen provided living quarters for the cook. 
Karon in the dining room
The Johnsons moved into their grand new home in 1910. In this house in December 1916, following an incident in Snyder in which Ed Sims, ex-husband of Gladys, threatened Billy Johnson, Gladys and her brother Sidney plotted to kill Ed. That killing triggered the murderous Johnson-Sims Feud. Texas Ranger Frank Hamer, hired as a bodyguard for Billy Johnson, fell in love with Gladys. Gladys and Frank married during the feud and lived in the mansion. There were scenes of family drama in the house through the years. 
The rear upstairs gallery
I first saw this impressive and historic home while researching a biography of feudist Pink Higgins, whose oldest son, Judge Cullen Higgins, was assassinated during the feud. I photographed the exterior and longingly peered into the windows. Years later I again had the opportunity to examine the exterior, while working on a book about the feud (The Johnson-Sims Feud: Romeo and Juliet, West Texas Style, UNT Press, 2010). 
With Daniel Schlegel (left), and John Hamlett
This house now is owned by a Johnson descendant, John Hamlett. John grew up in the aging mansion, and he and his wife have repaired and refurbished the house. There is a great deal of original furniture, and the home is being returned to its original splendor. Daniel Schlegel, Director of the Scurry County Museum, and some of his board members, arranged for John to open the house to us prior to my program. Museum employees, board members, and Karon and I caravanned out to the house. For the next couple of hours we went from room to room, from level to level, inside and outside, as John pointed out numerous features – and as I felt some long-familiar ghosts. 

It was an unforgettable historical adventure. 

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