GJ HISTORY: Local history retold through early settler John McKinney’s letters – Part 2
GJ History Columnist
Grand Junction Free Press
In his quest to support his family John McKinney, town founder George Crawford’s nephew, was appointed the manager of the Grand Junction Water and Sewer works for the City of Grand Junction. He was paid $75 a month. However, if he needed to hire someone to help him it would come from his salary.
Now with a full-time salary, his wife, Florence, and daughter Ruth could return home to Grand Junction. (Remember they had moved away to Pennsylvania until John could find steady work.) Florence began to sew clothing for people. She wrote that she made John an overcoat for the fall and a new suit of clothes. It was good to have the family back together. John was always a hard worker for his family and Florence’s sewing helped to make ends meet.
One afternoon they sat on their back porch and ate watermelons until they were sick. John said, “You can’t get melons like this back east,” and Florence told him that black walnuts from the east beat “his old melons to pieces.” So they sat and ate black walnuts and threw the shells on the porch floor. It was a good ending to a wonderful day for them.
John bought land in DeBeque in 1902 for $2 an acre and when oil was found there he sold it for $75 an acre. With that profit, Florence then called him “Coal Oil Johnnie.” Having a little extra money, they bought Ruth a bike which then was stolen from their front yard. Some things never change.
In 1903, there was a huge fire on Main and John went to see what he could do and stepped on a live electric wire and got shocked but was not badly hurt. Florence wrote John’s parents about it and overstated the events, to which John admonished, “Florence, you are using the Bible to write on, so tell the truth.”
In 1903, with a new type of city government, John was not reappointed as water manager but found work with Palisade National Bank. He then went back to work for the Treasurer’s Office for Marcus Shores. John also worked at the Treasurer’s Office under Benton Cannon and then he became Mesa County Treasurer in 1916 and served until 1922.
While John and Florence often attended church, they hadn’t joined one. Along the way John experienced a conversion and felt it time to make a commitment. Writing his mother, he spoke of his and Florence’s feelings toward them saying they didn’t like the Methodist conversion ideas; the Episcopalians were too liberal; and Presbyterians were too stiff. In the end, it seems they joined the Methodist church.
Though she seemed to always be on the go and traveled a lot to see her family, during their marriage Florence had never been well. At one point, Florence was getting upset because she thought she was beginning to look like her mother’s Boyer side of the family which were “fat.” After losing her waistline, Florence never had her photo taken. She was happy Ruth took after John’s side of the family, “The Skinny People.”
The winter of 1909 was so bad and snow so deep in the valley that John wrote “the range stock are freezing, its been below zero for the past two weeks, may God hasten the day when it may be a crime for a man to have stock and will not feed it during a winter like this.”
Codling moths destroyed most of the apple and pear trees in the valley in 1910 and the Public Trustee’s office was holding five to ten trustee sales a week on farm land. Peach trees were more immune to the moths and not destroyed; but being the only fruit in the valley they were over-produced and thousands of trees were never picked.
By 1912 Ruth had graduated from high school in Grand Junction and was sent to Berlin, Germany, to study music for a year. With Florence’s helper gone, she again began to go on prolonged trips to her sisters’ homes in Iowa and California.
John’s term of office was up in 1923 and then he became treasurer for the City of Grand Junction. Florence was in California with her sister in La Jolla and Ruth was married to her first husband, George Glendon, a much older man.
John visited Florence and saw the flowers, nice weather, the ocean, and a school of porpoises. Florence asked John to stay, but John said: “I can’t just walk away from the property and obligations in Grand Junction, no matter how wonderful this place is.”
On Feb. 24, 1933, John filed for divorce from Florence stating my wife left me years ago and will not come home. By then Ruth’s husband had died, a victim of the Great Depression, and she lived with her mother in California.
John wrote in 1934, “I have lived here so long I don’t think I could be contented anywhere else, I love the mountains of Colorado and I think they have kept me here. The depression has deepened here but there has not been any bank failure yet. I can’t sell any of my property because values are so low, a small return for drinking alkali water and pioneering in a desert country for nearly half my life. If it were not for the mountains I would have never stayed. We will probably live through this time of financial chaos as we did in the Panic of 1893.”
John remarked that if someone had told him years ago that in 1934 there would be 10 million American’s on a dole, he would have called them “crazy.”
In a letter he writes: “I am eating up my savings very fast and will have to go to work in my old age, just at the very time when I should be enjoying myself and taking it easy.”
By 1939, Grand Junction had three CCC camps in the county, one near Grand Junction and two on the Grand Mesa. Many of the boys from the camps came to Grand Junction on Friday evenings and stayed until Sunday night, and many were not well behaved.
Even though divorced, John and Florence remained good friends and wrote each other often. In 1939, Florence wrote that her expenses were $360 per month. John wrote back that he could live for six months on that in Grand Junction. He also says he feels loneliness in town as he walks down Main Street as there are very few of his friends alive.
In 1945, John writes the interesting news of the day is that there is a family in Fruita with a living headless chicken; it’s been in the papers, magazines with pictures, and he guesses that the owner is getting quite a bit of revenue from it by taking the chicken to Utah, California and all the western states.
In writing Florence in 1946, he speaks of the value of land in Mesa County, saying they would all be wealthy now if they still had Uncle George’s land from 1881. He says he remembers how Florence used to cry about low wages and no steady employment, when they hardly knew where the next meal was coming from, and how he worked for 17.5 cents per hour at the railroad. But he says “I never lost hope.”
At this time, the city was alarmed over the polio situation, and schools, churches, theaters and all public places are closed. Grand Junction had three polio cases.
John in his letter of June 22, 1947, talked about resigning as Justice of the Peace. He said he enjoyed the job, but something is wrong, he is making mistakes in his position, something he never had done in the past. He thinks his old brain does not work well anymore at age 80.
He mentioned that Mesa County has a population of 15,000 not counting its suburbs, and that traffic is so heavy on Main it’s quite dangerous to cross the street, and “all kinds and colors of people” are moving to Grand Junction since the war. The churches are full with new ones being built. New businesses in town are J.C. Penney’s, Montgomery Ward, Gambles, Safeway and property values continue to increase.
He continues in a letter, “I would love to go to California and join Florence and Ruth if I could clean up and get away.”
“I am expecting Ruth to pay me another visit along towards the fall; she is not any too well. Florence is well and strong and I love them both and we would never have separated had it not been that Florence was left both property and other interests there (in California) upon the death of her sister Alice, while my interest was all here.”
Four years later on April 18, 1951, a letter was sent to Ruth in La Jolla, from F.H. Zimmerman M.D. of the Colorado State Hospital in Pueblo, regarding John G. McKinney. In short it said: “There has been no change in your father’s mental or physical condition since his admission. He is in satisfactory physical health, mentally he remains somewhat confused.”
On Oct. 29, 1952, Florence wrote to Will Crawford Jr. stating that “John passed away very peacefully yesterday at 11 a.m. We are made sad but feel grateful he is out of any misery, he was suffering.” John McKinney was 85 years old.
On Dec. 31, 1952, Florence wrote: “We have a beautiful spot where Ruth and I will be placed beside John … the grounds have lovely statues, trees and flowers.”
After the funeral, John’s ashes were placed in the mausoleum in the Chapel of Peace at Cypress View Mausoleum, in La Jolla, San Diego County, Calif. Florence died on Sept. 28, 1967, at age 97; in all her society news reports after her divorce from John she was referred to as Mrs. John G. McKinney.
Daughter Ruth McKinney Glendon Hoover died on Jan. 13, 1994, at age 102.
John wanted his family together and God answered his prayer. All three are now together again in the Chapel of Peace.
Garry Brewer is storyteller of the tribe; finder of odd knowledge and uninteresting items; a bore to his grandchildren; a pain to his wife on spelling; but a locator of golden nuggets, truths and pearls of wisdom. Email Garry at email@example.com.
STORY SOURCES & RESEARCH: Museum of Western Colorado, Loyd Files Room; Michael Menard; Annabelle Dorey files; McKinney files; Grand Junction News files; Daily Sentinel files; El Camino Funeral Home’s Ryan Leahy; Melissa VanOtterloo, Photo Research & Permissions Librarian; Stephen H. Hart Library & Research Center; Colorado State Archives, Elana Cline, General Professional 111; Peter Steelquist, Past President, San Diego Genealogical Society; Kate Reeve, Special Collections Librarian, San Diego Public Library.
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