of Big Santa Anita Canyon


By Billy Orville Taylor
One of the many casualties of the March second 1938 flood was the cabin owned by Otis Johnson.  Johnson’s cabin was located next to what is now cabin #17 and was crushed by a rock and mud slide.  Johnson escaped without injury.  However, he realized he was homeless as he viewed the pile of rocks, mud and rubble that was once his little cabin home.  He, as well as many others, lived full-time in B.S.A.C. during those years when it was legal to do so.

With some financial assistance Johnson was able to purchase Cabin #62.  It was located up stream from his destroyed cabin at the East Fork Junction grouping of cabins. He moved what he could salvage of his possessions to that location and set up housekeeping.

Otis continued to live in Big Santa Anita Canyon until his death in 1949.  Over the years he owned a packing outfit, did odd jobs, helped build cabins and worked at the various lodges in order to support himself in his modest lifestyle.

Johnson was a round, rotund, roly-poly rascal and friend to all.  He was among the ol' timers and was known to all as a likable member of the canyon clan.  Living was cheap during the depression years in the canyon.

Otis came from a well-to-do moneyed family and it was rumored that his family would help him financially when and if he needed assistance.  Their only request and condition was that he would continue to live in Big Santa Anita Canyon.  The reason for their request will become obvious as this tale unravels.

Johnson enjoyed a libation now and then. Usually more now than then.  In fact, he got his snoot in the juice quite often.

On the auspicious occasion of the Bill's Body  Incident; Johnson had been working around his cabin most of the day.  He was puttering hither an' yon as cabin owners sometimes want to do. He would stop, lean on the rake handle, in order to enjoy the sun, shadows, trees and stream.  The question on a day like that was, “Why push it in paradise?”  Otis also took more formal breaks, and on these occasions would consult with his long time friend and drinking companion, John Barleycorn,    S. M. (Sour mash!)

Otis and ol' J.B. would contemplate the more weighty problems facing mankind.
 As the afternoon was easing itself into history, John Barleycorn, S.M. beckoned more frequently with a crooked finger formed from the vapor wafting from the glass container in which he lived and thus called home sweet home. This was to lure Johnson away from his duties.  After a time the duties were long forgotten.  Otis and ol' J.B. sat, hand-in-hand so to speak, gazing into the fog that had not filled the canyon but was rapidly filling Otis’ mind.

Meanwhile, Johnson's neighbors, Mr. & Mrs. Milton, were still repairing the damage to their cabin from the '38 flood.  Al Foulds was assisting them in this venture.

By way of introduction, Al Foulds was a journeyman stone mason and he also lived full-time in the canyon.  His skill as a master stone mason can be observed to this day in the canyon, if one only knows which cabin to view.

Johnson's destroyed cabin was next to Al Foulds' stone cabin (Now #17) before the flood.  Foulds cabin was not damaged by the mud slide and still stands today.  They were friends and neighbors for many years.

By late afternoon on that fateful day, the continued consultation between Johnson and John Barleycorn, S.M., was beginning to take its toll.  By the time darkness had engulfed the canyon, the same thing had already happened inside Johnson's brain.  The receptors in his brain were overloaded and many had short-circuited.
At this point, Otie's (nickname by canyon friends) mind was treating him to a series of images over which he had no control but did require a response on his part.  At least, it seemed to him like a good idea at the time.

These images lead Johnson to suspect and then to believe that Bill Adams, the pack station owner, had died and his body was in one of the neighboring cabins.  After brooding a while and with the advice of friend Barleycorn, Johnson decided he could not leave Bill's body in that cold, lonely cabin, but that he should bring it back to his own cabin.

A dedicated Otis Johnson gathered himself together, the best he could considering his condition, and staggered purposefully to the neighboring cabin which was fortunately unoccupied at the time.  He went around the cabin trying to open any of the windows or doors.  After several futile attempts to enter, he located a 6 foot pry bar that was behind the cabin.  He pried the front door off of its hinges and by hanging on to the door jam for stability was able to enter the front room.

In his reality at the time, Johnson was able to find Bill's body inside of the dark cabin.  The darkness was not a deterrent as Johnson's "mind movies" were being played in brilliant color.  Johnson found Bill's body exactly where he knew it would be, picked it up and started to carry it back to his own cabin.

As Johnson staggered along the trail towards his cabin with his imaginary load his mind must have zigged when his body zagged.  He stumbled and much to his chagrin Bill's body fell into the tall grass.  Otis dropped to his knees in an attempt to locate and recover his imaginary cargo.  He searched and searched but  could not find the body of his dear friend in the dark.  What could he do?  He sat back on his heels and tried to reason with his foggy brain as to the best course of action to end this desperate situation.  He couldn't leave Bill's body out in the cold, dark night.  Some wild animal might come along and take it.  There was only one thing to do, get help!

 Johnson found his way, with some difficulty, to the Milton’s cabin.  There he knocked on the door and upon entry explained his problem of losing Bill's body in the grass.  He requested the assistance of those gathered there.

The Miltons and Al Foulds did not leap at this opportunity as presented.  It goes without saying, there was a minimum of enthusiasm expressed on their part to become itinerant grass pickers or brush beaters.  The collective response was more like, "He's off on another one!"  They calmed Otis and assured him that Bill's body would be safe for a little while.  They convinced him to sit down and attempted to ply him with strong black coffee.

A quick decision was made (with minimum input from Otis) that Otis did indeed need some help.  However, crawling around in the native canyon grasses was not what they had in mind.

Johnson did place a couple of motions before the assembled.  The first motion was, "Everyone should have a drink and then look for Bill's body."  The motion did not receive a second as the Roberts' Rules of Order were being selectively enforced depending on the circumstances. Something like the infield fly rule.  The second motion was a duplicate of the first, with the same non-second.

Johnson did need help in the way of detention and medical treatment to assist him in drying out.  It was determined that Mr. Milton would call “outside” for help.  A call could be placed from Fern Lodge in those days to the Sierra Madre operator.  She could then patch the canyon through to the Police Station, as well as anywhere else that had telephones.

While all of this was going on, Bill Adams was spending a quiet evening at the pack station at Chantry Flat.  He was unaware that his body had been dropped and lost in the grass at the East Fork Junction.  When the call was made by cranking the old telephone at Fern Lodge every phone on the line would ring.  The custom, then as now, is that everyone picks up their phone to find out what's going on.  (An early form of electronic networking!)

Bill Adams, at the pack station, as well as Tex Strange, the unit ranger at the ranger station, picked up their phones to find out what was of interest.

The ranger station was located in the canyon at that time, next to and south of what now is Cabin #12.  The call was between Mr. Milton and the Police station.  Therefore, Bill and Tex just listened and said nothing.  Everyone “on line” was so astounded by the story that they were dumbstruck and could only respond by rolling their eyes and shaking their heads.

Two Sierra Madre Police officers were dispatched to Chantry Flat.  The parking lot was very crude and primitive with no pavement, lines or headstones at that time.  Bill saw the lights of the squad car, as they were called in those days, approaching and walked over under cover of the darkness and brush to see what was being said about the situation by the long arm of the law.

 When the police arrived and parked, they were unaware that Bill was standing a short distance away in the dark but well within ear-shot of their conversation.  Bill said they were not sure what they were up against.  They stated their concern.  "This guy Johnson was a big man, drunk out of his mind, at least a mile from the car, the night is black as pitch, we have to hike down a narrow trail to who knows what.  Is this a routine call?"  They decided to take along their night sticks as well as everything else they owned, just in case.

After the police started down the trail, Bill decided there were enough people to cover the “Johnson problem” and went back to the pack station cabin to let the law run its course.

The trail system was such that the First Water, Chantry, and Gabrielino Trails met where the paved trail now crosses San Olene Canyon.  When the law reached that junction, Tex Strange was waiting for them.  He had hiked up the First Water trail and would represent the Forest Service in this saga.  After the howdies and  intro's, the three officials started down the trail.  There was some, "What if?" discussions on the way down.  The group didn't know what to expect, but wanted to be prepared for any eventuality.

The trio braced themselves for the impending action as they knocked on the Miltons' cabin door.  Mr. Milton opened the door and bid them enter.  Much to their surprise and relief, before them sat the infamous Johnson.  Otis was regaling the assembled, while  wrapped in and draped with the cape of the splendor of his magnificent condition, with all of the reasons they  should start looking for Bill’s body!  He was setting in a chair gently swaying from side to side with a silly smile on his face as if he knew something no one else did.  Maybe the movies that were playing in his head had reached the cartoon portion of the program.

Johnson looked up at the new arrivals, offered them a seat, and inquired if they would like a drink.  The latter was refused, as they were “on duty!”  (Which was just as well.  Johnson had chug-a-lugged everything in sight that contained alcohol that afternoon, anyway!)

The center piece of the evening was  Otis Johnson and his condition.  Gathered around were Mr. and Mrs. Milton, Al Foulds, Tex Strange and the two representatives of the Sierra Madre Police Department. Various options were discussed by the committee of six, and it was finally agreed to arrest Johnson, for his own good of course.  They would somehow get his two hundred plus pounds of inebriated body up the mile or so of narrow trail, in the dark, and transport him to the "Gray Bar Hotel".  For those of you who have never had the misfortune of residing there, it's the jail.  There he would remain for the remainder of the night, and the next day he could receive medical attention for his condition.

All that was required was for someone to swear out and sign a complaint against their ol' buddy Otis.  Mrs. Milton looked at Mr. Milton, who looked at Al Foulds, who looked at Tex Strange, who looked at the two police officers.  No one wanted to have their name on anything that would place them in a bad light after their ol' buddy sobered up.  "It was for your own good," might have a hollow ring and be misunderstood the next day.

 After more discussion, it was decided the better course of valor would be to take Johnson to his own cabin and put him in bed.  There, he could sleep off his condition during the remainder of the night; which he wouldn’t remember anyway.

After the men tucked Otis into bed (so to speak) he forgot about Bill’s body, John Barleycorn, the other events of the day and drifted off in the arms of Morpheus.

The two unplanned for tasks of the evening were successfully accomplished.  The first was to take care of Otis Johnson and his delicate condition. The second was to bring a conclusion to the “Bill’s Body Incident!”

The assembled committee of complaint non-signers went back to their evening activities.  The law hiked back up to their squad car and returned to making their appointed rounds.  Tex returned to the Ranger Station at First Water.  Al Foulds returned to his cabin down stream.  The Miltons blew out the lamp and went to bed.  All was finally quiet at the East Fork Junction in Big Santa Anita Canyon.

There was no light from the pack station cabin that late at night. Bill Adams had long ago gone to bed.  Bill had no problem sleeping considering his body was lost in the tall grass at the East Fork Junction  and has not been found to this day!

All rights reserved.

Back to Stories...