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 Texas : Features : Columns : "Texas Tales"

Elmo Johnson

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

With state and federal officials worried that the bloody drug war underway in Mexico might spill across into Texas, it’s good to remember that this is not the first time the border has been a dangerous place.

The outbreak of the Mexican Revolution in 1910 brought bandit raids and periodic violence that continued well into the 1920s in the Big Bend. Though he entered the picture near the end of this period, a man named Elmo Johnson relied on the reputation of his shooting abilities to stay safe. Of course, he had a little help from the Army.

In the fall of 1967, as a young reporter for the San Angelo Standard-Times, I drove to Sonora to interview him. I don’t remember whether it was my idea to go talk to him or just another assignment, but I’m sure glad I did. As best I can tell, I’m the only person who ever took down what he had to say. My only regret is that I didn’t pump him harder for stories about his days along the Rio Grande the last time conditions were dicey.

Johnson, 79 when I met him, had been in Sonora since 1945. He spent his time gardening and feeding deer and turkey on his ranch. But I wasn’t much interested in what Johnson had to say about Sonora. I wanted to talk to him about his time in the Big Bend, when he operated a river-crossing trading post miles from nowhere.

He had gone to the Big Bend in 1926, only eight years after the last of the bandit raids connected to the Mexican Revolution, long before the area had any paved roads, and nearly 20 years before the Big Bend National Park opened.

Boasting that he could knock the eye of out a jackrabbit with his pistol at 50 yards, Johnson said he never locked his business.

“I didn’t have to,” he said, “because I kept the peace. We never had as much as a watermelon stolen.”

One example of his peacekeeping came shortly after he and his wife moved to Brewster County. Johnson tried to make what amounted to a citizen’s arrest of a man he believed to be a fugitive from the law.

“I chased him in my car until I couldn’t go any farther,” he recalled. “He got off his horse and started running, and I let him go. He went to the sheriff in Alpine and said he wanted to file charges on me for shooting at him.”

The sheriff, a deputy and two Texas Rangers showed up at the trading post the next day. Guided to the scene of the confrontation, the lawmen couldn’t find any empty shell casings.

Johnson was not around at the time, but went to the sheriff’s office as soon as he heard the lawmen had been looking into the incident.

As the trading post proprietor explained that he had only chased the man, not shot at him three times as he had claimed, a Ranger who knew him spoke up in his behalf.

“Elmo, I told ‘em it was a damn lie,” he said. “You wouldn’t have shot but once, anyway.”

Nothing further came of the matter.

Born in Fannin County in 1889, Johnson and his family moved to Dallas when he was 14. After he got out of school, he worked for Dunn and Bradstreet for a time before deciding in 1910 to settle on two sections of family land in Sutton County.

In 1918 he got drafted, but by the time he reported for processing in San Antonio, the Armistice had been signed. Having sold his West Texas land, he decided to stay in the Alamo City and go into the house building business.

He built several blocks of homes, but didn’t think he was making enough money and sold out. That’s when he and his wife, Ada, decided to come to the Big Bend.

They bought a ranch and built their trading post on the Texas side of the Rio Grande, 16 miles downstream from Castolon. All went well for three years, but on April 11, 1929, 30 Mexican bandits struck the ranch, driving off all of Johnson’s livestock.

The Army dispatched a troop of cavalry to guard the trading post and patrol the river from there, but airplanes could travel a lot faster than horses.

“I talked the Air Corps into putting in a landing strip at my ranch near the trading post,” he said. “Back in those days there was no night flying, and my place was a good location for a stop-over.”

The Army also put in a radio station at the ranch and Johnson became an unpaid operative for Army intelligence, G-2. He used the radio, which had one soldier assigned as its operator, to report suspicious activity along his part of the river.

The air field was shut down in 1943, the National Park opened a year later, and a year after that, the Johnson’s said goodbye to the Big Bend and moved to Sonora.


© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales"
March 12, 2009 column

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