WHITE SALMON – When asked to tell stories of his now 92-year-old life, tribal member Marlow V. Johnston had another idea.
“I want this to be a history thing,” he said, in response to a letter he received from Tribal Tribune early this year.
Johnston just completed a rarity—once on the brink of death from colon and prostate cancer, he graduated from hospice to assisted care.
“He is a walking miracle,” wife Barbara, 84, said.
“I can still get in a car and drive over to Hood River for dinner,” Johnston said, smiling.
He lived to tell his story, and provide history from the Nespelem area.
LITTLE NESPELEM, AUG. 1, 1923 —
A half-mile down a stream—an outlet of Owhi Lake—Marlow Johnston was born in what was known as the Crow Blanket place. His father, Vaughn Johnston, was a veteran of World War I who was mustard gassed and shell-shocked, so his livelihood was limited. His mother, Clara Lula Picard, whose mother was Liza Bourgeau.
“Why we were there I really don’t know other than my uncle was hired by the state game commission and they had a contract with the Indian Agency,” he said. “And they built a fish hatchery at the upper end of Owhi Lake, and my uncle ran that for several years.”
His parents divorced when Marlow was very small, according to Barbara.
“His dad’s mother, Grandma Johnston, raised him,” she said.
“Dad was injured in the war, that’s why him and my mother separated,” Marlow said. “He turned her loose so she could go on and make a living for herself because he couldn’t.”
During winters of his youth at Owhi, he recalled attaching a sled to a dog that would take he and his friends all around the lake.
Just then, he remembered his first bit of history, of Keller, prior to the Grand Coulee Dam being built.
They had what they called a Salmon Day celebration. And that’s when the salmon would come up the river, the San Poil river, and Indian people would come from miles around to fish for them salmon. The banks were full of people fishin’. In later years, after they got it started good they had a salmon day celebration, they called it. They had a rodeo; it was about a three-day deal. Rodeo and dance every night, then they had a mountain race from a big mountain. From the rodeo grounds you could look up there and see them coming down that mountain. There was a fella by the name of Antoine Paul who had a big sorrel horse and he’d win it every year; they just couldn’t beat that horse. Just about that time they started Grand Coulee Dam. Well that ended the salmon coming up, but there was something else that took place about then. They started the Omak Stampede.
Growing up, Johnston rode horses frequently around Nespelem. Some of his fondest memories are racing, including a “fella from the Moses family,” who had ranches there.
“Well, their granddad was Chief Moses, and he always kept a thoroughbred stallion. And he kept it for the benefit of the people, so it would improve their brand of horses. The Moses horses, you couldn’t ever beat ‘em (in racing).
“But I had one of my school mates was Harvey Moses Sr., and we were just like that,” he said, crossing his fingers.
Harvey made a proposition to his friend:
“Would you like to get a colt out of my granddads thoroughbred stallion?”
“Well, certainly,” Marlow recalled saying. “We found a mare at our ranch that was ready for that. We let’r out of there and turned her in. The horse was a ¾ thoroughbred and ¼ Morgan. Morgan is known for their stamina. That’s why he had this horse bred that way. I got a colt out of that and beat every kid in town.”
Johnston recalled a race against a cattle man by the name of Brian Reed.
“He had a cattle ranch,” he said. “He hired people to ride horses, no cars in them days, hardly nothing. And that’s why he’s on horse back riding to town and spend the weekend and go back up there. So he heard my horse was fast, so here he come with one of Brian Reed’s good horses. My horse is good for a quarter of a mile. So we marched off a ¼ of a mile right there in town and we had someone with a pistol shoot ‘em off. And I beat every horse Brian Reed had. He’d bring a different one every week. So my horse got to be known as quite a horse. Because the father of that horse was Peter Dan’s thoroughbred Stallion. The horse’s name was Tony.”
His travels on horseback brought him to another historical event he witnessed: An Almira train crash that allowed Barnum & Bailey circus horses to run rampant around the area, eventually settling in Kartar Valley, where local riders would compete to catch and break them.
The nearest place where the railroad went through was Almira. In the early days, locals would have to go to Almira and they’d pick up funnels of mail from the mailman, and that was about the only way to get there. During that time Barnum & Bailey Circus had been in Spokane, and they were moving their circus to Seattle. And right near Almira, some place, they were slowed down, the train wasn’t speedin’. They had a train wreck. And in that train wreck there was many of the carts had these circus horses. And they all wrecked. A lot of them got away. It was going slow enough where it didn’t kill a bunch of em. They just took off and they went by Grand Coulee Dam area, and they ended up clear over in what we called the Rex Country, near Del Rio; near the river. Well those horses run and didn’t stop until they got to the river, and they crossed the river. They were excited, it was not their range. And they ended up going up on a mountain near the Kartar Valley. And that’s where they settled. They settled down on Whitmore Mountain. You could go there later with a bunch of guys go on saddle horses and you could see them horses, some of them were well breded horses. They were all mixed in with the Indian horses. It got to be quite sport to run some of them down, build a blind corral, four to five guys get together and take a spare horse with you and see if you could run them into a blind corral down in a canyon and try to catch ‘em. Sometimes you could do it, sometimes you couldn’t. I run it myself; it was a treacherous job. Halter ‘em, tie ‘em to a limber tree, leave ‘em there all night and they’d fight that all night until they got sore jawed. It would actually break ‘em to lead. So after you’d corral some of ‘em you’d divide ‘em up and take one or two each and take ‘em home. They weren’t branded, so that was a sport that we did in the early days.”
Horse capture put food on the table for many families, like Johnston’s, in the early days, he said.
“Wauconda was a range for wild horses,” he said. “They’d go there for their summer range, go through Nespelem, right over the hill to the Columbia River, where the weather was mild. And they’d winter there on the Columbia River.”
Johnston’s grandfolks, originally from Walla Walla, lived in Wauconda. They wound up there after a few years of making money racing horses as far as Davenport.
“Back there in them times they had a race court there,” Johnston said. “But they stayed in a hotel all winter. They stayed there and that fall, he made enough money off them two race horses he had to stay in a hotel high style all winter. In the spring, they went to Republic and ended up in Wauconda.”
His father and two uncles ran the wild horses of Wauconda down, broke them to ride and, in the fall, took as many as they could take to Seattle.
“The market over there was three times better than where it was any place else,” Johnston recalled. “And that’s the way they made their yearly money, you might say. They don’t cost nothing, you break ‘em to ride and haul ‘em to Seattle. They’d take the train back to Spokane. My uncles would take a buggy and away they’d go to Spokane to pick ‘em up. They did that for several years and made real good money on it."
Once the market went down, Johnston’s grandfather moved to the reservation, spending his first years at Owhi Lake.
“They spent their first winter at Owhi Lake, at Harry Owhi’s, Chief Owhi’s son, and (my grandma had chickens they’d brought). Milk cows. Owhi’s didn’t have anything like that; it was back in the poor times.”
A settlement of miners had set up in Park City by Gold Lake. Someone at the camp was interested in the Johnston’s horses, which were used as part of teams to haul to Republic.
“Somebody says, ‘How did they winter them horses?” Johnston recalled. “OK, my dad and my two uncles, that’s how they made money. And when they come back where they were camped at Owhi, they had money to buy hay for the horses. They did that for a couple years until the mine went broke. It used all the ore up that was available and that was the end of that. They had a place up there people could stay and board, called the bungalow.”
Johnston never graduated high school. Instead of a chance to play football at Gonzaga University, he left Nespelem High School at age 18 and enlisted himself in the Navy and headed for World War II, he said.
“I was in New Guinea,” he recalled. “That’s one of the areas we had to drive the Japs out of. Another one, I was in the Philippine liberation. And I never got injured, I lucked out.”
In November of 1945, he was discharged and began a career in construction in the Coulee Dam area. It was there he met Barbara.
“This new girl come a walking across with her Sunday best on,” he recalled. “That was in 1946. And this year we will have been married 68 years. That’s a day or two.”
In the spring of 1951, they moved to Inchelium, where his mother wanted them to take over their cattle ranch.
“It wasn’t big enough to support two people,” Johnston recalled, “so we had a terrible time there. But that’s how we met all the people.”
He hopped onto a town baseball team that won the Colville Valley League in 1955, he said, alongside names like Joe Boyd and David Sandvig, a pitcher. He recalled a tournament in Canada where “they’d always feed ya a big chicken dinner. We’d have a big party and campout. It was really fun.”
But life in Inchelium was not sustainable, they found.
“We were so isolated,” Barbara recalled. “We had four kids, one was a baby. And I was just miserable. (Marlow) struggled along. He tried.”
The Johnstons moved away in 1957, because “the cattle business wasn’t good,” he said.
North Dam was being built at the end of Banks Lake near Grand Coulee, which would require a dam in order to use the storage water for the Columbia Basin, according to Johnston. Marlow was acquainted with some of the men working on the project from JA Turtling, he said.
That job was short-lived. Johnston knew he had to find his construction crew if he were going to make a successful career in the field.
“Before we went to Inchelium, I had worked on construction, in the preventative maintenance of heavy equipment,” he said. “And I got fairly good at it. When we left there I told (my wife) I was gonna go try to find people I worked with in my early years.”
Sure enough, Johnston located a former co-worker.
“He told me where all my gang was—down in Blue River, Oregon,” Johnston recalled. “He says, ‘They got a big contract down there.’ He says, ‘You go down there and you got work.’”
“Boy I beat it,” Johnston recalled. “I got there on Saturday, two days later. By Monday morning, I was foreman. They furnished me a pickup and the whole works, and I was back making twice the money I was making up there.”
In 1958, Johnston said he came back to the Tri-Cities to work on the Esquatzel Canal near Pasco.
“There’s this big canal, and it goes clear and dumps into the river up in Richland,” he said. “We were there for four or five years.”
Later, he worked at a railroad relocation job, and the family moved to Goldendale, where his son Steve had a successful high school Track & Field career, he said.
In the 70s, Johnston became the foreman at John Day Dam, working for the same company he worked with in Grand Coulee.
After working, the Marlow relocated to Sacheen Lake, near Usk, while Barbara stayed in Goldendale.
“He bought a little trailer and lived there and he’d come home on weekends or I would go back there at the lake,” Barbara said. “I loved it up at the lake.”
The Johnstons sold their property in 1976 and bought a fixer upper in Deer Park, he said.
“We planned to retire there,” Marlow said. “We came to the conclusion that this place was out in the country and there was no way woe could leave in the winter.”
“We talked it over,” Barbara said. “He had a small place (near Grand Coulee Dam). He was determined to do some traveling once he retired. So I said what about selling that place down there and we’ll get a mobile home down here and stay in Elmer City until you retire.”
After several years in the construction field, came back to the reservation to work as a preventative maintenance supervisor at Mount Tolman, where his reputation preceded him in getting a job.
“When I told them who I was, I started a resume, they said, ‘We don’t need that, we know all about you,” Johnston recalled.
The Johnstons bought a brand new mobile home and placed it in Grandview Village in Elmer City.
Marlow said his ability to purchase all the items came from wealth he found while working for AMAX mining corporation, which nearly mine molybdenum in Mount Tolman.
He knew taking the job as a tribal member was controversial, but said he was simply trying to make a living.
“There’s a lot of pros and cons within the tribal people about that,” he said. “At that point, we weren’t conscious of the footprint we were making.”
But the company didn’t get as far as mining, Johnston said.
“We worked two or three years, and all of the sudden, the market just fell out for molybdenum,” he said. “They didn’t even get their mill built.”
Johnston retired in 1985 at age 62. He and Barbara lived half of every year in Elmer City and Yuma, Arizona for 20 years.
He recalled a special hunting trip with Del Ostenberg up in the mountains in a Jeep.
“We traded sandwiches and were trying to guess what we had,” Johnston recalled. “I took a bite.
“I thought to myself, ‘this is elk.’” Before I answered him, he was looking at mine, I said, ‘Hold it, hold it.’ He’d taken a bite. I said, ‘I bet you don’t know what you’re eating.’ He backed off and looked at that. We finally admitted to each other what we brought and he laughed and said this will never happen again in 10,000 years: Two guys eating lunch, one’s eating a buffalo burger and the other is eating another.”
They decided to move in with their daughter, Connie Riley, in White Salmon in 2006.
Riley is an entrepreneur in the area. She owns a 24-hour gym and a hair salon, while her husband operates a concrete business.
Since moving to the town, which sits atop a mound along the Columbia River not far from the Dalles, Johnston and his wife have been playing music twice a month at the senior center. Marlow plays guitar, while Barbara plays the piano.
After persevering past hospice care, Marlow is thankful to continue to play his guitar.
“I keep saying it’s got to come to an end someday,” he said. Marlow got out of his chair to grab a collector’s guitar he estimates at $1,600.
Playing music has renewed the Johnston’s faith in God.
“We played in nursing homes for a while,” Barbara said, “and we experience things we would have never expected. When the music starts, a lot of those people are almost comatose, and they come to life.”
“We played at the Alzheimer's ward in Moses Lake,” Johnston recalled. “When we walked in there, there was people looking like they were dead. Pretty soon, there’s a toe a tapping. All of the sudden one of those ladies got up and she wanted me to dance with her. The music just picked ‘em up.”
Sitting in his chair in what’s known as “Granny Cottage” in White Salmon, Marlow Johnston said his proudest achievement was raising four children who never got into any kind of big trouble.
“And they all graduated and haven’t depended on us for nothing,” he said.
Taking it to a personal level, he quickly added, “I’m proud of my marksman medal I got in the service.”
“That’s because he grew up on the reservation,” Barbara said, laughing.
Marlow’s shooting for a new goal now—a 70th anniversary.
“God willing, we will,” Barbara said.