We all have to die sometime. If you’d like to see how some of your fellow representatives of humanity addressed this fact, and hear their stories, consider joining the Cemetery Tour, offered by the Kelley House Museum on Saturday, October 1st, beginning at 6:00 p.m. Your tour guide at the cemetery will be none other than “J.D. Johnson.”
Who was J.D. Johnson (note use of past tense, he died in Fort Bragg in 1927)? He was that person to whom many Mendocino residents eventually came, in search of one service or another. He could have been your architect, builder, contractor, landlord, or, when you’d come to the end of the line, your undertaker. As our poster for the Cemetery Tour states; back in the 1880s, J.D. Johnson could “house you in this life and the next.”
Born in England around 1840, John D. Johnson had been a Mendocino resident for over 50 years, according to his obituary. He arrived in California as a young man, having been preceded here by two of his brothers, George and Harry. As a skilled carpenter, he found work immediately, and was responsible for the design and construction of many of Mendocino’s iconic homes. The fire in Mendocino which took place in October of 1870 resulted in a loss of at least 25 buildings, and the reconstruction of the town must have kept men such as J. D. Johnson rather busy.
But not busy enough, apparently, as Mr. Johnson determined to build coffins, which naturally led to a business as an undertaker. He purchased the business from one August Rahlves in 1875. J.D. later claimed that he was the most worthy to hold the title of “pioneer” when it came to Mendocino’s undertaking (Beacon of May 15, 1886). Mr. Johnson brought the tools of this trade to Fort Bragg in the spring of 1889, amounting to “the largest stock of undertaking goods that can be found on the coast” (Beacon of April 6, 1889). Full size coffins were $8.00 and could be had with a free hearse. In 1945, years after J.D.’s death, Mr. C. Mathisen, a collector of antique automobiles, purchased the hearse used by J.D. Johnson. According to the Beacon article, it was horse drawn, had large glass windows, covered by interior drapes and feathered plumes (Beacon of October 6, 1945).
J.D. Johnson placed his stamp on so much of Mendocino life (and death) that it is entirely appropriate for him to guide those intrepid enough to take part in this year’s Cemetery Tour. Meet at the Kelley House, 45007 Albion St., at 6:00 p.m. You will be conducted to the cemetery and placed into J.D.’s capable and calloused hands. Tickets are $15.00 each and are available at the Kelley House, or for purchase on-line at kelleyhousemuseum.org. Sales benefit both the Kelley House Museum and the Mendocino-Little River Cemetery District. We recommend good walking shoes, warm clothing and flash lights, plus a willing imagination. All ages are welcome. For more information, please visit kelleyhousemuseum.org or call 707-937-5791.