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Old-timer irked by ‘Johnny-come-lately tree-huggers’

In 1939 there was a sign at the “Y” where U.S. Highway 50 and State Route 89 split.

The sign read “Welcome to Tahoe Valley, Population: 29.”

“That was when it was a ‘Y,’ ” said Thomas Johnson, who moved to Lake Tahoe that year. “Now it’s really an ‘X’ or something else.”



Below the number of people, Johnson said, “somebody had taken an ink pen and written, ‘when the chickens come home.’ “

When Johnson was 14, his family made their home not far from that sign, and he has lived on South Shore ever since.



Tahoe Valley was one of three towns including Bijou and Al Tahoe, that would later become part of the city of South Lake Tahoe.

At 15, Johnson’s first job was as a cowboy. He drove cattle and horses belonging to William Barton over Echo Summit, to White Rock, Calif.

“It took us one week to move the cows,” Johnson said. “When we came back for the horses it only took three days.”

Johnson soon grew tired of sleeping on the earth beside herds of cattle, and began work at the Lake Tahoe sawmill.

When he turned 18 Johnson spent a year in the merchant marine, and then served 18 months during World War II.

“I was sure glad to get home,” Johnson said after being away for almost three years.

“My father was the superintendent of the sawmill that burned down, and was rebuilt, and then torn down finally,” said Johnson. “So that’s why I started working at the sawmill.”

“I remember one time,” he said. “Harvey Gross needed wood to expand his casino but he didn’t have any money, so he traded my dad a 1939 Chevy pickup for some lumber.”

Things have changed drastically since then; the sawmill is gone and both Barton and Gross are dead. According to Johnson and his wife Wanda, the town has grown up.

“We knew everybody, hell yeah. There wasn’t anyone we didn’t know,” Johnson said. “Now I don’t know nobody.”

Johnson believes South Lake Tahoe will continue to grow. “It’s bound to change but I don’t know if it will be for the good or for the bad,” he said.

When he moved to the area, the casinos at the state line “were just little hole-in-the-wall places,” and no one came to the lake after Labor Day.

“The streets were so empty I overhauled my Model-A in the middle of Highway 50 and every once in a while someone would drive by,” he said. “But they would only stop to tell me what I was doing wrong.”

In the summer when tourists would come to the lake, “We would be out at Camp Richardson and all the girls would come up looking for summer romance and I was right there to give it to them,” Johnson said.

Sometimes, he said, “when I was a kid my mom used to say ‘go get me a trout for supper,’ and I would go down to the lake and catch dinner.”

“You can’t do that now,” Johnson said

He misses the way South Shore used to be, but is certain that people will continue to come to the area. “You have everything you could want; you’ve got gambling, skiing and boating down at the lake,” Johnson said. “What more is there?”

Wanda Johnson agrees.

“There are too many people now,” she said. “I would rather have it like it used to be, the people were closer.”

Sharing the lake with people new to the area is important to Wanda, but she said “the feeling was better” when she first came to the area.

Johnson thinks that growth is a good thing but he is also afraid, “too many people will pollute the hell out of the lake.”

At the same time Johnson chafes at some of the regulations that have accompanied the changes he has seen.

“There are all these Johnny-come-lately-bleeding-heart-tree-huggers trying to save the lake.” Johnson said. “I’m all for ecology but it’s getting so you can’t do anything.”

Before he retired in 1987, Johnson spent most of his time in the mountains working for the State of California forecasting and preventing avalanches.

No one was lost in the 20 years Johnson spent controlling avalanches but he was trapped in snow slides a number of times.

“You certainly realize that it is not supposed to happen,” He said. “It was kind of dumb one time, my car was covered and I had to use the radio to call for help. The next thing I know somebody is wiping the snow off my windshield. I felt like a dummy.”

Most of Johnson’s time is spent on the water fishing, and on a hobby he took up while working for his father.

Johnson began collecting pigeons when his dad told him to catch some birds that were caught in the eaves of the sawmill. Until three years ago he had one of the largest collection of rare Ice Pigeons in the world.

When dust from the birds’ feathers began affecting his lungs, Johnson was forced to sell them.

“Some oil guy, some sheik from Kuwait bought by birds,” he said. “He sent his jet into Reno and took my pigeons and I bought a new pickup with the money I made.”

Johnson judges rare pigeon shows throughout the western United States.

The beginning of a new century won’t change his life at all, Johnson said. On Jan. 1 he will be fishing on Topaz Lake and plans to fish almost every day when the season begins.

“I’m out on that water before it’s daylight and when the sun comes up, it’s a spectacular sight to see,” Johnson said.

Even though he thinks the lake has become too crowded and Wanda said she is “too old for all the snow,” Johnson won’t ever leave South Lake Tahoe.

“Some of the most beautiful scenery in the world is right here,” he said. “I’m not going anywhere.”


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