Saturday, October 22, 2011

Hoover Dam Stories: Johnny-behind-the-Rock


In 1931, with the country in the midst of an unprecedented economic disaster, tens of thousands of Americans made their way to the Nevada desert to seek employment on the biggest government project of the day--the Hoover Dam.  While most made their homes along the highway between the jobsite and the small railroad community of Las Vegas, forty miles away, the most desperate never made it beyond Hemenway Wash on the banks of the Colorado River.  This area was officially known as Williamsville, named for the U.S. Marshall who became the overseer of the tent community.  To the residents, it was known as Ragtown. 

It is hard to imagine how hard life was for the residents.  Initially, approximately five hundred men were hired from the multitude that had descended on the area, leaving the majority to starve in the desert.  Starve, that is, if they survived the black widows, rattlesnakes, scorpions and centipedes, not to mention the bouts of dysentery experienced from lack of clean drinking water and, of course, the heat related illnesses and deaths. 

The lucky ones had tents, but many lived under whatever form of shelter they could find: a cardboard box, a sheet strung between trees, a ply board lean-to or just openly in the desert.
RAGTOWN FAMILY
According to previous residents of Ragtown, there was a man named Johnny who lived behind a large boulder.  He was too old, they say, to be employed at the dam and he was alone in the desert.  He had nothing more than the clothes he wore and he rarely spoke to anyone.  He survived on the generosity of others.  His back story is a mystery.

During the day, as the sun moved across the sky, Johnny moved behind his boulder, finding the shady spot to sit in.  That became his life: living in the desert, no chance of getting work, sleeping behind a rock, no family, no clothes--nothing.  The residents called him Johnny-behind-the-Rock.  There is no official record of the man, and there is no account of what happened to him when Ragtown was cleared out by the government.  

I’m not sure that many of us today can even imagine that kind of life.  We think the world is against us if our cell phones don’t work, or if the electric bill is too high.  For just a moment, consider having no family, no friends, no job, one pair of clothes and a big rock to call your home.  Sadly, Johnny was one of thousands.

When I began writing my historical novel, Ragtown, I felt it important to breathe life into some of the minor characters that inhabited the area.  I wanted readers to see the individual struggles, the desperation and the horrors that many of these people experienced, just trying to survive.  Although I couldn’t possibly include all of the stories that came out of Ragtown, I am happy to say that Johnny-behind-the-Rock’s did make the cut.

15 comments:

Krystal Wade said...

Sounds like its going to be really heartfelt! :-)

Kellianne Sweeney said...

I can't wait to read the whole story! You know I love history too, but I have a special care for the regular,ordinary people that History overlooks.

Pete Grimm said...

Wonderful (terrible?) anecdote! You are right to remind us that by comparison we live in a world of plenty. Cheers, Pete

steve poling said...

I'd like to see a compare/contrast of Ragtown and Burning Man.

Loree Huebner said...

Johnny-behind-the-rock...so sad...so true.

Thanks for sharing his story...and I hope you do breathe life into a character like him...

Great post. Thanks again for bringing him into our world.

Kelly Stone Gamble said...

Hello, Steve. I'm assuming you are talking about the annual Burning Man event at Black Rock? No comparison, in my opinion. The people in Ragtown didn't bring their own food, or their medications, or build ice sculptures in the desert. They couldn't afford to take a week off work to experience something like Burning Man. They were destitute, forced to live in the environment for a few years, instead of a few days. I'm not trying to say that the Burning Man experience is not valuable, but it doesn't compare to the real tragedies that the people in the Hoovervilles experienced during the 1930's.

Ciara Ballintyne said...

People too often don't know how to be grateful for what they have these days. They want to live beyond their means and complain when they can't have the huge house, the flash car... Some people need reminding of stories like Johnny-behind-the-Rock's.

Suzanne Shumaker said...

Interesting. I love the way historical fiction makes history come alive. Thank you for your contributions to my favorite literary genre. I can't wait to get your book in my hot hands Kelly!

Kelly Stone Gamble said...

I can't wait to get it in my hot hands, too. :)

Erica Lucke Dean said...

Such a sad story, but I'm sure there are many just like it, even now. We tend to take things for granted and forget the price others paid for the freedoms we endure. We also forget about the nameless, faceless people who aren't so lucky. I really can't wait to read Ragtown.

legendsofgreenisle.com said...

Awesome! Kelly are you writing your novel with primary resources? ie diaries, memoirs. Your pictures are great too. How did you come up with the idea? From one who delves into history, new resources are always a gold mine. :)

Kelly Stone Gamble said...

I volunteered at the Historical Association one year transposing oral histories of the dam workers and their families. I used a lot of their stories. Also, Nevada State Museum archivist Dennis MCBride, who is an expert on 'all things dam' has been very helpful in guiding me to resources and helping me to understand a lot of things about the construction itself. It's been a lot of work, but very rewarding.

Nancy Lauzon said...

Kelly,

This sounds like such an interesting setting for a story. I've been to the Hoover Damn, it's fascinating!

Best of luck!

Nancy Lauzon
http://chickdickmysteries.com

tink said...

love the quote at the top of your blog. great post :)

Unknown said...

This is one of my favorites. Good writing where you can see and FEEL history and the writer's love of the stories behind her story.