Among the institutions identified with Homewood down through the years is a man by the name of William C. Johnston. One and all knew him as just plain “Bill,” and few people could remember Homewood before he came there.
Johnston was a friendly, unassuming man, accustomed to the backwoods and not inclined to speak of himself, and thus despite his wide circle of friends, few were acquainted with the facts of his life. However, we can learn a few things about him from Eleanor “Swanee” Swanson, a West Shore neighbor who wrote his obituary.
According to “Swanee,” Johnston first found his way to Tahoe in 1896, where he fell head-over-heels in love with the place, taking up immediate residence on its western shore and joining the sun-baked fraternity of market fishermen who earned their livings by the harvest of a seemingly inexhaustible supply of trout. Hunting, trapping and fishing were Johnston’s passions, and whether for profit or for the sheer pleasure of the activity, he was always ready to set off with rod, gun or a gunnysack full of traps in pursuit of fish, game or hides.
In the summer of 1931, the inveterate trapper earned a mention in the Truckee paper when he managed to capture a 2-month old timber wolf pup, which he named Jerry. Johnston kept the young creature in a cage at his store, where it was among the rarities providing great fascination for his patrons.
Though the Tahoe winters were notoriously severe, Johnston would usually “winter in,” supplementing his few store-bought staples with meat and fish he killed or caught. Indifferent to the primitive conditions in which he lived, Johnston made his winters pay, bringing home a variety of furbearers from his trap line and tanning their pelts to sell in his little store at the corner of Cedar Avenue (now known as Highway 89) and Fawn Street.
Just exactly when Johnston began to derive income from the rental of tents is unknown. However, in July 1920 he is mentioned in the Truckee Republican as half of the partnership of Broyer & Johnston, doing business in Homewood as “El Campo.” The enterprise seems to have been a simple one, allowing Johnston ample time to pursue his passions and remain in the running for the title of “local character.” Broyer apparently vacated the partnership soon after its formation, and Johnston continued as sole proprietor into the mid-1930s.
In addition to its rustic charm, El Campo had the virtue of allowing Johnston’s mother and sister to spend their summers out of the valley heat and within yodeling distance of their Bill. Jesse Grimshaw Saner, whose childhood summer were spent at her family cabin, a few doors south and across the street from the original El Campo store, had this reminiscence:
“Bill Johnston and his mother – I can remember her so well. And his sister used to come from Sacramento – Mrs. Fischer (sp.) She was an Opera singer. I don’t know if you can say Opera, but she sang in a group in Sacramento and she was a performer in San Francisco. And Bill was quite a character. They were Swiss people, so I was told, and his mother was just a little, tiny thing. And then Bill was there a good part of the time. And then his sister, really, is the one that, you know, took care of things.
“Bill was still doing a lot of fishing at that time. He’d go out at daybreak, and you’d hear him yodel, and on the water, it just sounded beautiful. And he had these big, deep wrinkles on his face, and my mother always called them “sun grins.”
“Yea, he was a real tall, slender man, but very generous, and he had oodles of friends. He’d give you the shirt off his back, if he thought you needed it. He was very devoted to his mother. There were just the three of them – the sister and the mother and Bill. And I don’t know where he came from. He was just, like, part of Tahoe, you know? He was just there for ever and ever.”
Don Huff, Sr., who with his wife Bernice owned and operated the Hotel Homewood from 1940 to 1968, recalled Johnston’s impeccable honesty:
“You’ve probably heard people speak of Bill Johnston. Well, he was just a real nice old man. He was this kind of fella: He lived here year-round, and he would be the only one in here for six months, ‘cause winter was winter in those days. The roads were closed and that was it. There was nobody coming in and out of here.
“I closed up one year, and in my excitement of getting closed and everything like that, I left a cottage door wide open, and went home for the winter. And he was walking around the place the next day or so, and he dropped me a postal. He said, “In case you’ve forgotten, you left Cottage 10 door open. But don’t worry about it.” He said, “I locked it up. I’ll see you next spring.” That was the kind of fella he was. But he was a bootlegger in the early days up here, and he used to supply the market in San Francisco with mountain trout, which was against the law, too.
“But he ran the old store, El Campo, and there used to be showshoes hanging on the wall which he would use in the wintertime – things like that. But that was the kind of people we had in those days. He was a good man. Sure, he was breaking the law, but so were the people breaking the law that bought his bootleg. (Laughs)”
Robert L. “Bob” Callender, whose uncle Benjamin F. “Ben” Callender later purchased “El Campo” from Johnston, described Johnston’s typical fishing regime:
“Martin Lowe was a vital part of Bill Johnston’s Homewood saga. They were fishing partners and drinking partners, and both of them were great fishermen. They’d start out, the two of them, one from Meeks Bay and one from Homewood, and they would get off of Sugar Pine Point and in their slightly drunken condition, they would fish and yodel. That was a legend of the area.”
Callender also recalled how he learned of the source of some of Johnston’s fabulous fishing “luck.” It seems that Hal Jennings and Bill Johnston were catching a lot of very nice fish from Hidden Lake, and Bob, hoping to mimic Johnston’s good results, pestered Bill to draw him a map of how to get there. Johnston finally drew him one, and Bob followed it to the lake, where he discovered discarded boxes of explosives, the secret behind Johnston and Hennings’ tremendous angling success.
As illustrated by the 1926 California Division of Highways map earlier in this post, Johnston’s original store sat at the very edge of Cedar Avenue. This had not been of concern when the thoroughfare was little more than a line scribed on a parchment. But private automobile travel was increasing steadily during the early 1920s, leading to better roads, more commercial activity and in turn to more travel. Greater speeds and more traffic meant a wider right-of-way was needed, and in 1925 the State of California condemned an additional 15 feet through Homewood on either side of the center line, putting nearly half of Johnston’s store in the well-traveled portion of the roadway.
In November 1936, Johnston moved the grocery store building some distance to the west, nearer the base of the present-day ski hill, setting it on a concrete foundation and apparently adding considerably to its size. The towering cedars that had bounded the original site at one time line the length of Fawn Street, where some can still be found to this day.
By the mid-1930s, after 40 years at the Lake, Johnston was ready to hand the responsibilities of El Campo’s operation over to someone else. In those days before air conditioning, residents of hot climates sought relief from the heat by escaping to the high country for the torrid months of summer. The partnership of Orsi & Ceccarelli, to Sacramento restaurateurs who saw the advantages of a summer at elevation, arranged to lease Johnston’s enterprise. They called their venture El Campo Inn, embellishing on his simple operation by making food a prominent feature. Ceccarelli was a silent partner, with management of the operation in the hands of Joe Orsi.
Joe Orsi’s son, J. Donald Orsi, described the nature of the operation during the years his father and Ceccarelli leased El Campo:
“(My dad, Joe Orsi, and Ceccarelli) must have acquired it about 1935 of ’36, and they sold it just before the War broke out, so this would be in – what? – ’42? My dad ran the whole operation and Ceccarelli actually lived down in Sacramento and he would come up occasionally. But my dad ran the whole thing up there.
“It was a great big, long building, and at one end it had a grocery store. Next to the grocery store was a dining room, and on the other end was a bar, and up above were rooms. And that’s where we actually lived, was upstairs, and we rented out the other rooms.”
“The building, I would say, was probably 100 to 125 feet long, and as far as depth, it was probably 40 to 50 feet in depth – quite a large building. And the property – as far as I could remember – I was so small at the time. There was a roadway that went down on one side, and went back to some cabins back in there. And on the other side, there was a stables. And on either side of the building, there was two great big redwood (sic) trees. And one of them I remember had a sign on it that said it was 600 years old. The other one didn’t have a sign on it. It was probably about the same age. They were both very tall trees.
“Bill Johnston was more or less like a caretaker. He lived in a little house that was behind the building, and he did a lot of trapping, and he was an old timer. I remember him very well. I used to spend a lot of time with him.
We didn’t have any tent facilities there. May have been somebody else had some back in there. There was a couple of homes back in there. A “Bake” Benson used to come up in the summertime and would take people on fishing trips out on the Lake. They were German folks.
“There was a service station across the street that we owned also. It was a Standard Oil Service Station. It was a very small building, with a couple pumps. You know, the old-fashioned pumps that you had to pump by hand? And there was a road that went down to the lake. And then we had some frontage down there – I don’t know if we owned it or what, but I used to swim down there all the time. There was no buildings right down there.”
At the conclusion of Johnston’s lease with Orsi & Ceccarelli, his old property languished in disuse. With Wartime rationing in effect and the use of gasoline seriously curtained, no one wanted to begin a business venture in a remote resort area.
Johnston himself was feeling his age. He had passed the biblical “four score and ten” in 1948, and had neither the will nor the energy to resume proprietorship himself. In 1946, Michael J. Fleury assumed the lease, continuing the various elements of the Orsi-Ceccarelli operation even to the detail of the Italian Dinners. On the lakefront lot across the State Highway, the filling station was still selling gas, with local brothers “Bix” and Bob Solinsky manning the pumps.
However, in 1949 the Fleurys’ tenancy came to an untimely end when son David was badly burned in an accident at the gas station, and later that year when Ben Callender, owner of The Hut (a popular nightspot a few hundred yards down the road), offered to buy Johnston out, the old fisherman accepted.
Callender renamed the operation Callender’s West Shore Lodge, and under his able direction, the rustic edifice continued as a homey destination for Tahoe travelers for nearly a decade.
Callender’s son, William “Bill” Callender, described the general nature of the facilities and business:
“(My parents) build a small apartment for themselves upstairs, and there was a room which I occupied in the summer, when I was a bartender. And I think there was one more room that they might have rented out. They had a small liquor store, a bar – obviously – and then a small restaurant.
“They did have one-two-three cabins in the back that they rented. They were about, I’d say, a couple hundred yards back (west of the lodge). As I recall, they had a little kitchen and I don’t remember whether they had one bedroom or two bedrooms. My mom and dad took trips, but basically, they lived there, in this apartment on the second floor.”
A hallmark of the Callender‘s Lodge bar was its décor, as Bill Callender remembers: “Dad put together kind of a rustic false roof over the bar, and he lined it all with horseshoes – all of course facing up, for good luck. He had a whole bunch of old horseshoes which he had found or kept or whatever for years going back, so he nailed them all up on the wall.”
By 1957, the International Olympic Committees selection of Squaw Valley as the site of the 1960 Winter Olympiad had precipitated a serious upturn in local construction activity. Hopeful entrepreneurs were rushing to erect new buildings and renovate old ones in preparation for what would be the region’s debut in the international limelight. Ben Callender had by this time survived thirty years in business in Homewood, and appreciated the rare opportunity represented by the Games. In 1959 he began construction of a new Callender’s Motel on a lakeshore parcel across Highway 89 from the old El Campo. The modern two-story motel opened just in time to take advantage of the Olympic crowds, who exceeded the capacity of local accommodations and spilled over into locations as distant as Reno and Auburn.
In October 1964 Helen Alrich, who during the early 1960s had acquired most of the property between Fawn and Silver streets in Homewood, applied to the Placer County board of Supervisors to build a ski hill, chair lift and rope tow on the old el Campo and Hotel Homewood properties west of the present Highway 89. Under several subsequent ownerships and expansions, the parcels west of the highway have continued in this recreational use to the present day.
By the time of the 1960 Winter Olympics, Bill Johnston, the man who had played such an important role in the life of the early Homewood community, had long since gone to his rewards, taking with him many mysteries. El Campo’s founder died in August 1952 at age 74, closing a colorful chapter in the history of Lake Tahoe’s west shore.
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