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John Francis Howells (1866-1944): Autobiographical Sketch

(Note: This is the transcription of a letter, dated 27 January 1930, written by John Francis Howells from Salt Lake City, Utah, to his oldest son, Edmund. It was transcribed by W. Bart. Christenson, March 2007, from a copy of the letter in his possession.)

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Dear Son Edmund:

Your letter received and contents thrilled me through and through with your reminiscences of your youthful career and your Dad’s struggle against fate. After all, overcoming obstacles in life is what makes life worthwhile.

Life is a series of surprises, and would not be worth taking or keeping if it were not so—Emerson

Since receiving your letter, I have been taking an inventory, so to speak, of my life as far as my memory can think back. I was born at 10:00 AM, January 19, 1867, at 27th South and 6th West, Salt Lake City, Utah.

The first school I attended was located through the block from our home, at about the same number, on 7th West. The school was held in a private house, the home of a widow by the name of Mrs. Wright. This woman had a grown daughter by the name of Mary, and the school went by the name of Mary Wright’s School. My mother was alive then, and as far as I can learn from women who knew her well, she, like your own mother, would sacrifice most anything to have her children schooled. (I use this word, because I think it more appropriate: education is development, but some get schooling without development.) This school had a short life. Mary got married to a railroad man, who was killed. She was left a widow with children, a boy and a girl. They grew up, and the daughter, whose name is Rena Maycock, is a teacher in the A.C. College, at Logan.

The next school I attended was in a private home also, located on the corner of 5th West and North Temple. It was run by Mrs. Parry, a widow, with one daughter and three sons. The daughter taught the school, and the sons were in the printing business and worked at the Deseret News Printing Company. This establishment was on the corner now occupied by the Utah Hotel. These Parry boys are three of the most upright men and citizens of Salt Lake.

My next school was in the old granary known as the 15th Ward. This building was situated nearly to the center of the block, where we now take the train to the Saltair Beach, at 3rd West between 1st and 2nd South. This was a district school. The teachers were Robert Tripp and R. H. Smith.

The next school I attended was in the old 16th Ward rock meeting house, situated on the corner of 1st North and 4th West. My brother, Thomas F. Howells, was the teacher. This was the last schooling I received, and [it] was the winter of 1881 or ‘82. I was about 14 years old. School was held during the winter months, or from about October to April.

My first work away from home was on the Jersey farm, situated at 7th to 8th West on South Temple and thence to 1st South. It contained about ten acres, mostly cropped to vegetables.

I then slaked lime and mixed mortar for the neighborhood plasterer, William X. Johns. I worked on the Jersey farm for 65 cents per day, or from sun up to sun down, and worked for Johns for 85 cents per day for ten hours per day.

My next work was making adobes. From this, I was taken to the Temple Block where I cut stone with my father. When he died, I went to work on the section at Kaysville, on the Utah Central Railroad, now the O. S. L. [Oregon Short Line]. From Kaysville, I went to Butte, Montana, and worked in the brick yard. From there, I went to work at the roundhouse of the Utah Northern Railroad. At this place, I contracted pneumonia and was given up by the doctors. I had them take me on a stretcher to the train.

(I will here relate that I went to Butte against the wishes of my older brothers, who threatened to stop me as I was still underage. My old grandmother [Margaret Evans Francis] told me exactly what I could expect if I went. On my return home, she nursed me, and through her nursing and Grandfather Jones’ administrations [Thomas John Jones, Margaret Evans Francis’ 2nd husband], after many months, I regained my normal strength. Sometime afterwards, they both died.) I then traveled the state for the Parry’s Monthly Magazine, after changed to the Utah magazine.

I then went to the Henry Dinwoody Furniture Company, and while working here, I was called on a mission for the L.D.S. Church to the British Isles [April 1892 to March 1894].

While working for Dinwoody’s, I helped to organize, in the evenings, the Democratic Club at the D&RG [Denver & Rio Grande R. R.] in the Albany Hotel; this killed the old Liberal Party. We had some of the officials of the railroad on our roster, and when I was called on my mission, I was told that if I would refuse to go, they would elect me to the City Council. I was determined to go, and after these men saw that they couldn’t sway me from my purpose, they put their hands down in their pockets and wished me God’s Speed. I received several letters from the secretary, asking me if I needed any assistance in the way of money. This man was an Irish Catholic, named Joe Grennan.

During the second year of my mission, I met your mother in Cardiff, Wales. She shortly afterwards immigrated to this country.

After returning home from my mission, I went back to Dinwoody’s for a short time, then to the Salt Lake Herald, for whom I traveled the State of Utah and also the southern part of Utah. While working for the Herald, I campaigned for the Democratic Party.

During this period, the Democrats were making a vigorous campaign all over the State of Utah. Judge Wilson and Gerald R. Letcher were sent to Uintah County. I was campaigning in Wasatch County under Joseph R. Murdock and Jim Clyde. Wilson and Letcher reported to the campaign committee that Uintah County was lost to the Populist Party. Murdock recommended me to go out. Judge Powers was then State Chairman. Some of the campaign committee laughed at the suggestion. Murdock insisted and said,

“If Johnny Howells doesn’t turn the county to the Democrats, I will pay all expenses.”

I was sent out with Judge Dusenberry, who was running for judge on the Democratic ticket. The judicial district composed Utah, Wasatch, and Uintah Counties.

The judge and I took the train to Price and then staged it to Vernal. Our first meeting was held at a place called Millard. The issue between the two national parties was the tariff. The Populist Party was for tariff reforms and election of president and senators by popular vote, which meant giving the people of the state more power and taking power from the federal government. Judge McConnell was the Indian agent, and was appointed by President Cleveland. He also was Chairman of the Democrats of Uintah County.

I heard that he was disgusted when he saw me, so he didn’t come into the meeting until it was about half through. I had my audience with me, and at the close of the meeting, he welcomed me with open arms. The next day, this man hired the opera house at Vernal, and had a big streamer painted and strung across the street from the opera house with the words: The Honorable John F. Howells Will Speak in the Opera House Tomorrow Night; and that night he hired a brass band to parade the streets. On the night of the rally, the opera house was packed. McConnell was chairman. As I remember, the band played some selections, and then Dusenberry was introduced as the next judge of the judicial district. He spoke a few minutes, and then said he would give way to the Roscoe Conklin of Democracy, John F. Howells.

During a previous campaign, Frank Cannon defeated Joseph Rawlings for Congress. Cannon was on the Republican ticket, and Rawlings was on the Democratic. The women’s vote went strong for Cannon, and the press canvassed the women in Provo to find the reason. They said that they preferred black hair to red; so I took occasion to remind the women of this audience. In my opening remarks, I said:

In looking over this audience, I see many feminine faces. I trust that the women of Vernal are not as partial to color as the ladies of Provo. Ladies of Vernal, pardon me when I say I prefer red hair to black: first, because it suits my complexion; second, it denotes my disposition; third and last, but not least, the great, immortal Jefferson wore it before me, and Jefferson’s policy of government will live in this Republic when the G.O.P. will be buried and forgotten, like the Whig Party before it!

This raised the audience to their feet, and the owner of the opera house was the one that started the applause, he being the chairman of the Populist Party of Uintah County. At the close of the meeting, this man jumped on the platform of the stage and yelled, Three cheers for the game cock of democracy, John F. Howells!

Uintah County carried for the Democratic Party. Salt Lake County also went Democratic. O. W. Powers, State Chairman, said, Howells, name your office! I was slated for the County Infirmary of Salt Lake County, but didn’t get it.

Two years later, I ran for Sheriff [of Salt Lake County] on the Democratic ticket. This year, we fused with the Populists. I had a hard fight in the convention. My competitors were Thomas P. Lewis (Sheriff of Salt Lake County), Nicel Hood, George Raleigh, [and] Joseph Raleigh. On the third ballot, I was nominated by Gerald Letcher, who put my name before the convention and referred to me by what I was called at Vernal. I had a hard fight put up against me because I wouldn’t promise the Raleigh’s place on my staff if elected. I carried Salt Lake County over my opponent, Peter S. Condie, by 1,300 votes.

The term of sheriff at this time was two years, and in order to qualify, I had to get two living sureties with around thirty-five thousand dollars. A. W. McCune and R. C. Chambers qualified as my sureties. Today, people who qualify for office in Utah have some bonding company pay their bonds, and [then] they pay the company. This law went into effect when politics became corrupted by depraved men who, in my judgment, make politics a profession.

(During my administration, fraternal orders seemed to be the slogan. Churches were mixing in politics, and the only way to keep them out was to defeat a church man on the ticket. The Moses Thatcher case made the fraternal orders much stronger. My administration seemed to be giving satisfaction to all parties concerned, but the Roberts case coming up before Congress and Congress refusing him a seat caused the old hatred to blaze afresh between Mormon and Gentile. I was solicited to join their orders, but refused. The result was when I came up for [repeat] nomination before the convention at the Salt Lake Theatre; the galleries were packed against me. It took two days to finish the convention, which was nominating a legislative as well as a county ticket. So the order of business and platform put the legislative and platform first. And in the meantime, my enemies got among the delegates who were for me, and I was traded off for their friends and relatives, who wanted to qualify on the legislative ticket and other ways. I was defeated by G. H. Naylor, known as “Ham” Naylor. He was elected on my record. His administration was a miserable failure. I believe I could have been elected running as an independent.)

On being elected Sheriff of Salt Lake County, I received a telegram from Major R. W. Young, congratulating me on my election, in which Admiral Dewey joined. It was from Manila Bay, on Dewey’s ship which sank the Spanish fleet. The telegram is somewhere among my papers.

On leaving the sheriff’s office, I bought out Ben R. Harries, who was a partner of mine in the Buzzo Ranch. We had a number of milk cows, and I went in the milk business. Billy Bess peddled my milk. I later sold my milk business and cows to Walter Robinson and George Cornick.

I then took over, or leased, the land that my brother-in-law, William Smith, had, to save it for him, he being called on a mission. On his return from the mission, I gave the land back and took a job from the city, looking after the hay land and water in Parley’s Canyon. I got Will Smith a job measuring the water between the city and the farmers.

I then took the agency of the Portland Life Insurance Company, insuring livestock for this company. Then, the O. Mowers Mule and Jack Company of Missouri bought a “Catlo,” a mixture of buffalo and Hereford cow, this being the only sale of its kind that ever developed. They employed me to domesticate it and exhibit it in the state fairs of the western states.

In August of 1908, at Lincoln, Nebraska, I received a wire from W. M. Bancroft and Parley L. Williams of the O. S. L. [R. R.] asking if I would take a job helping the legal department of this company, permanently. I had assisted them before on many cases. I wired yes, and on the 5th of September 1908 I started with them and have been with them ever since, over 21 years.

During my life time, up to date, I have met with four serious accidents. The first was during my teens. I was thrown off a horse. I was riding this horse with another boy, without a bridle, when we were thrown off—I falling off on my left side with my left arm under me, on hard clods. The elbow joint was nearly twisted out of the flesh; it was worse than broken. The arm went black and blue, and if it weren’t for my father’s determination to save it, the doctors would have amputated it. My brother, Tom, would stand on a chair and pour cold water on it several times a day, and then it was rubbed to keep it alive, for days and days. Father also administered and anointed it daily. He was a man of strong faith and dogged tenacity, if I may use this expression. My arm has never entirely straightened: I can’t touch my left shoulder with my left hand. My next accident was at Parrish’s Dairy up in Weber Canyon. Parrish and I were both on horseback, hunting for cows in the willows. I was on one trail and he on another. I was loping my horse at a good speed, when it shied into the willows at something in the trail, and a stiff, dried stick pierced my left eye. I was thrown from the horse, and it took both my hands to pull the stick out. I crawled on my hands and knees to the river, where I thought I would bleed to death. Finally, Parley found me, and I arose to my feet, dizzy and weak. I asked him if my eye was out, and he turned deathly pale and said, John, what’s the matter? It’s on your cheek!

I lay on my back for several days while they bathed it with wild sage tea, until the swelling was out of my cheek. I then came home to 27 south 6th West, and a neighbor, old Samuel Thomas, a butcher by trade, told me to bathe it every morning with spring water from a spring in our lot, and in the evening before retiring, in warm salt water. A few weeks of this treatment improved it so that when the bandage was removed, I could distinguish daylight from dark. An oculist in Ogden, when it was first injured, told me it would require an operation and perhaps the removal of the eye—or the other eye might lose its sight. Wonderful comfort to a young man without means!

My next accident was on the O. S. L. RR [the Oregon Short Line Railroad], in Portneuff Canyon, Idaho. I was riding a motor car when the motor broke, and in attempting to lift the car off the rails, I received a compound fracture of the right leg—shin bone broken, and every bone in the ankle joint—[plus] a broken left shoulder. The injury has left me a cripple in the right leg, the leg shank being 1 3/8 inches shorter than the left leg.

[The] sicknesses that I can remember [were] the siege in Butte, Montana, and typhoid fever, which I had on my return form my mission just previous to my marriage to your mother. I was then working for the Salt Lake Herald. While on my mission, I had a crop of “Job’s Comforters,” or boils, which covered my body, from the back of my neck to the soles of my feet. This was in the British Mission, in the Manchester Conference.

When I was transferred to the Welch Mission, I was laid up there by a large swelling on my right leg, below the hip joint. One night, some of the Elders in the Conference House in Cardiff, Wales, had anointed the swelling, and Elder Levi John, a Traveling Elder, was confirming the anointing. He rebuked the swelling in the Name of God. It broke, and the corruption spread all over, and what a relief it was to me. I then went to my field of labor and finished my mission. When returning home from my mission, I went to work for the Herald, under Major Young’s administration, when I was stricken with typhoid fever. Your mother, then Annie M. Hurley, visited me during my sickness, and after I recuperated, we were married.

During her confinement with you, Edmund, Dr. E. W. Ewing, who confined her said, Howells, where was your wife raised? I asked him, why? and he said, If ever I waited on a virgin, it is now—and during my practice, I have waited on many women. You certainly have one of the most clean and virtuous women I ever waited on.

I can say amen to this. Many times during my sober moments, my conscience has caused me to give vent to tears. She is a priceless jewel, who has at all times done her part as a true woman and angelic mother. God has blessed her and will continue to bless her in the future.

Your affectionate Father

P.S.: During the period that I was Sheriff of Salt Lake County, I formed the acquaintance of a man by the name of Kiser, who was sent out here from Iowa as the agent of the John Deere Company. After I had worked for the O. S. L. for quite awhile, I met Mr. Kiser on Main Street one day, and he said, Mr. Howells, I have had you in mind for some time. I wish you would some day call at my office. I have a proposition to make you.

In the course of several weeks, I called on him, and he wanted me to go in partners with him. I told him that I [might] not measure up to his expectations, and suggested that he call on the men I was working under and see what they had to say. He did so, and after receiving their recommendations, I called on him and concluded to remain with the O. S. L.

He then handed me the papers from Parley L. Williams, George H. Smith, and L. E. Abbott, and said, Mr. Howells, I am sorry you won’t join me. These men haven’t said anything about you that I didn’t already know. The railroad game as I knew it in Iowa is passing the buck, and some day these papers may be of some value to you if you remain with the O.S.L.

Some time after this, I passed up another opportunity—this one a very sad mistake on my part. The people of Salt Lake County were harassed with a serious nuisance, namely the arsenic fumes from the smelters. The nuisance became intolerable, as the fumes were destroying animal and vegetable life. The Highland Boy [an early smelter in the Salt Lake Valley] was driven out of the Valley, and the A. S. & R. [ASARCO, the American Smelting and Refining Company, a national smelting trust] was allowed to run, [along] with the U. S. Smelter [competitor to ASARCO in the Salt Lake Valley]—providing they would build a bag house at each plant. After this was done, they were still being sued for damages.

Attorneys E. M. Allison, E. M. Bagley, and Elias C. Ashton, being friendly with Superintendent Whitely of the A.S. & R., one night in the Alta Club, talked over the situation. Conway Ashton [Elias C. Ashton] was associated with the attorney, Judge F. B. Richards. Bagley and Ashton were partners in law. They suggested that I be employed to investigate two cases pending against the company, which I did. The cases were [subsequently] disposed of in favor of the A. S. & R. [Nevertheless], I was called to investigate some fields between Granger, Hunter, and near Garfield, and make a report in writing. I did so and let Bagley read the report. He laughed heartily and showed it to Ashton. I [then] sent [it] to Whitley, and he became suspicious. Shortly after this, he sent me to a farm that had been turned down each year.

On calling at the farm, I introduced myself, and told the farmer what I was there for. He said, I know you, Sheriff Howells. I am glad you came. So, he and I went over the fields together. I took samples of the grain, potatoes, etc. I wrapped them in small bundles and explained that, in my judgment, what caused the damage to the same was either smelter fumes—or by flood water in irrigation, allowing the subsoil or mineral to rise and burn it out. [However], I [then] showed him where the currents of air had only burnt one side—showing [that] the fumes in the air [were the causative factor]. (This man told me that the claim agent of the A. S. & R., with his assistant, William J. Horne, had some “sacred cows” who were being paid each year—and one or two of these were Horne’s relatives, one a man by the name of Little.)

Before making up my report, I met Mr. [Judge] F. B. Richards, and he congratulated me on my other report and told me not to go into detail. This made me sore, and I encouraged this feeling so that it [caused] rancor in my breast. I then wrote it up in detail, dictated [it] to a stenographer, and left it in Whitley’s office.

In a day or so, he [Whitley] sent for me and said, Howells, I have been in this business about twenty years, and I confess, I can’t tell the difference. He was blaming me, I thought, and I said, I can! I [then] showed him so from my samples.

A few minutes after, he called his claims agent in, a Mr. A. C. Witcher, son of Colonel Witcher, if I remember correctly, and said to him, I want Howells on our payroll… Witcher said, Is he going to take my job? and Whitley said, No.

I interrupted and asked whom I was going to work with, and Whitley said, With F. B. Richards. I said, I won’t work with the old pensioner!

I have regretted this [statement] many times since then, as I have marked juries for Mr. Richards many times since then and have always found him to be a fine, cultured gentleman. I have thought many times, we suffer through our ignorance and misjudgment of men in a fit of passion. We should learn through the things we suffer.

As to my employment with the O. S. L., I have suffered through the acts of autocratic ingrates on the one hand, and envious nepotism on the other. The scriptures say, Whom the Lord loveth, He chasteneth.

I hope this is so in my case.

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