When Evalyn Johnson was a little girl in Virginia City, she remembers the main road through town was dirt and the fishing was good upstream of town.
She remembers when town residents used the old miner shacks for firewood and her mother, Clida, did laundry for people around town. Evalyn remembers watching her bring in the clothes that had frozen hard on the line and stand them up close to the stove. She remembers watching them slowly crumple to the floor.
Evalyn Johnson was born Evalyn Batten in Nevada City, Calif., on St. Patrick’s Day, 1936. However, she already had roots in Montana and was only days old when her parents moved back to Virginia City where her father, Evan, had a mining claim and homestead with his brother Bill.
The Battens moved into a small home on the west end of town everyone called the Kramer Building, Johnson said. It had two bedrooms, an outside toilet and a pump for water.
These days, Johnson lives in an old Victorian house she and her late husband, Richard, remodeled more than a decade ago. It is the home her mother lived in for years and one the houses Johnson grew up in. From the front porch you can look west down Alder Gulch and east and north toward the Tobacco Root Mountains. It’s a good place to stand and think about the history still pumping through Virginia City’s veins and a good place to stand a let a cool spring breeze blow off the mountain snowpack and energize your soul.
“I derive my energy from the mountains,” Johnson said.
When Johnson and her family arrived in Virginia City in 1936, the boom was long over. Though there was still quite a bit of mining, the gold rush of the 1860s and 70s had passed and the old shacks were falling over from decay.
“All of the buildings in Virginia City were pretty bad off,” she said.
The late 1930s and early 40s were difficult economically for a lot of folks, Johnson said. For her family it may have been a little tougher. Her father had what she called “miner’s con.” It’s what most people now call black lung. She wasn’t very old when he couldn’t work his placer mine any longer.
Evan Batten was born in Wales in 1879 and moved to the United States when he was only a boy. When he met Clida, he was working in the Red Dog Mine in California and she was working at a Del Monte factory. He was nearly 25 years her senior.
In Virginia City, Evan’s lung disease progressed. It was bad for work, but it left him time to take his little girl fishing, something she has loved her whole life.
“My dad and I did a lot of fishing,” Johnson said.
When describing her family in those days, she uses the word frugal, but that’s only in hindsight.
“It didn’t seem frugal at the time because everybody was kind of in the same boat,” she said.
Johnson was still a little girl in the mid 1940s when Charlie and Sue Bovey came in and began buying up property in town in an effort to preserve it’s history.
“He was not pleased to see the old original buildings used as firewood,” she said.
The Boveys changed the course of Virginia City forever. Their investment in the town turned Virginia City into a tourist attraction and Bovey really played up the old west and mining history of the town, Johnson said.
The tourism meant jobs during the summer season and many of the high school kids in town worked in the restaurants and hotels, she said.
“When you were a high school kid, that was a real boom for us,” Johnson said.
Back then the Virginia City school was running. The mascot was the Wildcat and their colors were black and red, she recalls.
“Classes were small but the education was good,” Johnson said.
Johnson’s father died of miner’s con in 1945 and her mother raised Johnson and her older brother William essentially on her own.
And though Clida hadn’t had the opportunity for a formal education, she was determined to not let the opportunity pass by her children.
“Education was a number one priority,” Johnson said.
She and her brother William both graduated from Virginia City High School. William graduated in 1952 in VCHS’s largest class with 14 students. Johnson was one of four in her graduating class in 1954.
“Education was important to my mom and it became important to us kids too,” she said.
Both Johnson and her brother ended up at the University of Montana and both earned degrees, hers in teaching.
While at a college square dance, Evalyn Batten met Richard Johnson and the two fell in love and were married in Laurin in 1959. He worked for the Bureau of Land Management and the couple spent much of their married life traveling around the country following his job, including two stints in South Dakota and Washington D.C. along with time in Colorado and California.
During that time they had two sons, Forrest and Stevan.
Dick retired in 1997 and was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. The couple had begun restoring her mother’s old home on Idaho Street in the mid 1990s and completed the restoration about the time he retired.
Dick passed away in 2008 and though it’s sad to think about his passing, Johnson is still amazed at all the places the two saw during their nearly 49 years together.
As a little girl growing up in Virginia City, she never would have guessed she would one day live in the nation’s capital or travel to Europe or Nova Scotia.
“When I graduated from high school I hadn’t planned that I would be able to go and do and see and learn,” she said. “I never thought I would meet somebody who would take me all those places.”
Her generation, it seemed almost expected that a young woman would graduate from high school and get married and settle down, Johnson said.
“Women had choices if they had the strength to fight for them,” she said.
Reflecting on her life, the one thing she seems to wish she could have done differently was pursue a career in archeology.
And now it’s history that consumes much of her time and effort.
Johnson works as an archivist at the Madison County Museum in Virginia City and she’s recently finished a book about the town entitled, “Virginia City: Visions of History.” The book is being published by Arcadia Press in San Francisco.
Johnson says she’s always loved history, but it was working at George Mason University archiving the Orson Welles Collection that really unveiled her passion.
In Virginia City, she worked with Thompson-Hickman assistant librarian Faye Rutherford for several years to archive all of Dick Pace’s collection. Pace was a local historian who studied the Virginia City area extensively and left all his papers and research to the county museum. The collection comprised hundreds of boxes of material, Johnson said.
But out of Pace’s work came much of the content for Johnson’s book, which is largely comprised of photos, she said. The concept was to use the old photographs to walk people through the history of Virginia City. In total, the book will have 187 photographs, all collected by Johnson from various archives and private individuals.
The book will be available sometime this spring and the proceeds will go toward the expansion of the Thompson-Hickman Library, which will include an archive for Madison County’s historic documents.
“I think people love history,” Johnson said.
History is the reason the many thousands of people come to Virginia City each year to see the little town she grew up in. In many ways, the history of the town and the area is still alive for people when they visit.
“It’s old and it’s original,” she said. “It’s just a place where history is on every street.”