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Contrary to popular belief, the wild west days of Arizona's yesteryear were not filled with just gunslingers, cowboys and horse thieves. There were many wonderful men and women who helped shape their place in Arizona's history, such as restaurant proprietors, seamstresses, hotel owners, grocers and, yes, even undertakers.
"Undertaker?" you might ask. It is not the most pleasant word in the English language, but let’s face it — they are everywhere and, in the mining towns of Arizona’s past, they were as common as lemon drops and horehound candy were to pioneer children. Back at the turn of the century there once lived such a man who owned a general merchandise while “undertaking” — pardon the pun — the job as the Yuma County’s undertaker.
The son of Civil War Veteran William Albert Johnson and his wife Sarah Catherine (Cook) Johnson, Orin Clyde Johnson — affectionately nicknamed O.C. — was born on September 6, 1876 in Watseka, Iroquois County, Indiana. As a child, he spent most of his boyhood days away from his parents in Kansas until he was reunited with them after his father’s decision to relocate to Los Angeles, California. It was there that O.C. finished his schooling and, by 1898 at the age of 22, he headed to the little border town of Yuma, Arizona. It was there that he met Eugene Francis Sanguinetti who hired him to work as a clerk in general merchandise. Not long after, he met a lovely young lady named Laura Belle Peck. They married and, in 1901, they welcomed their first child, Edith.
Around 1904, O.C. partnered with W.A. Bowles in general merchandise where they sold everything from fancy groceries to cigars, produce, hay, grain,buggies and Studebaker Wagons. In addition,they made and sold caskets from the rear of their store. With an increasing demand for the caskets, O.C. and Bowles opened an undertaking parlor located at the corner of Third and Main. Considering O.C. had passed the state embalming license in both California and Arizona, he was very skilled in his profession. He took his job quite seriously and everyone who entered through his front doors, both living and dead, were treated with respect and dignity.
In 1906, O.C. and Laura had their first son named Omar and, in 1908, they added two more feet to their happy home with the birth of a second son named Francis. That same year, W.A. Bowles sold out his part of the business to O.C. As proprietor of both the general merchandise and an undertaking business, O.C. kept quite busy. With undertaking parlor, for the most part, a 24- hour business, his advertisements in the local paper included his home number, parlor number and general merchandise number for anyone who needed to reach him, day or night.
Over the next several years, O.C. and Laura expanded their family with the births of Orin C. Jr. in 1912, followed by Halan in 1914. Two years later, Yuma experienced a massive flood and was submerged in 1 to 4 feet of water with much of the city, including O.C.’s undertaking parlor, destroyed. Instead of rebuilding at his present location, O.C. moved to Second Avenue with hopes of avoiding future floods.
In addition to his undertaking parlor and general merchandise store, O.C. was very active in his community. He was president of the people’s Finance and Thrift Corporation, secretary of the Yuma Realty Investment Company, treasurer for Free and Accepted Masons, and a member of Yuma Lodge 17 and 476, the Kiwanis Club, and the Yuma Country Club, just to name a few. Simply: O.C. was a very busy man.
Over the next two years, O.C. and Laura completed their family with the addition of Robert Erving in 1918. With a loving wife and a full house, O.C. had much to be thankful for. Unfortunately, on November 9, 1920, dark days clouded his happiness. His lovely wife Laura, who was only 41 years of age, passed away after catching a severe strep infection. As O.C. often consoled grieving families who entered through his parlor doors, he sadly found himself needing to be consoled. With a business to run, a tiny infant and several small children to care for, it must have been difficult; however, with strength and perseverance, his clouded and grey days turned into rays of sunshine. After meeting Matilda Katharine Cook, the two motored to Tucson where they married on March 4, 1922. With a new wife, a stepson named Harry, and his children, O.C.’s home was once again brimming with smiles, happiness, and laughter.
As his undertaker business grew, O.C. realized a need for cemetery expansion. After scouting out land around Yuma, he purchased a 30-acre plot in 1937, located directly adjacent to the present Yuma Pioneer Cemetery and it became Yuma’s Desert Lawn Cemetery. That very same year, unhappiness and despair clouded O.C.’s life once more upon hearing that his 23-year-old son Halan was killed in a car accident in Los Angeles.
Until the end of his life, O.C. remained very active. He was a Republican, served on the official board of treasurers for the Methodist Episcopal Church, and was an associate in education serving on the board of trustees for Yuma Union High School District. O.C. also enjoyed traveling. As Yuma’s summer heat can literally fry an egg on the sidewalk, O.C. and Matilda would often visit Los Angeles, San Francisco, and the Hawaiian Islands for some much-needed rest and relaxation. In the early 1950s, O.C. sold his Johnson Mortuary. It remained on Second Avenue until 1987 when it was moved to the grounds of Desert Lawn Cemetery where it remains today.
O.C. passed away at the age of 77 on August 31, 1963. O.C.’s legacy continues to this day with Yuma's O.C. Johnson Elementary School named in his honor, as well as the Johnson Mortuary and Desert Lawn Cemetery. Honoring those who lived and died was O.C.’s passion, as he fervently believed that all lives, in one way or another, make a long and lasting impression on history and those with whom they touch. A well respected and admired member of the community, Orin Clyde Johnson was most definitely the pride of Yuma, Arizona.
Article written by Karen Mazzeo. Photo provided by Lina Munk, granddaughter to O.C. Johnson.
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