Walter E. Johnson Jr. was so passionate about his Santa Rosa decorative rock business that he would pack up his entire family to go on trips hunting for interesting new sources.
“Our life certainly wasn't like how other kids grew up,” daughter Wanda Johnson of Coalinga said with a laugh. “With him, we were always out looking for rocks. Our vacations were spent in the back of a truck.”
Johnson, 83, died July13 after suffering a stroke at work, W. Johnson Ornamental & Building Stone on Santa Rosa Avenue, a business he founded after returning from service in the Army during the Korean War.
Johnson was an avid outdoorsman who rarely missed a hunting trip and relished his journeys into the California wilderness to locate sources of attractive rocks. He took the family on frequent camping trips as well.
“You couldn't ask for a better childhood growing up,” Wanda Johnson said.
He was also an avid collector of anything remotely connected to the Old West. Once, he heard that a stockyard in the county had three bison available, his daughter recalled. He quickly bought all three and kept them at the rock yard for many years, to the amazement of his customers.
Perhaps the prize of his collection, however, was a human head preserved in a jar of alcohol. He maintained that the head belonged to the fabled bandit Joaquin Murieta. Murieta reportedly was killed by California rangers in 1853, and his head was preserved and displayed at a museum in San Francisco until it was lost in the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake.
In 2000, Johnson told Press Democrat columnist Gaye LeBaron that he had traded a horse, a jeep and a gun to an antiques dealer from Red Bluff, who claimed to have bought it from a man who found it in the rubble after the quake.
Johnson told LeBaron that he displayed the head at the Santa Rosa rock yard for decades but eventually tired of the attention it drew, and he buried it at his ranch in Covelo.