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Memories From the Homestead: Another look at celebrated 'Shepherd' character Sammy Lane

 Not long ago on one of my Homestead tours here at the Shepherd of the Hills Homestead and Adventure Park, a young family from Tennessee (Dad, Mom, and two young girls), took an unusual interest in my presentation. Not long into the 90-minute tour, I learned that this family adored author Harold Bell Wright, and in recent years they had collected all 19 of Wright's novels, with "Shepherd" being their absolute favorite. 

Their youngest daughter, age seven, was a sharp, young lady for her age, clearly loving every minute of the tour. When we walked into Uncle Ike's Post Office building (restored in 2022) this young lady politely interrupted my talk to point out an awesome tidbit. "Cowboy John," she says, "I bet you can guess my name!"

Her sweet giggle followed her statement. So, I replied, "You're probably Sammy, Mandy, or Mollie." Her reply, "I'm named after Sammy Lane!" This moment melted my heart and it was clear to myself and the rest of my guests that we were in the presence of loyal "Shepherd" fans.

They were caught off guard when I stated to them that in real life, Uncle Ike's daughter Susie was the inspiration for Sammy! Standing next to a display case inside the post office, I reached through the back and pulled out an actual photo of Susie with her horse Brownie, and handed it to the seven-year-old Sammy so she could have her photo taken with it! Her jaw dropped and you could tell it was an emotionally touching experience for this little Sammy! Everyone standing there was truly moved.       

The real Sammy (Susie Morrill Johnston) would have been touched by this moment also. Today, she is still one of the most asked about book characters on my tours. I briefly talked about her almost a year ago in a piece I wrote here for the July 14 edition of the Globe. I'd like to cover a few more details here for a moment.

Susie's brother Oscar (born in 1882) was quoted with the following that is worth sharing. "My sister Susie always rode a pony named Brownie just as Sammy Lane did in the story.  Too, Dad Howitt (Truman S. Powell) the old shepherd helped her with her studies just as he did in the story.

She was a natural horse woman and enjoyed taking long rides through the woodlands. She loved nature and was at home with the forest wildlife. She knew the names of all fifty-nine varieties of trees in the Ozark hills. The Ozarks’ very primitiveness held a sort of nearness for her.

In this respect she had a lot in common with her friend Harold Bell Wright. He too loved the tang of the backwoods air, the folklore, the witty tales told by the hills men. The book was to open the doors of the Ozarks, inviting millions of tourists to see the beauty that he and my sister and father, and all the other true Ozarkians had learned to love so well."       

It was in February 1903 when Susie began her teaching career at the newly completed Cove school, located not far from the Forks, where her family had been living since 1893. Teaching six and sometimes eight different grades in the one-room school, her students loved her teaching abilities, as she often took them on educational hikes. Susie was remembered for explaining the varieties of butterflies, birds and moths. She also would identify the varieties of flowers. Today the Notch Community Church stands where the Cove school once stood.   

In March 1908, Susie married Stone County native Homer Johnston. Their first-born son Carl was born in August 1912. He lived to age 69 passing in 1982. Their next son Clyde was born in 1914. After high school he joined the Navy and died in an accidental shooting in San Diego while on shore-leave in February 1934.

Definitely some tragedy in this family. Clyde was not quite two when his mother passed on January 21, 1916. She was three days away from turning 32. It was a shock to the community, as Susie was the first "Shepherd" character to pass away. J.K. Ross mentioned her passing in his Garber newspaper column and how the community mourned her passing.

Susie will always be remembered as an exceptional young lady who was truly in tune with God's creations. I am honored to tell her story and that of her family to our guests here on the tour. Also, the Shepherd of the Hills team here is grateful to the Morrill family for allowing us to be the caretakers of Uncle Ike's Post Office.

Come on out here and join me on the tour. I'd be thrilled to show you the highlights of the homestead. Visit the Shepherd of the Hills website: 

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