The Peaks of Otter has been an existing community of people for more than 80 centuries.
Cherokee Indians, European pioneers, their descendants, travelers, and tourists have
used the area to hunt, camp, and to live on and farm the land. Near the end of the
nineteenth century, at the site of the present Peaks of Otter Lodge, was the thriving
community of Mons. There were at least 20 families in the community, a church, an
elementary school, two mills, an Odd Fellows lodge, and the Hotel Mons. The history
of the Johnson family is intertwined with the history of the Mons community and the
Peaks of Otter. They were tied to the development of the hotel and to the area’s
David Hunter Strother. Virginia Illustrated: Containing a Visit to the Virginian
Canaan, and the Adventures of Porte Crayon and His Cousins. New
York: Harper and Brothers, 1857. Barrett Library. Shown: "South Peak of Otter, from
Click to enlarge
The Peaks area was established as a farming community when Thomas Wood first settled
here in 1766. The cabin in which he took up residence is now referred to as The Johnson
Farm. In 1852, John Therone and Mary Elizabeth Johnson bought the four-room cabin
and the land on Harkening Hill. Two generations of Johnsons had lived on the mountain
prior to this purchase. They were Castleton Johnson, John T.’s father and John Johnson,
his grandfather. John T and Mary had 13 children that helped with the cash crops
of cabbage, tomatoes, and potatoes. The family garden included vegetables used by
the family. They raised sheep and operated a distillery in a nearby hollow making
apple brandy from the trees on the farm. This was sold to an early hotel, The Hotel
Mons. This part of the farm would remain in the family for three generations.
The Hotel Mons, Latin name for mountain, was applied to the hotel at an undetermined
time. The Otter Peaks Hotel, the name preceding Mons, opened its’ doors in 1857.
At this time there was only one building proper with outbuildings including a barn
and a springhouse. The hotel burned in 1870 but was promptly rebuilt. The Otter Peaks
Hotel provided food and lodging for almost 50 years and then a larger hotel was built
just west of the one rebuilt after the fire. The hotel had accommodations for 40
guests and was a summer landmark for people coming from as far away as Maine, California,
and England. The Mons closed its’ doors in 1936. Civilian Conservation Corps workers
and other families lived in the hotel proper until the National Park Service dismantled
all of the buildings of the Mons complex sometime in the early 1940’s.
Jason Johnson, the favored son of John T. and Mary Elizabeth, bought the farm from
his parents in 1884 for $410 and 220 acres of his grandfather’s, Castleton Johnson,
from heirs. Jason brought the house to its’ present appearance with the addition
of the dining room, kitchen and various porches and storage rooms. Jason was born
with a clubfoot but wasn’t bothered by this handicap and with his wife Mary Jane
(Jennie) Cottrell produced nine children, two of whom died before aged 10, and kept
up the tradition of being self-sufficient farmers. Trips to town were rare and only
to sell their goods and buy coffee, flour, and sugar. Jason, because of his disability,
often planted from horseback and according to a grandchild could hoe across a garden
as quickly on his knees as most people could standing. The large apple and peach
orchards flourished during this time on the terraced slopes of Flat Top Mountain.
The best quality apples were shipped to England. Others found their way into gallons
of apple butter made by the community.
Jason and Jenny and their family were tied economically to the Hotel Mons as were
many in the community. Many family members were employees of the hotel. The hotel
purchased goods from the families as well. Jason and Jennie often took in overflow
boarders; the children ran errands and served as guides for hotel guests. Some of
the children would take hotel guests on trips to Balance Rock or the Big Spring and
receive 50-75 cents per trip.
After Jennie’s death, daughter Callie Missouri Johnson and her husband Mack Bryant
became the third generation to farm the same land. They continued to run a farm that
provided for most of their needs, helped out at the hotel, and had some small entrepreneurial
ventures. Mack acted as the local “vet”. Callie is best remembered for supplying
the Hotel Mons dining room with flowers from her garden as well as the ones she picked
from the surrounding mountains. Mack suffered a paralyzing stroke and in 1929 the
Depression began a decline for the Johnson Farm. Soon the farm and most of the Mons
community made way for the coming of the Blue Ridge Parkway. After the Blue Ridge
Parkway acquired the Peaks of Otter, the last family members sold the farm to the
Peaks of Otter Company and then it was transferred to the National Park Service in
1941. Sometime in the 1950’s steps were taken to stabilize the house, barn, smokehouse,
and springhouse. Other buildings were destroyed. In 1968 the house was stripped back
to its original log structure and reworked to approximate its’ appearance when it
was a log cabin. In 1974 the restoration of the house to its’ 1920’s/30’s condition
was completed and the interpretation of the farm was begun.
The second child and first son born to Jason and Jennie was Robert Lee Johnson. He
was about 10 years of age when they moved into the Johnson Farm. As a young man he
moved down the mountain to the Sheep Creek area where he continued to farm and planted
an orchard. He also had a small grocery store in Ewing’s gristmill. He planted tomatoes
and built a canning factory on Sheep Creek. He married Rowena Gross and they had
The second child and first boy was James Elmo Johnson. He went to Reba School and
New Prospect church, which was within walking distance. He once said you could hear
the singing from the church in the summer time. His grandparents, Jason and Jennie
Johnson were still living and also attended New Prospect church. His mother died,
in childbirth, when Elmo was 12 years old. Much responsibility for the economic welfare
of the family fell onto young Elmo’s shoulders. He worked in the fields, orchards
and in the mill where he ground grains for flour and sold the stock of merchandise
to customers. His father, Robert, got Aunt Millie Johnson, who never married, to
come and stay with the children; the youngest, Hampton, was only two years old. Robert
would allow Elmo and his sister, Irene, who was two years older, to walk to spend
the weekend with their grandparents, Jason and Jennie, on the mountain.
In 1972, Irene related this story. “One time Elmo and I was walking up the mountain.
Elmo saw a squirrel; pick up a rock to throw at the squirrel on the tree. And what
did we see, over on the side of the mountain. A big bear. He laid his rock down easy.
And we were so excited, when we got to our granddaddy’s house, we could hardly talk.
Bears was often seen in the mountains.”
Elmo continued to work with his father from childhood until he was a young adult.
In 1917 he married Sarah Freddie Welch and they had four children. In 1918 he along
with his father bought the farm, just a little further down Sheep Creek, now known
as Johnson’s Orchards and Peaks of Otter Winery. The first apple tree was planted
in 1919. Elmo bought his father’s interest in the farm shortly after the original
purchase. Some of the plantings for the trees were brought from those originally
at the Johnson Farm. Among the varieties that had existed there were: Yellow Transparent,
Cannon, Bullskin, and Rustycoat. They can still be found among the nearly 200 varieties
planted at Johnson’s Orchards. In 1998, Danny Johnson, son of Elmo and Freddie, grafted
some of these varieties and donated 11 heirloom apple trees to be planted at the
Johnson Farm. Danny married Nancy Nestor Johnson in 1960 and they have two sons.
In 1971, Danny and Nancy purchased the family farm where they had lived and worked
since 1960 and continue to operate it along with their son, Shannon and his wife
Donna, who live on the farm and their grandsons, Josh and Jordan; and the encouragement
of their son, Dan (Chip) and wife Kristin, who live in Seattle.