June, 1908, proved a record breaking month at the Albion mill. San Francisco was still rebuilding after the great quake of '06. The mill and its timber lands had been purchased by Southern Pacific less than a year before, in part to turn out redwood ties for the railroad the company was constructing across Mexico. In one ten hour period the mill's saws produced 130,700 feet of merchantable lumber. That was the largest cut at Albion's mill to date, surpassing nearly 127,000 feet cut less than a week earlier. The record-breaking day's production included 1,450 railway ties brought to the dock for shipment south.
Logs piled high on railroad cars that year, supplied at landings all along the rail line that ran over the tracks from the edge of Anderson Valley to the mill on the Albion flats. Jack Keener was a twenty-five-year-old engineer on one of the locomotives that ran the tracks beside the Albion River. A young man with skill could advance that far in a booming business. At the end of a long work day or a Saturday evening, Jack Keener liked to eat at the South Side Hotel on the opposite side of the river from the mill. Oft times his companion was one J.L. Reid, a section foreman on said same railroad. Nearly a decade Keener's senior, and a resident in one of the South Side Hotel rooms, Reid occasionally shared a libation from the South Side's bar with the engineer, though no one categorized the two friends as “drinkers.”
On the north side of the Albion River, another part of the eponymous town served as home to a hospital, church, and school. That north side of Albion forbade the sale of alcoholic beverages. The lumber company owned a strip of land fronting the county road and the main street, Redwood Avenue, and the company owners, dating back to Standish and Hickey in the early 1890s, wanted sober men in their mill and woods. Thus, north Albion existed as a half “dry” town.
The mere mention of “south side” in a business name in Albion implied a locale where spirits flowed if not free of charge then more or less without legal limitations. The Kerr brothers owned and operated the South Side Hotel, where a good deal of profit was made in its barroom. The dining room remained separate and those deemed ill tempered or less than sober were not permitted to barge through the door and short hallway that provided some distance for more family oriented or sober-minded diners.
Jack Keener's frequent visits at the South Side Hotel may have had something to do with his hard working, soft drinking habits, but it also had to do with his fondness for a waitress employed in the dining room. Her name was Annie Gunnar, about three years Keener's junior and by all accounts, as of mid-June, 1908, Jack's betrothed.
A family history aside here. In the 1890s, Annie (Anna) Gunnar attended the McKay School, located on the west side of the Macdonald ranch, a few miles upriver from the mill. One of her brothers, Johnnie, shared the same first name of my oldest uncle. There were three Johnnies, within a year in age of each other, in the same one room school. The story goes, and the school register bears out, that at some point in their mid grammar school years, Johnnie Macdonald, Johnnie Gunnar, and Johnnie Ellison tired of the childish sound of their first names. Johnnie Macdonald asked his father, one of the school district's trustees, if something could be done to acquaint the teacher with their coming manhood or, at least, their coming double digit age. From one semester to the next, the teacher's entries in the school register changed so that the boys' names were recorded from then on as John Macdonald, John Gunnar, and John Ellison.
Here, our story turns a bit Shakespearean. It seems that some of the youngish fellows of Albion, supposed friends and acquaintances of both Jack Keener and J.L. Reid thought it good sport to pass along what they considered sordid details about Keener's intended bride, the fetching waitress at the South Side Hotel. The troublemakers filled Reid's ears so vividly and thoroughly for a couple of days running that in the early morning of June 16th, J.L. Reid repeated some of the comments to Keener, adding that he could provide at least one sure fire witness that very evening to prove his claims true. Young Jack went from passive to combative in a matter of a few colorful phrases. His fists did the responding, raining down blow after blow upon Reid's face and body until the latter retreated out of sight.
Reid not only retreated from Keener's fisticuffs, he exited Albion for Mendocino, where he sought out the Big River Township constable. The constable, noting the clear evidence of blows to Reid's face, assisted the railroad section boss in swearing out a warrant for the arrest of Keener on a charge of battery.
After attending to matters in Mendocino, Reid returned to Albion late in the afternoon. Keener had spent the day at work on the railroad and in the evening made his usual appearance at the South Side Hotel's dining room. Keener's fireman, Tony Nurnberger, spotted Reid outside, approaching the hotel with the supposed witness.
The fireman warned Keener of Reid's impending arrival. Jack Keener stepped into a darkened hallway that led to a stairway to the second floor. A single shot rang out. It struck Keener in the right side of his chest and ranged downward from there. He dropped to the floor, dead in a matter of moments.
J.L. Reid admitted fully to the shooting. A coroner's inquest jury of nine men in Mendocino found, “Jack Keener was born in Pennsylvania, aged about 24 years, came to his death June 16, from gun shot wound presumably by the hand of J.L. Reed [sic] who, in our opinion, was justified in so doing.” Among the jury members was future Mendocino County Sheriff Ralph Byrnes.
Nevertheless, Reid had to appear at a preliminary hearing on a charge of murder. There, enough evidence, essentially his admission, was put forth that the judge bound Reid over to the county jail in Ukiah for a trial in July.
At this point the case turns into something else. A county seat correspondent, reporting to the Mendocino Beacon claimed that the remarks that set off Keener's beating of Reid concerned the attentions of one Marshall McElroy, a woodsman of about thirty years of age, toward Keener's fiance. The correspondent put it somewhat differently, replacing McElroy's actual first name with “Rastus” and adding this sentence, “Frequent remarks were heard in the courtroom to the effect that the killing of Keener is generally deplored, and that considerable satisfaction would be felt if the n*g**r [there were no asterisks in the original newspaper account] had, instead of Keener, applied to Charon for a free ferry to that glory shore from which nobody is barred on account of age, color, or previous condition of servitude.”
Reid's defense was self defense, that he feared for his life after the beating sustained at the hands of Keener. Witnesses presented a variant version of events from that sworn to by Tony Nurnberger. Defense testimony stated that Keener and Nurnberger and possibly more acquaintances had searched Albion for some time in the late afternoon and early evening of June 16th, making threats against Reid as they went. They hunted for Reid in a barn then on into the South Side Hotel, finally intending to follow him upstairs to his room. It was there on the stairway, a dining room employee stated, that Reid, fearing for his life, shot Keener.
The jury retired to its room at 3:45 on a Friday afternoon. Ten minutes later, the foreman informed the bailiff they had reached a verdict. Only one ballot had been cast. All twelve men signifying, “Not guilty.”
Marshall McElroy moved on to the Sacramento area, where he gained employment as a truck driver. My oldest uncle's schoolmate, John Gunnar died young, at age 27 ½, in 1916, at his parents' home on the Littleriver prairie. McElroy was nearly forty, but records show him drafted into the U.S. Army near the conclusion of World War I. Annie Gunnar married in 1920. She and her husband lived together on the Mendocino Coast into the mid 1960s when they died within months of one another. There is no record of J.L. Reid having further encounters with the legal system. Jack Keener's body traveled by rail to his family in his home state for burial in the Lutheran cemetery in Colebrook, Pennsylvania.
(More tales from the south side at malcolmmacdonaldoutlawford.com)