J.J. Stewart Root Beer A Little History in Each Bottle! Cavendish, Prince Edward Island

J.J. Stewart's Story

John James Stewart - the good old days
J.J. Stewart

John James Stewart left his quiet farm home in Caledonia, Prince Edward Island, in the late 1800's in search of work, adventure and romance. In the deserts and mountains of Utah and Colorado, he found all three – and more. By the time he returned to his Island home, he had earned a nickname – Utah Jack – and had experienced enough of life’s romance, adventure and heartbreak to last him for a lifetime.

John J. Stewart, a handsome blue-eyed man, dark hair and a neat mustache, grew up in the Scottish community of Caledonia, within sight of the white Presbyterian church where his family worshipped, in English and in Gaelic, every Sunday.  As the second eldest of 10 children – 4 boys and 6 girls – he would have been expected to take over the family farm.   But Prince Edward Island was in the midst of a severe economic depression in the mid-1880s; farm prices were low; and jobs were scarce. Tens of thousands of Islanders were leaving the farms to look for work in the United States. John’s father, James, then about 70 years old, was too old to find work to supplement the farm income; John’s brothers were too young.  His mother, Flora, 25 years younger than her husband, had just had a baby girl – another mouth to feed.   

John was only in his 20s when he embarked on his great adventure, probably catching the train in Montague and buying a ticket through to Salt Lake City, Utah.  He may have been planning to work his way to California, as so many other Islanders did, lured by tales of the high wages and quick fortunes to be made in the wake of the gold rush.  Instead, he fell under a more potent spell: a smile and a glance from a dark-eyed, exotic young beauty with native blood whom he met by chance in Salt Lake City.  America Alice Ford had been orphaned at the age of two, and raised by her grandfather in a rough-tough mining town high in the Sawatch  mountains of Colorado.  When he died, she moved to Salt Lake City to live with her half-sister.

John and America were married on Christmas Eve in 1888. He was twenty-four; she was a month shy of her eighteenth birthday. Two years later, a child Norman James was born.

John had no knowledge of a trade other than farming, so a move to one of the numerous gold- and silver-mining towns linked to Salt Lake City by rail was an obvious choice.  Placer mining – mining for gold in stream beds – was rare in Utah. Hard-rock mining for gold and silver was more common – and it was very hard, dangerous work. Miners got paid about $3 a day and worked ten or twelve hours a day, six days a week. Accidents were common. Hoists were dangerous. So were falling rocks and runaway ore cars. Falls down mine shafts, explosions, poisonous gases, falling timbers – the risks to life and limb were many. The air was so bad, the candles the miners carried burned at only one-fifth of their normal intensity. Miners became ill and sometimes died from lead poisoning. Many miners developed lung diseases. Few grew old.

The typical mining town could hardly have been more different from the world in which John Stewart had been raised.  Ramshackle colonies of shanties, saloons, gambling dens, dance halls and brothels had sprung up across the territory at the first rumor of a strike. Some towns, like the silver-mining town of Frisco, became notorious for vice and crime. In its heyday, its streets were lined with saloons (21 according to one count), gambling dens and houses of prostitution. One writer called it “Dodge City, Tombstone, Sodom and Gomorrah all rolled into one.”  It was a long way from Caledonia.

Because of the many boom-and-bust cycles in mining, no job was safe for long, and no town was home for long.  Jack and America lived for a time in Buena Vista, Colorado, a high-desert railway town where Jack managed a hotel.  But their first child, Norman, was born in 1890 in St. Elmo, 20 miles southwest of Buena Vista.  Jack and America eventually traveled to Central City, Colorado, heart of gold rush country, once known as “The Richest Square Mile on Earth.”  One story that has persisted in his family for generations is that Jack and America rode over the mountains by burro.

The boom days were over by the time Jack and America arrived in Central City, and the town, formerly known for rowdy behaviour, had become relatively stable.  It boasted an Opera House, where residents could take in acts ranging from opera to Buffalo Bill, as well as blacksmith forges, butcher shops, drugstores, grocery stores, tailor shops, lawyers’ and physicians establishments, and a Red Light district where children were warned not to wander.  Central City was quite grand compared with the nearby mining camps on the sides of mountains, where rough shacks were thrown up as news of a new gold find spread.

J.J. Stewarts General Store, Wood Islands PEI

Life was rough in those mountain camps – muddy, wet and freezing cold much of the year. With fresh fruit and vegetables in short supply, the diet consisted mainly of bread, pancakes, biscuits, jerky and, if you were lucky, a little chocolate and a lot of whiskey. Few women were hardy enough to cope with such a life, but America had grown up in a typically raunchy mining town, and after her marriage to John, she may have set up a profitable business, perhaps operating a bakery or even a restaurant in a hotel.  In any case, she proved to be quite independent.

America became pregnant again, and the family moved again, this time back to Salt Lake City.  It was there that their six-month-old daughter, Florence, became ill with cholera and despite John’s best efforts to seek medical care, died in hospital in August 1892.  Then John became ill.  His worried family in Prince Edward Island sent two of his sisters by train to bring him home.  America refused to follow him. She vowed she would never set foot in that “God-forsaken place so far from home.”   America and John eventually divorced by mail.

Like most people who swarmed to the gold mines in the 19th century, John didn’t amass a fortune, but when he returned home around the turn of the century, he at least was able to buy a large, handsome general store in the farming community of Wood Islands, P.E.I. After all his adventures in the Wild West, he settled down to the quiet life of a country storekeeper, married an Island girl, Isabella MacPhee, and started a second family.  John never returned to the United States, but he obviously thought often of his previous life. The front of his store in Wood Islands looked eerily like a shop in a typical frontier town.  He tried to keep in touch with his son, Norman, by mail, although America had also remarried, and discouraged contact between father and son. As an elderly man, Norman finally traveled to Prince Edward Island in search of his roots. As fate would have it, Norman James first meet his half brother Charles James (from J.J.’s second family) on the Wood Islands Ferry to PEI in 1979. This meeting is a story in itself.  Perhaps in memory of the daughter he had lost, John named one of his Island-born children Annie Florence. His second son also bore the name James, a name that would continue in the Stewart family for future generations. For the rest of his life, this quiet farmer-turned-miner-turned storekeeper was known to his neighbours on Prince Edward Island as “Utah Jack.”

Many of John James Stewarts decedents still live in the area.

Merchandise from J.J. Stewart's general store

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© 2010 J.J. Stewart Soda Company