This automobile is one of six 1928 four-cylinder Model AB Chevrolets that the merchant partnership of Taylor & Drury (who became Yukon agents for General Motors in 1927) brought into the territory at the end of the 1927 season. George Johnston bought the first of these cars at the Whitehorse dealership after a prosperous year of beaver trapping in 1928. The price of the new car was reportedly $900.00 plus $26.00 for an extra bumper. However, George Johnston, in a recorded interview in 1968 with Father Tanguay (Yukon Archives), states that the price he paid was 'eleven hundred seventy-two and a half.'
After a quick driving lesson given to Johnston by the merchant Isaac Taylor's son Charlie, Johnston arranged for the car to be barged down to Teslin on the Sternwheeler Thistle. While waiting for the shipment, Johnston widened a footpath that ran around Teslin to accommodate the car. When the car arrived, it required twenty men to carry it to the path from where it landed on the beach. The first afternoon of the car's arrival, Johnston began a taxi business, driving residents around the circular path for $1.00 a turn. Later, when Johnston had a five-mile road to Fox Creek cut, he charged $2.00 for the longer trips.
In the winter, Johnston used the car (which he affectionately called 'Seqeet,' a Tlingit word meaning 'like my son') as a snowmobile, crossing the ice on Teslin Lake to hunt wolves, coyote, caribou and moose. He painted the vehicle with white house paint to give him the advantage of camouflage while hunting. While Johnston was on the lookout for game in his watchtower and the car sat idle, oil and radiator water were kept warm nearby in his cabin. When game was spotted, the fluids could be quickly added, and when the engine was cranked, he was off in pursuit.
Johnston showed characteristic ingenuity when faced with the challenge of maintaining the car in such a remote area. He once used wire and moose hide to repair a blown tire, and when gasoline was in short supply, he ran the car on naphtha purchased from the Taylor & Drury post. Johnston used the car regularly until about 1953, when he purchased a second-hand pickup truck and stored the Chevy in his garage. In 1962, after owning the car for thirty-four years, Johnston brought it back to the Taylor & Drury store he originally purchased it from, and traded it in for a new pickup truck, for a trade-in price of $750.00.
After removing several layers of white house paint, the dealers rebuilt the Chevy's original engine, and then sent the car outside to have the upholstery refurbished. The car remained in the dealer's possession over the next three decades, and was brought out and run on special occasions, such as the Sourdough Rendezvous parade. In 1992, Charles Halliday, President of the now-defunct Taylor Chevrolet Oldsmobile (the Taylor & Drury dealership was its predecessor company) donated the car to the Government of Yukon. The car's value was assessed at $5,000.00, and an official tax receipt in that amount dated September 28, 1992 was issued by the government to Mr. Halliday. The automobile is now on loan from the Government of Yukon to the George Johnston Museum for an indefinite period.
George Johnston, a Tlingit of the Wolf moiety, was born in 1884 and spent the first part of his life in the Nakina River (tributary of the Taku River) region. His family moved into the Teslin area when George was a young man. The Johnston family followed a traditional lifestyle, fishing along the Taku River in the summer, trapping throughout the winter, and beaver hunting in spring. After beaver hunting season, the whole family would travel down the Taku River to Juneau, Alaska to trade their fur catch, since according to George there was 'nowhere to trade' on the Canadian side.
George became known in the Teslin community as a quiet, observant and self-reliant individual as well as a hard-working and enterprising member of the community. His spirit of adventure always led him to try the new and unusual. He remembered when the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897/98 struck, and 'a lot of Indians were going to Dyea and Skagway to work.' Although he would have liked to go, he was 'too small' to haul miners' supplies, being only 'about three feet tall' at the time.
George Johnston was proficient in many areas, including snowshoe-making, boat building, trapping, fishing and hunting. He is perhaps most renowned, however, as a photographer. Teaching himself how to use a 616 Kodak bellows camera and developing his own prints, Johnston captured on film almost every aspect of life in his Teslin Tlingit community from about 1910 to 1945, and through this has left a rich legacy of historic photographs that are among the Yukon Archives' finest treasures. His people's seasonal activities as well as the cultural changes that befell the community during this time span are documented through these photographs, many of which have been exhibited throughout North America.
Among his numerous accomplishments, Johnston was also the owner of Teslin's first native general store. After a brief unsuccessful partnership with a neighbour, George ventured into independent merchandising by turning part of the front room of his house into a small store. A few years later, using scrap lumber from old army buildings (the U.S. army had occupied the area in 1942 while building the Alaska Highway), he built a frame structure across the street, moving it in 1957 to a location nearer the highway. Staffed by family members, the store operated on a flexible schedule according to community needs, providing service in the Tlingit language to native residents until it closed in the early 1970's.
George Johnston married in the 1930's, possibly in Carcross, and had an only daughter, Dolly Ruth Margaret. He died in 1972 at the age of eighty-eight.
George Johnston Museum, Teslin