Johnny "Little Johnny" Hager
-photograph of Little Johnny Hager provided by and used with permission of Brandon Ray Kirk, 2019
In the early 1900s, two musicians traveled as a pair throughout West Virginia and spread the influence of their musical talents to fiddlers and banjo-pickers in countless towns and hamlets. One of these men was Ed Haley, a Logan County native, who took up the fiddle after being blinded by his father as a child. The other was Little Johnny Hager who, although born in Logan County, spent a great deal of his life in Boone County.
John Washington Hager was born on December 8, 1876 to Joseph and Lucinda (Baisden) Hager, Sr. on Big Creek in Logan County, West Virginia, near the Boone County line. Johnny was the youngest sibling to Victoria Hager (1869-1942) and Aaron Hager (c.1872-c.1884). During his childhood, his parents moved from their home at the North Fork of Big Creek in Logan County to the Big Ugly Creek area. His family appeared in the 1880 Lincoln County Census. Subsequent years were difficult: Aaron Hager, Johnny’s older brother, died at the age of twelve years old. Victoria Hager married George Washington “Ticky George” Adams and moved to Big Harts Creek in Logan County. Finally, Johnny’s parents divorced due to his father’s infidelity with a local woman named Armilda Adkins. Joseph Hager soon married his mistress and fathered four more children: Edward Hager (1887), Joseph Hager, Jr. (1888-1940), Eliza Hager (1891), and Olivia Hager. Joe Hager lived in the vicinity of the old Mud Post Office near the Lincoln-Boone county line.
Remarkably, Johnny moved to Kansas with his mother, where he spent many years among Hager relatives. Just how long Johnny lived in Kansas has not been determined despite interviews with his close relatives. There is some indication that he and his mother lived in other Western states like Missouri prior to finally settling in Kansas. All the versions regarding Johnny’s stay in Kansas are given below because any one of them might be true. His niece Roxie (Adams) Mullins told that Johnny lived out West for six months. Johnny’s half-niece Dolly (Hager) Bell thought he came home from Kansas when he was twenty years old (circa 1896) or when he was aged in his twenties (circa 1896-1906). Hager’s half-great nephew Jess Chambers said that he had been told that Johnny lived in Kansas for twenty years, meaning that he would have returned to West Virginia around 1905. In the personal opinion of this author, accounts placing Johnny out West for several years seem at this time the most likely scenario simply because Johnny cannot be accounted for in the 1900 West Virginia Census. Instead, he shows up as a farm laborer in the home of a cousin, William Hager, aged 26, in Battle Hill Township, McPherson County, Kansas.
Kansas would have offered a West Virginia boy like Johnny Hager many new adventures. One can be sure that he spent a great portion of his time there working on the farm since he later described plowing fields into mile-long rows. According to family stories, he also chauffeured female cousins into town on wagon rides. Dolly Bell suggested that Hager probably learned to play the banjo while in Kansas and Jess Chambers said of Hager, “He played all his life.” Johnny was self-taught and played the old clawhammer style on the banjo.
According to tradition, Johnny’s mother died during their stay in Kansas. Roxie Mullins stated that Lucinda Hager was buried on the banks of the Wabash River, located along the borders between Illinois and Indiana. Another source said that she died in Missouri. Johnny always cried when he spoke of his mother and said that had lost “everything” when she died.
Some time after 1900, perhaps about 1905, Johnny returned to West Virginia. Although his father Joseph was still alive, Johnny never forgave him for divorcing his mother and refused to associate with him. He also refused to recognize Joseph’s children by his second wife. A story is told how Joe Hager, Johnny’s half-brother, rode to see him at John Baisden’s home on Sanders Branch. He was excited to meet the brother he had never known. When he came into the yard and yelled for him, Johnny wouldn’t even come outside.
In Johnny’s eyes, his sister Victoria Adams was all that remained of his family and he spent a great deal of time boarding at her Harts Creek residence in Logan County. During Johnny’s stay out West, Victoria had give birth to several children in a family which would grow to include Maggie “Mag” Adams (1888-1959), John C. “Johnny” Adams (1891-1965), Anna Adams (1901-1982), Geronimo Adams (c.1903), Roxie Adams (1905-1993) and Lola Adams (1911). It is likely that Johnny spun great stories for the Adams children about his experiences in Kansas. Roxie Mullins remembered him as being “funnier than a monkey,” Jess Chambers said he was a jolly fellow, and Dolly Bell remembered that he loved to joke and laugh. Dave Brumfield, a great-nephew, said that he pranked with the Brumfield children when he visited his parents’ home on the Smoke House Fork of Big Harts Creek in Logan County.
After his return to West Virginia, Johnny Hager took immediate notice of the large number of musicians who lived in the head of Big Harts Creek. His first cousin, Jefferson “Jig-Toe” Baisden (1879-1970), was a dancer and banjo-picker. J. E. “Ed” Belcher (1889-1970), who played several instruments, and Robert Martin, an Arthur Smith-style fiddler, were other significant musicians in the area. Ed Haley (1885-1951), a blind fiddler from Trace Fork, particularly caught Hager’s attention. Johnny’s desire to absorb Haley’s music was understandable because, as Jess Chambers stated, “It was a badge of honor to have played with Ed Haley.” Jeff Baisden, a cousin to both men, may have introduced the pair.
-photograph of Little Johnny Hager and Ed Haley provided by and used with permission of Brandon Ray Kirk, 2019.
Johnny could supposedly play any instrument and his trip out to Kansas allowed him to soak up a variety of western tunes and playing styles which were completely new to folks in Logan County. Both of these qualities, his diverse musical capabilities and his unique musical background, ensured that he an Ed Haley had many intense music sessions. According to Turley Adams, Johnny’s great-nephew, Hager encouraged Ed to take his show on the road and volunteered to serve as Haley’s “eyes” on such trips. This willingness to travel, coupled with his apparent competence as a musician, made Johnny a perfect sidekick to Ed. Haley and Hager were both unmarried, a convenience which allowed them to roam the country with few cares or responsibilities.
Johnny and Ed traveled to various places in West Virginia but are particularly remembered up around the Calhoun-Clay County area north of Kanawha County. Aside from being populated with rural folks similar to Hager’s neighbors in Logan and Boone Counties, the area was also endowed with a host of great musicians. Haley and Hager wintered there as young men with a fiddler named Lawrence “Laury” Hicks (1880-1937). Ugee (Hicks) Postalwait of Akron, Ohio, a daughter of Laury Hicks, said that Ed and Johnny first came and visited her father in the early 1910s. Hager was a tall, slim banjo-picker. When Ed and Johnny left Laury’s home in the spring, with Johnny leading the way, Ugee and her brother stood on the bank by the house and “hollered and cried after them.”
Most agree that Johnny’s travels with Ed Haley ended around 1914 when Haley married Ella Trumbo, a blind music instructor from Morehead in Rowan County, Kentucky. Haley’s habit of cursing and drinking also helped end the partnership. Hager did not care for it.
For the most part, Johnny spent the remainder of his life playing music while boarding with his Baisden kinfolk on the North Fork of Big Creek. Irene Hager, a daughter of Hubert E. and Mary (Pauley) Baisden, remembered Johnny playing music on her father’s front porch in the late 1920s. Her father, a banjo-picker, lived at Greenview and the Big Branch of Spruce Fork of Little Coal River in Boone County. Hubert Baisden was Johnny’s first cousin. Hager boarded with him for several weeks at a time. One of Hager’s chores at the Baisden home was to keep wood in the stove. Irene said that Johnny often talked about his early travels with Ed Haley.
Johnny Hager was a man with little roots and family, a fellow who never had a real home. Many from Harts Creek remember that Hager was simply from the “the North Fork of Big Creek.” Dave Brumfield, a great-nephew, said that Hager stayed in that vicinity with a Thomas family. No doubt, this Thomas family was headed by Sampson Thomas who married Dicy Adams, a sister-in-law to Johnny’s sister Victoria Adams. Incidentally, just over the mountain from North Fork was the Broad Branch of Big Ugly Creek where lived a fiddler named Jefferson “Jeff” Duty (born about 1877). During Hager’s stay on the North Fork, he probably visited this musician (and any others in this locality) to learn a few new licks.
Hager also stayed with Simon and Bertha (Baisden) Bias on Bias Branch in Boone County. Mrs. Bias’ grandfather, Riland Baisden, was a brother to Johnny Hager’s mother. He spent a lot of time on the Garretts Fork of Big Creek with the Barkers before leaving them to stay with Wilson Craddock’s family on Hewitts Creek in Boone County. Mr. Craddock’s widow has a necklace which Johnny gave her during his time there. Lydia (Adkins) Johnson of Powderly, Texas, recalled that Hager lived with her mother and father during her “growing up years at home” in the late 1920s and 1930s. Johnson “was born (around 1923) and raised in Boone Co. just over the hill from Chapmanville.” Hager was a hard worker and was very efficient at “old-time” carpentry jobs and such tasks as digging wells. According to Johnson: “[Johnny] was a handy man, & a fiddle player. (Sometimes) a neighbor would need him to come live with them, to build them an out house for them. He was noted for the best out houses, he earned his keep by living with & helping others.”
Lydia Johson described Johnny as “a very neat man” and Dolly Bell agreed, stating that he always kept his hair cut and his face shaved. He never wore suits and never dated women so far as any of his family knew. In Irene Hager’s words, he “was a pretty straight fellow” and Dave Brumfield said he never drank when visiting his father’s home on Harts Creek.
NOTE: This text was originally published in “Kith and Kin of Boone County, West Virginia” Volume XXII
Published by Boone County Genealogical Society
Madison, West Virginia, 1997
Dedicated to the late Dolly (Hager) Bell
-photograph of Johnny Hager grave in the Adams Cemetery near Buck Fork of Harts Creek by Chris Haddox, 2019. Thanks to Brandon Ray Kirk for leading me to this site.