Jackson Gregory, Auburn’s writer of the WestBy: By Al Albertazzi, Special to the Journal
The Western has been a staple of American literature since before the days of the dime novel. It has been carried forth through writers of the early 20th Century such as Zane Gray and Luke Short, and up to contemporary writers like Louis Lamour, whose numerous novels are widely read.
One of the most prolific and well-known of the writers of the first half of the 20th Century was Jackson Gregory of Auburn, who penned more than 40 novels and many short stories. In addition to his American audience, his works were popular in England, and some titles were translated into German and Italian.
At least 16 of his novels were made into films between 1917 and 1944. Some of these were features starring such Hollywood notables of the day as William S. Hart, Tom Mix, Carole Lombard and Douglas Fairbanks.
His best-known stories are action-packed Westerns, though he did write a number of detective novels. His first novel was “The Outlaw,” published in 1916, and he continued to produce a book or two every year. Some of his novels, such as “The Desert Valley,” “The Evening Whisper,” “Lonely Valley,” “I Must Ride Alone,” and a number of others, in both used and new editions, are available through Amazon and other online booksellers.
Gregory was born in Salinas in 1882. His California heritage goes back to his great-grandfather, Don Jose de la Guerra, who was commandant of the Presidio of Santa Barbara during the Mexican period of California history.
His grandfather was William Hartnell, a major landholder and founder of the first college in California. Gregory spent much of his youth on Hartnell land in Salinas and on a ranch near San Luis Obispo.
After graduating from UC Berkeley in 1906, he worked for a while as a newspaper reporter in San Francisco, did a bit of traveling, and finally ended up as a high school principal In Truckee. There he met and married Lotus McGlashan, the daughter of C.F. McGlashan, who wrote “The History of the Donner Party,” based upon many interviews with the actual survivors of the tragedy and with whom he formed lasting friendships.
Not long after his marriage to Lotus, Gregory went back to newspaper work, reporting for newspapers in Illinois, Texas and New York. He was working at his fiction at the same time, and when his first novel was published turned to writing fiction full-time and moved to Berkeley for a while.
With the birth of a son in 1917, he and Lotus moved to Auburn. His first house was what the family referred to as the Kilham house near Russell Road. His brother, Edward, brought his family to Auburn in 1920, settled near the Gregorys, and got a job teaching language, first at Placer High and later at Placer College (now Sierra College) when it was located in Auburn at the site of the current high school.
As his popularity as a writer grew, Jackson and Lotus purchased a large house on Aeolia Avenue. Most of his writing was done there, where he worked at a large desk overlooking the American River Canyon.
According to Nona McGlashan, Lotus’s niece and a writer herself, Gregory’s “descriptions of Sierra streams, skies, flora and fauna surely constitute one of our most poetic records of California beauty.” She says that he was a natural writer and “Once a plot took shape in his mind, he always wrote rapidly and with few revisions.”
The Gregorys lived in Auburn for more than 15 years before moving to Pasadena. There the marriage unraveled, and he and Lotus divorced. He kept the house in Pasadena but did a great deal of traveling, often coming to Auburn and spending long periods of time at the home of his brother, Edward, on Russell Road.
In order to give Jackson a place to write, Edward added a room to the house. Like the house on Aeolia, the room featured a window with a view out toward the canyon. Jackson died there in 1943 at the age of 62. Edward’s daughter, Glyneth Cassidy, who remembers Jackson as an open and friendly man who was full of stories, still lives in that house.
Gregory is not widely read today, but he was a major writer of Westerns in his time. The stories that he and his contemporaries wrote have been reworked over and over, and they launched a spate of Westerns – such as “Bonanza,” “Gunsmoke,” “Rawhide” and “Have Gun, Will Travel” – that dominated television in the 1960s.
But that was a different age. The Western may never regain the popularity that it once enjoyed, but if you want to escape into a dusty, gun-slinging world in which the bad guy gets his comeuppance and the good guy wears a white hat, saves the day and rides off into the sunset, try one of Jackson Gregory’s novels.
Al Albertazzi has lived in Auburn since 1964. He writes an occasional column on local history.