When Tom Murphy lay dying of cancer at home at the age of 62, his family discovered something about him that none of them knew. It involved the “hard winter” of 1889 which is mentioned in most accounts of the early days of Blocksburg. It was a winter that was so severe that much of the livestock died and many of the settlers were forced to give up their homesteads and move on. The snow was so deep that even the local Indians were unable to get out to hunt.
There was an Indian camp above the Murphy Ranch. Young Tom knew the people there and knew they were starving. So without saying a word to anyone, he loaded up his packhorse with whatever he could. The ranch always had a store of beans and cornmeal. They made their own bacon and ‘cracklins’. He beat out a trail in the deep snow and made his way up to the camp. He never told anyone about it.
Two women who had lived at the camp that long winter came to visit him when he was dying in the 1930s. They had heard about his illness and came to see if they could do anything to help. After all those years they still remembered Tom and his kindness to their people.
Tom Murphy was seven years old when he arrived with his family in Blocksburg in April of 1880. He was the youngest son of Dave and Polly Ann Murphy. He attended the old Blocksburg school (currently the Town Hall building). He left his autograph on one of the old wooden desks to be discovered many years later by his granddaughter, June Muir Reger, when she attended the same school.
Tom grew up in Blocksburg. He married Etta Leota Patton, daughter of Milo and Sarah Patton of Alderpoint, on August 2, 1897. Their first home was near Dobbins Creek on what is now the Stewart Ranch. They lived there for a brief time and then moved to the Murphy Ranch where they remained for the rest of their lives. They had three daughters, Dorothy, Myrtle, and Velma.
Tom was well known in the area as a great hunter. When neighbors would have trouble with predators killing their livestock, they would call on Tom. His dogs, Button and Mollie, were nearly as well known as Tom. It was Tom’s reputation as a hunter that led two anthropologists, Dr. Saxton Pope and Arthur Young, to contact him. They had been recording the Yana history since the Indian, Ishi, the last of his tribe, had come to live in the U. C. Musuem of Anthropology in San Francisco. They were interested in hunting with bows and arrows as Ishi had taught them to do. Dr. Pope later wrote a book, “Hunting with the Bow and Arrow”, copyright 1928, and told about his visit to Blocksburg:
So, learning of a certain admirable hunter up in Humboldt County by the name of Tom Murphy, we wrote to him with our proposal. He was taken with the idea of the bow and arrow and invited us to join him in some of his winter excursions.
In November, 1918, we arrived in the little village of Blocksburg, on the outskirts of which was Murphy’s ranch. In normal times, Tom cuts wood, and raises cattle and grain for the market. In the winter months he hunts bear for profit and recreation. In the spring after his planting is done he also runs coyotes with dogs and makes a good income on bounties.
We found Murphy a quiet spoken, intelligent man of forty-five years, married, and having two daughters [Myrtle died in 1911 at age 11]. I as surprised to see such a redoubtable bear slayer so modest and kindly. We liked him immediately. It is interesting observation that all the notable hunters that have guided us on our trips have been rather shy, soft-spoken men who neither smoked nor drank.
Arthur Young and I constituted the archery brigade. We brought with us in the line of artillery two bows and some two dozen arrows apiece. We also brought our musical instruments. Not only do we shoot, but in camp we sit by the fire at night and play sweet harmonies till bedtime….In the glow of the camp-fire, out in the woods, this music has a peculiar plaintive appeal dear to our hearts.
The dogs were Tom’s real asset, and his hobby. There were five of them. The two best, Baldy and Button, were Kentucky coon hounds in their prime, probably being descendants of the English fox hound…Their breed has been in the family for thirty years. Tom took great pride in his pack, trained them to run nothing but bear and mountain lions, and never let anybody else touch them…. Their diet was boiled cracked wheat and cracklins, raw apples, and bear meat. They never tasted deer meat or beef. I never saw more intelligent nor better conditioned hounds.
…We were to stay right in Tom’s house, and go by horseback to the bear grounds next morning. We had a supper which included bear steaks from a previous hunt, and doughnuts fried in bear grease, which they say is the best possible material for this culinary process, and later we greased our bows with bear grease and our shoes with a mixture of bear fat and rosin. So we felt ready for a bear. Then we spent a delightful evening with the family before the big fireplace, played our soft music, and all turned in for an early start in the morning.
The hunt produced a black bear which Pope and Young took with them back to the city. Tom Murphy’s grandson has in his possession three arrows, one made by Ishi in 1915. Tom Murphy died in 1934 and is buried in the Blocksburg cemetery. Etta lived to the age of 84. According to her obituary, she was well known for her hospitality and love of the mountains. She is also buried in the Blocksburg cemetery.
This information was contributed by June Reger and Bev Windbigler.