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.
NOTE: 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