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Champaign County, Illinois

Biography of William H. Johnson

SOURCE: "Portrait and Biographical Album of Champaign County, Illinois," Chapman Brothers, Chicago, 1887


WILLIAM H. JOHNSON is proprietor of 520 acres of improved land, embracing the greater part of section 12 in Sadorus Township. As a man of great force of character, who arose from a humble position in life to become one of the most important factors of a wealthy and prosperous community, he presents an example of courage and resolution which is highly worthy of emulation by the young man of to-day, who is so situated that if he rises at all it must be through his own efforts.

Mr. Johnson was born in the city of Boston, Mass., Sept. 14, 1825, and was the twelfth child in a family of thirteen, of whom he is the only surviving member. His parents, Enoch and Lydia JOHNSON, were also natives of the Bay State, and possessed but a moderate amount of this worlds goods. When William H. was ten years of age he started out to do for himself. He had in his pocket a cash capital of $1.50, which he had earned picking currants, and which he spent in paying his fare to New York City. He had formed large ideas of the metropolis from the stories recited by his young associates, and entered its gates with high hopes. His bright, open and intelligent face commended him to those from he sought employment, and he found a berth in Lovejoy's Hotel, where he remained for over three years. In the meantime, with the natural impulse of youth to be gay and foolish, he became surrounded by a group of young men, who began to lead him astray. His good sense saved him, however, and breaking away from them he left his situation and sought work elsewhere. A year later he left the city in company with a journeyman printer, and wandered up river, first to Albany and thence to Troy, where he bound himself to Thomas Henderson, an iron-nail maker, for a period of four years, when he married, Nov. 20, 1842, at the age of sixteen years and two months.

After this event his employer gave him his time, and he commenced work at journeyman's wages. Having a sensible and economic wife he was enabled to save some money, and one year later invested in real estate, purchasing two lots in the city of Troy, where he built a two-story house, of which he rented a part, and occupied the balance with his family. His wife was formerly Miss Catherine LEAGLE, and was only fourteen years of age at the time of her marriage. The first year of their union there was born a daughter, Adaline A., and two years later a boy, whom they named William. In 1847 another daughter was added to the household, whom they named Sarah. When little Sarah was ten months old her mother was taken away by the cholera, which swept over the Eastern States, and the life of Willie was saved only by the most desperate remedies. This occured in 1848, when our subject was but twenty-three years of age.

After the death of his wife Mr. Johnson employed a housekeeper, and attempted to keep his little family together. This proved anything but satisfactory, and he then placed his children to board while he left them to toil for their support. His burden of sorrow was soon added to by the death of his only son, from the measles, about six months after the death of the mother.

These afflictions had the effect of causing the father to lose his interest in the old scenes and surroundings, and placing his two little girls in the hands of his brother-in-law in the country, near by, he accepted a proposition from a company of nailmakers, to go to Cuba and construct and operate a nail-mill there. He arrived in the West Indies in the fall of 1849, and located the site of the mill at Regulus near Havana, where he put up the first nail and iron mill on the Island, under the protection of the Queen of Spain, who gave his company the exclusive right of manufacture, and forbade the importation of spikes or nails to the Island for a long period of years.

Mr. Johnson remained in Cuba a little over two years, and while there was married to Mrs. Catherine Louisa HARTMAN, a native of Hanover, Germany. After suffering a spell of the yellow fever he was again forced to face another cholera scourge, but determined to evade its dangers by returning North until the trouble was over. Before he could get away, however, his wife was stricken down, but after a desperate struggle for her life, finally recovered. The first husband of Mrs. Johnson died from cholera very suddenly at Havana, being taken down one Sunday morning while they were preparing for church. Of this union there was born one son, Frederick, who now makes his home with his mother and stepfather.

After his wife was able to travel Mr. Johnson returned to Troy, N. Y., remaining unemployed there until the danger was over. In the meantime nearly all his friends and acquaintances had been carried off by the dreadful epidemic, and as he had lost all his property he left there, determined never to return. He accordingly engaged in the butchering business in Troy, which he followed four years, and then abandoned this to engage in the grocery trade. Two years later ill-health compelled him to give up business entirely and receive treatment for consumption, which seemed to have taken hold upon his constitution. Not experiencing any relief he concluded to go West.

After reaching Chicago, in 1856, upon his western venture, Mr. Johnson concluded to remain there for a time, and put up at the Massasoit House, near the Central Depot. Shortly afterward, however, he started out with a company of speculators to view land in Central Illinois. He was greatly pleased, and purchased eighty acres on section 12, in Piatt County. Returning to Chicago he purchased two horses, some farming implements, and seed potatoes, and returning to his purchase, planted his potatoes on a piece of sod that had been broken on his land, unintentionally, by a man who owned land adjoining and supposed that his property included this strip also. Mr. Johnson raised a fine crop of "murphies", and the people came for miles around to buy them. He found himself unable to turn the sod with the team he had, and returning to Chicago, bought another horse and hired a trusty man to come to the farm with him. About this time, his wife who remained in Troy, wrote that her little boy, who had suffered severely with the measles, was still in feeble health, and he returned home, to find that the Destroyer had again invaded his household. He arrived there just as the funeral was leaving, but with sorrow born of despair, set himself mechanically about the arrangements for the future comfort of his remaining family.

Mr. Johnson now sold out all his possessions in Troy, and returned to the West with his family. At Toledo he purchased lumber for a house and shipped it, together with his household goods, to Bement on the Wabash Railroad, which had just been put in operation. Upon arriving at his farm and establishing his family in a house near by, he proceeded to the woods and cut the timbers for the frame of his projected dwelling, which in due time was completed and the family moved in. As will be seen, Mr. Johnson was entirely ignorant of the art of farming, and he conquered it only by the hardest work and long continued efforts.

Providence now smiled upon the efforts of our subject, and he remained upon the farm which he had built up until 1862. In the meantime his own child and the child of his wife by her former husband were growing up, and he determined to give them the advantages of a better education than they could secure in Sadorus Township. He accordingly rented his farm and moving to the city of Quincy, placed the children in school, and remained there until they had completed their studies, in 1865. Then all returned to the farm, which had been occupied by the husband of his daughter, James GILMAN. While in Quincy Mr. J. employed his time operating in grain, of which business he made a success. Upon returning to the farm he put up a fine residence, into which his family moved in the fall of 1865, and which our subject has since occupied. The beautiful dwelling, situated in the midst of choice fruit trees and surrounded by handsome grounds, with stately and substantial outhouses, and the fields stretching away on either side, presents a picture of one of the finest homesteads in Central Illinois. The career of Mr. Johnson as a man and citizen, has been one of which his children will be proud to read in years to come.

During his residence on the farm Mr. Johnson opened a station, a quarter of a mile away, which is now known as Ivesdale. For a period of fifteen years he conducted general merchandising in connection with the grain trade, while at the same time he officiated as Postmaster, Station Agent and Express Agent, and was in fact, with his employees, almost a village by himself. The post-office was opened in 1866, and remained in his hands until he sold out his stock of merchandise. He had also established on the farm a nursery, which was managed by John Blocker, a native of Sweden, and a man well posted in his business. Mr. B. had charge of this for sixteen years. After retiring from his other business Mr. Johnson was able to give this branch more of his time.

Our subject might live in luxury the balance of his days, without raising a finger to labor, but his natural habits of life have been such that it is impossible for him to remain idle. His mind, at least, is actively engaged in projects that will enhance the beauty of his homestead, and in this way reflect credit on his county. He spends his winters mainly in the South, returning to the farm in the spring, and while not lavish in his outlays for the convenience and comfort of himself and his family, wisely assists in the circulation of the "legal tender" benefiting the industrial and trade interests about him equally with himself. He takes no active part in politics, and to the repeated solicitations to become an office-holder, has steadily turned a deaf ear.

Of the five children born to William H. and Cahterine L. Johnson, two little boys (twins) died in infancy; Willaim married Mary C., daughter of Elijah and Mary CENTERS, and lives in Chicago; he is employed on the Wabash Railroad as engineer, and is the father of five children; Etta M., William H., Mary Louisa, Charles and Freddie, all living; Miss Mayola Johnson is at home with her parents; Charles is deceased.

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