A little slice of history

Frank Johnson always had retail in his soul. Born in Sweden in 1853, he immigrated alone to the United States at 16. Fafter working as a farm hand and on the railroad while he learned the English language, he began working as a clerk for the A. P. Johnson & Company store in Altona, IL. In 1878, he married Anna Catherine Samuelson, also from Sweden.

Frank worked industriously at A.P. Johnson & Company and in ten years he was taken in as a partner. Four years later he decided to strike out on his own and move west.

Frank and Anna and their two children, Mabel and Lutannies Theodore, arrived in Holdrege, Nebraska, in 1884, just as the town was becoming a reality with the completion of a stop on the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad. Frank Johnson was one of the first merchants in town and built his store with an apartment above from the first load of lumber shipped to the town by rail. The following spring their third child, Lulu, was born.
Frank’s business grew as Holdrege grew. Farmers were drawn to the area by large, flat tracts, rich black earth, and a relatively benign climate. Holdrege became a retail center for the area. By 1905 Frank had outgrown his original frame structure and determined to build the finest retail emporium to be had.

First in the world

At this point, Frank’s story gets tied up with the story of architect Francis Plym, who had also immigrated from Sweden, worked hard, and made a success of himself.

Plym is credited with inventing and patenting the resilient metal frame for windows. Prior to Plym’s invention, plate glass windows—such as those inn retail stores—were set in wooden frames. Moisture ran down the glass and rotted the wood; the wood frames failed to “give” when the building moved or settled, cracking the glass.

Frank Johnson learned about Plym’s innovative design and asked him to incorporate the window frames into his new building. Plym designed the windows for the new, two-story F. Johnson building, had them fabricated in a Kansas City metal shop, and supervised their installation. That makes the F. Johnson Building the first building in the world to have metal window frames holding in its plate glass windows—a virtually universal phenomenon today. Proving their worth, a tornado came through Holdrege soon after the building’s completion; although many windows in town were broken, those in the F. Johnson Building remained intact.

Plym went on to found the Kawneer Company, which was later purchased by Alcoa, where his designs contributed to their success. Click here to read an excerpt from The Kawneer Story, a history of the corporation.

A daylight shopping emporium

As soon as the building was completed, the F. Johnson Company moved in and continued to grow. The large windows in their metal frames made the store particularly appealing to shoppers. A newspaper account from 1906 describes the store this way:

This building was erected in 1905 to be the home of the largest and most up-to-date store in central western Nebraska. Store rooms have a frontage of 80 feet and a depth of 100 feet, designed and built to give the public a daylight shopping emporium … where colors, patterns and designs can call be shown as they are, which means much to all lady and other purchasers. The floor areas of this store are increased manifold by a system of show cases , shelf cabinets and display stands. Each sales station has at hand an automatic cash carriage. More than forty clerks and helpers are on duty.

Each department is set apart in sectional space all of its own. No visitor to Holdrege should miss an inspection of this store, because in the object lesson given is proof of what rich farm lands and a thrifty people can make possible.

The dry goods is fully stocked in each and every section. In the ladies’ ready-to-wear apparel section is to be found the latest in made-up weaves, tailored skirts, cloth and colors. In jackets, cloaks, suits, waistes, tailored shirts and other garments, the ladies have every chance to selected what is correct in fashion and attractive in style. In the dress good section at all seasons is carried a large assortment of silks, wool goods, wash goods, and others cloths, suitings and fabrics in correct shades, weaves and qualities. The millinery department is an important feature of this store and a great credit to the City. Two dressmaking departments are installed and equipped to take care of all wants of lady shoppers. In the clothing department is displayed the best makes of mens’ and boys’ clothing and furnishing goods. In the shoe department, ladies, men and boys have every opportunity to get correct and serviceable footwear as there is on sale; a full line in all leathers, cloths, styles and lasts. A mail order department is established at this store and is pushed by giving prompt service and careful attention to orders from out of town customers.”

The 5000 piece anniversary cake

Not shy about calling attention to his store, in 1917 Frank had a local tailor make up the largest American flag in the state, which, when displayed, covered virtually the entire south face of the building.

For his 35th anniversary in 1919, he commissioned a 5000-piece anniversary cake weighing 1475 pounds and containing capsules with small anniversary gifts. Wedge-shaped cake pans had to be fabricated by a local tinsmith for the occasion.

In a memoir by Frank Johnson’s grandson, also called Frank Johnson (click here to read the entire excerpt), the younger man remembered that his grandfather was a skillful merchant.

“Stories from family members and newspaper articles and ads tell of Frank Johnson’s great eye for quality,” the younger Johnson writes. “He bought only the best for his customers in fabrics, millinery, shoes and clothing as well as groceries and household goods.  He bought clothing, carpets, household furnishings from the illustrious Marshall Field’s department store in Chicago.  The F. Johnson Mercantile Store became Marshall Field’s best wholesale account in the state of Nebraska.  Small town merchants and farmers were reaching prosperity in the early 1900s, and they invested in their homes and furnishing their home.  Persian carpets, carved walnut tables and bedsteads, velvet draperies, imported China and sterling silver cutlery were available for purchase in the F. Johnson store.”

A sterling citizen

The F. Johnson Company was successful and profitable in Holdrege, but Frank didn’t forget his responsibilities to the community. A newspaper account written to celebrate the 25th Anniversary noted, “While looking assiduously after his own interests Mr. Johnson has given due attention to the claims of the public on him as a citizen. He is progressive in his views, liberal with his means and willing to lend a helping hand to any deserving enterprise, and the needy never leave his door empty-handed.”

According to Frank Johnson the younger, his Aunt LuLu told him Frank was generous to a fault, often inviting “customers who had travelled many miles to shop in Holdrege home to his own home for the noon meal”, and he “nearly always had a helping hand for someone in distress.” Anna, never knowing if she would be serving ten or twenty, prepared for company every day. She was widely known to be an excellent cook and hostess.

A dream fulfilled

Frank Johnson’s success with the F. Johnson Company was emblematic of a golden time of American capitalism, a time when a vision, hard work and a willingness to take a risk led reliably to success. The F. Johnson Company continued under Frank’s leadership until he passed away in 1924, and continued as a retail store into the 1970s.

The building was remodeled into office suites in the 1980s and then thoroughly modernized in 2007 and again in 2011. It is today, as it always was, a prestigious address in Holdrege.

But maybe now, when you walk through the big double doors, you’ll see yourself, just for an instant, walking into the nicest store in town.

Historical Photos: