GalesburgÕs Dream Machine Up in Smoke
by Terry Hogan
I am saddened, like so many, to see that the O. T. Johnson store went up in flames. It is a shame in many ways. The scar and hole on Main Street will be a wound in the very heart of Galesburg. The loss of the visible remnants of ÒThe Big StoreÓ where one could shop for the big and the small will be felt by many. It joins so many of other of GalesburgÕs old loved buildings, such as the old High School, and the Galesburg Public Library. IÕm old enough to remember both of those losses too. In fact, I was one of the many spectators on the street that night, watching the fire department trying to save the old library and its irreplaceable contents. Before my time was the old Holmes Building fire that became a post card. The Continental was destroyed in that fire.
It wasnÕt very long ago that I had written an article about the O.T.s and its founder, Orson Thomas Johnson. The article was entitled O. T. Johnsons – GalesburgÕs Dream Machine. It was certainly a part of GalesburgÕs history that will be lost. A few extracts of that article seem appropriate.
Prior to 1865, O.T. had found his way to Galesburg as he was found there in the state 1865 census. It was reported that at age 16 (circa 1854) O.T. had left home and gone to work for a country store near Farmington, Illinois. The next year he was reported to be doing similar work in Galesburg. After about five years, the store burned down. O. T. opened up a store in Altona, using his own name, but apparently as an agent of his former employer. The Altona store flourished and O.T. bought the store for $1,800. He was on his way. A year later, he bought the building that the store was in.
In 1864, O. T. Johnson had gathered enough wealth to buy his former employerÕs old store in Galesburg. This became the O. T. JohnsonÕs or more familiarly known as ÒOTÕsÓ by the Galesburg community. The company was known as the O. T. Johnson Company and O. T. was president. It was reported that O. T. Johnson Company employed an amazing 225 people.
O.TÕs (the store) and O.T. Johnson did a number of things that had a significant influence on Galesburg. Some were planned and thoughtful. Some were just fortuitous events, but no less important. One of the things that O.TÕs did was to hire a new shoe salesman, named John Edward (ÒJack) Reagan. Jack Reagan and his wife had a son. The sonÕs name was Ronald, although later he would have a nickname, ÒDutchÓ. The Reagan family pulled up roots from Chicago and moved to Galesburg in 1913 so that Jack could work at O.TÕs. Ronald Reagan attended first grade in Galesburg at the Silas Willard School in 1916. Of course, Ronald Reagan turned out to be a reasonably good actor and a salesman in his own right.
Beyond the fortuitous events that the store brought Galesburg, I was also surprised to learn that O.T. was the mayor in Galesburg, for two terms. He was also on the Board of Directors of the Farmers and Mechanics Bank. And it was reported that he was a director on the first Board of the Parks for Galesburg. O.T. was also a trustee of Knox College for a reported 25 years and was a significant contributor to the college.
The O.T. Johnson Store is gone, but not forgotten. O.TÕs was one of the magnets that drew GalesburgÕs own to the downtown on Friday nights. It even brought them in from the farm. This was back when there was hardly room on the sidewalks, and farmers might be heard to mutter Òbig steps and little stepsÉbig steps and little stepsÓ as they tried to adjust to walking in the crowd. Those who had a little money were apt to spend it at O.TÕs. Those who didnÕt have money were apt to spend their time at O.TÕs figuring out what theyÕd buy if they had the money.
Charles H. Williamson of Galesburg recalls his own vision of the old O.T. JohnsonÕs: How well I remember O.T. Johnson's, the arcade in the front, the glass inserts in the sidewalk. It was easy for people, anyone to go to the third floor, or to the basement to use the bathrooms. Many people went to O.T's to eat in the lunchroom. It was a place to buy needles, thread, all types of sewing material. They had pans, dishes, rugs, jewelry, shoes, clothing, furniture, what a beautiful store, filled from top to bottom with all the things people of Galesburg needed, a store equal to best of those in Chicago.
Ruth Louise Kemmitt Pecsi recalled (thezephyr.com): O.T. Johnson had a sit down restaurant, and when one made a purchase there the clerk would send the money ''upstairs'' in a little basket container on a line that traveled through the store and up to the offices. They also had an elevator with an operator and a postal cage to buy stamps and send packages. I especially remember poet Carl Sandburg visiting Galesburg and autographing his latest book, Always the Young Stranger, at the bookstore in O.T's!
O.T. Johnson was involved in more that just being a merchant in Galesburg. Rex Cherrington reported: The Galesburg City Council had passed the ordinance to create a free public library, March 12, 1874. The next steps toward the realization of that intention were the appointment of a library board and the appropriation of funds. Before the end of March, both were done. O. T. Johnson, banker, retail merchant and Mayor of Galesburg, nominated and secured council confirmation for the first nine directors: Alfred Kitchell, H. M. Hale, T. J. Hale, J. B. Roberts, E. C. Stone, George W. Foote, Joseph Stafford, N. A. Johnson and J. W. Dietrich
O.TÕs was GalesburgÕs Dream Machine. Now it is truly gone, lost to history and kept only in the minds of those who knew it well. It will surely be missed.