O. T. Johnsons – Galesburg’s Dream Machine
by Terry Hogan
“O. T. Johnsons”, or “O.T’s” was a mainstay of downtown Galesburg for decades, when everyone came to town on Friday nights and parking was hard to find. It was a good place to go to buy what you needed, or to simply view what you wanted, even if you didn’t have the money. It was located on the north side of East Main Street. But, things come and things go. Many folks in the Galesburg area have fond memories of visiting O.T’s. But what do you know about the owner, O. T. Johnson? Was he real? What did O.T. stand for? What happened to him?
Not too surprising, O.T. Johnson was a real person. His full name was Orson Thomas Johnson. He lived in Galesburg and lived very successfully. His home was a large two story structure, reflecting wealth and success. But like so many folks of that time, he didn’t start out wealthy. He was another Galesburg “Horatio Alger” story.
Orson Thomas’ father was Orson Thomas and the senior Orson was born in Chesterfield New Hampshire. He moved around a bit but the 1870 and 1880 census found him in Altona, Knox County. Sometime after the census the senior Orson moved to Riverside, California, presumably to be with his son O.T., but I’m getting ahead of myself.
His son, Orson Thomas (or O.T.) was born on February 5, 1839 in Kirkland, Ohio, near Cleveland. The Peoria census for 1840, 1850, and 1860 show the family living there. But the 1840 census doesn’t name children. By the 1860 census, O.T. was not listed with the family. 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 employer’s old store in Galesburg. This became the O. T. Johnson’s or more familiarly known as “OT’s” 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.
1864 was a banner year for O.T. He married a beautiful young woman, Miss Anna Craven, on September 15, 1864 (or perhaps 1863 as references disagree on the year), in Galesburg. She was the daughter of Charles V. Craven, who manufactured carriages in Newton, Pennsylvania. Anna and O.T. were to have a long life together. They had three children – Charles, Orson Frederick, and Katharine. The 1870 census shows both Charles Craven and his wife, Mary Craven in the Johnson household.
O.T’s (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.T’s did was to hire a new shoe salesman, named John Edward (“Jack) Reagan. Jack Reagan and his wife had a son. The son’s name was Ronald, although later he would have a nickname, “Dutch”. The Reagan family pulled up roots from Chicago and moved to Galesburg in 1913 so that Jack could work at O.T’s. 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. Later, he put the two together to become governor of California, followed by then becoming the top salesman in the U.S. – President.
Ronald Reagan recalled life in Galesburg: World War I started when we were in Galesburg. Like almost every other American during those years, I was filled with pride every time I heard a band play "Over There" or I thought of our doughboys crossing the Atlantic on a noble mission to save our friends in Europe. There were some days when everybody in Galesburg dropped whatever they were doing and rushed down to the depot to cheer on a troop train passing through town. The train windows were usually open to the air and the doughboys would be in their khaki uniforms and would wave to us; we waved back and cheered. Once my mother picked me up and gave me a penny, which I gave to a soldier, saying in my small voice, "Good luck."
O.T. Johnson’s store also had another indirect connection with a President. At one time, it displayed a buggy that Abe Lincoln used when campaigning in the Galesburg area. The so-called "Lincoln Buggy," is now on display at the Knox County Museum, located in the former Knox County Courthouse in Knoxville.
Not in the realm of being a President of the United States but still not too bad, O.T. Johnsons had a sign painter by the name of Dick Blick. While working at O.T’s, Dick Blick became aware of a German lettering pen. In 1912, the U.S. Mail Parcel Post system came into existence. Dick Blick opened up a mail order company for art supplies. This Galesburg company grew to its current success.
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.
On the personal level, I think I remember a pneumatic tube system for handling payments – with the cash tendered shooting up to second floor where change was made and returned. Others appear to remember a wire cage and cable system. Perhaps I have the right memory but the wrong store. My wife remembers going to O.T’s occasionally as a child and being allowed buy a book to read. Often that book was one written by Thornton Burgess. Others in the Galesburg area remember shopping at O.Ts. For example Barbara Feltham recalls the enjoyment of shopping for hats in the 1940’s, with the assistance of knowledgeable clerks.
Charles H. Williamson of Galesburg recalls his own vision of the old O.T. Johnson’s: 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.
Fred Johnson, a descendent of O.T. Johnson, provided transcribed copies of two letters written by O.T. to his wife, while he was traveling west to California in May, 1874. Both letters refer to “Charly” who was accompanying O.T. I assume this was his eldest son. The first letter was from Sidney, Nebraska, dated May 4. It reports that they have seen prairie dogs, antelope, and a young buffalo calf that was tied near the (railroad?) station.
The second letter is dated and is more telling of what lies ahead. It is from San Francisco and is dated May 13, 1874. Excerpts from O.T’s letter to his wife read, “I am quite a notion of coming here to live. I know you would like it. The climate is so fine. Weather neither hot or cold. [sic] The nights are never so warm but they sleep comfortably under considerable bedding and such flowers and trees as you never saw.”
It appears that O.T. Johnson left Galesburg in 1879 with Sylvanus Harvey Ferris for a trip to California. Sylvanus Ferris was a member of the well-known Ferris family, who were among Galesburg’s founders. In 1879, Mr. [Sylvanus] Ferris came on a visit to California, accompanying O.T. Johnson of Galesburg, and then went on to Carson City, Nevada, where his uncle, G. W. G. Ferris, was then residing. Later the party came to Riverside and Sylvanus H. Ferris purchased a ranch on Magnolia Avenue, arranged for the purchase of an adjoining ranch for Mr. Johnson, and still another at the head of the avenue for his uncle, G. W. G. Ferris (from http://www.ferristree.com/ferris _of_knox_county_illinois.htm). A July 30, 1890 Knox Republican newspaper article mentioned that O.T. Johnson and family from Riverside, California were visiting friends in Knoxville (Illinois), which appears to confirm that he did settle in Riverside.
Apparently a good number of Galesburg residents moved to Riverside California, including O.T’s parents; John Aberdeen and family, Rev. Charles Button and wife, Dr. C. Craven and parents and Sylvanus (Silvanus) H. Ferris and family. O.T. and the Ferris family bought land near each other in Riverside. O.T. filled the position of Riverside Acting Mayor, after the elected mayor died while in office. In 1892 O.T. moved to Los Angeles.
In 1884, he purchased land in L. A. In 1887, O.T. Johnson built the Westminster Hotel on the site. The Westminster Hotel was a very impressive structure for the day and must have been so considered. In May 1903, the hotel was the site of a reception dinner for President Teddy Roosevelt.
O.T. Johnson became a very successful businessman in Los Angeles. He and his wife also became benefactors to the local community. Occidental College has the Johnson Hall that was constructed in 1914 and was a gift of Mr. and Mrs. O.T. Johnson. O.T. was a trustee of Occidental College. O.T. was also a big support of the LA YMCA, donating a reported $35,000 (or $25,000 depending on source) to construct a YMCA building. Mr. Johnson also built the Florence Crittenden Home and established a clinic in Los Angeles for the aid of poor children. Perhaps reflecting his wife’s interests, he also built an apartment building of “seventy-five suites” that was established for the use of widowed mothers with dependent children. It was named the Anna Craven Johnson Home. Mrs. Johnson continued her support of the Home even after the death of her husband. Mrs. Johnson was reported to be very active in charities for assistance to women in “straitened circumstances”.
O.T. died on June 10, 1916 at his home of a cerebral hemorrhage. He was 77 years old. His wife, Anna, lived on until March 20, 1930, when she died at home. Their estate was worth several million dollars. But they left a trail of good deeds and generous donations to help the education of future generations and to help those who had financial difficulties.
The O.T. Johnson Store is gone, but not forgotten. O.T’s was one of the magnets that drew Galesburg’s 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 “big steps and little steps…big steps and little steps” as they tried to adjust to walking in the crowd. Those who had a little money were apt to spend it at O.T’s. Those who didn’t have money were apt to spend their time at O.T’s figuring out what they’d buy if they had the money.
O.T’s was Galesburg’s Dream Machine.
Cherrington, Rex. Before Carnegie, Early Days Of The Galesburg Public Library. Published in The Zephyr.
Dickerson, Brent. A visit to old Los Angeles.http://www.csulb.edu/~odinthor/socal2.html
Feltham, Barbara. 2003. Galesburg Memoirs of the '40's. Found at http://www.sandburg.org/2003memoirs.html
Ferris, James G. 2001. Bombs and Bones – A Ferris Family Tree.
Johnson, Fred. 2005. Personal communication (great grandson of O.T. Johnson)
Johnson, O.T. 1874. Two transcribed letters from O.T. to his wife, Anna, provided by Fred Johnson (personal communication).
Johnson, Seth. 2005 Personal communication (great, great grandson of O.T. Johnson)
Pecsi, Ruth Louise Kemmitt. Memories of My Childhood from Birth to Age 16. http://www.thezephyr.com/memoirs.htm
Peterson, Tom. 1982. Newspaper Column, Out of the County’s Past. “Family of Ferris Wheel’s Inventor.”
Spalding, William. 1931. History of Los Angeles, Volume III. Published by J.R. Finnell & Sons.
Unknown. Biography of Johnson, Orson Thomas from “Out West” (incomplete citation available)
Unknown. History of Riverside (California) County, page 59 (incomplete citation available).
Williamson, Charles. Memoir Writing Contest http://www.sandburg.org/2002memoirs.html
Much of the information for this article was made available by the generous efforts of Seth and Fred Johnson, descendants of O.T. and Anna Johnson.