Our Iron-Man of the Month - Bert Johnson
Union City, Indiana
Bert Johnson the very sound of the name suggests steam engines 'n threshing. Tall 'n slim, the better to slip into his overalls and climb aboard an engine deck, his long, thin fingers fitting the throttle and yanking the whistle cord with utmost ease. What a physique divinely designed, no less, minus pot-belly and external flab which prevents most engineers half his age from dodging fly-wheels and valve-gear when oiling up and/or popping into firebox doors for the job of re-fluing.
And yet the sparkle of the eye, the kindly, dignified features and condescending aura that endears him to all reveals a demeanor more human than mere engines. In other words, Bert Johnson, the nonegenarian, not only loves engines like people, but is dedicated to the needs of his community and its welfare like the great soul he is.
Though, in my knowledge, I've never met Bert Johnson, I felt I knew him the moment I saw his picture. For he personifies the rare qualities of dignity and stature we most admire among engine men, Kentucky's Forrest Cunningham notwithstanding. Yes there are enginemen and enginemen all with outstanding conduct and performance and the high character that exudes from laboring with steam engines. And then we have those who tower, like pillars, above the rest.
It was back in 1904, at the age of twenty-one, when Bert Johnson struck out as a young man in his very first business venture which was to become his life's work. With his first rig a 13-horsepower Garr Scott engine, a hand-fed separator and an independent stacker, young Johnson was already in the steam threshing business. In his first year of adulthood he felt the importance of being sought after and depended upon by other farmers for the final processing of their crops from field to bin.
'At one time I owned eight complete threshing rigs and furnished power for four others,' recollects Bert. 'I could stand on an engine and, looking around at all the black puffs of smoke, I knew they were all mine. Even though it kept me hopping from morning 'til night, keeping the engines in repair, the separators running, and the crews in the fields, I guess I can say those were the happiest years of my life.'
For Bert Johnson, it was a sight and challenge that few men ever experience in one lifetime. And it led to even more involvement when, in the early Twenties, Bert applied for a dealership with the Case Implement Co., leading up to sufficient acquisition of space in 1929 for him to set up as the Case agent in the town of Galva, Ill.
Having succeeded in selling six brand new Case steam engines, the prospect for steam's future seemed reassuring, but for one thing. The new-fangled combines were beginning to take a big bite out of the threshing business and Bert had to switch to dealing mainly in farm implements thereafter.
Like the good, dependable and helpful dealer Bert was, he'd of course take steam engines in trade for the new gas-powered tractors which were appearing more and more on the frontiers of American agriculture. And, of course, with the transition from steam to gas being gradual there were always men who still preferred steam engines and would buy them back off his hands again. Even though steam wasn't the brisk, frontdoor, show-case enterprise it once was, it did survive as a lively back door swap 'n-trade dealing for a long time to come. Despite the fact that King Steam, though more powerful and dependable, was toppled from its throne by a less-dependable and more experimental power of dubious results, the 'king' still served in many lesser channels until it would be revived once again in all its pristine glory.
'I could always find someone who was itching for steam power,' reminds Bert. 'At one time I had a Port Huron engine at a little coal mine a fellow had started out a ways from town. Then a man got in touch with me to buy an engine for a sawmill. So I sold him the Port Huron and put another engine I had at the coal mine. I was always glad I did, for that sawyer got a real good engine, and the coal mine soon petered out,' says Bert.
'Bert's sharp grey eyes fairly sparkle when he tells a tale of those good old days,' says Mrs. Lew (Margaret) Ary, who introduced me to Bert Johnson by way of the letter she sent me. 'In fact, Bert is such an interesting guy to talk to, you find yourself forgetting to jot down notes, so involved you become in his stories.' 'And can he ever talk about those Dodge City Separators and Pickering governors,' laughs Margaret.
'Those Dodge City separators were about the best running machines that were ever built,' explains Bert. 'I liked to take the cover off and just watch how the grain was threshed,' says our Iron Man.
And Bert Johnson likes those Red River Specials, too, and, in the winter of 1972 he restored one like new again.
'I can't stand to see those old relics rot down,' laughs Bert. 'Us old relics have to stick together,' muses he.
Bert Johnson had joined the Illinois Thresherman's Association soon after it was begun in the middle 1920's. And so, when Dan Zehr got the idea for the Central States Thresherman's Reunion in 1948, Bert was one of the first to sign up.
'Something came up that I had to miss the first year,' pines our Iron Man hero. 'But I made it in 1949 and haven't missed a year since.'
By 1973, the Central States Thresherman's Reunion celebrated its Silver Anniversary which was a fitting tribute to the indefatigable Dan Zehr founder, and the man, Bert Johnson, who labored so tirelessly to assist him in not only building the show but maintaining it over the years as one of the nation's leading exhibitions in agricultural Americana.
Not content to merely sit by and look on, Bert Johnson just had to get involved. But where was he ever going to find an old steam engine to restore and run?
'I heard of an engine back in Indiana, in 1952. And, after an exchange of several letters back and forth, I went out and brought it home,' says Bert. 'That was the last steam engine to be unloaded in the railroad yards at Galva. It really caused a lot of excitement. I had a lot of fun with that 50 H.P. Case, but in 1966 I decided it was time to retire the old fellow. So I sold it to a museum in Jackson, Michigan. They take good care of it, and are real happy to have it.'
But threshermen's reunions mean steam engines. And Bert Johnson wasn't one to attend without participating more than just the mere onlooker who walks by to look and snap 'pitchers' of other men's engines. Bert figured that Bert Johnson would just have to have another engine of his own (to play with we wonder?).
By the next summer, Bert had found an upright boiler and, out of this evolved what has come to be known around the reunions as 'The Johnson Wind Machine'. Mounted on a three-wheel tractor chassis, it is like no other. Right up in front stands a wind-mill. Pipes, valves, gauges, whistles, governor all do the right things, performing the special functions expected of each. Even the engine goes forward and backward, completely obedient to Bert's slightest command and merest whim. A mighty tribute, in the rare form of three-wheeled steam ambulation, to Bert's inventiveness and mechanical prowess. As a tot we doubt if Bert Johnson, even in his fertile child's imagination, ever dreamed he'd someday ride a steam-powered, smoke-belching, whistle-tooting tricycle with a windmill up front. But he does just that and we're proud of him for so doing.
The decor of a windmill, heretofore unheard of as adorning a steam engine deck, let along the front end, might at least sooth the engineer's brow with sweet zephyrs when the July sun got a little hot around the gaping firebox door. While, on the front end, it could serve well as a radiator cooler on a gas tractor. But here we have Bert Johnson driving a steam powered velocipede with the windmill up-front and we're sure Bert didn't mean it for cooling the steam boiler.
Well, the windmill is just another facet of Bert Johnson's busy life. He says he wishes he'd kept track of the number of windmills he's sold and set up in northwestern Illinois, over the years. Next to steam power, Bert's greatest interest is in wind power. Maybe, after all, with this so-called 'ecology thing', Bert Johnson has a way of convincing the 'clean air boys' that his steam engine windmill tri-cycle blows the good air in and the smoke out at the threshing reunions. And, Bert, why not belt that windmill up to a generator and help solve the fuel shortage as well as the atmospherics?
Having arrived at his 90th birthday, on July 18, 1973, Bert Johnson has long since dropped counting the years. For now on Bert's only bragging about the passing years as additional mileposts most others never reach. Besides being active in local church circles, the Lions Club and as a member of the board of directors in the local bank, Bert also serves on the local cemetary board, and gives the impression he's just getting started.
One of the highlights of Bert Johnson's civic career came back in '54, when his hometown of Galva, Ill., celebrated its Centennial. And it all came at just the right time for Bert to be on hand to celebrate his fiftieth year of threshing which he did by pulling his Red River Special separator behind his 50 horse Case traction engine in the big parade. An event which made our Iron Man one of the most poular heroes in the town festivities.
'We have known Bert Johnson since 1957,' says Margaret Ary. 'In that year my husband, Lew Ary, and Sylvester Ditmer of Greenville, Ohio, joined him in a set-up contest at Pontiac, Ill., where they came out second. They were timed from the gate first which was really good.'
Last summer, besides attending the Pontiac show, Bert sort of 'sneaked' his 'Johnson Wind Engine' over to the Antique Engine Show at Genesco, Ill., to show it off as well as remind folks of his mechanical genius and engineering prowess.
After the show he said, 'I only wish there were more shows so I could play with my engine some more.'
When the summer shows are over, Bert Johnson stores his windmill engine in the back of his garage where he can drool over it and the rest of his antique memorabilia.
Among which are a replica of a 1903 Oldsmobile the first automobile he ever saehis two Red River Specials, an old Ford tractor, an antique bicycle and a 75-year old portable organ once used by the local undertaker.
And, of course, there are those special events, such as Galva's Sidewalk Day, when Bert steams up his special steam windmill tricycle and heads across town to the village square, pulling a big wagon to take all the kiddies a ride up and down the main thoroughfare.
Just a farm boy at heart is Bert Johnson, at ninety-one. May you never grow up, Bert, yanking that throttle and whistle cord while your windmill blows coal smoke, like heavenly aroma, our way. True Iron man with steam in his veins we'd say.