Nordic Heritage Museum Vanishing Generation Interview with Johann Johnson

  • By Ted Beck
  • Posted 9/23/2004
  • Essay 5763

Ted Beck interviewed Johann Johnson (b. 1915) on June 22, 2000 for the Nordic Heritage Museum Vanishing Generation Oral History Project. Johann, of Icelandic heritage, describes the various jobs he's held in the Ballard maritime industry and the changes he's seen in Ballard since the 1920s -- how the sawmills once darkened the day with their sawdust and smoke, and how the neighborhood boys would build underground hovels and tree camps in the many vacant lots that no longer exist.

This is an interview for the Vanishing Generation Oral History Project about the Seattle neighborhood of Ballard. Today is June 22nd, 2000, and I'll be interviewing Johann Johnson. We are at his home in the Greenwood neighborhood in Seattle, Washington. My name is Ted Beck.

Let's see. Johann, I understand that your mother and father were Icelandic immigrants. Can you tell me a little bit about them?

Well, I'll do the best I can. They came out of northeastern Iceland and settled in Canada; Winnipeg, at first, and then they moved gradually west, I think, through Canada. And Mr. Johnson, Isak he was known in those days, was a building -- builder and architect. He built many, many, many, many homes in Ballard and Seattle. But in the interim they settled into Winnipeg in Canada. And my mother went out into the prairie and taught school there. But Isak conducted his building business, and eventually they came together, and they moved on into Victoria, Washington -- Victoria, Canada, excuse me. Isak did very well there, and it was a part of a great big beautiful cabinet job that he did in the Victoria -- Victoria Hotel.

From there they moved into Seattle, Washington, and established a home on Sunset Hill in Ballard around -- they built about 1905 or somewhere close to that. And I'm running out of gas.

Okay. Your mother was quite well known in the Icelandic community and the community at large here in Seattle. Perhaps you could tell me about some of her activities.

Well, she was really deep into the literature. She was a -- she could translate anything that came her way from Icelandic to English or English to Icelandic, depended on which way you wanted it. And eventually she taught on the prairies of Canada, and I think I said she met Isak Johnson there. And they went to Seattle, as I repeated, and established us a home and started to raise a family. And Isak was fairly successful in the building trades, building the old fashioned huge homes with porches, of all things, which is extinct now.

I recall seeing your home just off of 32nd Street and it was one of those large homes.

Yeah, with a porch. Yeah, we moved several times in Ballard. The family grew, the house had to grow with them, and eventually which -- things stabilized and we settled down and started going our diverse ways. The family just drifted apart and drifted back together and managed to keep alive. During even the hard, tough times of the great Depression, we did okay.

But you had several siblings. Maybe you could enumerate them for me, name them.

Yes, it was a large family. We have Kari, who is the oldest one. Ingolfur, Konrad, Haraldur, sister Maria, who died at a tender age of cancer, and Johann was the baby of the family at that time. And then a few years later we had a brother named Stephan, Stephan Jon. He was -- wound up in the big war and was one of our family that got killed in -- on board a submarine by the Japanese in the China Sea. Haraldur, the next up the line -- or myself, I was in the Navy a short stint and helped save the democracy. And then we had Haraldur, Seaman; he was Chief Officer on the merchant marines; sailed the Atlantic for three years and didn't get hit.

That's amazing.

That is luck. Then who did we have? Kari was a singer. Haraldur, he was a sailor if there ever was one. Ingolfur was a jeweler, superb, genius. Konrad, he was in the meat cutting business.

They were both in the Ballard area?

Yes, in the Ballard area. And myself was a watchmaker and jeweler and jack-of-all-trades. I wound up going to sea for awhile myself and . . .

Okay. And you were born in Ballard.

Born and raised in Ballard, uh-huh.

About 1915 as --


(Continuing) -- as I recall.

November the 24th, 1915.

So, you went to -- through grade school and high school --


(Continuing) -- and Ballard. Could you tell me about the grade schools you went to and any remembrances?

Well, we moved a few times. Everybody was on the move because that's all there was to do. There wasn't very much work to be done. I went to Whittier School, and then I went -- grammar school as we called them, and we went also to Webster School where the museum now stands. I went there and graduated from there to Ballard High School. All my brothers, Haraldur, Ingolfur, Konrad, Kari all graduated from Webster School.

Oh, that's interesting.


It must be nice for you to go over and see your old school, which is now our museum.

Yeah, brings back -- it stirs up old memories. Not many -- not too many of us left now when you put it that way.

So then you went to Ballard High?

Ballard High School, Kari was there, Haraldur was there, Ingolfur was there, Konrad was there and sister Maria was there. We filled that school up pretty well.

I guess so. And you were about the same time as Thorunn Roble -- or Thorunn Johanson at that time.

Yes. Yes. Her father was Bjarni Johanson and was a pharmacist.


And had a son, Lincoln Johanson, Alice Johanson, Lincoln Johanson, Thorunn Johanson. Bjarni was the father, and he actually owned all of the Cascade Drug Company Store, as with Gunnar Mattiason, who had several children, Arnie and Thora, Oddney --

Another big family.

Another big Icelandic family. Next door to them was a Dr. Frederickson, (Editor's note: This was later changed to Fredrick) Philip Frederickson, and his father was Karl. And he was into the fisheries business, and every year he went to Alaska to supervise cannery production of salmon up there. That was in the Depression, there was nobody that had too much to do, and if they went to -- he hired a lot of Icelandic boys, and they went up to can fish. And if you had that job, boy, you were a king for awhile.

Okay. Ballard has changed a lot over the years. Do you have memories of what it was like in the --


(Continuing) -- in the early days in the 1920's?

Right. I remember specifically the sawmills that were a part of it. There was sawmills, and they would darken the day with their sawdust and smoke.

Right. We had the biggest cedar mill in the world here in Ballard --


(Continuing) -- as I remember.

Seattle Cedar. Seattle Cedar, Tregoning's Mill, Sobey's Mill, Campbell's Mill. Excuse me. We also had a few banks that went bankrupt that shut everything down. Just like they closed the door on the people.

I have some pictures of early Ballard here, and picture Number 6 looks like a bank.

Oh, yeah.

Do you recognize that?

I recognize that it's a bank all right.

Okay. Photograph Number 6 is interior of the bank at Vernon and Ballard Avenue, taken in 1922. And let's flip it over. Do you recognize those buildings?

The Central School, it must have been changed later because there was no such -- there was -- I think it changed to Irving.

That's Number 7 and Number 8. Okay, Number 7 is Central School known also as Washington Irving School. It's in 1908. That was a little before your time. Okay.


But some of those landmarks lasted. Here, for example, Number 1, is the Ballard City Hall.

It's still in existence.

Which was used from 1899 to 1965. So, you would remember that.

It's still in existence. And in those days, if you wanted to meet some real Icelanders, you would go there and see big Jake.

That's where -- where Big Jake --

He ran things as he saw they should be run. He was a great giant of a man. Stor og sterkur, and he kept the peace on Ballard Avenue, and there was a lot of tough guys you had to handle, saw mill workers.

Big Jake was a policeman at that time.


Okay. Number 2 is the Carnegie Free Library.

Oh, yes.

The -- constructed in 1904.


And the building's still there on --

It was a beautiful store.

(Continuing) -- on Northwest Market.

Yeah. There's a lot of memories in that library.

So you regularly spent some time there and checked out books?

Oh, yes. Our schools would go down there for special meetings and listen to the people who ran the library.

Okay. We have some other -- some pictures to prompt your memory here.

We had a family well known in Ballard, and it was the Halgrimsson. There was Peter, a teacher -- became a teacher. Ben was a cousin to Pete. He was a teacher. There was Herman, and he was a banker, and Sigrid, who was also a teacher in the same family. The mother, Mary, became widowed at about 50, and she remarried a sea captain. So her family turned out real well. She had -- was doing -- taking the laundry and things like that. They really did in those days to keep moving. No lights, nothing extra.

There was a fellow named Sam Thurston, an entrepreneur, an Icelander. He and a fellow named Maltby established the Olympic Hotel.

Oh, really.


I didn't know it was established by Icelanders.

It was called Maltby & Thurston.

Another Icelander who was a detective of the police. These guys did real good. A huge man, too. His name was -- his name is -- the kid's name was Ken Simonson. He became a sea merchant captain, and he went -- sailed to the Antarctic with Byrd. Imagine an Icelander at the South Pole? He was there.

The other end of the earth from Iceland.


Well, we went through the Halgrimssons. The memories of the street was that you were not Icelanders, there were Italians named Fiorito. They were immigrants. They came over with their picks and their shovels ready to go, and they helped dig the gas lines in the streets, and the water things were all done by these wops we called them. That was spontaneous on my part. I knew them very well.

Okay. They were in the heavy construction business and --

Oh, yeah, it was just hack away with a pick and a shovel and pour all that cement, do everything by hand.

There was an Icelander, his name was Gislason. He was an Icelander, and he delivered groceries behind a horse-drawn little gig.

Here's a dairy delivery cart.


Photograph Number 5, Royal Dairy. Do you remember that?

Yeah. That is much the extent of it. We had horse-drawn fire trucks who ran all over Ballard if they -- if they needed a fire to be put out in a home. Three horses -- six horses to the wagon, running and running and running, maybe a mile or two to get to the source of the fire. That was interesting, and sometimes I'm afraid that some of the scalawags deliberately pulled the handle to signify where the fire was, but we had to see those horses run, and they were beautiful. Nobody seemed to mind.

And you had a number of streetcar lines in Seattle at that time.

Oh, yeah. Right. No buses, all streetcars.

There are still some wide streets like--


(Continuing) --what --

They ran --

(Continuing) -- 24th that had streetcars in the middle and . . .


Back in the '30s, I remember that I could ride from Beacon Hill to Madison Park on the same streetcar, and it cost me two cents each way.

Yeah, right. We had special -- special money, streetcar money, three for a quarter. That's eight cents a piece, kind of matches up yours. We'd go downtown and back. But most of the time when we wanted -- when we were little kids and we wanted to go someplace, we got out on the street and pointed our thumb the direction we wanted to go. And we could do it and get away with it, and people would pick people up.

It was safe in those days.

Oh, absolutely. It was -- looking back it's kind of funny. We'd just -- it seemed like everywhere, we would go to Everett or Bellingham. It took all day with your thumb, but people picked us up; never left us stranded.

Well, do you have any special memories of your days at Ballard High School?

Well, it was interesting. The athletes, a fellow that was five foot or over was considered a big guy. If he -- he could be five foot six or seven or eight or nine, he was okay, but the little guy never got a -- they got banged up too much. I know, I was one of them.

You were one of them. You played football?

Yeah. We had football and we had good teams. And there was a lot of Icelanders on them.

And after high school, what did you do?

I went to sea. I went to sea on a ship to Japan and China and the Philippines. I was in the Steward Department. I didn't get to be captain that first trip or second or third or fourth or whatever, but the pay was $29 a month, room and board.

Plus room and board. Plus room and board?

Plus -- no, we had -- that was paid. We got to eat on the ship.


And we -- it was very interesting. I was only 17. I got out of the school and ran down and got a job 'cause I knew there was one there. That was on a Friday, and on a Saturday I was on the way to China.

That must have been interesting for a young man to --

Very interesting.

(Continuing) -- see the world.


So, this was on a passenger ship?

Yes. Yeah, it had accommodations for about 250 people, and there was missionaries -- you know, nobody could fly because the airplane was just barely invented, if you go that far. So -- that's the way our brothers went. I think Haraldur got the job about the same way I did. But then he signed aboard as a cadet, which was a junior officer, an officer material man, which he proved during World War II. Imagine sailing across the Atlantic about a hundred times. Thousands of ships were sunk. He survived. Never talked about it.

So you were at sea for several years.

A few years, you know. My brothers made it a -- well, a vocation, but I did not. Kari was a purser, very top job, four stripe. And Haraldur was a Chief Officer and Mate, number one sailor, fearless.

When I grew up in Seattle which was, I guess I'm about ten years after you --


(Continuing) -- but at that time there was lots of vacant lots in Seattle, and us kids built underground camps, and tree camps and went exploring. What was your boyhood life like in Ballard?

It sounded like that was part of it. We built underground little hovels. If we had -- we would get stuff and we would cook them in the little caves. All over Ballard there were little caves and smoke coming out. There were little kids in there with matches.

Well, that sounds just like my boyhood in Seattle.

So, I know where there are two great, large coffee cans of marbles that were left in the little cave. I could get that right now if I had a shovel strong enough.

They got buried?

Yes. The champion marble shooter --

You were?

(Continuing) -- was Haraldur, and he's -- where he left the marbles in the tin can, two tin cans down on 65th and 28th.

65th and 28th.

You want to go looking for them? I know right where they are. They're there all right.

We'll have to make an archaeological dig.

Some day they'll show up.

So, did you go swimming at Golden Gardens in the summer?

Golden Gardens Park. Absolutely. It was cold water, but we didn't care. Down there there was some tank farms where the ships would come in and load up with their fuel and then scat out of there.

Right near Golden Garden?

Right off at Meadow Point, they called it. There were three great big tanks that would be filled up with petroleum, or whatever they needed, and it -- just nearby were some salmon traps, big circular fish traps. The fish would come in from the sea and get into this system of swimming around and round until they trapped themselves virtually.

That was off -- right off Golden Gardens?

Right off Golden Gardens and Meadow Point.

I didn't realize that. I knew about the fish traps that -- at Point Roberts, but wasn't aware that we had them here in Seattle, too.

Yeah. There were two that I know that functioned. Yeah. Then we had all the sawmills. We had Stimson Mill. Stimson Mill was run by a fellow named Ned Stone. He was not an Icelander, but he ran the big mill, the Stimson Mill, the enlargement. There was -- let's touch on just one thing. Its --


(Continuing) --there was an oil well at the foot of 32nd Avenue Northwest; just this side of -- across the street, which was North Street in those days, an oil well. A fellow named Treat came into town, and I guess he had a little brains and things like that. I'm not too sure about the history of it, but he sunk a well down there and made a lot of money. We've never had a quart of oil, but there was plenty of oil splashed around to make it look like it was full of oil. Treat.

So, did he really get some oil out of the ground or was --

They never did and I don't think the intention ever was that they were going to.

It was a stock swindle or that sort of thing or what?

That sort of a thing, yeah. Yes, you could get very, very greasy and oily if you went in there, which I did. We all climbed up to the top of the derrick because there was nobody else around the office, they were torn down, and everybody left town, I guess. And this fellow had a huge home up on 85th -- come 87th -- 85th and a huge barn, and in the barn he had -- he had horses, of course. What are barns for? And he had several, maybe 15, carriages of all -- all sizes, and they were -- originally came from England, where the aristocracy rode around in London, I suppose. And we little kids, we could get through the cracks at the bottom. We could understand what he was doing.

The cracks in the bottom of what?

Of the sidewalls. Those big round -- it was a big round building, a barn, a huge thing, yes.

That's where he lived, not where his oil well was?

No, that was just about a mile north was his home. Harry Treat, I've said that three different times, but that's who it was, Treat. And he had the horses. Occasionally he brought them out and paraded. Now that was rich man's row up there, the bankers up there, the sawmill workers. Bolcom was a sawmill man. Taylor Mill over there in that area.

That's up on the view property that --


(Continuing) -- looks over the Sound?

(Continuing) -- that overlooks the Sound in there. Wally Casler, banker. Ned Stone, Stimson Mill. That's the way Ballard grew.

Well, after your days at sea, did you come back to Ballard?

Yes. Ruth and I got married, came back to Ballard. I did a year in the Navy at the end of the war. And we did -- we went to Glendale, California, and I was a potter there for several years. And that's when the war broke out and we decided we'd better get back home to see our people in case we get drafted and carried away someplace.

So, did you serve then in World War II?

Yeah. Yes. I was on a Navy tanker. A hot ship they called it. We survived it. We ran into and out of some mine fields which was close enough that you ever want to get to making it all right.

Was that in the Pacific or --

Yeah, 7th Fleet out in the Pacific. That wrapped up the war then and we were lucky. At that time we sailed into Yokohama. My brother, Konrad -- no, my brother Kari was in Yokohama. We were in Yokohama, myself -- my ship, and Haraldur was in Yokohama. Can you imagine that? There was three Icelanders.

Three brothers together.

No press. We had -- Ingolfur, he was in the Army. We had five people in there almost as many as the renowns -- what were those boys -- there were five brothers. Sullivans. They had the Sullivans and we had the Johnsons.

So, after the war when you came back to Ballard, what did you do? What was your occupation?

Well, I think we just banged around for a little bit. I did all kinds of things. I could have followed the trade of watchmaker, but it was too boring. I had to sit in the back room there and face the blank wall. It wasn't exciting enough. So, Haraldur, he was going to be a watchmaker, too. This was something to have a real trade to fall back on. Kari stayed with it. He stayed with the ship and the shipping company and the shipping industry; a good top-notch job purser.

Well, I went to California to Glendale, Ruth and I, and I was a potter.

Okay, this is after you were doing the watch making, watch repair?

Yeah. Something like that. Then, let's see --

Then you returned to Seattle or Ballard --

Yeah, right.

And that was about when?

Boy, you got me. I worked for a magazine called The Marine Digest as an associate editor for three years.

Uh-huh. That was here in Ballard.

Yeah. Then I worked for various marine distributors of ship's gear. I was pretty good at that, and I stayed with it and finally retired.

Well, can you tell me about some of the changes you've seen in Ballard during your life which has been mostly in Ballard?

Yes, like flipping heads and tails, that's so diverse and different. We saw it grow and grow and grow and grow. Hardly a man is yet alive. There are very, very few people I know in Ballard anymore because they're all gone.

Here's some old pictures. Here's the Number 11, the Ballard-Fremont Streetcar.


Number 551. That's just like your house number.

It is. It is. Tis us.

About 1920.

Yeah, probably rode it many, many times.

Number 10 is a class picture at Salmon Bay School.

Salmon Bay School.

That was about 1910. That was a little before your time, too.

I guess they made them wear uniforms.

And Number 9 is the Whittier School.

This is Whittier School. I went there a year. And I went from there to Webster School, and from Webster I graduated on to Ballard High School.

And Number 15 here is a photograph of the Stimson Mill.

Yes, Stimson Mill, Stimson Mill. You could hear those saws buzzing for miles and the smoke that you can see in the background here quite a bit.

Down at Ballard Beach there was a sawmill called Tregoning.

At Ballard Beach?

Ballard Beach.

Where is -- where was Ballard Beach?

At Sunset Hill, over the hill down by Golden Gardens. It was a mile south of Golden Garden, Tregoning Mill.

That would be right about where the entrance to the -- to the Locks is.

To the Locks, yeah. You see all the other mills had to bring their -- they were on the south side of the mill. They were on the north side of the Locks. Even these were -- they didn't have to lock through, which took quite awhile, maybe an hour, hour and a half. So, all their logs were delivered right where Ray's Boathouse is now; a little north of that.

There was a little fellow that came into Tregoning'Mill, and he had a broken leg. And his crutch was broken, and they took him in, bandsawed him a new crutch and sent him on his way.

This is the Cascade Drug. Did we touch on that?

We touched on that.

Bjarni Johanson and Gunnar Mattiason.

There's a replica of it in the museum.

But in the loft they had a business called Gerke's Music House.

Oh, I didn't know about that.

Excuse me. It was right across the street from the Cascade Drug.

What was the Gerke's Music House?

Sold pianos, sold all kinds of musical instruments. And across the street in the Icelandic Cascade Drug, up the stairs, they had another little music store.

Okay. Do you remember some of the other businesses in Ballard?

I remember -- one thing that I just remembered the other day. There was an Icelander came to Ballard, and he was touted or said to be the largest man in the world. And they set him up in a little stall about eight, ten feet wide maybe, and he could sit down. It cost you ten cents to go see this man.

Is that right?


You know Thor Viking?


He's a distant relative of mine. He's a fourth cousin; he's a little closer than you.


And he told me that he and I are related to that big man. But I haven't found out how yet.

Yeah. He was a big fellow. He had shoes that were almost like snowshoes.

Right. I've seen pictures of him.

Uh-huh. He was right next to the Cascade Drug Store.

Was he living in Seattle or just coming through?

I think he just breezed through with a little carnival heading out. He gives you a little show, that storr sko.

Did I touch on Ken Simonson?

Let's see, I don't think --

He went to the -- he's the one that went to the South Pole with Byrd, Admiral Byrd.


His father was a detective. Tough, he was tough as Big Jake. I think it would be a draw if they had a wrestling match.

Well, we had the Fredrickson family. He was the one that ran the northwest fisheries in the Kenai operation area up in Canada -- up in Alaska. And he had two sons, one Phillip, one Richard. Phillip became an M.D., neurosurgeon.

And Richard?

Richard ran the business for American Can Company down in Portland, Oregon. He was a general manager there.

Very distinguished family.

Yeah. Phillip was married and had a couple of kids, one of them named Phillip.

Well, this area -- this picture, Number 18, is -- says it's North Beach.


And that was probably the way it was when you were a kid here in Ballard.

Oh, yeah.

Now it's all houses up here.

Yeah, you see this big -- look like a log there, but it isn't. It might be.

Yeah, that's a big log.

The beaches were strewn with logs that got away when it was a little stormy out there. The rafts would break up, and then there were logs all over the place. They had people out salvaging or trying to get them back. They called them log patrol. And if you had a great big log laying on your beach property, you didn't want to relinquish it, so a lot -- a lot of fights. "That log is ours because it's on our beach," but the timber companies thought differently and they -- I did that for a week just for the heck of it.

Salvaging logs?


For the timber company?

Just an independent. We brought them to the log patrol, to an area over in West Seattle, pulled them in there. I pulled them all up.

So, you had a boat at that time?

Tug boat, it was a small tugboat.

You had a small tug?

I didn't have it. I worked for the fellow that had it.

I see.

It was nothing, it was just something to do. In fact, we went to Alaska on it. We towed a couple of homes up there to Petersburg.

So, when you took them back to the -- the logs, back to the patrol, they paid you --

Oh, yeah.

(Continuing) -- they must have paid you for them.

Yeah, we got paid for whatever the log was worth, or reasonably so. That just -- it just looks like a log.

That is a log.

That could be...

(End of Side A)

This is Ted Beck, and I'm continuing the interview with Johann Johnson after a short break for tea.

It sounds like you've had a very interesting life here in Ballard after you came back from California. For one, with the REPCO Company that made anti-fouling paints for boats. Maybe you can tell me how you got into that business.

Well, after the war, I worked for -- in the maritime industry. I represented various firms who wanted their product exposed in the local -- this area. I worked for Mobil and Farboil and International Paints and American Marine Paint and a few others. If a company wanted a product exposed in this area, they sometimes called me. And we could put it out there where people would look at it, like it and buy it.

But that was after you had started the REPCO Company.

That was before.

That was before. Okay.

At the end of my so-called career was my years with REPCO which we originated here with me and my wife, Ruth. We eventually put it on the market, succeeded well, and we went on to other things, retirement.

So, you had the REPCO Company up until your retirement?

Yeah. Right.

Did you sell the company then?

Yeah, I sold it to the company that manufactured the product for us. They're doing quite well with it right now. That's been several years ago.

So, when did you start the REPCO Company?

Shortly after I retired, and that was in 1962.

Okay. And -- okay. The paint that we're talking about is a copper bottom paint for boats.

Yes, it's built and designed for the fish boat industry. We are limited tonnage; we don't go after the big rascals, wish we could, but we prefer not to.

So then, backing up from REPCO about 1960 -- about 1960 something, what did you do before then?

After REPCO, I just have been, as a friend of mine described it, laughing and playing.

Well, that's a good thing to do when you retire..

So I haven't been idle; I've been monkeying around and having fun.

You have a University of Washington shirt on. Did you attend the University of Washington?

No, I did not, but I've been -- my sympathy's always with them. My two daughters did. But we went to the old school.

But --

When I was eating this morning, I knew you were going to ask that.

I did go to the University. So. . .

Yeah. Off the record, when I was pottering down in Glendale, California, for Gladding McBean, we had people from the University of Washington that's got structures, got good jobs with them because they were the engineers at the UW.

Okay, they had a good --

Did you know they had a ceramic --

They had a good department of --


(Continuing) -- ceramic engineering here, right?

Yeah. I could name some names, but that's a long, long time.

Wolf Bauer was over there.

I remember the name.

Okay. Now, going back --well, going back between the time you worked for Gladding McBean in California and REPCO, what did you do?

Between the time of Gladding McBean, which the war had suddenly struck us, and Ruth and I decided that we had best move close to home, because I know that we were going to have to be called any time. "It's going to be a long war," I predicted, and it was.

So that was early '40s you came back to --

Yeah, right.

(Continuing) -- Ballard.

Then I worked in the machine industry. I was a journeyman machinist. And a couple of companies accepted my skills, and I worked for them for a couple of years. And then the hammer fell on me, and I got in the Navy, served a little over a year on a tanker, the U.S.S. MARIUS, huge ship - 535. And other than that, what did you do during the war? I took orders.

But then, after the war, when you came back to Ballard, you were -- that's when you were a machinist for awhile.

For awhile, a short while, just hit and miss. I tug-boated.

And the tug-boating was for one on the VENTURE that --

Yeah, that was about it. Except for Bill Huckins, who had a landing craft. We worked log patrol and monkeyed around. I kept on a ship, though.

You said you made a number of trips to Alaska on the VENTURE; did I understand you correctly?


You made a number of trips to Alaska on the VENTURE?

Yeah, well, a couple. Let's say a couple. They dismantled some barracks out at Harbor Island, and these -- these barracks were put up for sale and they were surplus. And they were bought and purchased and they made a shore side home up in Bellingham. And then the last trip we took out to --

These were the Nissen huts that were made during the war?


Yeah, I remember them. So you took some to Bellingham and some up to --

Security Bay, which is just around the corner, as I said, from Petersburg, Alaska.


And we had a little adventure. You always have some adventures on small boats. We got lost a few times and a few close calls.

Like what? Like storms or --

Yes, storms. Everybody that's been to Alaska has been through a big storm and are going to write a book. The best thing to do is to ride out another storm.

So, you made a couple of trips to Alaska, and then there's a picture inside of one of these that shows you in a diving helmet. Can you tell me about that?

Yeah. A good friend of mine's father was a famous, a world famous diver. His name was Huckins, Billy Huckins. And he inherited the business from his father who was a real deep sea diver of the old school. And Billy, his son, took on after him. And we -- Bill and I went to school together, and I did a couple of short dives for him for -- just monkeying around. Learned quite a bit. Don't do it again.

So, after the adventures on the tugboat to Alaska and the diving, what did you tackle next?

Boy, that's a good question. That's what my friends sometimes would like to find out. What am I doing? I've done everything but pick apples.

Okay, so -- well, you probably have a lot of stories of your working life.

Yeah. Ingolfur, my brother, had the retain, the honest retain. He could talk all day and all night about one incident, kind of like in Kenai. He was keen on Kenai. But he could sure tell the stories, and I listened. I never -- I never was good at telling stories. I acted them, I did them, too. They didn't seem too important.

We knew survival. I knew that real well.



Survival in tough times you mean like --

All times. Occupational and . . .

Okay. Maybe we could go back a little farther in your life. I'm looking at some of the interview topics here, and one of them is about what church you went to. I've seen a picture of a Unitarian Church picnic in which your -- I saw your mother.


So, was she active in the Unitarian Church? That's the one up on, what? On what, 70 --


77th --

(Continuing) -- and 23rd.

Right. What used to be the --

Yeah. Yeah, there were two -- the Icelanders were kind of split. They were friendly, but they were split. And here, what the hell was his name? The Unitarian preacher came to town, divided the group in two groups. And the Democrats and the liberals belong to the Unitarian Church, and the Conservatives and the business people and the others --

Stayed with the Calvary Lutheran?

(Continuing) -- Calvary Lutheran Church. Yeah. But they all remained friendly. I was not involved in it. I worked for them. We built the temple up on 27th, or 25th, I think that is, somewhere.

Did you go to Sunday school at the --

Yeah, and they tried to teach us kids Iceland -- and Icelandic. And I was chosen to be a priest, and I couldn't hack that at all. But what they did was deprive us of our Saturday. Me and Arni Matthiason, he and I were going to be the Unitarian Church people. We didn't want that. Like, they're all our friends.

Okay. To be "the Unitarian Church people," now is that -- what was -- this is while you were kids.

Well, I think we were 16, 17. That's kids, isn't it?

And the church made an effort to recruit you in to become more serious about the --

Oh, yeah. I don't know what the hell they divided it into. We were going to go through the chairs, I guess. Just was not for us. They deprived us of our Saturday to go to these seminars and we had things, important things to do. Right. Football, the back lots were full of us kids playing football. There were a lot of vacant lots in Ballard. You can't find one now, I guess.

Right, right. Well, I remember the vacant lots where we had underground camps and tree camps and --

Yeah, right.

(Continuing) -- all over Seattle.

Did I tell you where the marbles are?

Yeah, the marbles.

Coffee can, that brother, Haraldur, of mine was a slicker. He had the knuckle down right. And --

Did you go to any of the Unitarian Church picnics?

Yeah. I don't remember any one specifically. We tried to behave. Chase the girls and --

I have a photograph of the -- I think it's over at the museum, of one of those picnics. And your mother was in it and -- and Sigurdur Bardarson came down from Blaine. He was in it.

What the hell was the other guy's name that was up in Blaine? Crippled, totally crippled from the waist down. Breidfjord.

Breidfjord, yeah.

Yeah, Breidfjord. City in Iceland called Breath -- Breidafjordur probably.

Breidafjordur, yeah, yeah, it's on the west side of Iceland. Okay, did you --

Yeah. Pretty good label, isn't it?

Yeah, that's -- that's pretty nice. Very nice.

Did you -- since your mother and father came from the old country, did you celebrate Christmas in the old Icelandic way, for example? Like the 13 Christmas elves.

No, I can't say that I did, because Christmas was kind of for the wealthy, and we didn't exactly subscribe to that, but we did have a Christmas tree. As we grew older and the children grew older, they had their own, but no particular ritual or calling.

But in Iceland, presents are given out on Christmas Eve rather than waiting for Santa Claus and opening in the morning.


Okay. Your mother was very active in a lot of ways in the Icelandic community and in Vestri, and she --

She was busy all the time.

(Continuing) -- Eining, I imagine, a women's group?

Yeah, uh-huh. University Women's Club, she spoke there several times, downtown.

And she was one of the founders, as I understand it, of the Friends of the Seattle Public Library.

I wouldn't doubt it. We were a diverse family. We -- everybody was gone somewhere all the time.

Well, it was Depression. Things were pretty rough.

Okay. So, '15, you were in your late teens then during the Depression.

Yeah. And about 15 years old, 14. I can't even -- I had cut grass and did a little bit of whatever we could, picked apples for two bits. The numbers are fantastic when you look back. A kid wants to cut my yard, he wants 30 bucks. Twenty-five cents. So he gets the job for 30.

Okay. Did your family celebrate any of the Icelandic holidays like -- well, let's see, June 17th came about after 1944 when Iceland declared its independence from Denmark so that would have been later in your -- after you kids had disbursed. But June 17th is still a big celebration of the Icelandic Club here in Seattle.


Okay. Well, was there anything else on those clippings that you found --

Might jog my memory? I was going to get just a look at this. Maybe you haven't seen any.

This -- well, this will grab you. This was Stephan Jon Johnson."Grateful memory of Stephan Jon Johnson, who died in the service of his country at sea, Asiatic area attached to the USS Swordfish 30 January 1946, presumed." Signed by Harry Truman, President of the United States.

The sad thing is that they think it was sunk by our own men, our own people.

Really. Well, anything can happen in --

Oh, Jesus, I know that. Yeah.

(Continuing) -- in the heat of battle.




Audio cassette interview of Johann Johnson by Ted Beck, June 22, 2000, Nordic Heritage Museum.

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You