The story which follows is taken from pages 6-8 of Life Story of Walter Perry Johnson, by Vincent X. Flaherty, which appeared in the 1947 Baseball Register, a few months after Johnson's death. Flaherty was a sports writer for the Los Angeles Examiner at the time and had formerly worked in Washington, DC, where he had known Johnson. It is possible that he was working on a Johnson biography at the time of Walter's death and obtained some of his material directly from the Big Train. It is also likely that he interviewed Minnie Johnson, who was almost eighty years old at the time. This part of Flaherty's article is of interest to Perry family researchers. The remainder of the article is of more interest to baseball fans and historians. See the footnotes at the end of the excerpt for my own comments.
Ironically, because of his blond hair, fair complexion and gangling aspects, Johnson was set up as a Swede from his first day in Washington, and he came to be accepted as such throughout his career. In reality, Johnson was of English, Scotch-Irish and Dutch extraction.1
But let's pause here, and prowl into the ancestry of the Johnson family. And let it be brought out that Walter Perry Johnson came of good, solid, early American stock.
On his father's side, there were Walter's great grandparents, Nathaniel and Anna Johnson, who came straight from England and settled near Union City, O., in the days when anything West of the Alleghenies was "Indian country." Of this pure English union came John H. Johnson, Walter's grandfather, who married a Scotch-Irish lass named Phoebe, and of this union Walter's father, Frank Edwin Johnson, was born at Kingscreek, O., October 17, 1861.2
On Walter's mother's side, there were the great grandparents, John L. Perry3 and Mary (Smith) Perry, whose parents came from Holland and settled in Pennsylvania.
When John L. Perry and Mary Smith were married, they settled upon a farm which years later became part of the city of Harrisburg, Pa.4 John L. Perry was a first cousin of Oliver Hazard Perry, American naval hero who defeated the British on Lake Erie in 1813.5
Of this Perry union came Walter Johnson's maternal grandfather, the second John L. Perry. The grandfather fought at Antietam and Bull Run with the Union forces in the Civil War, was shot from his horse, captured and placed in Libby Prison, at Richmond, Va.6
On March 14, 1867, John Perry and wife, Lucinda, became the parents of a daughter on a little farm in central Indiana,7 and she was Minnie Olive Perry, Walter Johnson's mother.
Elsewhere in Indiana, the earth might have been fertile and productive for farmers -- but not for the Perrys. So, in 1870, they packed up and moved, finally finding a spot near Urbana, O.8
A little later -- 1874, to be precise -- there was a general exodus of farmers out of Pennsylvania, impelled by the formative American urge to seek a promised land.9 And when the Pennsylvanians came along and talked enchantedly of a Western prairie country that was to be thrown open to homesteading, the idea caught fire as one mile fastened itself to another.
The farmers and small merchants of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and neighboring territory joined the westward push. Frank E. Johnson, head of a small general mercantile business in Pennsylvania,10 moved to Urbana, O., where the Perrys were already temporarily settled. But the Perrys and Johnsons didn't meet there.11
By some dark miracle of chance, the Johnsons joined the exodus, and kept moving until they reached Allen County, Kan. The Perrys moved on and stopped at Dixon, Mo., in 1875, and settled there a while before pushing on to Allen County, Kan., in 1884 -- a short way from Humboldt. Had it not been for this strange stroke of fortune, two unknown and unacquainted families shoving across the country -- stopping, by chance, in the same area of Ohio, only to move on again -- and again, by chance, settling close together in the great expanse of Kansas -- the world of sports would never have had a Walter Johnson.
Because, one night there was a dance -- a little country dance -- in Humboldt, and the boys and the girls traveled to town in carriages. And some of the parents came along, and there was music; and it was there that young Frank Edwin Johnson and Minnie Olive Perry met for the first time. They were to marry and they were to become Walter Perry Johnson's parents.
Both families were poor. And when Frank Johnson married Minnie Olive Perry they knew the job ahead. They knew they had to start from nothing and somehow, some way, extract a home and a living from the soil -- and this they did. They were married in 1885. And earthy, pioneer Americans they were. Minnie Perry Johnson was a strong, broad-shouldered girl with a high forehead and deeply set eyes. She was tall and statuesque.
Frank Edwin Johnson was a powerful young man -- not overly tall, but rugged and vigorous; and he had the broad, sloping shoulders that were to characterize Walter Johnson.
Minnie Johnson was a hard-working girl. She was of a kind the modern woman in this age of easy living couldn't hope to understand. In a day of beauty parlors, bridge clubs and motor cars, Minnie Johnson might seem more fiction than fact. For she not only reared a large family -- but while doing this, helped with the arduous farm work, cooked, scrubbed and washed. The bakery man didn't stop by the house every day and deliver bread, rolls, cakes or pies. Minnie baked her own, for, in the first place, bakeries, as we know them now, did not exist.
Likewise, there were no palatial markets, or white enameled and plate glass meat counters, where a housewife could buy her chickens and meat already dressed and prepared. The food in the Johnson household came from the Johnson farm -- from the Johnson livestock. She was the primitive American farm wife, bred of necessity and schooled in the hard, clean academics of toil and adversity.
Minnie Johnson rose in early morn, when darkness still slept upon the flatlands of Kansas. And she worked until night and was never too busy, or too weary or preoccupied, to ride through the weather at night, and over mud-rutted roads, to the home of a stricken family. She took care of, and hovered over, stricken neighbors, as if they were of her own stock. She helped bring babies into the world, prepared poultices and nursed the faltering back to health. She was of the first Mrs. Americas.
Frank Edwin Johnson was a strong, sturdy youngster with a jutting jaw, a defiant Roman nose and a thin, hard line for a mouth. From sunup 'til sundown he labored, tending to his cattle, plowing the fields and waging the difficult, true fight for crops. He started with little -- just a small plot of land, that was all; and little in the way of livestock. But in spite of all his hopes and labors, he couldn't make ends meet.
The first child born to the struggling Johnsons was a daughter, Effie Bell, and that was in 1886. Just a year later, a son was born, and they named him Walter Perry Johnson. And then in close succession came Leslie Edwin, Earl Clinton, Blanche Marie and Chester Lane.
This growing American family fought and endured hardship from the beginning. The father, somehow, managed to provide a plain, pine-hewn home. It was the kind of a frame dwelling you might see sitting back from the highway in Pennsylvania, or Virginia, or Illinois -- a slanting roof, twin chimneys, a meagre porch with a small, shingled roof. That was all. And this was surrounded by trees and isolated from the little farm by a fence of unpainted logs and wire.
This was the home that, years later, was to be seen on postcards and sent abroad the land as the "Birthplace and boyhood home of Walter Johnson, Humboldt, Kan."
The father was not a stern man. He didn't believe in too much discipline for his children. He was lenient to a degree, and philosophic to an extent that by word, or gesture, he imparted the concepts of right-doing to his children. When one of the boys went out of line, he wasn't harsh or threatening. He reasoned easily with the boys and won their respect by praising them to the skies for a job well done and pretending to ignore them when they stepped over the traces.
Never did the father drink or smoke, nor did anyone ever hear him use language stronger than that which could be said out loud in church. But unlike many men who shunned the so-called vices, Frank Johnson was tolerant. If another man drank, he understood. He said that a man drank because he liked to drink and he smoked because he liked to smoke -- and every man, he always said, had a right to do what he wanted to do. Moreover, he taught his family to respect the rights of others; taught the children to mind their own business.
The father had a way about him that made the children want to do things for him -- whether it was on the farm, around the home, or at school. He instilled in his youngsters a deep sense of pride in their every undertaking.
The children attended Crescent Valley rural school, in Allen County, and later the city school in Humboldt -- that is, all except Chester Lane Johnson, the youngest child, who was born in California when the family moved to the Pacific Coast and answered the call of the California oil boom.
Leslie and Walter, the eldest sons, played their first baseball in Humboldt. Neither took the game seriously. They joined in with other youngsters of the farming community and played any position. But baseball, by no means, held an important place in their lives.
In 1901, the Johnsons had a series of setbacks with their farm. There were five children to provide for and the meagre returns of the farm were by no means adequate. It was at that time a letter came to the Johnson home from Olinda, Calif., a little town situated not a great distance from Los Angeles. Minnie Johnson's family had moved to Olinda, and they wrote encouragingly of the new oil boom and of unprecedented prosperity in the oil fields.
Men were becoming millionaires overnight in California. Poor farmers had suddenly found themselves loaded in luxury's lap. The sere, barren soil of California, beset with irrigation problems, and limited in its produce, suddenly started paying off in astonishing figures. Oil derricks thrust heavenward everywhere. Work was abundant, and in a way, it was like the westward gold rush of '49.
So in 1901, his funds depleted, Frank Johnson sold everything he owned in Humboldt, bundled up his family, and undertook the terrific trek to California.12 But prosperity wasn't for Johnson there, either. And while he did better than he had done with his farm in Humboldt, the best Frank Johnson could do was launch a small business wherein he bought a few horses and mules and hired out teams to haul supplies to the oil fields. While lightning struck others and left them rich, Frank Johnson still worked hard and struggled to support his family...
© 1947 by The Sporting News
Although there is substantial truth in this story of Walter Johnson's ancestry and early years, Flaherty seems to have embellished the account somewhat and there may be several errors:
1 We have no evidence of any Dutch ancestry for either of Walter's Perry great-grandparents.
2 Flaherty seems to have confused Walter's grandfather with his great-grandfather. Nathaniel was Frank's father and John his grandfather. In the 1880 census, Nathaniel and Phoebe were enumerated in Salem township, Champaign county, Ohio, along with Frank and six other children. Kingscreek, which didn't consist of much more than a mill and a post office, is located in Salem township.
3 We have no evidence that Walter's great-grandfather John Perry had any middle name, whether it began with an "L" as suggested in this story, or whether it was "Wesley" as proposed by his grandson, Rev. George Carey, a Methodist minister.
4 I had dismissed the story of Harrisburg, PA, being built on former Perry property as a fabrication. However, as Perry researcher Nancy Scott points out, before the Perrys moved to Venango County, north of Pittsburgh, they lived for awhile in the vicinity of Harrisburg. John Perry's oldest brother, William Perry, was born "near Harrisburg" or in "Williamsport" in 1794. The tax and land survey records reflect that John's father (Walter's great great grandfather), Moses Perry, owned property in the Harrisburg area. Hunter's statement in the article is a lot more accurate than I had thought!
5 No evidence has been found yet, in spite of Col. Warren Carey's best efforts, to show any relationship between our Perrys and the Hero of Lake Erie. Genealogy in the 19th and early 20th Centuries is full of the efforts of people to graft famous or noble ancestors onto their family trees.
6 The details of John L. Perry's Civil War service are chronicled on his own page.
7 The Johnsons' farm in Wayne county, IN, was within about ten miles of the Ohio border!
8 John and Mary (Smith) Perry moved their family from Venango county, PA, to Gallia county, OH, in about 1845, then on to Miami county, OH, in 1850. They stayed there until they moved to Champaign County in 1862. Several of their children also made the move to the Urbana area at about the same time. The Perrys arrived in Ohio after most of the good farmland had already been occupied; hence they either acquired jobs in the cities or moved on to the West in search of good, available land. John and Lucinda may have moved back to Urbana, Ohio, from Indiana because they had relatives there who provided them a base where they could recoup their fortunes before moving West once again, this time to Missouri and Kansas. The story of John and Lucinda's family's migration to California, as well as that of other Perry families, is told elsewhere at this site.
9 Kansas was opened for settlement during the 1850's and was the scene of bloody conflicts between slave- and free-state advocates who streamed in during the decade preceding the Civil War. Although there was a general movement of farmers from East to West throughout the 19th Century, I'm not sure why Flaherty selects 1874 as a time of great migration from Pennsylvania to Kansas.
10 It is unlikely that Frank Johnson was in Pennsylvania at any time. His family had been in the Urbana area and elsewhere in southern Ohio for several generations, although a 1925 Cincinnati newspaper article reported that "the Johnsons were old Pennsylvania Dutch" before that. Walter's grandmother's maiden name was Higbee, another name that was common around Urbana. In fact, it was on what was once a Higbee farm that the great Carey/Perry reunion was held in 1908.
11 Probably untrue! The Perry and Johnson families were undoubtedly known to each other in Champaign County, so it wasn't improbable that their children should get together as they migrated westward. Minnie's uncle and aunt, Dave and Sally Carey were also enumerated in Salem township in the 1880 census.
12 Henry Thomas, Walter Johnson's grandson and author of the definitive Johnson biography, Walter Johnson: Baseball's Big Train, has established, via research in the Humboldt Union newspaper, that Minnie Johnson and her children actually moved from Kansas to California, in April, 1902, although Frank made an earlier trip in late 1901 to check things out and seems to have preceded his family in moving permanently.
This page was last updated 18 Feb 2005.