Minnie Johnson – Woman of many talents
GIANTS OF SAN JUAN
Minnie was born in Roanoke, VA in 1901. She married at age 17 to James Bugg. They were married for 21 years and she bore him six children. She never worked outside the home.
Shortly after being married, she met a pair of Mormon missionaries. “Their teachings seemed just what I had been looking for most of my life. Over a period of five years I studied many religions and the more I studied the more I felt that this was the one for me,” she said.
Her parents thought the Mormons were silly, but they did not stand in her way when she and her children were baptized. She was the only member of her family to ever join the LDS Church. Minnie’s husband drank and gambled to the point that she could no longer cope with the bad example he was to her children and she filed for divorce.
“I had thought about moving to the West many times so I could be closer to church members and raise my children in an LDS environment. Karl Lyman’s wife was from Ohio and I knew them. I wrote to Karl and asked him if one of his several sisters who lived in Salt Lake might possibly find me an apartment so I would have a roof over my head when I arrived.”
He wrote back and said, “What do you want to live up there for?…why don’t you come to Blanding…I know you will be happy here.”
On August 30, l938 Minnie and her six children arrived in Blanding. She always claimed she was happy and she never looked back.
Nevertheless, Blanding was much more primitive than her homes in Virginia and Ohio. No grass, no sidewalks, very little water. There were five automobiles in town in l938 and the rest were pickup trucks. Most people went to church in Levis and most of them had outside toilets.
“It was a cultural shock, but the people were so kind and helpful to me that it was easier to overlook the lack of infrastructure and the isolation.”
In l943, she bought the old Redd home and made it into a small boarding house. There were no cafes (that operated during World War II) in Blanding so she also cooked for her guests and anyone else who needed a meal. That little “hotel” made it possible for her to teach her children to work hard and be responsible. It was also profitable enough that she was able to send her children to college.
Minnie loved her boarding house career, even though it was exhausting during tourist season. She met people from all over the world.
“The first night I put my sign out that I had rooms for rent a couple from Boston stayed with us. I think they felt sorry for me… I was the poor little lady with all those kids…who will never make it.
“Well, 20 years later they came back and stayed in the same room they had stayed in earlier. They could not believe all we had done to the place…just couldn’t get over it.”
“I started my business at the right time. It was right at the end of the Depression, and people didn’t expect much. Since I came to Utah, I have never been completely broke. Before I came to Utah I had some mighty slim days and some very long nights.”
“I met people from around the world…Japan, Bavaria, Germany, Switzerland. I enjoyed cooking my southern specialties for people as much as anything. I loved it when I had cooked a great meal and everyone gave me compliments.”
She cooked on a coal stove and had no refrigerator for several years, but somehow we “made do.” Minnie did many things besides run her boarding house. In the winter she often worked for the telephone company as a switchboard operator. She made hand-made Christmas cards and usually made about a $100 each year with that project. During the war, when nobody could go anywhere because of gas rationing, she was a cook at a copper mine south of Moab.
Food was cheap. She remembers buying quarts of milk for seven cents each with rich cream at the top of the bottle. Bread was eight cents a loaf.
Even though men would work for practically nothing, she could not afford to have adult help very often and so she and her children ran the hotel and restaurant themselves.
“The children knew we had to make a go of it or starve…and they willingly pitched in and did so much of the work. I could never have done it all myself, especially in the busy seasons.”
After her children were all in college or married, she went back to college herself, “just because I wanted to” she said later. She concentrated on business and typing courses which helped her in her businesses later on.
The boarding house was how she met her second husband. In l941, he stopped one day to arrange for rooms for a crew of drillers he had coming to the area to work in the uranium mines. He was wearing dirty mining clothing and she had no idea how well educated and wealthy the man was.
He talked with an accent because he was a Swede. Over the years, he called many times and made reservations for his workers to stay at the hotel but he never darkened her doorway again.
In l947 Minnie went to Grand Junction for a doctor’s appointment. She was waiting for the bus to arrive to go home. She noticed a man sitting in the terminal with luggage covered with foreign stamps.
She thought she recognized him as the fellow who she had met in l941 and talked with on the phone many times. He was well dressed that day and looked different than the miner she had met in l941.
She was not sure, however, and so she did not approach him. When she got up to buy her ticket, the man saw her and came up behind her and said, “Aren’t you Mrs. Bugg from Blanding?”
They began to talk and had a nice visit. Mr. Johnson had just arrived back in America from a five-month trip to Sweden. As they parted, he said, “I’ll come to Blanding one of these days, and we can take a drive.” Three weeks later he was on her doorstep and two years later they were man and wife.
Minnie collected dolls all her life. She purchased the house next to hers and turned it into a doll museum to house her collection of over a thousand dolls.
Her husband helped her build cases and shelves for her dolls. “He had real good taste and was very artistic,” she said. After they got the doll museum up and running they purchased more dolls from all over the world.
Minnie found a woman in Salt Lake City who was a doll dressmaker who hand made beautiful authentic costumes to dress many of her dolls.
On one of their trips to Europe, Minnie returned with 11 large boxes of dolls in the hold of the ship.
“I enjoyed buying and selling dolls. I became somewhat versed in doll values around the world, and I would buy dolls in faraway places and then advertise them when I returned home.”
Some of them were very profitable. For instance, she bought an unusual doll head in Gothenburg, Sweden for $10. When she got home she sold it for $500 after having only advertised it for a short time. Later she found out she could have sold it for over a thousand dollars had she waited a few more days when someone else called and offered her that unimaginable sum. That was as much as she had made in an entire year of hard labor only 20 years earlier.
One of the most enjoyable parts of her life was accompanying her husband on his business trips around the world. Her favorite activity was visiting shops and looking for beautiful things that she knew would fetch higher prices in the U. S. while her husband was busy taking care of company business.
Even though the museum was only open by appointment, she escorted several thousand people through it over the years.
The collection became more valuable with time, and “since we were traveling so much I was afraid I would come home and find the house broken in to and my dolls gone.” She finally decided to sell the collection before something happened to it.
The Davidson Doll Hospital in Salt Lake City made her an excellent offer and agreed to take everything she had. In 1969 she sold the entire collection.
The Johnson’s traveled extensively. By l972 Minnie had been to Finland, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Iceland, Germany, France, Spain, Old Mexico five times, Alaska four times and Canada five times. In America, she had been to every state except six.
“When I first came to Blanding I attended political meetings. It seemed they were really in need of leadership because almost everyone in Blanding was a Republican and they seemed to scorn the Democratic Party.
“I was a strong Democrat because that was the way I was raised and everyone in my family had always been Democratic. After my children were a little older and I had things going well enough at our boarding house that I was sure we were not going to starve, I just started becoming more active in politics. It was no problem getting into leadership positions in the Democratic party, because no one else wanted them.”
When Minnie decided to get involved, she had some obstacles to overcome. She recalled the first time she ever had to speak before a group in a political meeting (which happened to be in Monticello), “I was scared to death, but I took a deep breath, clasped my hands tightly together and got up there and did it. I got used to talking in public and it isn’t difficult for me now.” She went on to be the county Democratic vice-chairwoman for 20 years and attended eight state conventions.
“Each year, it was costly for me to go to Salt Lake for the convention for three days because we had to pay all our own expenses in those days. But I went anyway. I got really interested in the political process and I got to know all the leadership at the state level. Governor Calvin Rampton and his lovely wife became dear friends.”
Some of her memories from her political career include giving the nominating speech for Senator Frank Moss. “I didn’t think I dared to get in front of all those people and microphones, but they talked me into it and I did it despite my reservations and he won re-election.”
On another occasion Lucy Redd, who grew up in Monticello, asked Minnie to give her nominating speech for national committeewoman from Utah.
Minnie said, “Oh, Lucy, I don’t know what to say.” She said, “Oh yes you do.” So I gave the speech for her and she won by one vote!”
Minnie ran for the State Legislature in 1960. She won, was re-elected twice and served until l966. Included in her political experiences were attending several national conventions as a delegate from Utah. She had the pleasure of meeting and shaking hands with President Harry Truman, his wife Bess, Eleanor Roosevelt, Adlai Stevenson, and President John F. Kennedy.
“I sat next to Averill Harriman at a dinner when he was a candidate for President. We had a lovely visit and he sent me a nice personal letter shortly after. It is a thrill to meet such famous powerful people,” Minnie recalled, “but they are no different from the rest of us. Mrs. Roosevelt was about the most ‘down home’ woman I ever met. She could talk to anyone as if she was talking to her next door neighbor.”
“At the l960 National Democratic Convention, I was really for Estes Kefauver, instead of John Kennedy. Kefauver was from Tennessee and we considered him a southerner. Kennedy seemed so young and untested to me. I got real excited when the voting came down to the final moments. I jumped up on my chair and whooped and hollered for Kefauver. They put the live TV cameras on me, although I didn’t know it at the time.
“Back in Roanoke, Virginia, my mother, sister and two nieces were watching, and all of sudden the girls started screaming, ‘Granny, Granny, look, there is Aunt Minnie.’ Well, everyone has their 15 minutes of fame, but I guess I will have to settle for 15 seconds,” but it was real exciting to be there and get famous all at the same time.”
Minnie was the vice president of the early Blanding Chamber of Commerce. “We didn’t get a lot done because we were all too busy doing our Church work when it first started… but it is really a going organization now.”
Minnie was one of the heavy hitters behind the sewer system in Blanding. Everyone had cesspools and Minnie maintained that “on a hot summer day one had to hold his nose going down Main Street.” The Mayor at the time did not want to fund a sewer system and told Minnie not to waste her time because it would be at least five years before the city could hope to afford it. Minnie talked to some of the movers and shakers in Blanding who did not agree with the Mayor. They figured it would cost every family $500 to pay for a complete sewer system. Minnie went all over town and got the majority of households to commit to paying their share if the city council would vote for it.
About that time the mayor went on a trip to Europe and was gone for three months. While he was gone, Minnie and her co-conspirators approached the City Council with their long list of donors, a “can-do” attitude, and by the time the Mayor got back, the project was a done deal.
For her work in national politics, Minnie was listed in Who’s Who in the West and Who’s Who in American Politics. Her feelings on these honors were “Well, I doubt that it is of any importance, but it makes a genealogical record because they list all your children and all the things you accomplished.”
Minnie was a fighter. Few women in that day with six children, no husband and no income would have dared to leave everything to travel 2000 miles and start all over in a little town in the middle of nowhere. But she did just that and San Juan County is the richer because of her presence here. She never looked back or complained or regretted coming to Blanding. In the process she left a rich legacy of service, spunk and stickitituity which will be a shining example for us.