I was born at Blue Spring near Georgetown, Kentucky, July 18, 1854. My father, Albert W. Johnson, and my mother, Helen Loftin, met while attending different schools at the latter place and here they had been married August 4, 1853.
My mother was born in Jackson, Tenn., the same little town from which my fellow disturber of the public service peace, Judge Ben B. Lindsey of Denver, came.
My earliest recollections are of events connected with the war, though an incident which happened the year before seems very clear in my mind. Just how much of it I actually remember, however, and how much of it is due to hearing it often repeated I cannot say. But what happened was this: Joe Pilcher and I were playing on the floor with a Noah’s Ark and a most wonderful array of little painted animals. These toys were made by the prisoners in the penitentiary at Nashville, where my mother had purchased them for me on our way south to our summer home, a plantation in Arkansas. After infinite pains and hours of labor my playmate and I had arranged the little figures in pairs, according to size, beginning with the elephants and ending with the beetles, when one of the young ladies of our household, dressed for a party, crossed the room and with her train switched the lines to hopeless entanglement in the meshes of the long lace curtains, two of the animals only remaining standing. Joe, who was somewhat my senior, burst into tears, while I smiled brightly and said:
“Don’t cry, Joe: there are two left anyhow.”
My mother never tired of telling this story and its frequent repetition certainly had a marked influence upon my life, for it established for me, in the family, a reputation as an optimist which I felt in honor bound to live up to somehow. I early acquired a kind of habit of making the best of whatever happened.
In later life larger things presented themselves to me in exactly the same way. Nothing was ever entirely lost. There was no disaster so great that there weren’t always “two left anyhow.” My reputation for being always cheerful in defeat-a reputation earned at such cost that I may mention it without apology-is largely due to this incident, trivial thought it may seem.
I remember the beginning of the war very well and am sure that from this time my recollections are actual memories, not family traditions.
As his first service to the Confederacy my father, a slave owner and cotton planter, organized a military company at Helena, Ark., of which he was Captain. Becoming Colonel in command of a brigade under General T. C. Hindman a little later, one of his first duties was to execute the order to destroy all cotton likely to fall into the hands of the enemy. Though he was opposed to this policy he enforced the order with rigid impartiality, compelling my mother, who had managed to hide some cotton in the cane-brake, to bring it out and have it burned as soon as he discovered her secret. The burning of this cotton made a great impression on my mind, especially the sorrow of the negroes who stood around the smouldering bales and cried like children at sight of the waste of what had cost them such hard work to raise.
Shortly after this we moved to Little Rock and it was while we were living there that my mother shot a burglar who was trying to get into the house through a bedroom window. I recall this incident vividly. I can see the bed which my mother and the baby, Albert, occupied-with its white mosquito bar cover-in one corner of the room; against the opposite wall the bed in which my brother Will and I slept; the form of a man trying to climb through the window, and my mother’s upraised arm as she discharged a pistol at him. She didn’t hurt him much, but when he was captured in a similar attempt a few weeks later, the burglar admitted that he had gotten the wound in his leg from Mr. Johnson.
My mother was not only courageous and self-reliant, but remarkably independent in thought and in action. She cared so little for what people might think or say that having made a decision she acted upon it without further ado. If my own disregard of the things “they say” is an inheritance from my mother I am more grateful for it than for any other characteristic she may have given me. With all her independence, however, she was one of the most tactful persons I have ever known. She had a genius for getting on well with people even under the most trying circumstances.
The stirring events of her young wifehood and motherhood afforded plenty of outlet for her energy, and in later and calmer times she found new means of expression. She studied French and music after she was forty, and she remodeled and built so many housed just for the enjoyment she got out of the planning that house building became almost a steady occupation with her.
General Hindman and my father quarreled over a court martial. Some young soldiers had stolen away one might and visited their homes in the vicinity of the camp. They were brought back and charged with desertion. Father insisted that they were not deserters, that they were just homesick boys who would have returned of their own free will, and he refused to conduct the trial on that account. Because of this quarrel he left Hindman to join General John c. Breckinridge’s command near Atlanta.
In two light wagons and a barouche the family and several servants, old Uncle Adam standing out most clearly in my memory, started on that journey. We crossed the Mississippi river at Napoleon and just as we landed on the Mississippi side a Yankee gunboat came into sight. If we had been a few minutes later, or the gunboat a few minutes earlier, my father undoubtedly would have been taken prisoner. We went to Yazoo City, thence in our vehicles across the State of Alabama, arriving at Atlanta by Christmas-the first Christmas of the war.
I do not remember just how long we stayed in Georgia, but certainly more than a year, and most of that time at Milledgeville. One morning, much to my delight, I was permitted to hold in my arms the one-day-old son of the family with whom we were boarding. The baby is now William Gibbs McAdoo, famous for his successful promotion of New York City’s underground railways.
When we left Georgia, we went north, through the Carolinas-most of the way by our own conveyances-to Corner Springs, Virginia, and later to Withville. While living at the former place I often saw detachments of southern troops march by our house in the morning, and companies of Union soldiers pass in the afternoon of the same day. At Withville I had a terrible attack of typhoid fever, the first illness of my life. From Withville we went to Natural Bridge, where we spent a year or so, leaving here for Staunton just at the close of the war.
Though my father had served in the Confederate Army throughout the whole of the conflict he was a great admirer of Lincoln and very much opposed to slavery, and many, many times, even while sectional feeling was most bitter, he told me that the South was fighting for an unjust cause. My own hatred of slavery in all forms is doubtless due to that early teaching which was the more effective because of the dramatic incidents connected with it. Father’s sympathies were with the North but loyalty to friends, neighbors and a host of relatives who were heart and soul with the South kept him on that side. Like so many of these he is now penniless, and I having attained the advanced age of eleven years commenced to look for something to do.
Immediately after Lee’s surrender one railroad train a day commenced to run into Staunton, and I struck up a friendship with the conductor which was to prove not only immediately profitable to me, but which probably decided my future career. One day he said to me,
“How would you like to sell papers, Tom? I could bring ’em to you on my train and I wouldn’t carry any for anybody else, so you could charge whatever you pleased.
The exciting events attending the end of the war naturally created a brisk demand for news and I eagerly seized this opportunity to get into business. The Richmond and Petersburg papers, I retailed at fifteen cents each and for “picture papers,” the illustrated weeklies, I got twenty-five cents each. My monopoly lasted five weeks. Then it was abruptly ended by a change in the management of the railroad which meant also a change of conductors.
The eighty-eight dollars in silver which this venture netted me was the first good money our family had seen since the beginning of the war, and it carried us from Staunton, Virginia, to Louisville, Kentucky, where my father hoped to make a new start in life among his friends and relatives.
The lesson of privilege taught me by that brief experience was one I never forgot, for in all my subsequent business arrangements I sought enterprises in which there was little or no competition. In short, I was always on the lookout for somebody or something which would stand in the same relation to me that my friend, the conductor, had.
Up to this time I had had practically no schooling, though my mother had managed to give me some instruction. Mathematics came to me without any effort whatever, this aptitude for figures evidently being an inheritance from my father and grandfather. My turn for mechanics came to me from my mother. She taught me to sew on the sewing-machine and I remember my great pride in a dress skirt which I tucked for her from top to bottom.
Our migrating days were not yet over, for being able to borrow some money in Louisville my father took us all back to Arkansas where he attempted to operate the cotton plantation with free labor. The experiment was a complete failure, a disastrous flood being one of the contributing causes.
Our next move was to Evansville, Indiana, where my father engaged in various enterprises and where I got my one and only full year of schooling. I passed through three grades in that year and was ready to enter High School when we again moved back to Kentucky-this time to a farm some eighteen miles from Louisville.
We were extremely poor and sending me to school in town was out of the question. I do not recall that our poverty or my lack of educational advantages had any depressing influence upon me. What helped most to make up for my meager schooling was my habit of observation and my investigating turn of mind-not to call it curiosity. I went about with an eternal Why? upon my lips. It was this doubtless which made life so interesting that I wasn’t greatly impressed by the material condition of the family; also I had no silly theories about work and no so-called family pride to deter me from doing anything that came my way to do.
It never disturbed me in the least to sweep out an office and I liked the extra five dollars a month which this job paid me. It did surprise me very much, however, when some of my well-to-do friends and relatives would drive by and appear not to see me when I had charge of a gang of laborers in the street. My father and mother were quite as free from any class feeling as I was.
One of my jobs in Louisville was in the office of a rolling-mill. When my mother went in to see about getting this job for me she had to wear a crocheted hood because she had no money with which to buy a hat or a bonnet. I spent more of my time in the mechanical department of the mill than in the office for it was that end of the business which interested me most.
Young as I was, I soon realized that this kind of enterprise offered no particular advantage. There was no conductor here to hand out something which wasn’t his to give, and a few months later I welcomed an opportunity to get into the street railroad business in which I was to continue for most of my life. This appealed to me as a non-competitive business, depending upon the special privilege of public grants in the highway, though I did not analyze it at that time. The public side of the question meant nothing to me, of course; in fact it never occurred to me that there was a public side to it until I became familiar with Henry George’s philosophy a good many years later.
I remember how offended I was when I first read his fascinating words and realized that the things I was doing were the things this man was attacking. Attracted to his teachings against my will I tried to find a way of escape. I didn’t want to accept them; I wanted to prove them false. But this is running ahead of my story.