The passionate pursuit of history
John G. “Jerry” Johnson of Mercer has been involved in the Mercer County Historical Society since its very beginning. His interest in history isn’t merely academic. It’s a passionate, personal, lifelong quest to learn and appreciate what has happened in the past so we can understand the present and shape the future.
“I think from history comes what is and what is to be,” he says. “It’s cyclical. Historian Arnold Toynbee wrote about Rota Fortuna, the Wheel of Fortune. You start out in slavery, then you have freedom, you have prosperity, then finally you get into apathy, and then back into slavery.”
Jerry’s family history, as well as his own life, has given him a unique perspective of many aspects of Mercer County history and its cycles. His grandparents came from England and Sweden in the fourth quarter of the 19th century. They settled in Pardoe, six miles east of Mercer.
“Pardoe was very prominent back then,” Jerry said. “The railroad went through there, and they shipped many, many railroad cars of coal out of that area. My father, John Adolf Johnson, ran all the water pumps at Number Five Mine in the early 1900s. During World War I, he owned a coal mine at Five Points, in Findlay Township. He told me how they used to haul coal out to the county home in dray wagons. He also told me when they were building the courthouse, the big pillars that are on the east and west sides of the courthouse came from a stone quarry that was a little east of town, which is still there. They were turned on a huge lathe at the bottom of East Market Street and hauled by dray wagons to the courthouse.”
Jerry was born in the Miner’s Hospital in Mercer on May 6, 1923. Less than a month later it became the Mercer Cottage Hospital.
“I’m supposedly the last person born in the Miner’s Hospital,” Jerry said.
He grew up in some of the oldest and most historic buildings in Mercer.
“When we first came to Mercer, we lived about three of four years in the Old Stone Jail on Venango Street, which was built about 1812. I can remember sitting on the windowsill, which was two feet thick, and watching people going up and down Venango Street.”
When Jerry was six, his family moved to the Theophilus McDonald house.
“It’s the oldest house in Mercer. It was built in 1808. The bricks were fired from within 100 feet. The clay was dug there. The walls of the basement were huge logs with the bark still on them. It had a fruit cellar with a dirt floor.”
Jerry has wonderful memories from that house.
“It had two fireplaces in the living room and the dining room. I remember my mother reading to me, books like the little engine that could – ‘I think I can, I think I can, I know I can.’ That made an impression on my mind. I heard a lot from her about the Bible, and she taught me what religion was all about.”
Jerry’s life was also shaped by his Aunt Tilly.
“Her father was a count in Prussia. She is the person next to my mother who has influenced me most in my life. She taught me how to appreciate literature and classical music. The thing that most influenced my life was the love of music and what it can do to you, to your very being, your fiber, and your belief, your religion regardless of what that religion might be. Music and religion have been very important in my life.”
One day, while digging in the back yard of the Theophilus McDonald House, Jerry discovered a little purple salt cellar, which started him into collecting. He still has that first one, along with 26 other ones. Today his home and antique shop are filled with glassware, paintings, and thousands of other collectibles.
Jerry attended school in Mercer.
“There were 12 grades in one building which stood at East Butler Street, where the parking lot for United Methodist Church is now.”
During his senior year he worked in the legendary Isaly’s ice cream store for 25 cents an hour.
“When Route 19 was the only road between Pittsburgh and Erie, back in the early days, it used to back up traffic all the way to Fredonia, seven or eight miles. One day in July about 1940 we sold 3,000 gallons of ice cream.”
After graduating from high school in 1941, Jerry enrolled in Grove City College. During the summer, he worked at the Reznor.
“The Reznor at that time had no union, but they had profit sharing. At Christmas, some people got almost as much in bonus as they made. During the Depression the Reznor almost went out of business. But it was salvaged. People who had stock that was virtually worthless during the Depression ended up as millionaires.”
In January, 1943, Jerry was drafted into the service and ended up in a photography unit of the U. S. Army Air Force. There he got a unique perspective of one of the most historic events of the 20th century. While stationed on Guam, his unit processed the aerial photographs that were taken of Hiroshima and Nagasaki before and after the atomic bombs were dropped. He still has many of the detailed photographs that were printed from the original negatives. Only a handful of them exist anywhere in the world.
During the war, Jerry’s brother ran the Mercer Coal Producing Company. When Jerry came back in April, 1946, he made what he now feels was a big mistake.
“We had a chance to buy all this equipment – a five-yard shovel, and a one-yard loading shovel, and bulldozers and stuff – but we didn’t do it. That’s when stripping was just starting here, and we could have gone into the coal business. My brother knew where there was all kinds of coal, and there still is. There still is a lot of coal that hasn’t been mined in Mercer County.”
Instead Jerry went back to Grove City College, completing a degree in accounting and economics in 1949. He got a job at Westinghouse and worked there until 1968. From 1968 to 1972 he served as a Mercer County Commissioner.
“Lawrence Wilhelm was in at the time. His baby was the county home, which was going lickety-split. When they talk now about giving some money to the home, I’m kind of nonchalant about that, because it was costing the county three or four million dollars to run that place. It doesn’t today. They are required to help the indigent.”
From 1972 until about 1976, Jerry worked as business manager for a law firm in Pittsburgh. Then he went to work for the Mercer County Consortium.
“It was a federal employment program for people who were out of work, who wanted to learn a new trade and so on. Our budget was about $40 million a year, and I was the controller. I finally became director of finance and personnel. Then it left Mercer and went up to Franklin. That’s where I retired from. I was offered the head of it but I only had two years to go, so I didn’t take it.”
For Jerry, retirement didn’t mean slowing down. It merely enabled him to get more involved in the activities he loves – everything from stamp collecting to public service. He has been a member and officer of many organizations, including the Mercer Area Chamber of Commerce, The Mercer County Historical Society, American Legion, VFW, Shenango and Western Pennsylvania Conservancies, American Philatelic Society, Pittsburgh Symphony Society, Carnegie Society of Pittsburgh, and the Historic and Landmarks Foundation of Pittsburgh. He has served in many offices of the Masonic Order since 1950, and was coroneted 33rd Degree in 1991.
He has also been a member of the Mercer United Methodist Church since 1933. He sang in the choir for more than 50 years, taught Sunday School, held most of the local church offices, and served in many leadership roles beyond the local church. In 1995, he was honored in Who’s Who in Religion for his work in the church.
Jerry has also been active in the Republican Party for more than 50 years. His dedication to serving Mercer County has never abated. Having served as Mercer County Commissioner from 1968 to 1972, and again briefly in 1995, he submitted himself as a candidate to complete the term recently vacated by Michele Brooks because he feels Mercer County has so much unfulfilled potential.
“Look at the valley,” he said. “They’re overwhelmed by all their problems, but the big thing is, they don’t cooperate. Mercer County has enormous potential that’s never been touched. We only touch the surface. I would like to see people get together and try to look ahead to the future to solve problems.”
As to the cycle of history, Jerry believes we are in the apathy stage right now. Does this mean that we must fall back into slavery? No, because it isn’t the result of fate; it is the result of man’s failure to learn from the past. Hope lies in our determination to learn from our mistakes and fight to solve our problems, even if we fail.
“Abraham Lincoln said that he failed so many times he couldn’t count all his failures.”
Excerpted from Lives of Quiet Inspiration, Volume 2, by Joe Zentis. Hermitage, PA: Green Street Press, 2008