The ABCs of Lowell History: J is for Johnson Family

The ABCs of Lowell History is back for another round. This popular series explores a wide variety of topics in Lowell area history in weekly online articles and is written by volunteers and staff from the Lowell Area Historical Museum.

J is for Johnson Family

Frank M. and Myrtilla (Myrtie) Johnson came to Lowell and started a newspaper called The Lowell Ledger.

They had known each other as children and later married. Frank stated that their working experiences and grief over losing three little girls bonded them together, forming a friendship that was faithful until death. The first newspaper they started together was the Mayville Monitor. Myrtie worked where needed, including compositor, reporter, and society editor.

They started the Ledger in 1893 on Main Street in the old wooden row’s easternmost building. That building had been built by Cobmoosa in 1846 on what is now cemetery grounds. It was moved to the old wooden row with eight pairs of oxen in December of 1846. The building burned in 1907. At first, the publication day was Saturday. As there was no rural mail delivery yet, Saturdays were when farmers would come to town for shopping. The first issue had 150 subscribers.

In 1898, the paper moved to its new home above the Post Office. In 1917, Johnson purchased the Alto Weekly Solo. The Ledger moved again in 1927 to 214 E. Main. The Ledger was published from the main level while the Johnson family lived upstairs. Myrtie was actively involved in starting and running the Ledger, but she gradually withdrew as her responsibilities increased with their home and family. The family was able to move to a home on Monroe, and then later planned and built their home at 704 N. Monroe, “Seven Oaks.”

The Lowell Ledger was politically independent, with the motto “With Malice Toward None and Charity for All.” Johnson had his editorial column, “Uncle Marcus’ Cozy Corner.” His editorials championed causes he believed in. His editorials were known for upsetting people who would then come in to see him, so he kept a bat by his desk for protection. He was known for advocating progress and betterment of the community. The Belding paper said of Johnson, “We do not know of a person in the newspaper field in our near quarter of a century experience and acquaintance, who has had a truer heart, greater courage, or disclosed a finer friendship that Frank M. Johnson.”

After 40 years in the newspaper business Johnson revealed the motivation for his career. On an extremely hot summer day as a boy, a farm hand took him along on a day’s work of mowing and taking care of seventeen wagon loads of hay. He slipped away partway through the day, went into town and found a job in a print shop and began immediately.

In 1928 the Johnson family was dealt a crushing blow. Their daughter Ola, at forty-three years old, died from pneumonia. She graduated from Lowell in the Class of 1903, and then went on to business school. She had grown up helping with the Ledger and after school went on to represent Lowell at the Grand Rapids Press. She then opened her own public stenography business. Johnson wrote his daughter’s obituary, stating, “what she was to have done for this writer, he is doing now for her.” This was a crushing loss that Myrtie never recovered from, dying eleven months later. Johnson sold the paper to R.G. Jefferies and retired in 1930. Lowell was planning its Centennial and Johnson was credited with part of the success of the celebration because of the press time given ahead of the event.

Frank died in 1933, just four years after the loss of Myrtie.

A tribute was given by Clyde Davis, Lowell native and former executive of the Detroit Abend-Post, and advertising manager of the Detroit Times. He said of Johnson, “he was a tireless and efficient worker, and had a prose style, founded on a lifetime of study of the Bible, which for simplicity, clarity and force was almost unequalled.” He went on to state that several newspaper men studied Mr. Johnson’s editorials as models.

That business that Frank and Myrtie began in 1893 continues today.

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