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More Than The Square Deal: Why The Johnsons Were "Heroes" To Working Families

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BROOME COUNTY, N.Y. -

If you've grown up in the area, you've probably learned about the Johnsons and their shoe company in school. You've probably driven under the arches and past the now empty factories, but what was it about the Johnsons that left such an impression? Sure, they gave a lot to the community by way of parks, houses, and carousels, but it was things like empathy, looking our for the common man, and smart business that earned them reverence among their workers and the community as a whole.

“Johnson had a common touch. He realized if you treat the workers fairly, give them a decent wage, make them feel like they’re part of the decision making process, they’re gonna be loyal and they’re gonna be productive," says Broome County Historian Gerry Smith.

George F Johnson, co-founder of Endicott-Johnson Shoe Company.

George F Johnson himself had humble beginnings, coming to Binghamton as a teen with what Smith describes as "12 and a half cents in his pocket and no shirt collar."

Johnson and his brothers, C Fred and Harry L, understood the struggles of the working class, which made them revolutionary businessmen. They were the first shoe factories to enact 8 hour work days. The Johnsons also put in place benefits, a housing program, and medical coverage. These were all things that were pretty much unheard at the time.

C Fred Johnson and Harry L Johnson also played important roles in the shoe company.

“He enticed thousands of immigrants to come directly from foreign countries or out of the coal mines of Pennsylvania to work. For them, it really was the Valley of Opportunity," says Smith.

People like Charlie Henneman's father.

“He grew up down in Dubois Pennsylvania," says Henneman, “He came here to work for EJ.”

Earl Henneman went to work in the tannery, stripping the hair off hydes to prepare them for shoe leather.

“Putting them on the racks, and then they’d dip them in vats, which has the chemicals in it," says Henneman, "It stunk so much down there because of the chemicals.”

That's a stench 88-year-old Sandy Scanlon still remembers. Scanlon, the granddaughter of George F Johnson, experienced the tanneries first hand as a little girl tagging along with grandpa at work.

“It was a vat of horrible, horrible smelling acid," says Scanlon, "And these men that worked there wore rubber boots or whatever up to here they had… and they had like paddles to stir it.”

Workers in the tanneries dipped hydes into vats of acid to strip off the hair and prepare them for shoe leather.

Then 8 years old, Scanlon followed close behind grandpa on his daily walk-through of the factories.

“So grandpa said, ‘we’re gonna walk across it.’ I said, ‘ok.’ Because whatever grandpa said I went along with. And we walked across it, we were about the middle of this tank and I’m like this," Scanlon pinches her nose and holds her breath. "Grandpa happened to turn around and saw me and said ‘young lady, take your hands away from your face. That’s your bread and butter.’”

Sandy Scanlon, granddaughter of George F Johnson, remembers visiting the tanneries with her grandpa.

You better believe, Scanlon never brought that up again during future visits. Smith says these trips through the factory floors were a routine Johnson went through every day. He was a CEO who was easily accessible to his workforce. Smith says he knew many of them by first name. 

Those interactions with the boss would become the source of many dinner table discussions at the Henneman household.

“It’s all he talked about was working in EJ with the friends he had at EJ," says Henneman.

Charlie Henneman shows Fox 40's Amy Hogan pictures of the tannery where his dad worked.

Earl Henneman's reverence for his boss filtered down to his son. George F was a hero. Charlie will never forget when the head of EJ visited his classroom to hand out vouchers for free shoes.

“And he did every student that was in the class," says Henneman, "Whether their parents worked for EJ or not."

Although, Henneman says about 85% of his classmates were from EJ families. And it wasn't just shoes. The Johnsons built churches, homes for workers, carousels, and parks.

“They had a waterfall that the water would come out on and a baby pool off on the side. I used to go up there when I was a little kid," says Henneman, remembering Ideal Park.

Henneman would work at the Ideal Park pool as a lifeguard during his high school days, learning early on from his dad the value of hard work.

"My dad was a worker. He not only had two jobs, but we had three gardens in the back of our house. Went all the way down to the crick," says Henneman.

After long days at the tannery, he would then go to his second job moving furniture. Then he would come home to work his land.

Charlie says high school sweetheart and wife of 57 years, Joyce, learned the same thing from her parents. They immigrated from the Ukraine for a better opportunity, her dad working for EJ.

“That’s the first things they’d learn in English," says Henneman, "Which way EJ?”

Even as 38 of those EJ buildings have been demolished, some still standing, but vacant, the guiding principles of the Johnsons are evident throughout the community and still carried on through people like Charlie Henneman.