• Home

The Johnson Legacy: The Power of The Common Touch

Posted: Updated:
JOHNSON CITY, N.Y. -

By any standards, the three Johnson brothers - George F., C. Fred, and Harry L. - who were at the helm of Endicott Johnson, one of the world's largest shoe companies would be considered rich. Not just rich, super rich. 

Knowing this, those of us who are fascinated by the luxury afforded to the rich and the famous may feel a tad let down to learn the brothers chose a more understated lifestyle.

A good example is 428 Main St. in the Village of Johnson City and the last standing home of the Johnson brothers.  Across from the old high school, Harry L. Johnson and wife Sophie's elegant colonial blended in with the neighborhood.

Historian Janet Ottman said the Johnsons wanted to enjoy their wealth but did not want to show it off.

"It was the Johnson family motto, be not weary and well doing," said Ottman.

Harry Lewis Johnson, the youngest of the three, bought the home from a widow. Today, it is Barber Memorial Home.

"He was the one always described as being more empathetic with the needs of the workers.” In charge of company benefits that included E-J medical centers and a housing program.

Over 4,000 homes for employees that would become the foundation for the growing village of Johnson City.

The start of World War I meant difficult decisions for a man who felt responsible for his workers and their families, according to Ottman.

"It was a time that weighed heavily on Harry L's mind and on his heart."

Because he had to reduce worker benefits, worried about his workers putting food on their tables, Harry L. took it upon himself to grow potatoes on his land to help the cause.

He died just three years after the war ended. The family says it was a hunting accident. Harry L. Johnson wasn't even 50 years old.

In 1930, the Barber family bought the house and converted into a memorial home.

But the connection between the two families goes back farther than that.

"Back in the day, the Johnsons would come to the funeral home to pay respects to all of the Endicott-Johnson workers." They would call Kyla Barber's grandfather, who oversaw the business in the 1920s when the funeral home was on Broad Street.

 “They would come in, sign the book in private with the family to pay their respects. And then quietly leave so that nobody had known that they came except for the family that was here," says Barber.

All three brothers. Not one employee was overlooked. 

“So my grandfather had to have the funeral home opened at a specific time when he knew that the Johnsons would come”  That show of respect was private unlike many of the families contributions to the public, including the Your Home Public Library, a gift from Harry L.

Ottman says his portrait hangs in the front hallway as a reminder of who we can thank for a resource to the community.