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Jack Johnson


Man has lifelong love of boats and Christmas

Parkersburg News, December 24, 1999


A love of Ohio River Boats, Christmas and public service lives in the heart of Jack Johnson.

Johnson, 85, a 20-year city councilman who lives on Dewey Avenue in St. Marys is passionate about Christmas because he and his wife because and his wife were married on Christmas 1936.

They were married by his late father, who became a Methodist minister after working for Monongahela Power Co.

Jack and Wanda Johnson also had a daughter, Joanna, who was born on Christmas Day 1937.

Joanna whose last name is now McFarland lives in St. Marys. The Johnson’s other daughter, Nancy Holpp, born in 1940, lives in Newport.

If Jack Johnson spent half of his life working, the other half he spent building boats and sharing experiences with his family on the river.

He met his wife on the river in 1934. The first time he saw him, he was rowing a canoe. She was 18, walking along the riverbank in St. Marys with a cousin.

“I was there just visiting.” Mrs. Johnson said. “He rowed up to the shore and asked me if I wanted to go for a ride, but I didn’t go. I went boating with him later though.”

Jack Johnson was born Jan. 22, 1914 in Clarksburg to the late Carl and Allie Johnson.

Johnson’s father began his career cleaning street cars in Harrison County before working his way up to superintendent of transportation for Monongahela Power in Clarksburg.

“Dad was well-known in Clarksburg,” Johnson said. “He worked for the power company several years, then, some preacher talked him into preaching.”

When Carl Johnson entered the ministry, the family moved to Parsons in Tucker County, then to St. Marys.

Jack Johnson was a freshman in high school when he and his parents moved to St. Marys in 1929. Johnson graduated from St. Marys High in 1933.

Wanda Johnson was born Dec. 27, 1916 (two-days after Christmas) in Spencer, Roane County, to the late Charles and Myrtle Ellis.

She attended Spencer High School before moving to Pleasants County in her late teens. She graduated from St. Marys High in 1935.

She was still in high school when she met Jack Johnson.

In 1939, Mr. Johnson got a job at the Quaker State refinery and retired in 1978.

Johnson worked in the plant during World War II. He began building boats for his family after the war in his spare time.

“Boats were just in my blood, I guess.” Johnson said. “I’d get home from my job and work on them.”

Johnson’s boats steadily became larger. The first boat he built was an 8-foot-long johnboat.

“We were living in an old house, and he built this boat in the upstairs.” Mrs. Johnson said. “We had to remove the windows to get it out after it was finished. But, my husband knew the boat would fit because he had it measured.”

Johnson built an 18-foot cruiser before talking his masterpiece, a 28-foot- long, 8-foot-wide houseboat, which he constructed in the early 1950s.

“Houseboats were new then” Johnson said. “I saw a few on the river, and thought it’d be nice to build one.” 

Johnson and his family were living on Sixth Street then. He built the boat in their backyard during one summer, fall and winter.

“I worked on it every day it was fit to work.” Johnson said.

Like all his other boats, Johnson used no power tools. His primary tools were a handsaw and plane.

Johnson used oak for the bow and frame of the houseboat. The boat was finished with one-fourth inch waterproof plywood, bonded with waterproof glue and covered with fiberglass. The finished houseboat had a large room with a kitchen, kerosene stove, refrigerator and bunk beds. The Johnsons took the boat for a four-hour trip to Charleston in the ‘50s and enjoyed many other family outings.

After Johnson retired, he began making miniature model boats.

He has 10 of these models displayed on his wall in his house. Most of the model boats are sternwheelers and paddleboats.

“St Marys used to have a lot of river traffic.” Johnson said. “Boats would drop off goods in town, and we’d watch.”

Johnson hasn’t made any model boats for a while now. He was diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus about three years ago, shortly before the cancer was remover by a surgeon.

“After the operation, they told me I could do nothing, take chemo, which would make me sicker than a dog, or do radiation.” Johnson said.

“I decided to take my chances and o nothing,” he said. “I’ve been feeling all right lately. I get regular check-ups, and the doctors said they got it all.”

Johnson is finishing up his last term on St. Mays City Council. He doesn’t plan to run for office again.

Mayor Lou Flade said Johnson is on e of the town’s most giving citizen and was instrumental in putting up most of the street lights in St Marys and building a stage at the town Marina.

Johnson was honored as the first recipient of the St Marys Municipal Service Award, which was presented to him Oct. 15, 1998.