George F. Johnson rose to prominence in local industry with only a sixth-grade education

·4 min read

First of three parts.

In the over 400 columns that I have written thus far, I have commented many times on the history of the Endicott Johnson Shoe Corp. and its president, George F. Johnson. In many of those instances, I have written of the many benefits and acts of good will by George F. Yet, I have never really written about his life, which seems a loss of which I hope to remedy over the next three columns.

Why so many columns about just one man? To answer that, you must realize the importance and significance that he had in the development and expansion of this area, both economically and socially. Beyond that, he had a large impact on the national business world with his managerial style. To understand what he was able to achieve, we must look back at his life and how his beginnings affected how he grew as a man and as a business leader.

George F. Johnson was born on Oct. 14, 1857 to Francis A. Johnson and Sarah Jane (Aldrich) Johnson in Milford, Massachusetts. His father was working in the shoe industry, and the family moved several times. His older brothers were Oscar, born in 1853, and Charles Frederick (known as C. Fred), born in 1855. The Johnsons later welcomed Lottie in 1863, and Harry L. in 1873.

During the Civil War, Francis Johnson served as a captain for the state of Massachusetts. Despite his military service, the Johnson family was poor. The wages of shoe and boot industry workers in Massachusetts was low at best. George F. told many that he did not have the nickel it cost to ride the merry-go-round in the town they were living when he was small boy.

At the age of 14, George F. Johnson went to work in the shoe and boot industry, along with his father. It was a way for more money to come into the Johnson household, and help with the growing expenses of the family, as young Harry L. and Lottie were still at home. Oscar was busy studying to become a minister in the Methodist church.

In 1876, George F. Johnson married Lucia Anna Willis in Massachusetts. They welcomed a son, Walter, in 1877 and George W. Johnson in 1880.

Shortly after the birth of George W., a letter arrived from the Lester Brothers Boot & Shoe Company in Binghamton. The company had begun in 1854 in Binghamton and was operated by brothers George and Horace Lester. The opening of Weed’s Tannery on Susquehanna Street provided the fledgling shoe company the leather needed to manufacture shoes. The company continued to grow through the 1870's, and by the 1880's, it was looking for experienced shoe workers.

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In 1881, that letter appeared in the Johnson household offering a position with Lester Brothers. The apocryphal story is that the position was intended for Francis Johnson, George F.’s father. While it is possible, the first names were different, and George F. was already married and out of his father’s household. Regardless, the offer was welcome at the time, and George F. came to answer the call.

According to his own narrative, Johnson said he arrived in Binghamton with 12½ cents in his pocket and no shirt collar. The work would provide enough to bring his wife and young family to the growing city.

Johnson rose quickly in the firm. He was a good worker with a keen sense of business, despite only having a sixth-grade education. The labor unrest found in the local cigar-making factories weighed heavily upon him. He saw it as unproductive and divisive, with no real winners in the end. Johnson suggested to G. Harry Lester, son of Horace, that the firm would grow faster in the open lands west of Binghamton, in the Town of Union.

In 1888, Lester Brothers bought land to begin their planned village of Lestershire, and the Pioneer Factory opened in 1890 with George F. Johnson as its superintendent. Along the way, George and Lucia had Ernest (1881-1913), Earl (1887-1889), Zada (1885-1955) and Irma (1891-1926). Life seemed to be going well for Johnson — except for looming financial failure by the Lesters.

Next week: Endicott Johnson is born.

Gerald Smith is a former Broome County historian. Email him at historysmiths@stny.rr.com.

This article originally appeared on Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin: Endicott Johnson President George F. Johnson rose from humble youth