The Impact of a Swedish Immigrant
on North Mississippi Architecture
Andrew Johnson had a significant influence on the “look” of north Mississippi in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Born in Sweden, he brought an innate sense of design to this area evidenced by the 77 structures attributed to him, 21 of which are on the National Register of Historic Places.
Johnson is recognized on the National Register of Historic Places because, as the nomination states, his architecture “…initiated a movement which completely changed the complexion of local architecture.” It goes on to say, “Though not proven, Andrew Johnson surely must have been Mississippi’s most prolific 19th century architect and builder.” (The National Register of Historic Places: “The Architecture of Andrew Johnson in North Mississippi,” 1982, 1985.)
The houses that Johnson designed were not the Greek Revival structures so common in the pre-Civil War times. His were ornately decorated and
distinctively embellished small cottages and grand two-story Queen Anne houses.
Johnson’s signature style included arched windows with bracketed hood moldings, porches richly decorated with delicately pierced brackets, bay windows, and front entry doors surrounded by sidelights and segmented transoms.
He made generous use of stock millwork, which was becoming more available, and no doubt studied the writings and drawings of A. J. Downing. With his memories of decorated cottages in Sweden and ornate churches, he created a style all his own.
Life in Sweden
Anders Jönsson (Andrew Johnson) was born in Yttermyra, Sweden, in the parish of Ovansjö on February 18, 1844. His parents were Jöns Persson and Anna Persdotter. Ancestors of Jönsson lived in Yttermyra as long as records have been kept. (See family tree at the bottom of this page.)
There is evidence that Per Jönsson, grandfather to Anders, was born at the farm “Liss-Jönses” in Övermyra in 1771. Per Jönsson later married and moved to Yttermyra nearby.
This area dates back to the Vikings. Iron was found in the rivers and streams around Yttermyra very early. The farm in Yttermyra where Anders lived was named, ”Per Jöns.” It was a farm passed down by Anders’ paternal grandmother to Anders’ father.
All the family moved to the village of Attersta when the original farm in Yttermyra was sold around 1861.
Little is known about Jönsson‘s education. He is shown as living in Ovansjö with his family in a parish book. In this same book it says that Jönsson was accepted in the army and had been to one meeting.
He is mentioned also as living in Storvik for half of a year in 1865. He is also called a “snickarlarling,” which means he was training to be a carpenter. It makes no mention of him attending a school for this so he was most likely an apprentice.
The town of Storvik was a small village in the 1800’s. Kungsgården is a village and the old center of the parish Ovansjö. As the railway came, the village of Storvik grew rapidly and became the new center. There was a large three-story house in Storvik that resembled the homes built by Andrew Johnson in Mississippi. It was named Knuss-Pellas, and it was built in 1860.
The next notation in the parish book says that Anders and brother, Lars Thore, who was two years younger, moved away to an unknown place in 1865. After that, little was known about them in Sweden.
Coming to America
It appears that Anders Jönsson and Lars Thore Jönsson used the last name, Blomquist, when they made their crossing to America.
This would not have been unusual at the time. In 1865 and in years prior to that the Swedish practiced “patronymikon,” which means names for boys were taken from their father’s name. Therefore, Anders was named Jönsson, which literally means the son of a man whose first name is Jöns. This created confusion, but it was very common with farmers.
Once a boy decided to go into the army or to seek a trade, he had to select another name to distinguish himself. There were just too many Jönssons and Anderssons.
Thus, Anders and Lars used the name Blomquist when they sailed from Stockholm on September 12, 1865. It appears they sailed to Germany, and then they probably took a train to Hamburg.
Then Anders and Lars boarded the steamship, Lord Cardigan, and sailed to the port in Hull, England, which was a major port on the route of Northern Europeans to America. They then sailed to Liverpool and finally New York. They probably landed in Castle Garden, New York (Ellis Island was not yet open), after sailing a minimum of thirty days across the Atlantic.
Why did Anders and Lars want to make this long trip to America? In 1865 there were not many opportunities in Sweden to make money. They had heard stories about how much money people had in America, and they probably decided to see if they could make money as well.
One family story that has persisted over the years but cannot be confirmed is that Anders was working on a building at Uppsala University before they left for America. (Keller/Everitt Letter, October 19, 1980) He was the youngest craftsman on the job, and the window that he built was chosen for a prize of about $100 by the King of Sweden. This could have happened in early 1865 in the six months that he is listed as being away from his home in Ovansjö.
As noted above, he is listed in the parish book as “snickarlarling,” which means he was training to be a carpenter. If this story is true, it would have provided needed funds for Lars and Anders to travel to America.
Life Begins In America
After landing in New York, Anders Jönsson’s name was changed again to Andrew Johnson.
Not much is known about Lars’ life in America except what is stated in his father’s, Jöns Persson’s, probate report in 1887. It states that Lars is dead, but he has a daughter, Jenny, living in America. Some research suggests Jenny may have died in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.
Andrew went from New York to Chicago by train and settled in a Swedish colony in Evanston, Illinois, just outside of Chicago. It is believed he went to work for the Illinois Central Railroad and studied English at night.
An American Bride from Sweden
Andrew had promised his fiancée, Anna Nilsson, that if he could make enough money to send for her in one year he would stay and send her money to come join him. That’s what he was able to do.
Their banns of marriage had been read in the Lutheran parish church in Sweden for three consecutive Sundays before he left for America. That was the tradition in Sweden.
Anna Nilsson arrived in New York on July 4, 1866, after an arduous journey of more than a month. She was confused by all the excitement of that holiday.
She traveled to Evanston to meet Andrew. She stayed with a family there until she could have a wedding dress made. She wanted a dress made in America so she would look like an American bride. (Keller/Everitt Letter, October 19, 1980)
Anna and Andrew were married August 4, 1866, and were very happy in Evanston among Swedish friends and learning English. They lived in an eleven room house. They had their first child there, Anna Lydia Johnson, born on April 28, 1868.
On To Mississippi
Only speculation exists as to exactly why and how Andrew and Anna came to settle in the small North Mississippi town of Sardis.
One belief is that he was hired by the Illinois Central Railway to build depots between Chicago and Memphis. Since the Illinois Central did not own that stretch of railway in the late 1860’s, this is unlikely.
Another is that he came to build the first Methodist Church in Sardis. This may very well be true, but how he found out about the project is a mystery. Some family stories say they had been living in Cairo, Illinois, just before coming to Sardis. This would have made it more likely he would hear about the church job, but there’s no solid evidence they lived in Cairo.
What is known is he came south with a crew of Swedish workers and was granted the contract to build the Methodist Church for $5,270 in 1870. This would mean he probably arrived in Sardis sometime between the summer of 1868 and the end of 1869.
Living and Working in Sardis
In Sardis, Johnson began building houses in 1870, as well as other buildings. The first house he completed was the Ballentine-Seay house, one of his most ornate houses. This house is at the corner of Pocahontas & Carlee streets. It is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and is still in excellent condition.
Johnson also started work on his own home at 111 Stonewall Street (the Johnson-Tate Cottage), which was completed in 1873. This was the first of his L-shaped cottages.
A watercolor rendering owned by his great-grandson, John Claude Johnson, shows the cottage surrounded by a pasture and fruit orchard. The house includes many of Johnson’s architectural details like a glass transom over the entry door and a spacious porch. The interior showcased beautiful milled wooden baseboards, iron and wooden mantles, and glass chandeliers.
These early houses provided an opportunity for Johnson to establish his signature architectural style. According to Anna Mary Tate, his granddaughter, “Although each of Andrew Johnson’s buildings are substantially different, they all exhibit the sincere dedication to design, ornamentation and craftsmanship which are the hallmarks of [his] work.” (The National Register of Historic Places: “The Architecture of Andrew Johnson in North Mississippi.”)
Johnson’s Collaboration with Architect, James B. Cook
Early in Johnson’s career in North Mississippi, he made the acquaintance of internationally known architect, James B. Cook, who had moved from London to Memphis, Tennessee, in 1855. Cook had been a supervising architect on the Crystal Palace for London’s Great Exhibition of 1851.
Cook came to America and lived in New York for two years before moving to Memphis to supervise the expansion of the Gayoso Hotel at the request of the Cincinnati firm of Isaiah Rogers.
Cook lived the rest of his life in Memphis and designed many buildings in Memphis and the surrounding area.
Cook was brought to Mississippi, to design the Sardis jail. He had a unique jail design that was advertised as being escape proof, and he had built a large jail in Memphis in 1868. Johnson was hired to build the Sardis jail for the sum of $12,700, which was the lowest bid. It was completed in 1871.
Johnson went on to build three more (documented) projects for Cook: The N. R. Sledge Store in Como (1872), Holy Innocents Episcopal Church in Como (1872), and the Panola County Courthouse in Sardis (1873). These last two were show places and, no doubt, gave Johnson more credibility as a builder.
Johnson The Man
Johnson was noted for his size and his personality in newspaper articles of the time and in family stories.
He was over six feet tall, which was tall for a man at that time, and he weighed more than 300 pounds in his later years.
The Southern Reporter noted that on a train trip to Memphis, “…[Johnson] sees a handsome new depot and other building at every place he passes on the road…all monuments to his skill and workmanship. No wonder he is getting fat. Success and prosperity would fatten almost any man.” (November 23, 1888)
Another article in The Southern Reporter stated that Johnson had been on the sick list. It goes on to say, “He’s weak but had not lost an ounce.” (November 4, 1898)
His stature earned him the nickname, “Big Swede.”
Johnson had all his clothes custom-made from suits to shoes. His daughter, Emma Helena Johnson, recounted that he never wore work clothes and was always well-attired. (Keller/Everitt Letter, October 19, 1980)
Johnson’s size was only matched by his generosity and character. He often brought farmers and workmen home to dinner. Family stories relate that he was a hard, but fair boss.
There are several mentions in the Panola Star newspaper and The Southern Reporter of Johnson stopping by the newspaper office to drop off peaches from his yard or do other good deeds.
One family story that highlights Johnson’s moral character has to do with the yellow fever epidemic of 1905. A train came through Sardis carrying the body of a man who died of the fever while on the train. The body was dumped outside of Sardis. No one but Johnson would take custody of the body and give it a proper burial.
A newspaper story also related that he built a monument in Rose Hill Cemetery for Reverend R.S. Nash at his own expense. (Panola Star, February 18, 1882)
Johnson was not without his eccentricities, however. He was the first to install a screen door on his house in Sardis. He ordered it from Chicago, and according to his granddaughter, her mother (Emma Helena Johnson), remembered it containing delicate spindles and palm trees painted on the screen. (Keller/Everitt Letter, October 19, 1980)
The screen door elicited much talk around the town since many people thought it would block the fresh air coming into the house.
The other topic of conversation around town was Johnson’s bathtub. He had a Memphis tinner come and build a tub big enough to accommodate his large size. It was made of either tin or zinc and covered with as many as 72 coats of white enamel. (Keller/Everitt Letter, October 19, 1980) This tub was in stark contrast to the small, beautifully made, walnut single bed in which he slept.
Despite these strange ways, the people of Sardis thought highly of Johnson. In his later years, The Southern Reporter said this of him during his work on the Sardis Methodist Church, “This long desired work he is building better than he knows–adding very substantially to his own reputation as a good architect, a good citizen, and a good man.” (September 11, 1908)
Johnson Family Life
Even with his success as an architect, Johnson’s life was not without challenges. Beginning a career in America as a non-native speaking immigrant could not have been easy. Relocating to Mississippi had hardships as well, especially with his wife and small baby.
Anna Lydia (born in 1868) brought her own challenges. She was evidently born with scoliosis or some spinal problem. In 1872, not long after the Johnsons settled in Sardis, Andrew took his daughter to Indianapolis to the renowned Dr. Allen’s Surgical Institute to have her spine straightened. She was just four years old at the time. The Panola Star reported that the surgery was successful. (June 1, 1872) Twelve years after Anna Lydia’s surgery, however, she suffered a fall from a horse and gravely injured her spine. She survived a short time before dying of her injuries on September 24, 1884, at the age of 16.
However, there were happy events for the family also. Anna gave birth to two more girls: Martha Victoria (1871) and Emma Helena (1873). Two sons followed: Andrew Johnson, Jr. (1878) and John Wright Johnson (1879). (See Family Tree at the end of this page.)
Johnson was busy with his building business from the time he arrived in Sardis in the late 1860’s until around 1910. Much of this time he was living in another town away from his family. As early as 1870, it appears Johnson had three jobs going at a time. The Southern Reporter commented on Johnson’s time away from home in the July 11, 1902, paper: “It seems that Lexington and other places are keeping so full of work that they hardly ever let him say ‘Howdy’ to home folks.”
The Southern Reporter gave details of him living in Oakland, Mississippi, in 1896 working on the Newberger Brothers storehouse; in Como, Mississippi, in 1899 working on three jobs (the R. M. Short house, the Craig house, and the Pointer/Wesson Store); in Lexington, Mississippi, in 1902 building a bank; in Coffeeville, Mississippi, in 1905 working on a church; in Byhalia, Mississippi, in 1906 working on another church; in Water Valley, Mississippi, in 1907 building yet another church. Surely these sojourns could not have been easy on him or his family.
Johnson also had to rely on ingenuity when the building business hit slow times.
In 1888, The Southern Reporter related that Johnson was building coffins during a slack period.
Later, in 1889 he opened a gin and mill that The Southern Reporter stated, “…was an immense establishment for Sardis, and would do credit to anyplace.” It could turn out 20 to 25 bales of cotton a day. (The Southern Reporter, October 11, 1889)
A few years later, the paper stated that he had been working in the “bottom” (most likely the Delta around Lexington, Mississippi) and, “…they have gotten out about 100,000 spokes, and he will be at home soon to start up the factory.” (The Southern Reporter, June 29, 1894)
Additionally, Johnson owned a hardware store on Main Street in Sardis for many years and worked there with his son, John Wright Johnson, in his later years. (His son also became a prominent architect and builder in Sardis and Memphis, Tennessee. To learn more about John Wright Johnson click here.)
Despite his constant work, there were many happy occasions in the Johnson home. On January 25, 1899, his daughter, Martha Victoria, married Robert Lee Thornton in the Johnson home. Three years later on June 5, 1901, Emma Helena married Charles Albert Anderson there as well.
Anna and Andrew also made several trips together to Washington, D.C., where their oldest son, Andrew, was working in the Navy Yard. In May of 1910, they spent a month in D.C.
Around 1899, the newspapers began reports of Johnson being unwell. On February 3, 1899, The Southern Reporter wrote that he had been sick but was improving.
This came at a time when Johnson was reaching the height of his career. The Southern Reporter called him, “…one of the most worthy and efficient contractors in the state….” (August 10, 1900) Later that month an article stated, “He is emphatically the man who ought to be elected Superintendent of the building of the new State Capital and the commissioners may depend upon the fact that there will be no botch[ed] work if he is given the Superintendency.” (August 24, 1900)
In 1905, the newspaper reported that Johnson had been confined to his home for three weeks following an operation to repair his leg after a fall.
One of Johnson’s last building jobs was the Sardis Methodist Church, completed in 1909. When bids were being taken for the building of the church, Johnson said he would bid $1,000 below the lowest bid to assure he got the contract. He said he came to Sardis to build the first Methodist Church, and he wanted to work with his son on this new church as one of his last projects. John Wright Johnson is listed as the architect and Andrew is listed as builder. (Keller/Everitt Letter, October 19, 1980)
By 1910 it appears Johnson had ended his building career.
In mid-1917, Johnson’s health had deteriorated severely due to diabetes. The Southern Reporter stated that his daughter, Martha Johnson Thornton, came to visit him for two weeks when he was confined to bed. (The Southern Reporter, July 20, 1917)
That week was the start of a tragic period in Johnson’s life. His son, Andrew Johnson, Jr., was called home from Washington, D.C., due to
Johnson Sr.’s health conditions. But Johnson Jr. was was so sick when he arrived that he was put to bed and the doctor called (The Southern Reporter, July 27, 1917).
That same day, Johnson Sr. was taken to Memphis, Tennessee, to the hospital for treatment. His foot was amputated due to diabetes and for several days the outlook was grim.
During that week, Johnson, Jr., got progressively more ill from the same disease his father had, diabetes. He was also admitted to the hospital in Memphis, and, unfortunately, after a week there, he died on July 29, 1917. His death was announced in The Southern Reporter on August 3, 1917, as well as in the East Gun Carriage Relief Association Yearbook at the Navy Yard in D.C.
After Johnson, Sr., had his foot amputated, The Southern Reporter wrote that he was getting around in a roller chair (August 24, 1917). His obituary stated that he had been confined to his home in the spring of 1921 and had suffered for months.
On July 29, 1921, Andrew Johnson died from the complications of diabetes. The obituary in The Southern Reporter said of him, “Sardis had had few citizens who have enjoyed a wider range in the circle of friends than Mr. Johnson, and we have never heard anyone say that he failed in the performance of a friendly deed.” (See complete obituary below.)
According to his will dated February 23, 1921, at his death he owned four brick buildings in downtown Sardis, his own home (Johnson-Tate Cottage), several acres of land in Sardis, and bank stock. But his legacy was not in what he owned when he died, but in what he left behind.
In an interview for an article in The Commercial Appeal newspaper (Memphis, Tennessee), researcher, Judy Holland, said this of Johnson: “He left a strong statement for this community. He literally built this community. His buildings are a statement. It says that a man should strive to extract the best he can from those he commands and give the best of himself that he possibly can to those who come after him.” (“The Big Swede’s Legacy,” May 3, 1961)
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