A monument and the fate of a village

The Your Home Public Library of Johnson City is, like the village that surrounds it, slowly crumbling and being forgotten. Despite recently joining the National Register of Historic Places, the old red brick mansion has been overshadowed by the new Broome County Library in neighboring Binghamton. The folks who come there now are either too poor to afford cars to go into Binghamton or die-hards like myself. Yet, the building still sees use and life, which is more than can be said for the monument next to it.

The Harry L. Johnson Memorial used to face Main Street, however, when the old Endicott-Johnson Fitness Center was built next door, it was moved down to the side of the Library, where it sits today, surrounded by dry brown weeds and cracked pavement. The monument itself is quite typical of those across the country; it consists of a raised horseshoe-shaped dais, with a bronze statue in the center flanked by semi-circular stone walls that bear inscriptions and bas-relief plaques with images on them. The statue in the center, presumably of Harry L. himself is seated, looking sternly across the Village. Below it an inscription reads “IN MEMORIAM HARRY L. JOHNSON 1922, ” and above his head another says “ ‘Be not weary in doing well’ Gal. 6:9.” On his right hand side, the bronze plaque shows a seated Harry L. calmly arbitrating for a group of workingmen who are all keenly intent upon whatever he is saying. “ ‘Greater Love Hath No Man Than This That A Man Lay Down His Life for His Friends’ St. John XV XIII.” Above the plaque, carved into the stone is the line “Erected by Endicott Johnson Workers.” On the other side, above the plaque, the sentence continues “And Citizens of Johnson City, N.Y.” The plaque on this side is bit more worn and cryptic but appears to be a prototypical American family of four children and their parents emerging from their home and looking down the street, some of the children appear to be carrying garlands to greet someone’s arrival.

Near Harry L.’s foot is a small inscription that reads “John F. Paramino Sculptor 1922.” It is interesting that Paramino was hired to do this job. A search for his other pieces finds that he pretty much worked in Boston making bronze and stone likenesses of Revolutionary War heroes, Presidents and leading Puritans from the Colonial Era. The commissioners of the Harry L. sculpture obviously desired to have an artisan who new how to convey the grandeur of a Founding Father and were willing to ship him in from Boston to do the work.

The inscription “Erected By Endicott Johnson Workers” is not unique; it is also seen on the nearby George F. Johnson Memorial and on the grand Square Deal Arches that grace both ends of Main Street. It must be noted that while there was certainly great (though not universal) love of the Johnsons in the Village, the EJ Workers Associations were controlled by the bosses and were not independent unions. In fact, an important event commemorated in Village history was when the EJ employees defeated a union vote and members of the EJ Worker’s Association went out into the street and burned effigies of the union organizers. Company boys until the very end.

Through combining the various images of Harry L. as a benevolent leader and beloved community member, the proclamation of loyalty, even after death, of his employees and the various Biblical quotes, the Harry L. monument tells a powerful story. The fingerprint of the Johnsons is ubiquitous in Johnson City; off the top of my head I can think of 13 monuments to the family: C Fred Johnson Middle School, Harry L. Johnson Elementary School, George F. Johnson Memorial Highway, Frank Johnson Memorial American Legion Post, Sarah Jane Johnson Memorial Methodist Church, Harry L. Drive, CFJ Park, the George Johnson Pavilion (now renamed), the aforementioned Arches and two stone memorials, CFJ Boulevard, George F. Johnson Park, George F. Johnson Memorial Library, and of course, Johnson City itself. The Village and neighboring Endicott are also littered with buildings created by the Family and their Corporation: factories, tanneries, warehouses, cafeterias, libraries, parks, carousels[i], health clinics, a farmer’s market, dance halls, parks, theaters, shoe outlets, golf courses, mansions and entire neighborhoods of “EJ Homes” built to house employees. C Fred was mayor for a while; Harry L. started the library. George F. Johnson reportedly held off the City of Binghamton from annexing JC and drove the KKK out of the Village during their all-powerful era in the 1920s.[ii]

There is not, however, a single street, building or memorial, dedicated to the workers who built the buildings or who made the shoes. This a bit shocking to me, for those people, the anonymous mass that leaned close to hear Harry L.'s words were many of our ancestors. They braved the journey across the ocean or out of the farm and worked long and hard to build this community, to raise their children and create lives for themselves. Today we enjoy still the fruits of their labor and sacrifice.

My concern, though, is not to debate history and whether the Johnsons and the EJ Corporation are justly memorialized, whether their model of the “Square Deal” and “Industrial Democracy” is better than unionization, or any other similar discussion, but instead to ponder how the ghosts of the Johnsons continue to haunt their Village today.

Since the day George died in 1948, the Village seems paralyzed, spiraling into oblivion and helpless to do anything but watch.With an occasional blip, Johnson City has continually hemorrhaged people, jobs and income since that day. As pitiful as it sounds, we have been waiting for him to come back and tell us what to do next.

When a community is created and shaped by the will of one man (with a bit of help from his brothers) and when the people of that community elevate that man to a mythical, can-do-no-wrong status, what happens when that man dies? We in America treasure and laud our democratic traditions and status as a republic. Yet at the same time, in countless communities, we have abandoned this same self-confidence and resilience and instead turned to the worship of leaders. The strength of this anti-democratic tendency can be seen not just in fawning memorials and historic effigy burnings, but in our present-day fascination with strong, benevolent leadership. But, as Johnson City, and so many other abandoned factory towns, mutely demonstrate, strong leadership is not always benevolent. The debates raging over executive power in Washington perhaps echo these same sentiments, but I have been around too long to not know that the Democrats are just waiting for a Kennedy, Roosevelt or King to take control and lead them to the promised land. Their problem is not with a strong executive, but one not from their camp.

However, Washington is a long way from Johnson City and is rarely what I think about when I visit Harry. Instead, my thoughts usually turn to the future of this little Village that the world has forgotten. What will become of the Johnson’s City? Or the Harry L. Monument, for that matter? Right now, it is slowly crumbling away, like the memories that inspired it; one can take that as a dire sign for Johnson City, as the coming death of our history and our community. There is in fact a movement to revive the monument, to drag it from its present location and re-erect it on Harry L. Drive on the other side of town. I suppose these folks are proposing this monumental waste of money and energy to avoid that type of historical oblivion. Yet, it is also possible that when Harry’s dais finally collapses and the plaques of doe-eyed workers and loving villagers fall from the walls, an entirely different event will occur. That instead of disappearing with its long-dead leader, the Village of Johnson City will finally be free to find its own path and its own voice, not from the Johnsons, but from clutches of their memory and our love for them.

-Posted by Jesse

[i] Broome County reportedly has the nation’s highest concentration of carousels, all operating for free and donated by George F. Johnson. The story goes that he loved them as a child, but wasn’t able to ride them because of the cost, so he gave six to the area towns and villages upon the promise that no child would ever be charged to use them. You have to admit, he was a classy guy, even if it was a cold calculated PR move as some might believe.
[ii] Not a small feat considering that the hate group’s Northeast headquarters was located in Binghamton, just on the other side of the Arch.


Harry G. Lewis said...

Yo sons, I remember when someone scratched a swastika, one of those nazi ones in HL's forehead, I was bummed cuz i could never converse with him on the state of the village like I could before. He used to tell me all the secrets to being a good mayor, now I have to rely on a 5th of Jack and a magic 8-ball from Park Pharmacy.

Todd said...

Good piece. It started me off on one of my usual tangents about the future of upstate and my native lands, the "North Country" and Adirondack area. In my home county, including in my hometown, there are a number of buildings sponsored by and named for A. Barton Hepburn. He's a name lost to history now, but he was a legislator, corporate CEO and active philanthropist. In short, just about the exact opposite of the careers my ill-educated classmates and I would set out on, graduating from high school in Hepburn's hometown. Sometimes I wonder if part of the reason is that we've lost cultural ties to the past, in addition to various socio-economic shifts in society. Are kids growing up in Johnson City aware of what was once happening in their city? I know the residents in Colton grow up without any role models, historical or otherwise, in the professions.

But again, just the beginnings of a tangent...continue with your regularly scheduled thoughts.

Jason Argo said...

My dear friend,

The Goodwill theatre, 278 carousels, parks and swimming pools were built by the Johnson family as monuments to the workers. Just because there aint plaques there on the monuments,(even though there might be one at the Goodwill) doesn't make these significant monuments less monumental or not in homage to the worker's everyday struggle in the EJ factories.

M. Night Shamalyan said...

Quit capitalizing the 'Village', I own the title to that movie!