BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
Talking Chicago with Gary Johnson, President of the Chicago History Museum, puts you at the heart of our city. Six of his great-great-grandparents came to Chicago from Norway, and none of his direct ancestors ever chose to go anywhere else, which suits Johnson just fine.
“I don’t need any augmented reality, I can picture what it must have been like in Chicago when my first ancestor came in 1853. He came from Norway and realized his dream was to open a store to sell his national dish lutefisk. The store was on Potomac Street, west of Western Avenue, now part of Humboldt Park neighborhood. I love to walk those streets.
“When I was asked to speak at the National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture, close to where his store was, I thought with joy of all the waves of people that come into Chicago. I have loved Chicago history all my life.”
Two first edition Oz books by Frank Baum, whom Johnson reveals once worked as a window dresser at Marshall Field’s, sit in a case in his Museum office across from photographs of his family’s first house on the near west side.
A lawyer for 30 years before becoming CHS President in 2005, Johnson is deeply informed and always affable, projecting the enthusiasm of a child seeing the museum’s famous diorama of the Chicago Fire of 1871 for the first time.
As president, he presides over a collection of 23 million objects, images and documents, including 100,000 artifacts and the same number of books. Photos of Abraham Lincoln, whose artifacts are among the most valued in the museum, line the walls.
Who better to chat with about Chicago than Gary Johnson?
What is your favorite book about Chicago?
William Cronon writes in Nature’s Metropolis about how Chicago interacted with its wider environment—that area between the Appalachians and the Rockies, at every stage of its development. There are lumberjacks felling trees to our north and the Colonel McCormick using the paper for his newspapers in Chicago. A professor of environmental history at the University of Wisconsin, he is possibly the country’s leading historian and a recipient of our Making History Awards.
I am also a fan of Studs Terkel’s Division Street. Quite apart from the people whose lives he illuminates, he shows us that no matter what street you walk along in Chicago it is full of stories.
Do you have an exhibition at the Chicago History Museum that you most enjoy showing to visitors or just going back to on your own?
I love the architecture section in Crossroads Chicago. We see every day on the street masterpieces of Chicago architecture but, of course, much of it is quite high up and in a noise-filled environment. We have terra cotta fragments from landmarks, ironwork from a Louis Sullivan elevator—all sorts of wonders. This section is like my chapel.
If you could time travel to any period of Chicago’s history, what would it be?
I have always wished that I could have walked the grounds of the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. My father told me that his grandfather told him of sharing drinks with Buffalo Bill—although there are probably many with the same claim!
I know that you visit many schools and, of course, invite hordes of school groups into your museum. What do you find most fascinates them?
I have visited over 350 classrooms, prekindergarten through eighth grade, and I show relics of the Chicago Fire, which some of the classes have studied previously. It is such an honor to share these stories with them.
Once, when I was speaking at the Jose Diego School, a little boy kept pulling at my sleeve. I asked what was on his mind and he said, ‘You know, a Chicago hot dog doesn’t have ketchup.” He had visited the Chicago History Museum and had remembered that from his tour.
Tell me about your ancestors who came to Chicago in the 1850s.
My first ancestor to come to Chicago was Samuel Larson, born as Svale Staleson Hyland in Norway in 1823. He left his family farm on March 16, 1853, for Chicago and lived with his wife, Bertine. They lived at 1116 West Grand and Larson ran his lutefisk shop on Potomac Avenue.
I keep this letter he wrote to his brother back in Norway in August of 1859 on my office wall:
‘I must give you a short description of the town of Chicago. It lies at the southern end of the large inland waterway called Michigan in the northern part of the state of Illinois. The town’s length is easily three quarters of an old Norwegian mile. The town inhabitants number 110,000.
‘You spoke, dear brother, about how I have not been homesick. Since coming here, I can say that I am as satisfied as I was in Norway, and that it is not as bad here as the unfounded rumors would have it. Here there are no bloody wars with other countries and no civil war since I came here. There are certain numbers of swindlers herem but we can be on the lookout for them.’
He was saying, in essence, ‘There’s no way that I am coming home.’
Samuel Larson is buried in Graceland Cemetery. Some of the most interesting roads are through our magnificent Chicago cemeteries. Have you visited his grave often?
When it was time for each of my three children to get their learner’s permits, they would practice driving with me in many of the cemeteries including Graceland, Rosehill, Saint Henry’s (close to Misericordia), and Ridgewood Memorial in Des Plaines. I was very proud to show my children their ancestors’ graves in some of these places.
What are some of the initiatives you and your team at the museum are looking at now?
We must continue to make the digital world our friend. It is definitely not a burden, and I often use music when talking about technology with some of my older acquaintances. I tell them that we live in a treble clef, and younger people use a base clef, too. We have to be able to go back and forth. For some, I explain texts as interruptions, just like telegrams.
How do you picture CHS at this point in time?
When we re-opened in 2006 after major renovation we said, ‘Chicago’s oldest cultural institution is now its newest. I like that fact about us—we are always planning fresh starts.”
Anticipate the opening of the museum’s new exhibition, Spies, Traitors, and Saboteurs: Fear and Freedom in America, on April 8. For more information on this, the permanent collection, and it other wonderful exhibits, visit chicagomuseum.org.
Photos courtesy of the Chicago History Museum.