My name is Yohn Yohnson
I come from Visconsin
I vork in the lumber mills there
Every girl that I meet
As I valk down the street
Says “Hello, what’s your name?”
And I say
My name is Yohn Yohnson
I come from Visconsin…
(Continue repeating first verse. This song never ends!)
Back when Joan was growing up, her family often took road trips. She and her two brothers, in the back seat of the family Chevy, would sing this song to pass the time. They would sing as long as they could keep it up—or as long as their dad could tolerate listening!
This wasn’t just any John Johnson that Joan and her brothers were singing about, but a special John Johnson who was a relative through her maternal grandfather’s family. Or so Joan believed growing up, because of what her grandfather had once told her. She only later learned that this particular ditty was just a song about some generic Scandinavian immigrant named John Johnson from Wisconsin! Joan learned the song and heard about the “real” John Johnson from her maternal grandfather, Martin Cornelius, who lived in Gary, Indiana when Joan was a child.
Joan’s grandfather had been born with the name Kornelius Kaspersen in Norway and came to America as an infant with his parents. Norwegians derived their last names by taking their father’s first name and adding sen (son) or datter (daughter). This meant that Norwegian surnames changed with each generation. Joan’s great grandfather’s name was Kasper Korneliussen (his father’s first name had been Kornelius) but Americanized his name to Casper Cornelius when the family emigrated from Norway. That left Joan’s grandfather, however, with the name Kornelius Cornelius! Since that wouldn’t do, and they were good Lutherans, Joan’s great-grandparents decided to call him Martin Cornelius instead.
The name John Johnson came up whenever Joan’s family would visit her Cornelius grandparents because of a sturdy sleeping cot that bore his name. In order to accommodate Joan’s family of five, the “John Johnson cot” would be brought out for one of the kids to sleep on. It was a large cot with a metal frame made sometime in the early twentieth century. It was purchased about 1926 in La Grange, Illinois, when a relative named John Johnson first came to visit Joan’s grandparents and was thereafter always known to the family as the “John Johnson cot.” Curiosity about this John Johnson led Joan to try to find out more about him over the years.
John Johnson was born Johan Michal Johansen on December 29, 1865, in Lysøya, Vikna, Nord-Trøndelag, Norway. Vikna is an archipelago on the mid-Norwegian coast, the same place Joan’s grandfather was born. He was a second cousin, once removed of Joan’s grandfather. Joan learned from her grandfather that John had a special place in the family’s heart because he had helped arrange the passage of Joan’s grandfather and his parents to America.
John had immigrated in 1884, settling in Wisconsin. He wrote back to the Cornelius family (to quote Joan’s mother) that “life is such easier here”. John had procured a job with the Omaha Railroad in a little village named Roberts, Wisconsin. Today, by car you could drive to Minneapolis from Roberts in about 45 minutes. The Cornelius family, however, didn’t have enough money to make the voyage to America. John wrote them again, saying that he would loan them the money they needed. Each ticket cost $40.00, and John purchased enough steamship tickets to bring not just Joan’s great-grandparents and grandfather but also several other members of the Cornelius family. With John Johnson’s help Joan’s Cornelius family was able to make the long and exhausting trip from Norway in 1887.
John Johnson was unmarried. When Joan’s great-grandparents arrived in Wisconsin, John gave up his position on Nils Nordby’s railway section crew of the Chicago, St. Paul, Minneapolis, and Omaha Railway in Roberts for Casper. He said that Casper had a wife and baby to feed, and it was more important for Casper to have the job than him. John went to work on a railway section crew for the Great Northern Railway out of Minneapolis, Minnesota. According to Joan’s grandfather, John lost the sight of one of his eyes in a fist fight while working there.
John had another special bond with Joan’s grandfather as well. On December 14, 1865, just 15 days before John was born, John’s father and Joan’s great-great grandfather drowned together at sea. Her great-great grandfather, Kornelius Hallesen, had arranged to purchase Christmas goods at a small village named Austafjord with John’s father, Johan Fredrik Gunbjørnsen. Johan Fredrik was first cousin to Kornelius Hallesen’s wife, Anna Johanna Paulsdatter, so the men had family ties as well as a business relationship. Both perished at sea in the frigid waters that fateful day in December.
These bonds carried on through the years with the entire Cornelius family, including both Joan’s great-grandfather Casper and grandfather Martin. In 1913 John, while living in Baldwin, Wisconsin, wrote a letter to the Decorah-Posten, a Norwegian language newspaper published in Decorah, Iowa, that was read by Norwegian immigrants throughout the United States. In his letter he exhorted his fellow emigrants from Vikna to contribute to a memorial that led to the purchase of a minnetavle or plaque that still hangs today in the Garstad church in Vikna.
Out of this call to fellow Vikna immigrants grew an organization called the Viknalaget, a society of immigrants from Vikna. John and Casper were founding members, and, in fact, the organization’s first meeting was held in Casper’s home in Minneapolis. In May 1932 John joined Joan’s great-grandparents on a memorable trip back to Norway, a trip that held great importance in Joan’s family and was one she heard about as a child.
John Johnson would also visit the Martin Cornelius household from time to time. Joan’s grandfather was a faithful letter-writer, and there probably was correspondence between them up until John’s death. About four months after John returned from Norway with Joan’s great-grandparents, he underwent gastrointestinal surgery and died on January 20, 1933, in Minneapolis. He was 67. Gone was Casper’s childhood friend, a man whose father had drowned in the cold Norwegian waters with Casper’s own father some 67 years before–a man to whom his life-long friend Casper was indebted and to whom Casper’s descendants remain indebted.
The “John Johnson cot” is long gone, probably discarded or given away when Joan’s grandparents moved from Gary to Minneapolis in their later years. John Johnson, however, is certainly not forgotten. If it hadn’t been for his kindness and generosity, Joan’s great-grandparents may never have made the trip to America. The (not so) simple act of giving up his job to Joan’s great-grandfather may have made the difference between failure and success in building a new life in a strange and foreign land.
As far as Joan is concerned, John Johnson IS the “Yohn Yohnson from Visconsin” in the song she learned from her grandfather and taught her own children to sing.