Spotlight: Marian Johnson

Marian Johnson, left, and her late husband Dr. Bob. 

Marian Johnson has lived in Kodiak for 65 of her 89 years, witnessing the growth of the island into a thriving community even before Alaska became a state. She made the island her home before it had a large residential population, and before there were paved roads or reliable power. 

Johnson moved from her more comfortable and predictable life in Seattle to isolated, rugged Kodiak Island, which made up for its lack of amenities and comforts with adventure and a tightknit community. Growing up during the Depression, during which she was constantly concerned about money and food, taught her the resourcefulness and resilience she needed for life on The Rock.

Her Kodiak adventure began when her then-boyfriend and future husband Dr. Bob invited her to sail with him and his family to Kodiak across 1,200 nautical miles of open ocean. Johnson jumped at the idea of a sailing trip. She had never been on a boat before. 

“I didn’t know anything about sailboats,” she said. “I learned to love it.” 

The trip was unlike anything she had experienced before. For six weeks they sailed the Inside Passage on the Windbird, a 38-foot ketch sailboat. Without radar or modern safety equipment, they often faced treacherous, high seas and high-speed winds. 

Despite the danger, Johnson recalls the time fondly. She saw abundant marine wildlife and visited different towns along the coast, including Ketchikan and Juneau. It was also the first and only time in her 89 years that she could relax and “just enjoy something,” she said. 

It did not take long for Johnson to win over Dr. Bob and his family. When they finally reached Kodiak, she fell in love with the island. 

“I thought it was fun. I loved the people. It was a small community like Ballard (Seattle),” she said. 

The couple fell in love and were married soon after the trip. After her husband graduated from medical school at the University of Washington School of Medicine, they moved to Brooklyn, New York, for his medical internship. 

 

THE MOVE TO KODIAK

In 1955 they moved to Kodiak, and Dr. Bob began working at his father’s medical practice. He dove into his work and, as one of only two doctors in town, was constantly busy, leaving Johnson to figure out how to become a homemaker in Alaska. New to the frontier lifestyle, Johnson taught herself how to clean and filet salmon, can meat and chop wood, the latter of which she disliked with a passion. 

“I’m not too fond of chopping wood. I never was good at it,” she said. But living in a small log cabin with just a fireplace for heat and an oil stove for cooking, it was a necessary task — that is, until the resourceful Johnson realized Kodiak had large supplies of coal. 

“I could gather that up and that made wonderful fire,” she said, recalling how excited she was to never again need to depend on chopping wood for heat. 

Dr. Bob, who loved to try new things, once bought and slaughtered a cow to feed the family. Johnson had to learn how to can the meat, a laborious task that she dreaded.

“We didn’t have a pressure cooker and I did 150 cans of canned meat, which I pressurized,” Johnson said. 

After pressurizing them, she had to chill them.  

“I just opened the back door of the cabin and threw them out in the snow, where they went ping, ping, ping. I never did it again,” she said. 

As the years passed and their family grew, the couple moved from a small, rustic cabin to a large house they built on the ocean on Spruce Haven. Johnson recalled always having electricity, but it was sporadic and expensive. 

“We were always very careful about our electricity usage. Electricity used to be our biggest expense, but it’s not anymore. We are very lucky,” she said. 

Electricity supplies were also unreliable, and Kodiak families would experience frequent blackouts during stormy weather. Kerosene lamps were a necessary backup. But over the years, the Kodiak Electric Association vastly improved the lives of residents with more affordable and more reliable power, Johnson said.

During that time, Kodiak also had a large military presence that had moved in during World War II. Branches of the U.S. Army, Navy and Coast Guard were stationed throughout the island. 

“We had the military here for a long time. Lots of parties, lots of dancing and great food,” Johnson recalled. 

Her father-in-law helped build the first library with equipment and books left behind when the military departed. Her mother-in-law worked as the island’s first librarian, a position she held for more than 20 years. 

“They said, ‘If you are willing to build a library, we leave all this stuff here,’” she said. “Dad was also interested in museums and schools, and everything that made a community better.”

They also helped organize entertainment, such as comedy and theater shows for the long, cold winter nights. 

During the 1950s, before television could be found in every home, Kodiak had the Milikens — a creative and musical group consisting primarily of women — to entertain housewives antsy with cabin fever during winter, said Johnson’s oldest son, Craig. 

“It shows you the resourcefulness, the willingness to make the frontier more fun because there was a lot of comedy in it,” Craig said. They created songs from popular tunes, such as “The Cannery Blues” and “Dusty Kodiak Roads.” 

Dr. Bob, a passionate “piano man” as Johnson endearingly describes him, started the Kodiak Arts Council to bring musical and theatrical performances to the island. His father was a big supporter of the school district, working hard to keep the schools as modern as possible, Johnson said. 

Johnson also recalled having many friends and going dancing most nights. 

“It was just fun,” Johnson said. “After the earthquake and tsunami of 1964, we had bands in most of the bars.” 

That earthquake was a day that Johnson will never forget.

“I’ve lived through so many tsunamis,” she said. The one in 1964, however, was different. “It scared the pants off me: I had three little kids and no way out.”

After the earthquake struck, Johnson was cleaning up the broken glass and other items that had fallen in the house. While cleaning, she turned on the radio and heard urgent messages telling people to find higher ground because a tsunami was going to hit Kodiak. 

“By that point we had suffered an earthquake, which dropped Kodiak 4 to 6 feet, and I realized I couldn’t get out of the property because the road was gone,” she said of her home in Spruce Haven, which was connected to Spruce Cape Road by a single narrow access road. 

Johnson and her children stayed in their house and hoped for the best. Fortunately, the tsunami never made it over the cliffs, but those closer to town witnessed the destruction of the city’s shopping and economic hub. 

For weeks afterward, Johnson and other families went without fresh water and power. While waiting for help, Johnson made due the best she could, collecting rain water until the roads were rebuilt and she could get water from town. 

Running water and power were not restored until federal money began pouring in to help Kodiak. The subsequent rebuilding period ushered in a new era for Kodiak. Fisheries excelled, money flowed throughout the economy and the population grew. 

“It was a boom town,” she said. “People tied up to the dock and started canneries, and it was a very busy time. There was lots of money, lots of people and lots of rebuilding.” 

 

A CHALLENGING CHILDHOOD

Life in Kodiak had its unique challenges, but Johnson was accustomed to a life of hard work. Raised in Seattle during the Depression, she was always concerned with having enough food to eat, despite the fact that her father held a decent job. 

Johnson learned about responsibility at a young age, landing her first job when she was 10 years old. 

“I got a job for 25 cents an hour at a corner grocery store. I was also going to school, and then I moved up to the bakery,” Johnson said.  “It was a job, and jobs were very important.”

Her father worked for Royal Dutch Shell oil company delivering fuel. He eventually ran his own business as a painting contractor for the company. He was also an avid hunter and fisherman who always provided for his family. 

After high school, Johnson attended the University of Washington with the hopes of becoming a dietician. But tragedy struck when her mother developed kidney disease because of a back-alley abortion she had gotten years before. 

“Birth control was something we didn’t have, and (it was) one thing that was badly needed so that women can be safe, take care of their kids and be able to raise them and be healthy,” Johnson said, adding that she hopes society never goes back to a time where birth control was difficult to access. 

“Birth control should be an option for women and it should be available. In the olden days it wasn’t,” she said. 

While her mother was sick, Johnson had to drop out of school to take care of her three siblings, most of whom were too young to attend school. As the oldest daughter in the household, it was expected that she would take over her mother’s responsibilities of taking care of the children and helping run her father’s business. 

“Lots of girls jump right in if mother is sick and if dad has to go to work. You don’t fight about it, you don’t whine about it. You just do it,” Johnson said.

After six months of taking care of her siblings and running the store for her parents, she realized she would never be able to go back to college and that this would become her new life. 

But she found a way out after her mother got better when Bob proposed to her. 

“I could tell that … I wasn’t going to get back to college, so when Bob said ‘let’s get married,’ I thought it was a great idea,” she said. 

While Kodiak gave her a new life, being married to the island’s only doctor was not always easy. 

“When you are the only doctor, there is nobody to relieve you. Every night there could be an emergency. Every night there could be a baby. He couldn’t go on vacation,” Craig said. “We needed more doctors then, but doctors didn’t want to move here.” 

Accustomed to difficult situations, Johnson took the hardships in stride, devoting herself to her children, family and the community. She focused her energy on raising not only her own boys but also children with single mothers who had to work. 

After her children grew up, she turned her attention to fixing up the Erskine house, which, thanks to Johnson’s work, now houses the Kodiak History Museum. 

The Erskine house was originally the Russian Magazine, a building used for storage when the Russians invaded and built their settlement in Kodiak. It is the oldest documented log structure on the West Coast of North America, and the earliest-built Russian structure in the United States, according to the Kodiak History Museum. 

By 1948, it had become a boarding house that sheltered many of the island’s transient fishermen, as there was little access to housing. However, after it became a boarding house, it turned into a “flop,” Johnson said. 

“It was a rental, there were no rules. There were a lot of bottles and debris upstairs,” she said. “I went down and started throwing things out the window at the Erskin house and cleaned it up.”

Johnson said she wrote grants to fund her project and turned it into a “beautiful” building. She converted it into a museum and worked as the director there for 25 years. 

“It was, for her, a labor of love. She loved Kodiak’s history, and she built the museum,” Craig said. 

His father and grandparents also helped start the Kodiak Historical Society, the nonprofit that runs the museum. 

Johnson remains proud of the building she helped conserve and also of how far Kodiak has come in the nearly seven decades since she arrived. 

“What I loved about Kodiak, we always had a population that seemed to get along with one another and took care of one another,” she said. 

(1) comment

Morghanna

What a fascinating tribute to Marian. As a former resident who grew up there in the fifties and sixties. Dr. and Mrs. Johnson were well known by me and everyone else who was raised there during that time span. I will never forget my memories of Marian or Dr. Bob. Thank you for this article. I have the highest regard for Marian Johnson.

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