The Johnson House Hotel in Calhoun, known simply as the Johnson House, was located on West First Street, overlooking the Green River. A book in the McLean County History Museum lists those that registered at the hotel between January 1911 and January 1916, and on one date in 1918. Providing no further information about the hotel, and my curiosity getting the best of me, I began researching.
Mrs. Feturah Whayne Johnson was widowed in 1886, and with six young children at home, she turned her house into a hotel in order to make a living, and raise her children. At the time of her death in 1927, Mrs. Johnson had been the proprietor of the Johnson House for 35 years. Three of her grown children, daughters Carrie, Myra and Annie Ghee Johnson, then carried on in the management of the hotel.
The two-story Johnson House had 11 rooms available for accommodations--room and board, and was a hotel and boarding house, and much later a rooming house. At one time it was the only hotel in Calhoun. The dining room was also usually open for those not rooming there, offering meals for anywhere between 50 cents and a dollar.
The Johnson House was often mentioned in the Owensboro newspapers. In 1916 there was a regular “automobile passenger service” a few times a day, between the Rudd House in Owensboro and the Johnson House in Calhoun. The fare was $1.00, with a special party rate; round-trip fare was $1.50. In 1916 meals at Johnson House were available to automobile parties for 75 cents. The following year that rate rose to $1, and rates for a hotel room were advertised as being raised to $3 per day.
The entry in the Johnson House book for 1918 was for April 17, when the band of John Philip Sousa, which resided in Great Lakes, Illinois, was registered at the Johnson House, while on tour for Liberty Loan Day.
In 1919 Misses Mary Crit and Myna Lee Hickman (nieces of the Johnson sisters) “delightfully” entertained one Saturday evening with a Theatre Party followed by a Parlor Dance at the Johnson House. “One of the most enjoyable features of the evening was the exquisite home-made candy that was served.” Fifteen were in attendance, and “everyone expressed themselves as having enjoyed the occasion immensely.”
It was definitely a popular destination for those from Owensboro and beyond: In 1921 Mr. and Mrs. J.R. Laswell, of Owensboro, entertained with a family dinner party at the Johnson House one Sunday evening, in honor of Mr. and Mrs. Beecher Laswell and family, of Los Angeles. “Covers were laid for twenty-three. The party motored over for the occasion.”
In July 1922 this was reported: “The Johnson House, Calhoun’s only hotel, has been overcrowded for the past few weeks with guests. During the past week it has been necessary to procure private rooms for 15 or 20 guests who could not be accommodated at the hotel.” What may have helped with the number of guests was that the young men of the town had erected a diving tower about 20 feet out in the river at the bathing beach in front of the Johnson House, “providing much pleasure to all good swimmers.”
From another newspaper: “The radio fans at the Johnson House, on the night of Jan. 10 (1923), were able to hear the program sent out by the Los Angeles Times, which continued for about forty-five minutes. The numbers came in very distinctly and could be heard with the receivers three feet from the car.”
In 1928, specialty Sunday noon and evening meals were 75 cents at the Johnson House. The following year the Sunday evening meal was $1.00, with chicken served. A few years later, meals were reduced to 50 cents, perhaps due to the Depression.
In 1930, Eunice L. Bates of Livermore and R.V. Almon, formerly of Island, were married at the Johnson House at 9 o’clock one Wednesday evening. Following the ceremony the couple left for a wedding trip to Eastern KY. In 1932, a meeting was held at Johnson House, with a number of McLean and Daviess County citizens in attendance. During the meeting, the 2nd District Highway Commissioner relayed that “Highway No. 81” would receive a black top surface “of durable type” from Owensboro through Calhoun to Sacramento that summer.
In 1938, when radio station WOMI began transmitting from Owensboro, the following message of congratulations went out from the Johnson House, “With the radio listeners of your initial broadcast, we are congratulating you and ourselves on having WOMI, and such a WOMI. The talent was delightful, the reception was perfect and the knowledge that we have you and it in our midst is most satisfactory.”
A “Wishing-Well” luncheon was held at the Johnson House, Saturday, May 25, 1940 by the Saturday Musicale of Owensboro, covers being laid for 38 guests. The tables were beautifully decorated with containers of garden flowers. Place cards were miniature pianos. The Calhoun Lions Club was chartered in 1941, when 24 men and their guests gathered at the Johnson House for the occasion.
Through the many years of the Johnson House’s existence, people came from near and far to stay one night, or many—fishing, hunting, and/or returning to their roots to visit family and friends, while based at the hotel. There were luncheons, bridge-luncheons, bridal showers, weddings, dinner parties, family suppers and business meetings. Other groups that visited the Johnson House included political organizations that held luncheons, silver teas and dinners; the Business Women’s Current Events Club of Owensboro, which came in regularly for dinner parties and social sessions; and Owensboro’s Shakespeare Club, which came in for dinner meetings. Mention was made of a chicken supper given in 1935 at the Johnson House, by Owensboro Sheriff Everett Thompson, the jailer and deputy sheriffs, for several U.S. Court officials, including a judge, district attorney and U.S. Marshall—21 in attendance that evening. I am amazed that they could handle so many functions, and feed so many people, in addition to having a hotel full of lodgers that also ate there. Even in 1967, the newspaper mentioned that 38 guests were registered at the Johnson House over one weekend.
Phyliss Parsley, a young lady from Richmond VA, relayed her time in McLean County as follows, to a couple of people from Owensboro, who had traveled to Virginia in 1949: She came with the Red Cross when the 1937 flood was at its height. Assigned to Calhoun, she was quartered with other Red Cross workers at the Johnson House, and was there several weeks through the period of rehabilitation. Phyllis murmured, “Over yonder in Calhoun, Ky., at the Johnson House where Misses Myra, Carrie and Annie Ghee fed us so lavishly, we spent many happy days. It was hard work, yes, and we reached the Johnson House many an afternoon so tired we were ready for bed, but the lights in the dining room shone over plates of hot biscuits and country butter and fried ham. The Johnson House was home to us after we had been there but a few days.”
In 1972, following the death of the last Johnson sister managing the hotel, the Johnson House was put on the market. The former home, overlooking Green River “in its sweep to the Calhoun-Rumsey locks and dam” was razed in 1983, but left fond memories for so many.
Following are some notes I received, after my article about the 1937 flood. From Belinda Collings Thomson: “During the 1937 flood my grandparents, Les and Zilpah Hayden, lived in the white two-story house on Main Street, right by the old school. The house is still standing, but the original school building is gone. The school set on a rise, so many families took refuge there. My grandparents had a grocery store in front of the house. Granddaddy saved enough kerosene for his family and sold or gave away the balance. When the water began to rise, they moved upstairs and waited out the flood. Yes, water got into the downstairs. My granddaddy Collings’ brother-in-law, Wren Spain, and another fellow rowed a boat through the first floor of the courthouse. Of course, I was not yet born, my parents were 5 and 6 years old, but these stories are family lore that I grew up with. The store is gone, but the house still sets on Main Street, right by the current Calhoun Elementary School.”
Jennie Seymour shared that her father, Carol Johnson, also rowed a boat through the courthouse during the 1937 flood. I’m sure that was a sight to see! David Scott, of Beech Grove, said his dad told him that some families moved to their upper-story rooms and used a boat to come and go.
Island native, Euleen Rector Rickard, said that during the 1937 flood a Central City bakery was headed to Island with a truckload of bread, but the levee just south of Island was already under water. They needed someone to volunteer and go to meet the bakery truck. Euleen’s dad, Oscar Rector, volunteered. He owned a coal mining business, and he took one of the big trucks and headed out. After a while, it got dark, and Mr. Rector had still not returned. A crowd of people were waiting, and Euleen said her mom was beside herself, thinking that the levee would give out beneath him. At one point Euleen’s Uncle Bill said that he saw some lights, and he said, “That’s Oscar.” And sure enough it was. He’d made it back safely with the delivery of bread, and it was then rationed out—one loaf per family—maybe two if the family was very large. There were no trains running, because the railroad was washed out in places, and later on the levee was washed away, as well, but that day Mr. Oscar Rector was a hero to the Islanders!
The Museum and Treasure House are open Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, the Museum from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., and the Treasure House from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The Museum is at 540 Main Street, Calhoun. You can reach us at 270-499-5033.