By Kristen Miller
DASSEL, MN The Dassel History Center is in the process of completing a permanent exhibit featuring the life of an influential Swedish immigrant farmer from Kingston who eventually went on to serve as a US Congressman.
As one of the founders of the Farmer-Labor Party, Magnus Johnson is said to have fought for the farmer, the laborer, and the common man, proving he was more than a “dirt farmer” from Kingston as his skeptics believed.
“Washington was aghast to think that a dirt farmer, or a poor man, would actually be elected to the US Senate the most distinguished group of legislators in world politics,” said Julie Lindquist, who has been researching the former politician for the exhibit.
The exhibit, which is currently under construction until more funds become available, will highlight the unique life of Johnson and his political accomplishments that live on today, from his election campaigns to his political speeches and accomplishments.
This is the museum’s third version of the exhibit, said volunteer and designer David Broesder.
The first version was compiled in 2011, in time for Red Rooster Days. It consisted of a timeline of Johnson’s life, which focused heavier on context and how he fit in locally and globally, Broesder noted.
After the first version, the museum decided to revamp the exhibit.
As part of that, they turned the traditional timeline into a photographic one.
Now, there will be a mural, which is currently on display as a prototype of what’s to come, and tells Johnson’s story in photographs. From an immigrant farmer to US senator, the mural shows his accomplishments in his 65 years of life (1871-1936).
“We’re trying to tell a huge story in limited space,” Broesder said.
He noted that they also wanted to add an audio component to the exhibit so people could get a sense of his Swedish accent and the humor he depicted in his speeches and various commentary. Volunteers Jon Benson and Harvey Peterson are the voices heard in the audio.
They hope to show Johnson’s political stances and accomplishments, but in a fair and balanced approach.
“We felt we had to be very careful,” Broesder said, noting there are people in the area who grew up with their fathers and/or grandfathers despising Johnson and his what many thought were radical and communistic views.
They approached the exhibit in a fair and balanced way by providing comments that others were quoted saying, even negative commentary at the time, from the Dassel Dispatch publisher/editor, Charles Henke.
Broesder pointed out a list of Johnson’s positions in the 1920s and 1930s that were considered to be quite controversial for their time. He was for such things as social security, and equal pay for women, and against sales tax.
“It was an interesting and turbulent time in politics,” Lindquist noted.
As a member of the Farmer-Labor Party, Johnson was considered to be more moderate than the rest of the party, Broesder noted, adding that Johnson would end up being victimized, with the radicals taking control of the party.
“He was painted with the same picture,” Broesder noted.
Johnson was first elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives in 1914, and served two terms.
As one of the founders of the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party, Johnson was the party’s first candidate for governor in 1922, and again in 1926.
Though he lost both elections for governor, Johnson was elected to the US Senate in 1923, during a special election, but was defeated after one term in office. Johnson was then elected to the US House of Representatives in 1932, and then defeated for reelection in 1934.
Just prior to his death in 1936, Johnson ran for governor, but was defeated in the primary.
A mock-up of the exhibit is open for viewing, but Broesder said he hopes to have the final murals in place by early 2014, and “get away from the cardboard and grocery sacks.”
Who was Magnus Johnson?
“Magnus was a child who lost his father and had to go out into the labor force when he was 12,” Lindquist said, after extensive research through museum archives and newspapers during his time in politics.
Johnson was born in Lilejedal, Varmland, Sweden in 1871, and as an only child, was forced to replace school with the workforce in order to support his mother after his father died.
When Johnson was 19, and after his mother had died, he set out to fulfill his dream of emigrating to America. He believed that the democratic form of government was best.
His first job was as a lumberjack in Wisconsin, until he could save up enough money to buy 40 acres of woods in Meeker County.
It was after clearing the woods which took several years and resulted in very little profit that Johnson led his first successful strike for the woodcutters which resulted in a pay-raise. Woodcutters were typically poor immigrants like Johnson.
Eventually, he and his wife operated a successful dairy operation on 200 acres of land in Kingston Township, and Johnson would become a leader in the farm cooperative movement.
He was very much a supporter of “old-age” pensions, or social security; and advocated on behalf of World War I veterans who were denied the bonuses they were promised by Congress when they returned home. Johnson also believed in women’s equality.
“He was very progressive in his thinking,” Lindquist commented.
It is also believed that Johnson worked on a bill in which the government insured people’s savings, which would later become FDIC legislation under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
“That, he championed very early on,” Lindquist said, adding he was a “creative thinker and a generous person.”
He was also an advocate for the Rural Electric Association and Johnson was credited with suggesting the name Meeker Cooperative Light and Power Association, according to a book on the Cooperative’s 75th anniversary. Meeker County happened to be one of the first in the state to establish an electric cooperative, and the first county to go online.
Because of his reputation as a poor immigrant farmer from rural Minnesota, national news organizations were quick to react to his campaign and eventual election to the US Senate.
One of Lindquist’s favorite newspaper headlines she found about Johnson was from the New York Tribune in September 1923, when he won the seat in the US Senate. It read “No yokel and No Man’s Echo.”
The reporters found that “he has his own ideas and they deserve to be heard,” she said.
During his run for governor, Johnson was hit by a vehicle in St. Paul and spent seven weeks in the hospital, Lindquist explained.
There, he developed pneumonia, from which he never fully recovered.
Though he was encouraged to give up the race due to health, he continued fighting for the issues he felt were really important.
He died Sept. 13, 1936.
At the time, his funeral was the largest funeral held in Meeker County, in which 4,000 people, including dignitaries, celebrated his life at the Litchfield Opera House.
His gravestone, located in the Dassel Community Cemetery, has a depiction of the Capitol building, along with a common phrase he would say, “Going to another meeting.”