1986-1987 awardee, Strongs (Chippewa County), blacksmith
Russell Johnson, born in 1918, is the third generation of a trade that brought his grandfather from Sweden to the woods of Michigan's Upper Peninsula (UP). Perhaps the only blacksmith left in the Upper Peninsula to specialize in making and repairing lumberman's tools, Russell is widely sought by people whose livelihood depends on good tools. He says the "pulp cutters depend on me." (1) He is adept at making tools for blacksmithing, logging, and farming--skidding tongs, stove scrapers and pokers, cant hooks, burning irons, punch hammers, log dogs, swamp hooks, walking plows, pickaxes, hatchets, knives, pickeroons, and double-bladed ax heads (or ax-pickeroons). He sells items on order, at a local store, and at home.
Working in a small, crowded workshop located in the eastern end of the UP, Russell is a spry, talkative man who rarely sits down. Sometimes he works through the night "if some logger wants it for the next day." (2) He values hard workers and those "who are willing to show up on time." (3)
Russell has taught his skills to son Raymond and grandson Chad, who often work alongside him, pounding the anvil and making the tools the Johnson family have been hammering out for 100 years. Russell helped Chad set up his own small blacksmith shop. He is willing to teach others, saying that the "basic rule is to have no fear of getting your hands black and make sure you love the work and are interested in it." (4) In recent years he has demonstrated his skills several times a year to local schoolchildren, and he was a participant in the 1987 Smithsonian Institution's Festival of American Folklife in Washington, D.C. and the 1987 Festival of Michigan Folklife in East Lansing.
A man who lives by himself, is at home in the woods, and earns his living making tools for those working with the land, Russell was the featured woodsman in Michael Loukinen's film Good Man of the Woods, and Russell now often signs his letters, "Russell Johnson, Logger's Blacksmith and Good Man of the Woods."
(1) Johnson, Russell. Personal letter to Marsha MacDowell. 11 September 1989.
(2) Johnson, Russell. Personal letter to Marsha MacDowell. 11 September 1989.
(3) Johnson, Russell. Personal letter to Marsha MacDowell. 11 September 1989.
(4) Johnson, Russell. Personal communication to Marsha MacDowell. 11 September 1989.
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