Laughter, family, and community service are highlights in the life and times of Virginia Johnson.
Born into what now could be called the "First Family" of the Mohican People, "Gin" was one of six children in the house of George and Laura (Gardner) Mohawk. "Gin" and her sister Emma Doxtator have the distinction of being the only surviving "full-blood" Mohican elders. For that reason it is worth mentioning the names of her siblings that have passed to the spirit world: Lillian "Chemon", Elizabeth, Riley and Cora.
Growing up in Red Springs, a young "Gin" didn’t have much choice about going to the Lutheran school on Mission Lake. She makes reference to the fact that when going to school she had to walk bare foot, up hill both ways.
Those early days were spent doing household chores like cleaning house and gardening. When she was allowed free time she enjoyed fishing, playing cards and rolling dice. As she got older "Gin" spent time thinking of Friday and Saturday night when she could walk to town for an evening dance. On the intersection of County G and Big Lake Road there was a dance hall called the "Cupcake." These weekend events offered a chance to meet friends and socialize. In the field across from the schoolhouse in Morgan Siding, Mack Tousey also had a facility that featured music on the weekends. "Gin" and her friends didn’t always have to walk up hill both ways as people with a horse and wagon or a car would usually stop to ask if they needed a ride. The biggest social events during "Gin’s" formative years had to be the Keshena and Shawano Fairs. "Gin’s" brother Riley raced horses at Keshena. "Gin" also mentioned an event in Gresham that she called the "Gag and Polock Show." From what this reporter could gather the event sounded like a traveling vaudeville show that was housed in a big tent.
For all the socializing that "Gin" did, she didn’t have to look to far to find the love of her life. A boy from the Oneida tribe was orphaned at an early age and not so uncommon in a Native community, Laura Mohawk took him in. At first "Gin" didn’t want anything to do with this Leonard Johnson. The girls had to make the beds, as of course that’s women’s work, and "Gin" resented having to make the boy’s bed. No one really knows how it happened, but it was rumored that "Gin" and Emma would put "stick-tights" into the boy’s bed just to let them know that they weren’t dealing with just any girls. Leonard worked odd jobs in the community and by the time "Gin" was 21, Leonard had won her favor.
Hilary Clinton wrote a book a few years back titled, "It takes a Village", referring to how children should be raised. Long before Clinton’s book was written, this was a concept that was implemented in the Johnson household. "Gin" and Leonard played the role of caring parents to all children. Not only did the Johnson’s raise 5 children of there own they also helped to raise 6 foster children and any kids that happened along.
Somewhere along the way "Gin" and Leonard built a house in Bartleme. Leonard at that time would travel weekly to Clintonville to work at FWD. After a while, the separation from his family became too much and Leonard moved his family off the reservation and closer to his work. The time that was spent living near Clintonville was a very happy time in the Johnson’s life. Leonard and "Gin" really enjoyed each others company and were rarely seen without one another. Their good sense of humor and caring of other people was contagious. They made a lot of friends and townspeople seemed to congregate at their home. On the 4th of July, the Johnson’s would host a summer picnic annually. There was always plenty of food, plenty of laughter and always a live Country and Western band. "Gin" was also mildly famous for baking bread. When people in the area could have baked their own bread or bought it from a grocery, they instead choose to visit the Johnson’s and buy it from "Gin".
"Gin" and Leonard were very particular about how they dressed. If they were going to town to do their "trading", they made sure they were dressed appropriately and that meant a dress, make-up, lipstick, dress shirt, coat and tie. Friday was the day set aside for trading. "Gin" would rise early, make breakfast for Leonard and then drive him to work. This driving thing happened in the summer and only during good weather. She would return home to the housework and pick Leonard up at five. Only one thing would distract "Gin" from her housework and that was the soap opera "General Hospital. A little known fact of "Gin’s" life is that she was a smoker. During that soap opera she allowed herself the indulgence of one Bel-Air cigarette a day. It’s probably OK to mention this too, in "Gin’s" eighty-seventh year, but she never had a driver’s license. The Johnson’s never really had much use for banks, so after work they headed to the bar to cash the check. After the obligatory beer they were off to market. When the car was loaded with a week’s worth of groceries the Johnson’s treated themselves to the traditional Friday fish fry.
Saturday morning was also an early rise in the Johnson household. After a large breakfast it was time to pick berries; Strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, whatever was in season. If berries weren’t ripe for the picking, the fish always were. "Gin" admits that she wasn’t the fisherman "Chemon" was but she did enjoy being on the water. Saturday was also the time to tend the garden. "Gin" said that the family always had a large garden but she never really enjoyed gardening. That was Leonard’s passion. "Gin" was more at home with a hammer and nail. One time "Gin" made a ladder for Leonard to get upon the roof. She made the ladder out of basswood because it was easier to pound the nails into. It was a beautiful ladder and worked well until Leonard broke through the top rung.
When grandchildren appeared on the scene Grandma "Gin" was always ready with a stick of "Juicy Fruit" gum. In fact her purse always smelled like "Juicy Fruit". As the family grew, Sunday’s became more and more of a ritual. The Johnson’s, particular about their dress, were also particular about table manners, but never did they lose their sense of humor. It was important to say, "Please pass" but to the delight of the children present, it was never "Please pass the milk". It was "Please pass the cow". Never "please pass the fried chicken", but instead it was "Please pass the dead chicken". Changing words for humor’s sake was something that the Johnson’s always did. Terrie Terrio, Tribal Treasurer and granddaughter of "Gin’s" said that occasionally "Gin" and Leonard would go to Grosskopf’s to get ketchup but mysteriously never return with the item.
As fun loving as this family was, there were some peculiarities. Even though they had a dryer "Gin" insisted on hanging the clothes out to dry. The Johnson’s had an indoor bathroom but felt it necessary to continue using the outhouse to "save" on the bathroom.
After 35 years of service to FWD, Leonard retired and he and "Gin" moved back to the reservation. Leonard and "Gin" continued to find the humor and fun in life. They enjoyed going to area parks to picnic with family and friends. Local carnivals and fairs remained a social event for the Johnson’s. They could be found at the burger and beer stands, laughing and joking with friends. Because Leonard was punished for speaking the Oneida language when he attended the Tomah boarding school, he enjoyed telling jokes in his Native tongue. Not everyone understood the jokes, but pretty much everyone laughed.
Since Leonard’s death, 24 years ago, "Gin" finds her pride in her 30 or so grandkids. For their benefit "Gin" enjoys working with various youth programs in our community. In 1998, she was named "Elder of the Year" by the Education Program for her work with the youth. Prior to that, in 1996, the Tribe honored "Gin" for her contributions to the community. She is very active in the Elder Steering Committee and Historical Committee. "Gin" currently resides in the Moshubee Elder Apartments, located in the "Housing".
Very much to form, during our interview Virginia mentioned that her favorite restaurant is Pizza Hut cause that’s one place that you don’t have to make many decisions, because you always know exactly what you are going to get--That of course would be...pizza!