After decades of journeys, Conestoga wagon ends trip at county library

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When Switzerland County librarian Shannon Phipps began to get correspondence from Robert Johnson of St. Paul, Minnesota, about his aunt, Amy Johnson, the librarian’s curiosity began to be peaked.

When a large box arrived earlier this month, her curiosity turned into a Switzerland County mystery.

“From what can tell from the minutes, she was here from 1930 to 1946,” Phipps said of Amy Johnson, who served as the Switzerland County librarian for close to two decades. “Her nephew sent me an email with photos and said that Amy was his aunt, and he’s had this in his house, and none of his kids want it, and he’s trying to downsize – he’s close to 90 – and so he wanted to know if it could come back to where it originated.”

‘It’ is a small scale replica of a Conestoga wagon, which – along with a couple of handmade dolls and some miniature furniture – helped Amy Johnson tell the story of the migration West by settlers to the children who attended her Story Hour times at the local library.

“She made the little dolls,” Phipps said. “We think the wagon and some of the furniture was built here by a Switzerland County farmer whose children attended the Story Hour times, and who thought Amy Johnson could use some visual aides to better tell her story.

“This is what he knows,” Phipps said of Robert Johnson. “His aunt told him that a local farmer would bring his children to story time, and he did odd jobs, and she told stories about the settlers coming West, so he built her this stuff to use in story time.”

In his email to the Switzerland County library, Robert Johnson told of the history as he knew it:

Amy Johnson was librarian in Vevay Indiana during the depression years of the thirties. She was a great teller of stories. A local farmer would bring his children to hear her story time. I believe he would also do odd jobs for the library. He heard Amy tell stories about the settlers coming west and asked if she would like some props for her stories. He constructed the wagon and I believe the china cabinet and the small table. He offered them to Amy free but Amy insisted he accept something for his effort. It was settled that Amy gave him $1.00. This was a good reward considering a loaf of bread was ten cents and you could buy a new car for less than a thousand dollars.

Amy made the two rag dolls and acquired the large table, the spinning wheel and the assorted chairs. She had them with her in her apartment in West Lafayette. We would see them when we visited her during our trips to see my folks in Attica. On her death the collection was sent to me in St. Paul, MN. It has had a place in my basement family room since then. None of my family are interested in having the wagon and my wife and I are trying to down size our over fifty years of collecting stuff so I was happy to find a home for the wagon at its origin.

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And the story of the migration of early settlers was something that Amy Johnson knew first hand – only in reverse.

“She started in Montana, and then she was here – I don’t know why she came here – from Attica, Indiana,” Phipps said. “So they hired her, she must have applied for the job when the previous librarian left; and after she was here, she went up to West Lafayette and worked in the Purdue library.”

Yes, Amy Johnson lived a very interesting life.

According to the emails that Phipps received from Robert Johnson, Amy Johnson was born and raised in Attica, Indiana, graduating from Attica High School in 1917. From there, she attended Indiana State University for a year, and then completed a short course in library science in Riverside, California and 1921.

She became the librarian at Chauteau County in Fort Benton, Montana; and then came to Vevay to serve at the Switzerland County library from 1930-1946. Leaving here, she moved on to the Benton County Library in Fowler, Indiana; then to the Peabody County Library in Columbia City, Indiana; before moving on to serve in the Catalog Information area of the library at Purdue University, retiring in 1969.

Amy lived in an upstairs apartment in West Lafayette during her time at Purdue and also in her retirement.

She died on September 25th, 1984. She was never married and had no children, which is how her nephew, Robert, ended up with the wagon.

Attached to the email the Robert sent was a photo, which he said was taken in August of 1980. It shows Amy with her siblings: brother Clarence – Robert’s father; and brother Lambert and sister Edith Dabney, who lived in Portland, Oregon at the time. The Johnson kids where the children of Charles Ludvig and Hulda Johnson.

But back to the ‘mystery’.

Who was the builder?

Phipps said that most of the children who would have attended the Story Time events then would be in their 80s and 90s now; and she’s been doing research to see if she can determine when during the 16 years that Amy was here that the wagon and other things were built and donated.

“I’ve tried to read back through the minutes (of the library board of trustees) to see if there was any mention of it, but there wasn’t,” Phipps said. “We’re hoping that maybe someone out there will see all of this it will spark a memory and we can learn more about it.”

The wagon, affixed to a board to keep it from rolling, and all of the other materials are now on display in the main area of the Switzerland County Public Library. Even for those who don’t have information about the wagon, it’s still a remarkable piece of construction – to the point of art.

“From what Robert told us, he thinks it was in the early 1930s, so the Depression Era,” Phipps said. “But all he knows is what his Aunt told him, so we’re hoping that someone out there can help us learn about it. Maybe somebody remembers coming to Story Time and seeing it. Hopefully we’ll get some clues.”