How well do we know the people living in our midst? The lady with short dark hair who strides around town? The precocious boy with a hammer and screw driver who intends to dig rocks out of the pavement? The Ernest Mann with radical ideas about the world’s economic system?
Let’s examine that Ernest Mann for a moment. Ernest Mann is a pen name, and a very effective one at that. It lends itself well to the double entendre and aptly describes the man who adopted it.
I ran across the story of Ernest Mann in the Murders Box at the Morrison County Historical Society. His real name was Lawrence “Larry” F. Johnson and he was beaten to death by his grandson Eli Johnson on March 13, 1996. The Morrison County Record covered the story at the time, but didn’t mention Larry’s pen name or delve into his life philosophy. The only description offered about Larry in the primary article on the case came from Tim Wright, assistant manager of Suburban Mobile Home Park in Little Falls, MN, where Larry was living at the time of his murder. According to Wright, “[Larry and Eli] were peaceful enough people. Sometimes Larry did carry things on his head. Once I saw him carrying his laundry basket on his head, and once he was carrying his bag of groceries on his head.” (Morrison County Record, March 24, 1996)
But Larry was so much more than the man who carried groceries on his head. According to a feature article on Larry in the Twin Cities Reader, a Minneapolis librarian called him “the grandfather of the ‘zine movement.” (Twin Cities Reader, April 24-30, 1996) The Christian Science Monitor referred to him as “a sort of urban Thoreau.” (The Christian Science Monitor, May 16, 1990) The Minneapolis Tribune published an article on him in 1978; The Banneker Center for Economic Justice in Maryland holds a collection of his work; and an online search reveals that Larry Johnson is well-known among counter-culture groups. How many local people know anything about Larry’s self-appointed work or fame in the wider world?
According to Larry, he dropped out of the Rat Race in 1969, at the age of 42, after spending ten years as a salesman and ten years running his own lucrative real estate business. Prior to that, he had enlisted in the Navy to serve in World War II, studied economics at business college, and had a wife and three children. By all of society’s definitions, Larry was a success.
A pivotal event related to one of his real estate holdings in Stearns County inspired him to give up his socially acceptable life and adopt the life of a thrifty semi-nomad. In the fall of 1969, he travelled to Georgeville, MN, to collect the overdue rent of $100 from a group of hippies. The hippies explained that they weren’t going to pay rent because “Property is theft” and invited Larry to hang out with them. The event was transformative. “By 1972, he had sold all of his property, let his 16-year-old daughter Lynette “go out on her own,” gotten an amicable divorce from his wife of 25 years, begun protesting the Vietnam War (mainly because his two sons were of draft age) and been publishing The Little Free Press for three years.” (Twin Cities Reader, April 24-30, 1996, pg. 15)
He had made enough money through his business ventures to travel the world, practice his new philosophy of a low-consumption lifestyle, enjoy his freedom from being a “wage slave,” and produce his zine. His geographic anchor points were Minneapolis and Morrison County, both of which he returned to again and again over the years. At one time he owned a wooded piece of property in the Cushing area.
Between 1969 and 1996, Larry, writing as Ernest Mann, published 138 issues of the Little Free Press on an erratic schedule, with the final issue being released a week before his death. The zine was his primary vehicle for expounding upon life and his economic theory, the latter of which he initially called the Free System, but eventually renamed the Priceless Economic System (P.E.S.). The premise of the P.E.S. is simple: “If everyone stops taking pay for their work, there will be no monetary cost of production. All goods and services can then be free of charge. Thus, people will have no need for money, so they can work without pay.” (Free I Got, Ernest Mann, pg. 41)
While it’s an idealistic philosophy that depends upon the goodness of human beings, Larry so firmly believed this that he put it into practice after retiring. He lived in places that were free or had very low rent; he spent as little as he could on groceries; he divested himself of most of his possessions; and he stopped consuming popular media.
The Priceless Economic System was also in operation during his work on the Little Free Press. Though it cost $200 to produce (in 1976 dollars), Larry distributed it for the price of postage and would provide it for free to those who couldn’t afford that. He also allowed others to freely reprint and distribute the zine long before the Creative Commons license was invented. The zine was typically printed on two sides of a legal-sized (8 ½” x 14”) sheet of paper with four columns on each side.
Eventually he gathered his writings from the Little Free Press to produce two books, I Was Robot (Utopia Now Possible) (1990) and Free I Got (1993). It was the longevity of the zine that caused Ernest Mann to be called “the grandfather of the ‘zine movement.” It was Larry Johnson’s dedication to living his values, opposed as they were to standard society, that gained him a following and allows his zine to continue influencing people today.
Pretty impressive for a guy most local folks didn’t know.
Ernest Mann Describes Himself
“I put the following ad in a Minneapolis singles paper a month and a half ago and got zero response:
63, active, healthy divorced white grandpa. 5’7”, 160 lbs with full beard and long hair. I am a writer, traveler, self publisher, a self appointed Mr. Fixit for the operating system of Spaceship Earth, sailor, science fiction reader, an atheist and am secure but not rich. Desire an active, healthy and not over-weight divorced white female about my age, who doesn’t absorb or believe the mass media, who doesn’t get seasick, who likes and can afford economical world wide travel and who enjoys the quiet country life.” Is my problem, a rare breed of woman or an undesirable old goat?”
(Free I Got, Ernest Mann, pg. 69)
This article originally appeared in the Morrison County Historical Society newsletter, Vol. 24, No. 4, 2011.