Getting to Know an Ernest Mann

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)
An illustration of Ernest Mann's Priceless Economic System. If workers stopped working for pay (i.e. turned off the faucet), society would be better off. Illustration by Carol Gatts for the Little Free Press, Vol. 8, No. 4, Sept. 24, 1977, by Ernest Mann.

An illustration of Ernest Mann’s Priceless Economic System. If workers stopped working for pay (i.e. turned off the faucet), society would be better off. Illustration by Carol Gatts for the Little Free Press, Vol. 8, No. 4, Sept. 24, 1977, by Ernest Mann.

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.

 

Mary Warner
Museum Manager
———-

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.

23 Comments

  1. Pingback: Three New Articles Online | Morrison County Historical Society

  2. It was through Ernest’ newsletters a friend and I started Give and Take free stalls in England about 1990, still going the idea sreading out over the country in differing forms. From this I have just started a new political party the ‘Gift Economy Parfty’ to create a moneyless society.Vicx

  3. Hi, Vic – I’m absolutely thrilled to know that Ernest’s influence continues to be felt around the world. I was fascinated with his story and how he took this one idea and worked so hard to live it and teach it.

    Thanks so much for sharing his philosophy and building on it through your own activities.

    Mary Warner
    Museum Manager

    • James W. Barclay, Sr.

      Mary, I knew Ernest (Larry) as far as I could say one knows another. You might see a couple of correspondences concerning a raft trip he had with a lady friend. In 1980 he came to visit me at St. Francis Catholic Worker in D.C. I had broken free, amicably, with my success and status driven wife, now deceased. I knew that beard and hair from anywhere. In his beat up station wagon he had a big box of dried fish which was very welcome considering we had run out of food. Took it in on his head. He joined us for dinner and by memory recited some of his philosophy. We sent him to bed and the next morning he was gone. He left the community a copy of “Free I Got”. He was fun to be around. When I traveled back to Worcester, MA I tried to spread the word about the “Priceless Society” (PES). “But, you see Jim, our local priest Fr. Bernard Gilgun, a radical from the word “Go” and close friend of Abbie Hoffman, Tom Lewis, Fr. Richard McSorley and the Berrigans, “isn’t that what Jesus tried to teach us all along and we’re trying to live by it?” I’m not a Catholic or a Christian, but have loved the CWM and been one for years. Most of my friends are those people who did not know Ernest, but practice this life of sharing and being connected at the heart. You know, Larry loved us all, too. From him and others unconnected to the material slavery free I got a happy life with my bride who has an attitude such as mine. And we sail our little raft down life’s river everyday and loving every minute and may until we become fodder for the earth. As Socrates said before he took the hemlock: “I am nothing in excess; There is nothing in excess.”

      • James – Thanks for adding your memories of Ernest Mann. I love that the internet can help us remember people and share stories of them long after they are gone. (My goodness, I wrote this article in 2011. If it had stayed in our newsletter, no one beyond our members would have seen it. The longtail at work!)

        I’ll add your comments to our Ernest Mann file to give future researchers a more in-depth picture of him.

  4. I used to trade zines with Ernest, then one day I saw a guy with a bag full of books at a minuscule urban park on the West Bank of Minneapolis and sure enough it was Ernest. Cushing, MN is were I remember he was living. I also remember reading a police blotter in a community paper and there was a guy who was arrested again and again for hopping the freight out of the BN Northtown Yard to Little Falls and I just thought that maybe that was Ernest but maybe it wasn’t as it wasn’t Cushing.

    • James W. Barclay, Sr.

      Might have been, Stephen. Utah Phillips, the late folk singer and former hobo, had heard of this “little cat”. Ammon Hennacy, the Catholic Worker philosopher and activist took Utah off the rails. I knew Ernest when he had that old beat up station wagon. Ernest could get around. Real estate? Ernest told me he had sold furniture and gave it all up.

  5. I was a member of the hippie commune at Georgeville. Larry was a good guy. I remember that he despaired at ever getting the $100/month rent from us.
    Thanks for filling in the details of Larry’s life.

  6. always wondered whatever happened to the LFP, thanx for this info

  7. Looking to find out the history of a house in LF. When it was built and by whom and who has lived there besides me, any ideas?

    • John, the Morrison County Recorder’s office would be a good place to start. You can also stop out at the museum and we will see what we can find. We are open Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.

    • Hi, John – House history can be a tricky subject because it has only been in recent years (the last couple of decades) that people have cared about the history of their homes. We have to look at a number of resources to try to track down the history as best we can, and that’s no guarantee. Because it’s such a complicated subject, we suggest you pay us a visit at the Weyerhaeuser Museum and we can look at possible resources here and other places to look if we come up short. We’re open Tuesday through Saturday, 10-5, so stop in anytime.

      Mary Warner
      Museum Manager

      P.S. I see that our curator has already replied and she said basically the same thing. Good to see we’re on the same page with our advice!

  8. I knew Larry back in 1972. He had his press in a basement somewhere in Minneapolis. He let me put up a log cabin on his property in Cushing, MN. I stayed with Bob Gatts and his girlfriend Carol in their geodesic dome for a while. I had a wife (Lillian Ironheart, of the Upper Sioux Community in Granite Falls, MN), and a couple of boy children, Michael and Nathan. First we put up a tipi, and by winter we had put up a log cabin, chinked it with the help of friends just in the nick of time before winter.
    I was really shocked and surprised to read (above) about Larry’s being beaten to death by his grandson. I wonder why the kid was so angry at him.
    It would take too many words to trace that time in my life till now. Too many twists and turns. I’ll just say that I feel the invisible connection binding me from those years to now, and to the cause of Bernie Sanders . . .

    • Hi, Michael – Thanks so much for sharing your memories of Larry with us. He seems to have had an affect on a great many people, both through his writing and through the example he set in living an interesting life. (I think Larry would have appreciated Bernie, too!)

      Mary Warner
      Interim Executive Director

    • Hi uncle Mike people have been trying to get a hold of you. this is Sharon you should contact me.

    • I worked for Larry and the Little Free Press for a number of years doing some art work etc. We shared apartments and I eventually bought 40 acres from him in the Cushing area. He had a trailer on my current property near Lincoln Mn. until a couple years before his death. I have many stories from years of being friends with him and his family if anyone has any questions. Hello Mike Smith, good to hear your still kicking. Yes, Larry would have been into Bernie.

      • Hi, Bob – Thanks for sharing some of your experience with Larry. I’m going to add your comment (like I have the rest!) to our box on Larry. Since posting our articles in the newsletter and online, we have gathered quite a lot of history on him, but it’d be nice to sit down with you and collect some more. I wonder what Larry would think about how we’re all trying to carry on his history and philosophy.

        Mary Warner
        Executive Director

  9. My friends and I knew the guy who gave out “Little Free Press” reading material as the free system man. We’d see him in down town Minneapolis or in the Whittier/Phillips neiborhoods on the south side. I first met him around 1973 ( I was 16 ) on the Nicollet mall where he explained what we call now consumerism, and the use of media to control us. He claimed subliminal advertising was used to make us buy things we didn’t even want or need. I told him he was crazy. He said ” Walk over to 7th and Hennepin and find the billboard for Kesslers (I think) whiskey; look for a pair of reading glasses with the devils face in one lens hidden in the art work. I walked over and in the beveled edges near the top of the whiskey bottle just below the neck there it was, just like he said. Blew my mind! Another time I gave him the suggested donation to of ( I think)a nickel for a pamphlet and a cop standing near by says “Think you need a permit to sell those”, free system man starts in on the cop(can’t remember what he said) I tell the cop ” He’da give it to me free anyways; this is the free system man!”, and he says to the cop “Thats right” He was always dress in some outlandish gawdy homemade out-fit. Once he was wearind a tin foil crown and a robe, I say somthing like ” Whats with the crown?” and he replied “I’m the king of Me-I.”, and proceeded to give me another lesson on thinking for myself. I was in my mid teens. Thats all I remember

    • Clifford – Thanks so much for sharing your memories of Ernest Mann. Each bit of information we get helps to paint a more complete portrait of him.

      Mary Warner
      Interim Executive Director

  10. The Little Free Press was sold on the streets of Minneapolis in the late seventies by an eccentric fellow named MIke Belchak, who would dress up in outlandish costumes that he created from found materials, that illustrated his attitude about the rat race and the money economy. Attached to one costume was a little man in a rat wheel, going around and around and getting nowhere; another had a dollar bill suspended in front of Mike’s face, so that he was always chasing the dollar. He sold the paper for a penny “if you’ve got it” – otherwise it was free. Mike died in a car/bike accident in Michigan in the eighties.

    • HI, Greg – Thanks for adding your story about Mike Belchak to our saga of Ernest Mann. Ernest’s life seemed to have had a ripple effect on those who knew him. We will add your story to our Ernest Mann box. Thanks again!

      Mary Warner
      Executive Director

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