Since “Getting to Know an Ernest Mann” was published in the last issue of the Morrison County Historical Society newsletter, we have learned a great deal more about Larry F. Johnson, the man behind the moniker “Ernest Mann.” The information the museum has received via a number of generous sources has been voluminous enough to warrant creating a box in the archive specifically for Larry.
Sandra Nelson of Little Falls, MN, donated twenty-one issues of the Little Free Press zine that Larry produced. Sandra worked at The Print Shop in Little Falls, which printed the zine. The donated issues run from 1994 through 1996. Sandra also provided a copy of the program for Larry and his grandson Eli’s memorial service.
Rod Johnson, one of Larry’s children, sent copies of photographs of his father along with a copy of the Twin Cities Reader article written about him. He also gave us some genealogical data about his father.
Carol Christiansen, who met Larry when she was 18 and considered Larry and Eli members of her family, sat down for an interview about his life and brought with photo albums and other related ephemera. She allowed us to scan several photos of Larry, including one showing him standing at ease with a bag of groceries on his head (a skill he learned in Jamaica). Carol also let us copy the tribute edition of the Little Free Press, which includes the portion of Issue #139 that Larry was writing at the time of his death. Carol produced a number of the illustrations for the Little Free Press over the years, including the one that appeared with the “Getting to Know an Ernest Mann” article.
What follows is a compilation of biographical information about Larry from these sources.
Lawrence Fredrick Johnson, Jr. was born January 30, 1927, in Coldwater, Michigan, where he grew up on a farm. He volunteered for World War II, serving in the Navy. It was a decision he later regretted, saying, “Most of the adventures on TV, glorify fighting and make it look like fun. This also helps to entice kids into the armed forces so that the ruling class can start another war whenever they think the time is ripe. I was once a dumb farm boy and I enlisted in the navy. I ain’t quite so dumb any more. I was one of the lucky kids in 1945 … I didn’t get killed.” (LFP, #119, pg. 2)
Larry married Judith Darula in 1947. The couple had three children, Rod, Alan, and Lynette. Taking a cue from his father, Alan changed his name to Foster Goodwill. Lynette changed her name to Hannah. Hannah had three children, Eli, Olee, and Zayre.
Larry worked as a successful businessman, primarily in real estate, in Minneapolis until he was 42 years old. The year was 1969. He became disenchanted with traditional American life during the Vietnam War and retired, dropping out of the Rat Race in order to live the values he espoused in his Priceless Economic System. He and Judith divorced after over 20 years of marriage. (Larry wasn’t consistent about the number of years of marriage in his writings for the Little Free Press.)
Carol Christiansen met Larry around this pivotal time in his life. She dated Rod for a while. Her future husband, Bob Gatts, was dating Lynette at the time. Bob and Carol met each other during a dinner at Larry and Judy’s house. It was the mutual friendship between Larry, Carol, and Bob that brought all three to Morrison County.
Through his real estate business, Larry owned land in Cushing, Minnesota. Bob decided he wanted to live off the land and moved to Larry’s Cushing property. Bob and Lynette split up, as did Carol and Rod. Carol started visiting the land in Cushing with Bob and they eventually got married and had two children. Carol and Bob purchased the land from Larry for $600, which is what he had originally paid for the 40 acres under tax forfeiture. They made a very low down payment (probably only one dollar) to Larry and payments of $13 a month for the balance.
Carol said that $600 was an impossible amount of money for them at the time. They had no phone, electricity, water or car. They raised most of their food, lived off the land, and homeschooled their children. They did not have regular jobs, but scraped by doing odd jobs for money. In order to have a home, they improved the shell of a geodesic dome that was built by Larry and University of Minnesota students on the land.
According to Carol, Larry was a restless soul. He travelled all over, staying where he could. He made periodic trips to Florida because he dreamed of sailing, but he always returned to Minnesota. At times he stayed in an airstream trailer on Bob and Carol’s land. Because he travelled so much and was trying to live his philosophy of being free of the need for money, he didn’t keep many possessions, although he did own a computer so he could produce the Little Free Press. Whenever he needed something, he’d go dumpster diving or find inexpensive deals.
Larry had three residences in Little Falls, Minnesota: A house on Second Street Southeast in the 700 block, an apartment at 1011 Sixth Avenue Northeast, and a mobile home in Suburban Mobile Home Park. Each time he returned to Little Falls to take on a permanent residence was to provide for his grandson Eli, who would be sent to live with Larry after arguments with his mother. He purchased his mobile home in the summer of 1995. At this time, Carol, who had divorced Bob, was living in Mendocino, California, near Eli’s mother. Eli and Carol’s son Jacob, who were best friends, went with her on the trip. By the fall of 1995, Eli was back in Little Falls with Larry.
Carol returned to Little Falls during the Christmas of 1995 and stopped to visit Larry. This was the last time she saw him.
Larry took a reflective tone during the last few issues of the Little Free Press, spending more time analyzing his life instead of expounding on the Priceless Economic System. He frequently mentioned Eli, to whom he had made a promise to provide a home until he turned 18. (LFP, #124, pg. 3) Larry admired Eli for being largely self-taught, saying, “I think he has some wisdom that I’m not aware of.” (LFP, #122, pg. 2) Yet he had concerns about Eli’s independent nature.
“Making decisions based on ones [sic] own research, gives feelings of control over ones [sic] own destiny. It is a wonderful feeling of Freedom.
“I don’t know if it is possible for my teenage grandson to understand this. He is so intent on getting his total Freedom from my-advice [sic] that I fear he can’t hear me.” (LFP, #138, pg. 1)
Tragically, Eli took his grandfather’s life and then his own on March 13, 1996. Larry and Eli’s family and friends mourned their loss at the Black & White Hamburger Shop, Larry’s favorite café in Little Falls, on March 24, 1996.
-By Mary Warner
This article originally appeared in the Morrison County Historical Society newsletter, Volume 25, Number 1, 2012.