Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Four Generations—The Hawley Way

By CJ Holl
[The author served with Mayor Gary Johnson as councilmember from 2008 to 2014 and is a current Pelican Rapids city councilmember. Do you have a city story to tell? Submit your idea to]

Gary Johnson was elected mayor of
Hawley, MN in 2008.
Hawley is a small town of 2,500 about 20 miles from Fargo-Moorhead and, like many rural Minnesota towns, has seen many changes over the years. Once a retail center with an agricultural base, the town is now a vibrant bedroom community.

One thing that has been consistent within the city since the beginning is the involvement of the Johnson family. Mayor Gary E. Johnson, the current mayor, has been at his post since 2008. He is the fourth-generation Johnson mayor in the town’s history.

Hawley was incorporated in 1871, and the Johnson mayors date back to Gary’s great-grandfather Andrew Johnson, who served in 1891 and again in 1895. Andrew Johnson brought many businesses to the fledgling community, including a bank, an automobile dealer, a grocery store, a creamery, a potato brokerage, and a lumber yard. The main family business was the Johnson’s store, which was started in 1887 and was a department/general store and later a grocery store in downtown Hawley.

E.P. Johnson, Gary’s grandfather, was mayor from 1946 to 1949 and again from 1952 to 1954. E.P. went on to serve two terms as a representative in the Legislature. Burton Johnson, Gary’s father, served as Hawley’s mayor from 1972 to 1984.

E.P. Johnson’s brother, E.W. Johnson, also served as mayor for one year in 1933. All told, there have been five Johnson mayors of Hawley—spanning roughly 20 percent of Hawley’s 144 years.

The current Mayor Johnson said he learned about hard work and city service from his father, Burton. Burton was mayor for 12 years, and served in city government for a total of 24 years, including a long run as a councilmember.

“It was something all of us were aware of,” Johnson said of his dad’s service. “I remember being 14 or 15 years old and dad coming home at midnight. His commitment was legendary.”

When his father was the mayor, Johnson said, the city had only one meeting a month, which made for a late night, especially for a local grocery store owner.

Johnson said he has been proud of continuing the Johnson civic service tradition, but it hasn’t always been easy. Like most rural towns, as transportation, business, and community needs changed, Hawley lost many downtown retail businesses. Lately, however, it has highlighted its rural, small-town roots and values to attract new residents and businesses including a new concrete plant, a new implement sales and service facility, new retail, as well as other manufacturing and service business expansions. Hawley now is in the envious position of having to attract and free up housing space for new residents.

“We need to be progressive and continue to grow. If you don’t grow, you die,” Johnson said, adding that there is still a need for an enhanced community center, convention and meeting space, housing, a downtown anchor business, additional retail, and recreational amenities.

Johnson, who recently retired after more than 30 years at Honeywell, said he will continue to serve as long as the community wants him. And there could be a fifth generation waiting in the wings. His daughter, Jennifer, hasn’t yet stepped into local politics, but owns a local accounting business and has dabbled in a few committees and civic organizations.

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