Media Files
Interview with Jimmy Johnson and Freddie Johnson, October 16, 2008
Bourbon in Kentucky: Buffalo Trace Oral History Project
Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History
Interviewee Freddie Johnson
Interviewer Thomas Troland
created 2008-10-16
cms record id 2009oh019_bik002
accession number 2009OH019 BIK 002
is part of Buffalo Trace Oral History Project (BIK003)
summary Jimmy Johnson is a retired foreman who worked for many years at Buffalo Trace, primarily in the warehouses. Freddie Johnson, his son, is a former engineer who now works as a tour guide at Buffalo Trace. Both grew up in Frankfort, Kentucky. In this interview, Jimmy and Freddie Johnson describe what it was like to grow up in Kentucky and how they began working at the distillery. Jimmy describes what the distillery was like in the 1940s and 1950s and explains his rise to the position of foreman. He talks about his treatment at the distillery as an African American, explaining that Buffalo Trace did not tolerate racism. Jimmy also discusses Colonel Albert Blanton, a former president of the distillery. Jimmy and Freddie emphasize the importance of community and history at the distillery. They explain how the distillery has changed over time, but stress that the fundamentals of producing bourbon remain unchanged.
Colonel Albert B. Blanton
Military service, Voluntary--United States.
Distilling, illicit
African Americans--Segregation
local term Buffalo Trace Distillery
local term Distillers.
local term Distillation.
local term Whiskey.
local term Buffalo Trace Distillery.
local term Distilleries--Kentucky
local term Whiskey industry--Kentucky
local term African Americans in the whiskey industry
local term Frankfort (Ky.)
local term Blanton, Albert B. (Albert Bacon), 1881-1959
local term Bourbon whiskey
local term Race relations--Kentucky
Rights Statement:
All rights to the interviews, including but not restricted to legal title, copyrights and literary property rights, have been transferred to the University of Kentucky Libraries.
Interviews may only be reproduced with permission from Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, Special Collections and Digital Programs, University of Kentucky Libraries.
Source Metadata URI:
00048046 (2009oh019_bik002_johnson_ohm.xml)
Jimmy Johnson and his son Freddie are introduced. Jimmy talks about growing up in Frankfort and tells several stories about his childhood, including his work at a cemetery mowing grass and showing people where Daniel Boone's grave was located, walking to school, and going to the movies.
Partial Transcript: My name is Tom Troland and, uh--[clears throat]--we're here today interviewing, uh, Freddie Johnson on the left and Jimmy Johnson on the right.
Frankfort (Ky.).
Daniel Boone
Glen's Creek Road
Lawn mowers
Picture shows
Freddie Johnson talks about the history of whiskey-making in his family, including his grandfather's relationships with moonshiners. He describes his childhood, telling several stories about growing up with Jimmy as his father. He tells a story about Jimmy chopping down a tree that Freddie was in. Freddie tells a story about a bet made with Jimmy on a fishing trip.
Partial Transcript: Freddie, tell me a little bit about yourself.
Distilling, illicit
Frankfort (Ky.).
"Running water"
"String of pearls"
Cutting trees
Felling trees
Fishing trips
Growing up
Jimmy's father worked at the Buffalo Trace Distillery for 52 years and was one of the first African American foremen. He talks about using his father's truck to haul barrels at the distillery, and tells a story about using the truck to haul coal for his father. Jimmy talks about being made foreman when his father retired from the position. Freddie describes some of the family genealogy.
Partial Transcript: Now we've heard--[clears throat]--some interesting stories already about the topic of fathers.
African Americans in the whiskey industry
African Americans--Employment--Kentucky
Buffalo Trace Distillery.
Whiskey industry--Kentucky
Colonel Blanton
Colonel West
Daily routine
Jimmy and Freddie talk about how Freddie came to work at the Buffalo Trace Distillery after working for AT&T. He talks about the memories that came back from his childhood in the distillery when he became a tour guide there, including a story about leaky barrels. Freddie and Jimmy tell a story about how Jimmy saved them from a flash flood near the distillery.
Partial Transcript: A, a, and the way he got the job down here was through me.
Buffalo Trace Distillery.
Whiskey industry--Kentucky
Flash floods
Leaky barrels
Tour guides
Warehouse C
Freddie talks about his two grandfathers, both of whom were connected to the whiskey business in different ways. He tells stories about misbehaving as a child and the punishments he would receive, and the lessons he learned from his elders.
Partial Transcript: It's interesting, uh, Freddie you have, uh, you've had two grandfathers both of whom were in the whiskey business.
Alcohol industry.
Discipline of children
Distilling, illicit
Quality control.
Quality of products.
Whiskey industry--Kentucky
Jimmy talks about how he came to work at the Buffalo Trace Distillery, driving trucks. He talks about being promoted to patching barrels, and talks about the process of fixing leaky barrels. He talks about Colonel Blanton's management of the distillery. He talks about his five-year military service.
Partial Transcript: Jimmy let's go back, uh, uh, a little while in time here to when you were a young adult and just before you came to work here at the distillery.
Alcohol industry.
Bourbon whiskey
Buffalo Trace Distillery.
Military service, Voluntary--United States.
United States. Army
Whiskey industry--Kentucky
Colonel Albert B. Blanton
High school
Leak hunters
Mr. Smith
Jimmy talks about his memories of Colonel Blanton, including his character and his treatment of the workers.
Partial Transcript: Now you knew, uh, Colonel Blanton, who played such a major role in this, uh, distillery in the early part of the twentieth century.
Blanton, Albert B. (Albert Bacon), 1881-1959
Buffalo Trace Distillery.
Whiskey industry--Kentucky
Colonel Albert B. Blanton
Light duty
Jimmy talks about beginning to work at the distillery just after the end of Prohibition, and talks about the rolling out of the millionth barrel. He tells a story about saving a man from being crushed by a barrel in the warehouse.
Partial Transcript: Now you began working here, uh, as I understand it, just a few years after the end of Prohibition.
Buffalo Trace Distillery.
Whiskey industry--Kentucky
Barrel rolling
Curtis Slattery
Millionth barrel
Jimmy describes his duties at the distillery after returning from World War II. He talks about how his duties changed when he became a foreman. He talks about looking for lost barrels, his daily work orders, and his employees.
Partial Transcript: After World War II you came back to the distillery.
Alcohol industry.
Buffalo Trace Distillery.
Whiskey industry--Kentucky
Filling barrels
Leather straps
Post-World War II
Rolling barrels
Typical day
Work orders
Freddie talks more about his career prior to working at Buffalo Trace, and how he came to work at the distillery. Freddie and Jimmy talk about how changes in ownership affected the distillery. Jimmy talks about the major changes he witnessed at the distillery during his fifty-year career.
Partial Transcript: Now Freddie, uh, at a certain point in your life I imagine your dad may have suggested to you the possibility of working at the distillery.
Bourbon whiskey
Buffalo Trace Distillery.
Whiskey industry--Kentucky
High school
Leak hunters
Patching barrels
Schenley Distillers, Inc.
Jimmy Johnson talks about the number of African American employees working at the distillery under Colonel Blanton, the lack of segregation at the distillery, and how they were treated by other workers. He talks about the "Gang of Twenty-Five" who continued working at the distillery during Prohibition.
Partial Transcript: Tell me a little bit about, uh, your experiences here at Buffalo Trace Distillery as an African American.
African Americans in the whiskey industry
African Americans--Employment--Kentucky
African Americans--Segregation
Race relations--Kentucky
Whiskey industry--Kentucky
"Gang of 25"
Civil War
Colonel Albert B. Blanton
Credit cards
Mac Miller
Work environment
Yard gangs
Freddie discusses his work as a tour guide at the distillery. He talks about how the distillery has changed since his childhood. He talks about the experimental whiskeys created at the distillery.
Partial Transcript: Now Freddie you've, uh, of course, come back to work, uh, here.
Bourbon whiskey
Buffalo Trace Distillery.
Technological innovations
Whiskey industry--Kentucky
Barrel runs
Experimental barrels
Taste profiles
Tour guides
Freddie and Jimmy talk about their bourbon drinking habits and their favorite bourbons.
Partial Transcript: When the day is done and you go home, perhaps you occasionally pour yourself a bourbon.
Alcoholic beverages.
Bourbon whiskey
Ancient Age bourbon whiskey
Buffalo Trace bourbon whiskey
Drinking bourbon
Eagle Rare bourbon whiskey
Heart attacks
McAfee's Benchmark bourbon whiskey
Single barrel bourbons
Freddie talks about how the distillery has recognized and treated his father for his contributions to the distillery. Jimmy tells stories demonstrating the camaraderie among the workers at the distillery, including pranks they played on one another.
Partial Transcript: Is there anything, uh, Jimmy, that, uh, you'd like to say that I haven't asked you about so far?
Buffalo Trace Distillery.
Whiskey industry--Kentucky
Hog killing day
Leak hunters
Quality of life
Sense of community
Jimmy talks more about his time in the U.S. military in Guam during World War II. He talks about guarding prisoners there, and the paintings the prisoners made for him. The interview is concluded.
Partial Transcript: But thank you.
Military service, Voluntary--United States.
United States. Army.
World War, 1939-1945
Prisoners of war (P.O.W.s)
TROLAND: My name is Tom Troland, and, uh, we're here today interviewing,
uh, Freddie Johnson on the left and Jimmy Johnson on the right. Uh,
today is October 16, 2008; this is part of the Buffalo Trace Oral
History Project, uh and we are undertaking these interviews at the
Buffalo Trace Distillery. So let's start, uh, let's start with a
question for you, Jimmy. Uh, tell me just a little bit about yourself.
J. JOHNSON: Well, um, I was born behind the Frankfort Cemetery. Uh,
grandfather's property joined the, the Frankfort Cemetery, and that's
where I was born on, uh, Leestown Road. And I had to walk, at six
years old, I walked from behind the Frankfort Cemetery out to the,
to the main ro-, street and then from up the street to the Rosenwald
School at six years old by myself,
and, uh, after so long a time, we
moved from there up to the school--up by the school. Then by that
time, I am going to high school and that's down in Frankfort, so I got
to walk from, uh, school, from the hill all the way back to--down to
Frankfort now so I spent a lot of my time just walking back and forth
to school; not so much that I was learning anything but that, that
was the way that I had to get along. And after so long a time while
I was out there, while we were out there behind the cemetery, uh, my
grandfather worked up in the cemetery, and he got a little job for me,
uh, keeping to--uh, three lots. We had three lots up there that I kept
the grass and stuff cut on it and that was around eight or nine years
old. And the main man down to the cetery, down to the, uh, cemetery,
he got me a special little lawn mower that a little small boy, that I
could push, see, and cut the grass on those lots. And a lot of days,
uh, the people came by in, in automobiles with running boards on them
at that time, and they would ask me do, did I know where Daniel Boone's
monument was? And I'd tell 'em, "Yes." Then I'd get on the running
board and direct them around to Daniel Boone monument and then show
them two or three more things around there in the cemetery, and when
they got, when I got off they'd maybe give me a dime or fifteen cents.
And if I got a quarter, that was big money back there then in the
twenties; that was big money. And some days I made more money showing
people where Daniel Boone's monument was than my granddaddy made, and
he was working there by the, by the day. And I would be mention to
say that I have shown more people where Daniel Boone's monument was
anybody else in the world. That sounds to, something to brag of,
but that was, back there then and now, they have, uh, the signs that
direct you to it, so they don't need to ask anybody now, but ba-back
then sometimes you'd get off of one car and there'd be another one
drive up and ask you, Can you show me the Daniel Boone monument? You
get right on that one and take right on off again. And the, the um,
boss thought so much of me--he had a Cadillac, and it--can you imagine
me just barely looking over the, the wheel setting in his lap driving
his Cadillac. That's the kind of, he just thought that much of me that
he would let me drive his Cadillac just straight down the road and then
sitting in his lap. So that's the kind of little childhood that I had
coming along. And another thing, uh, one night the--I wanted to go to,
to the picture show on
Halloween, and so my granddad told me no. Said,
"No you don't need to go down there. It's too dark--going to be too
dark when you get out of the picture show." And I begged him to let me
go and went to the picture show and came back up the--and cut through
the cemetery going home, where we lived (??). And just about the time
I got halfway up the, the cemetery walk, we had a ol' horse over there,
and I woke the ol' horse and he stomped about three times. And that's
all it took to get me through that cemetery in a hurry. I, I (laughs)
didn't stop running till I hit the front porch. Yes. So that's enough
of the type of life that I lived around, up on the hill.
[Pause in recording.]
TROLAND: Actually, are we rolling again here?
HAY: We're rolling again.
TROLAND: Okay. Good.
F. JOHNSON: I was going to say his childhood, it was really interesting.
My father had a little tricycle, and he would ride that tricycle
the place that he was referring to is Glen's Creek Road next to Frankfort
Cemetery--and he would ride that tricycle from up by East Main all the
way down to the bottom of Glen's Creek Road where the creek goes down
through there. And he would do that, what, everyday just about.
J. JOHNSON: Just about every day, and I had two friends, uh, that,
uh--well, I'm going to say it like this--I had two white friends that's
about my age, and uh, that's just all, they had-we had a old billy goat
and a hound dog that everywhere we went, that they went with us. And,
uh, we'd go down to the creek, go in swimming no clothes on, and if
anybody came along we'd run up in the tunnel and then put our clothes
on back up in the sun. That's just boys for you, and yet still we just
played together all the time. And we had a old four-wheel, uh, plank
with four wheels on it, that we'd wait for the Freemont
Institute wagon
to come in to twelve o'clock, to come from over on the farm, Freemont
Institute Farm, to the main building to pick up the lunch, and then
we'd get on this thing and ride it down the hill. And then they would
pull us back up the hill, with the wagon and mules, they'd pull us back
up the hill. And it was just the, that was the type of childhood we
came up with; just nothing bad but just still those were the type of
ways that we enjoyed ourselves. Yes, indeed-y.
TROLAND: Freddie, tell me a little bit about yourself.
F. JOHNSON: Um, born in Paris, Kentucky--uh, Bourbon County--and, uh,
spent, uh, most of my childhood here in Frankfort, Kentucky. Uh, we
were in south Frankfort when, uh, when we first started off here in,
uh, Frankfort, and then from south Frankfort, um, moved up on East
Main, uh, right at Kentucky State University. So we stayed with our,
uh, my great-grandfather
for awhile and then he was right across the
street, and then we moved into, uh, our home on Langford Avenue. So
basically that was our home, so my daughter never experienced what I
went through and that was to live in one house basically the, my entire
childhood. Uh, but we would get to go to my other grandfather's, so
I was fortunate enough to have two grandfather's that I thoroughly
enjoyed both. One was in the distillery-making business, and uh, in
the whiskey making business--and my other grandfather was, uh, lived
in Breathitt County--Jackson, Kentucky--and he mined his own coal. And
the uh, moonshiners and my grandfather had a very close relationship.
They, uh--they used his coal mines after the vein ran out to, uh, make
moonshine, so uh, uh, my childhood was one of, uh, hunting, fishing,
having fun and, uh, I got
to, I got a chance to do that with both my
father and my grandfather. So I had, I had the, I didn't have a lot of
the stress and pressures that the kids had today. Uh, mine was pretty
much just enjoying life and enjoying nature and hunting, fishing,
swimming, acting crazy. The only rule that we had was, uh, when we
were back up in the mountains if we encountered someone that we did not
know or we saw someone walking around that we didn't feel good about,
we weren't to talk to them. We were to immediately come back down
the mountainside to our grandfather's house and to tell him who we saw
and where we saw them. And usually that meant that was the revenuer
walking around on the ridge looking for that moonshine still. So uh,
yeah we learned at an early age there were people that came up into the
mountains, and they disappeared and nobody asked any questions and you
just left it alone.
TROLAND: What was your favorite brand of
F. JOHNSON: I--(laughs)--it was just in a mason jar but, uh, you could
tell good moonshine from uh, cheap moonshine just by shaking it. They
call it a "string of pearls" and if it's a hundred proof or better,
when you shake that mason jar it'll make a little row of bubbles
completely around, uh, the liquid on the inside, and that tells you
that, that moonshine is at least a hundred proof.
TROLAND: Have you ever tried that experiment with a Buffalo Trace
F. JOHNSON: Yes. Buffalo Trace ninety proof goes almost all the way
around. It'll lack a couple of bubbles each time you do it, and that
shows that it's at ninety proof and not quite a hundred.
TROLAND: Now, Jimmy, uh, your dad--Freddie, your grandfather--
F. JOHNSON: Did you notice he was getting ready to crank up here. He
was getting ready to share another little--(laughs).
J. JOHNSON: I was getting ready to tell you, uh, that the little creek
he was talking about up in the mountains, uh, (Freddie laughs) my
father was there, was the oldest one that bragged about he had
running water in his toilet, and they lived up in the mountains. And
come to find out, he had built his toilet over this little stream of
the branch that went down through there, and he had running water in
his toilet. Do, are you, are you getting the picture? (Freddie laughs)
And yet still where the water is running down this, this little branch,
there's no telling how many homes that are down below. He's at the
head of the mountain up here with running water in his toilet. But all
the way down through there--(laughs)--I'm just letting you know how,
how he could brag about having wa-, running water in his toilet, and
yet still everybody else was suffering that lived down below him. Yes,
sir. That was just Papa Strong.
TROLAND: Indeed, he had a head in the mountains. No question about it.
F. JOHNSON: Um, Tom, something interesting
about--you just made me think
about something--something interesting about growing up as a child
in, uh, in this environment, um, that we're in. Um, our parents, the
way that our--I guess the way our family was constructed-- most kids
liked to come to our house, so they considered, uh, my mother and my
father extensions of their own family. So they were known as Mama
Jo and Papa Jim, and someone called him Daddy Jim. Um, but, uh, the
saying, I guess the saying is, "Show me your friends, and I'll tell
you who you are." So their view was, uh, if you, if you have friends,
you shouldn't be ashamed to bring 'em to the house, and so that was the
rule. So anybody that we ran with always came to the house to visit,
they'd have dinner; we'd do things together. But, uh, that was the way
we operated; so if we were ashamed of
someone that we were associating
with, we knew that if we didn't feel comfortable about bringing them
to the house, we probably didn't need to be around them. So it's just
subtle little things that they did that got you through life.
J. JOHNSON: Yeah. Like when I had you to tie the rope on the tree just
when I was getting ready to cut it down, but the tree had to fall a
certain way to keep from falling on any, any of the buildings around
there, so I got--
F. JOHNSON: Now, let's, let's talk about how this thing got started.
J. JOHNSON: What was it?
F. JOHNSON: You saw a tree that looked like it was dying.
F. JOHNSON: And you said, "We need to get this tree outta here before
it damages the little shed or some of the other stuff around the yard."
And as your trusting little son, I said, "Yeah. I guess you're right,
Dad." So he gives me a rope to go up in the tree to tie it off so that
can cut this tree and pull it in the right direction so it won't
damage anything when it comes down. Now, you tell them what you did
to me.
J. JOHNSON: (laughs) Well, uh, well, wait, he climbed up in the tree,
and he was tying the rope in a knot. And I said, "Wait a minute.
Let me check it to see if it's, uh, you know, if the knot is going to
hold." And, of course, I jerked it and do you know what happened? Here
come tree, Freddie and all. Crash. (Laughs)
F. JOHNSON: He pulled me down with the tree, and all I remember was, I'm
falling. And I can't jump out of the tree because if I do, I'm really
going to get hurt. So the only thing I need to do is when we were
kids--uh, kids today don't even know about this kind of stuff--uh, we
called them tree horses. There are certain types of trees that are,
like, saplings as they start to grow pretty
big, you can get on them
and you climb way up in them, and you can rock them. And you keep
rocking them like that and they'll actually come over like that, and
you ride them just like a horse and it just takes you up and down in
a big sweeping motion. And the only thing I could remember when that
tree started to fall was to swing around on the upper part of the tree
and ride it down like the tree horses that we used to play in. When
the tree finally hit the ground, it threw me out, and when I landed,
I was at his feet and all I could see were stars. And, and all of a
sudden I realized that he was standing over me looking down saying,
"Well, are you all right?"
J. JOHNSON: (Laughs)
F. JOHNSON: And I wasn't sure. He said, "Well it looks like we got the
tree down without cutting it." That was his resolution to the problem:
"Are you all right? Well, it looks like we got the tree down without
cutting it." Right? (laughs)
F. JOHNSON: So anyway.
Freddie, is this the worst example you can give of
mistreatment by your father?
F. JOHNSON: No. No. No. No. No. No. We've, we've got many moments
like that, that were--you begin to get gun shy. He told me at one
point, he said, "You know, it's a fool that gets bit by the same dog
twice." (laughs)
F. JOHNSON: But, uh, we've had, um--it's kind of interesting. Uh, I
guess we've done things together just about all the time; all through
J. JOHNSON: Um-hm.
F. JOHNSON: Um, we used to go on fishing trips, and I had a group of
guys that we'd grown up together with. We'd all get together--we'd all
moved to other parts of the country--we'd all get together once a year
here in Kentucky. We'd go fishing at, uh, Lake Barkley or Kentucky
Lake. We'd rent a cottage, and there was usually about, uh, usually
about eight to ten of us at a time. And, uh, we'd have our boats and
everything. We'd all go fishing, and every year that we did this--now
we've been doing this for about fifteen years--every year that we
did this, Dad would say, "Well, you all have a good
time." And "Catch
anything, bring some back" and, you know, "bring--save some for old
dad." And say, "Okay, Dad." Well this one particular year, one of the
guys had already paid for his trip and he couldn't make it; he had to
cancel. And so we had an extra spot, and so we were wondering around,
wondering what we're going to do and Dad was just sitting there on the
porch. So one of the guys said, "Well, why don't you ask your dad? See
if he'd like to go fishing." You know, if he'd want to run down there
with us. We go up to ask him. "Would I? I have been waiting for the
last fifteen years for you all to ask me to go on this trip." Took him
two minutes to get his stuff, get out and get down there. We went down
to the lake. We have these contests, okay? It's first fish, most fish
and largest fish, okay? And we have a pool of money for each time we
do this, and then while we're out there fishing it's called, you know,
dollar on the first fish when you're in these little groups fishing in
these coves and
stuff. Well, some of us have criteria associated with
what you consider a fish. Others, if it's in the water, it's a fish.
So we're fishing. I'm upstream from my dad and, uh, I catch this
little brim. And the thing is so small I'm like, I'm not gonna, I'm
not gonna do this to the team. I'm just gonna throw it back in 'cause
that's not a fish. So we're sitting there fishing. Well, I'm getting
another bite, and I'm saying, "Okay. Dollar on the first fish." He's
down in the next boat. "I'm not gonna bet. I'm not into that. You
take my money every time we do this." You know. "I'm just tired of
doing this." "Oh, come on, Dad. Dollar on the first fish." "Nope.
Not gonna do it." So he sat there for a minute and I said, "Come on."
I said, "Dollar on the first fish." "Okay. If you gonna keep bugging
me about it, let's do it. Dollar on the first fish." And he holds
up his pole, "Got
him!" And it's this little bitty old brim that I'd
already thrown back in the water half an hour ago, and he had that
thing sitting over there hanging off the side of the boat just waiting
for me to make this bet. And we look around and my buddy Nelson says,
"That looks like the same fish that you threw over earlier on this
trip." (laughs) And I looked and I said, "Dad," I said, "That's the
fish that I threw overboard, uh, before." "There's nothing in the rule
about that. All you said was who catches the first fish. It floated
down through here, I caught it, I put it on my hook. You owe me a
dollar."(both laugh) So now you get an idea of the, of the character of
this young man we're dealing with over here.
J. JOHNSON: You didn't say how you, how you caught him; just as long as
you brought, caught the first fish.
TROLAND: Now we heard some interesting stories already about the topic
of fathers. Let's hear a little bit about your father, uh, Jimmy. Now
he worked here at the, uh, distillery, is that not true?
J. JOHNSON: He had, he was here fifty-two
years and, uh, one of the main
things that he--uh, he had a truck. When I first, when I got out of
high school, I came to work down here driving my daddy's truck, and
it's just old ton and a half Model 8 truck but what it means we could
haul twelve barrels on it. And that's the way that we'd get the twelve
barrels over there for them to dump and go back and get another twelve.
But in the meantime, um, he was very particular about the old truck,
and I had put some extra high sides on it. And in the--once a year--
this was a particular year--he wanted me to go up in the mountains and
get him a load of coal. He was burning coal at that time. And so I
went up there and got a load of coal and mounded it over on the old
truck, came on back in home and I showed it, parked down there, right
there over there, and he came out and looked at
it and said, "Oh, boy."
Said, "That is a beautiful load of coal." He said, "How much you got
on that, Jim?" And I said, "I don't know. About five or six tons." He
jumped up and down and said, "Don't you never put that much weight on."
I thought he was going to brag, thought he was going to brag on me for
bringing that big load of coal back. He jumped right down my throat.
"Don't you never put that much coal on my truck no more." He said,
"It's a wonder the old truck made it in here, but it did." But I had to
put these high racks on it and he said, "Don't you never put that much
coal on it." And that's when my feathers fell right quick because--but
he was one of the best foremen they had around here at that time. And,
uh, in sixty-four, he got ready to retire and, uh, they told me, said,
"Jim," said, "You going with your daddy Monday." And I said, "I'm with
him every day." They said, "No." Said, "He's gonna teach you everything
about being a foreman that he knows." I didn't ask to be foreman. They
made me foreman, and I never
carried nobody to the office, and nobody
never carried me to the office. From '64 to '78, I was foreman and,
uh, got along fine with the men. And lo and behold twenty-five years
later, I happened to be over at the Shoney's one day and Zeke Lyle
came in--was in there. And he said, "Jimmy," said, "If you get here
Friday, I'll buy you lunch for you." I said, "Okay, I can be here."
And I walked in there Friday and there was sixteen of them that had
worked for me twenty-five years earlier, was waiting to shake my hand
and just say, "How you been doing?" And I said, "If you guys think that
much after all these years, next year it'll be on me." So the next year
we went back in that back room of the Shoney's, and we had a ball. I
mean we had a good time back there. Yes, sir. Just goes to show you
if you treat a person right, they don't forget it. That's right. Yes
TROLAND: So your dad,
then, your dad, uh, worked as a foreman here?
J. JOHNSON: Uh-huh.
TROLAND: And, uh, what was, uh, his daily routine like to the extent
that you remember that? What did he--
J. JOHNSON: Oh, he does strictly foreman, what a foreman does; anything
that they needed to be done. But getting--getting way back when he was
a small, when he was young--
F. JOHNSON: He and Colonel Blanton.
J. JOHNSON: --he and Colonel Blanton played together as boys at was
sixteen years old--they played together as boys and when Mr. Blanton
got to be the main man down at the distillery, down here, he made Daddy
foreman. Like I said, my daddy was one of the first black foremens
in Kentucky. Yeah. Um-hm. And then later, that's when, later on,
that's when they made me foreman. I didn't ask for it. They just made
me foreman. Said, "You're going with him." And lo and behold, he had
a accident right out here as you drove; where you're driving to the
distillery and died from it. Right there is where he got, got killed.
There was a wreck right there.
TROLAND: How old was your dad when he first began working at the
J. JOHNSON: I don't have no idea, but he had to be at least twenty or
twenty-one years old.
TROLAND: A young man by any means.
J. JOHNSON: Yeah. Very young.
F. JOHNSON: Uh-huh. Yeah. He was born in 1897. Um, was it January?
You're February. He was January. January of 1897 is when he was born.
January 12, 1897. That was Granddad.
J. JOHNSON: And then you were--I don't think you heard it--but he had
two brothers that worked here, and they, uh, for a long time they were
firemen, uh, in the little building right down from the, where we went
in over there.
F. JOHNSON: The gift shop.
J. JOHNSON: Yeah. The little building next to that at one time was
where the, uh, power--
F. JOHNSON: Power plant used to be. Yeah, Blanton's Bottling House used
to be the power plant for the distillery.
J. JOHNSON: Yeah. They worked in
there, and one of them, uh, when they
hauled the whiskey out of here they didn't have no caboose on his car
on the back of it. And he set, he'd be on the back of the car was a
gunman until they got up there to the main run where nobody would be,
steal the whiskey or break into the car until they got into the main
line. That was his job for a while.
TROLAND: Do you ever remember him telling an interesting story about his
time here?
J. JOHNSON: Well, no, now I don't think, not that many times that he
told me anything about it, but he was just that I knew that he worked
down here. And that was about it. And see my granddaddy mostly raised
me, and, uh, and he worked at the cemetery.
J. JOHNSON: So that would--I wouldn't, didn't have too much dealing with
my, my father whatsoever. Uh-huh.
F. JOHNSON: He was, um,
Granddad was, uh, part Irish. He was, like,
uh--it was kind of interesting how the family came into being here.
Colonel West was actually a plantation owner and, uh, his cook--he
and his cook were very close, and they had offspring from that. And
he had a son and a daughter, so when, uh, when slavery was abolished
she agreed to stay with him and continued traveling with him. But,
uh, the agreement was that he would give those two children some land
here. Well, Colonel West was Irish, and so that kind of, like, got
this whole thing started. So a lot of people, the reason that, uh,
Granddad was successful at being a foreman and traveling with Colonel
Blanton--because he took him to New York. They would go up there
on business meetings also--was because he looked more Irish than he
looked like an African American. And that's, you see my dad's hair.
He's got
the--okay. And so when, it's kind of amazing. Granddad's
hair was even longer and silver. It was a pretty silver color. I
remember it, and it looked like a cross between an Irishman and an
Indian is what Granddad looked like really. Okay. We got a little,
we had Indian blood in us also so it was kind of a, a strange mix, but
that was how Granddad, uh, was able to, to get into this and to be at
least partially accepted. But uh, he was an exceptional person, uh,
businesswise, uh, and in understanding the distillery business, and
he passed a lot of that onto dad. And, um, to this day I'm amazed
at my father and his memory and recall at ninety-two years old, um,
reading the newspaper without glasses, um, still able to get around,
and you look at that and you look at his longevity and the quality of
his life--and, uh, I've shared this with Mark and Angela and them--I
think that a lot of
that is attributed to the fact that he still feels
value added to the community and to this distillery, and that gives
him incentive to con-, continue on. So I, I admire him and my granddad
and my grandfather on my, uh, on my mother's side simply because even
though the hardships were there and even though all the other things
went on--and he's shared with me things he went through as a kid, um,
living between families and living with grandparents and things like
that--um, to maintain his character and to maintain his integrity; uh,
to him his word is his bond. Um, those, uh, when I look at kids today
that blame their problems in life or society on the fact that their
parents broke up or their parents divorced or nobody likes them or
school didn't treat them right, um, you know, he's an example. He's
endured all of that, and so I think character comes from
within. You
know, you cannot blame that on other people. It's something that you
have inside. Unless you deal with that, you're no better for society
than if you didn't exist. Okay? So, uh, he has a saying. It's a song
that he likes, and it's, uh, what is it? "If I Can Help Somebody?"
J. JOHNSON: If I can help somebody to travel on, then my living will
not be in vain. And just, that's what I was getting ready to tell you,
uh, and I can tell you what had happened. Um, I was sitting up at that
Walmart yesterday, and a fellow came up to me and said, "Jimmy, how you
doin'?" He was a very, very close friend of mine. He came up and said,
"Well, how you doing, Jimmy?" I said, "I'm doing all right." And, uh,
he said, "I seen Freddie down at the distillery the other day." And I
said, "You did?" And, uh, he said, "Yeah." And I said, "Well, that's
my boy." And he like to jumped out of his skin. He said, "I never
realized that Freddie was any kin to you." And he said, "He is one of
the nicest fellows." And what I mean, he was just bragging on him, and
he said, "You just wait until I get a chance"--and he's the man that
when they have the band down here--
F. JOHNSON: Uh-huh.
J. JOHNSON: --the other guy that plays the bass fiddle.
F. JOHNSON: Yeah. Birch.
J. JOHNSON: Birch didn't realize you was my son until yesterday. And he
said, "You just wait until I see him again." So you got a good one--
F. JOHNSON: Oh, my goodness.
J. JOHNSON: You got a good one coming. And he said--now he said, I'm
telling you in front, telling it right this way--he said you were one
of the best tour guides that he ever run into.
F. JOHNSON: Thank you.
J. JOHNSON: That's just, that was his way of saying how much he thought
of Freddie; said he was one of the best. And the way he got the job
down here was through me. Um, he said,
"Dad," said, "I got to have
someplace to go to work because my money's running low." I said, "Well,
go down to distillery. Maybe they'll have something for you to do down
there." So he came down here.
F. JOHNSON: Now this all started forty years ago. Here's, part of
what happened here was when I, when I first moved out of here, I was
actually recruited by AT&T, um, into operations as an, uh, engineer.
I was a design engineer, and he wanted me to, he always wanted one of
the two sons to work at the distillery because it was important for him
to have this third generation to work here. Well, my brother went off
in another direction. My brother, he's very very, very smart. He's
already logged in as a genius so he's, he's very--
J. JOHNSON: One way he's very--
F. JOHNSON: All right, now. We're on camera now. We're gonna have to
cut that part out, okay. All right? (laughs)
F. JOHNSON: But anyway, he's very, very intelligent, but
Dad says, "It's
amazing to be so smart." Practical things don't, they don't relate to
him. Okay? So it's an interesting mix. The things that we like to
do, my brother is just now in the later years of his life liking to do
those kinds of things like going fishing and stuff like that. Isn't
that kind of funny? When you think about that? Daddy's like, "Yeah."
F. JOHNSON: So, but, uh, but anyway what happened was this. Um, when I
started to, when I, uh, was getting ready to move away, he had wanted
me to work at the distillery. And when this other job came up, you
know, they moved me away from here so I, I stayed on the road for a
la-long period of time.
J. JOHNSON: Yeah. Tell them what you were doing on tha-, away from here.
F. JOHNSON: Well, I was, I was doing things.
J. JOHNSON: (Laughs) He had an office in Atlanta. You understand that.
He had an office in Atlanta and then where was your other
F. JOHNSON: You talking about when I was in New Jersey?
J. JOHNSON: Another office in New Jersey now. (laughs)
J. JOHNSON: One man who got two offices. I mean, most people, they have
one. He had two. Working with AT&T he had two offices; one in Atlanta
then sometimes, a week, several times he'd be up in this other office
in New Jersey.
J. JOHNSON: That's kind of moving it around. You had to be mighty
important to be in two places in the same--in one week
F. JOHNSON: We did, uh, I was involved with a team that did some special
network designs for AT&T. Um, it was known as a Star Network, and it
was the ability for you to if you called an airline to make your flight
reservation, uh, we had a way of getting the machine to reprocess that
call so that, uh, it would crank back and then it would hook you right
up to the car rental agency that you needed to go to and it would crank
back from there and carry you right to the, uh,
hotel that you wanted
to make a reservation with. So you wouldn't have to dial a whole bunch
of different numbers. You just dial one number and they just say,
"well, do you need a car? Well, fine. We'll just hook you up." And all
that person would have to do is hit a prompt button, and it would send
you to National or to, uh, to Hertz or to wherever you wanted to go.
So it was a neat little--we got, we got some real nice recognition for
that. Uh, I worked in underground military sites. I used to, part of
my responsibility was tracking Air Force One, uh, when the president
was flying around. Um, we were, we were down in atomic bomb shelters
three or four stories underneath the ground. So I've had, I had, um,
assignments, uh, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, um, as operations
manager and network engineering. So it's, it's been a very nice career
that I've had; uh, fiber optics and things like that. So when I came
back to Kentucky, I'm here and I'm taking care of Dad. I was running
back and forth
from Georgia to come up here, and so we moved back up
here and, uh, we're piddling around. And we go out to eat every now
and then, and so I told him about I was looking for something to do
and everything. And well he points up to the water tower, and he said,
"Well, have you thought anymore about it?" And I said, "About what?"
And he said, "Well, you know that promise you made to me that if you
ever came back to Frankfort that you'd work down at the distillery
for a little while so that we could tell everybody we had three direct
generations to work here." And I'm thinking, "You're setting me up here
now. Something's going on." Right? So I said, "Dad, I made you the
promise." I said, "I'll keep it." He says, "Good. I've already told
them that you're back in town. Meet me down there Monday morning at
nine o'clock. I think we've found something that you could do." Tour
guide, okay, and that started. Now the timing, what's really funny
about all this, it's how all this stuff came back. I'd been
down to this distillery between my dad and my granddad since I was
about five years old and we used to go behind the river. Okay? I was
fascinated with the dry house, with, uh, with the boxcars and re-gauge
and all this stuff. All that stuff amazed me and it was like--but it
was one of those things that you couldn't play around too much because
it was dangerous, okay, with those big 550 pound barrels. Um, but just
from, just from then, all these things that he and my grandfather had
talked about, um, the stories that they'd shared, um, aging, um, some
of the subtle things that a lot of people that, like, I'm sure Ronnie
and Leonard probably talked about, um, they just, they were just there.
And you come back and you start walking through those old warehouses
and some of the stories and things that they shared with you comes
back, and you can just get images of them walking through the warehouse
looking at the barrels, uh, looking for
leaks, okay. Looking at where
the barrel is sitting and looking at how it's coming along and, uh, it
makes you appreciate, uh, the art that was associated with, with real
bourbon and whiskey making. Yeah, it was quite an art.
TROLAND: Is there a particular story that you remember for example
that your grandfather told you, uh, or that you experienced under his
supervision when you were a kid that you can remember?
F. JOHNSON: Um, the only one I remember is trying to find a leaky barrel,
okay, and, uh, that, uh, I thought a leaky barrel was the whiskey,
like, knocking over a bottle or something like that and just glug glug
glug (gurgling sound) just gurgling out right? Well, a leaky barrel
for them is where the whiskey is seeping through the wood a little
bit too much, but it doesn't taste like the bourbon when it's finally
processed. So the leaky barrel you've got, uh, got the
char, you've
got some of the old green oak, you've got dirt and grit and everything
else, so my first encounter with a leaky barrel I thought it was just
going to be just as good as anything you could ever put in your mouth.
It was some of the worst tasting stuff I have ever experienced, but
I'd heard them talking about leaky barrels. "Oh, the leaky barrel, the
leaky barrel." And I got hold of the stuff, and I was just heartbroken
as a kid. That was the worst tasting stuff I'd ever put in my mouth.
Oh, Lordy. Um, but no, I, I listened to their stories. The one that
fascinated me the most was the one that when they told--Granddad told
them not to put all those barrels on one side of Warehouse C, and they
wouldn't listen to him. They were trying to make room for some new
barrels of whiskey coming in, and he told them not to do it. And they
said, We want you to do it anyway, and he says, "I'm telling you, this
is not what you want to do. You don't want to move those barrels over
there." And they told him that if he didn't do
it, they was going to
get somebody else to do it. So that was on, what, Sunday morning that
they made him move all these barrels over there, and he warned them
that that was, was going to be bad. And by that evening--
J. JOHNSON: He hadn't got them, he had not got them hadn't got too far
from the warehouse-
F. JOHNSON: --the whole thing shifted and the whole wall fell out on the
back side of that warehouse.
J. JOHNSON: Um-hm.
F. JOHNSON: The, uh, these old warehouses, what a lot of folks didn't
understand was the construction of them, which they did, and the
wooden structure on these older warehouses are a completely separate
entity than the brick shell on the outside. And they're held together
basically just like a--think of in a tobacco barn or something like
that. So these ricks are just wooden pylons that go down to the
limestone bedrock, and they're held together with bolts and nails is
all it is. And if you get the weight, um,
unevenly distributed, the
whole thing will shift, and that's what happened. So they've got
plum bobs now throughout these old warehouses, uh, to prevent that
from happening, but that's what happened. And so the only way you can
fix that once it happens, you've got to take all the barrels out and
realign the whole thing and start all over again.
J. JOHNSON: And, and you'll see, uh, things about that big around in the
F. JOHNSON: Those big plates.
J. JOHNSON: --big plates on the, on the wall up and down through there,
and the plates run all the way connected to the other wall and hold it.
F. JOHNSON: The cables. They have cables that holds the shell in place,
and then the ricks have plum bobs so that they stay aligned. So, yeah.
J. JOHNSON: Yeah. They had just, hadn't got three or four from the
thing when it fell just on a Sunday evening.
TROLAND: How old were you Freddie at the time this incident occurred?
J. JOHNSON: No, no.
F. JOHNSON: That was before me.
J. JOHNSON: That was way before.
TROLAND: Oh, this is before.
F. JOHNSON: No, that was Dad, that was when Dad was here.
TROLAND: Oh, I see.
My dad was here.
F. JOHNSON: Yeah. Granddaddy was here. You were, I was trying to
think. That would have been nineteen--that warehouse goes back to 1881
and, uh, that happened in the nineteen, that happened in the nineteen
hundreds, though. About nineteen fif--
TROLAND: What's your earliest memory, Freddie, uh, of coming to the site
and with whom did you come to the site? Your grandfather, your father
or both?
F. JOHNSON: Um, the first-, actually were we, we were on a, first time
we came down here were we getting grain doors?
J. JOHNSON: We've gotten grain doors down here. I could have gotten
slop for the pig.
F. JOHNSON: Yep. So--
J. JOHNSON: You see at one time they'd hold slop five cents a barrel for
the pig. You could come down here and get it.
F. JOHNSON: Um-hm. A barrel. And so that and the grain doors, and that
would have put me right at about five years old.
J. JOHNSON: But see we got the grain doors and made a big shed out in
the back yard, out of those grain doors. They would sell them to you-
-they were just like, nothing but a big slab or wood is all they were--
but you could get them for
reasonable and that's what I--I had a truck,
old pickup truck that could haul them, so that's what we built it with.
F. JOHNSON: And we used that to form the--to make forms to pour the
foundation for part of our home. So that was the first time we came
down here and then, uh, was doing that and then we would fish over
behind the river and I was about, I guess, I was about four or five
years old when I was fishing back over there when you would bring us
down there. And, uh, I would uh, go up the--you could come in through
area and then you would go down by the dry house to go down the side of
the riverbank to fish and, uh, I can just remember us--I was about four
or five years old when I first started getting to come down here.
J. JOHNSON: I tell you one thing, though, I saved them, the little
rascals one night. We were down near, down to--
F. JOHNSON: When you saved us?
F. JOHNSON: You put us in that mess, too.
J. JOHNSON: (laughs) It was two big old pipe--
F. JOHNSON: Culverts.
--culverts goes across the road down there, and there was
a rain coming up. Heard that there was a storm coming up, and we
ran up there and got in the culverts and, oh, it was nice. They were
just running up and down through this big old tube, big pipe, and all
it once it hit me that the water up on top of that hill has got to
come down through these pipes. And you talk about getting two little
fellows out of that pipe in a hurry. We hurried up and got them out
of that pipe and got around the side there a little bit and all at once
here came this big thing of water coming right on down through there.
F. JOHNSON: It was like a flash flood, and it would start off as just
a little trickle. And he looked and he got this look on his face, and
he says, "Let's go. Get out of here now. Come on here." And we'd just
gotten away from that when all the water come down off the side of the
mountain. And it would have washed us right on out. We probably would
have been killed. It would have washed us right on out into the middle
of the
river. But yeah, it's, we had some fun times.
TROLAND: It's interesting, Freddie, you've had two grandfathers both of
whom were in the whiskey business.
F. JOHNSON: Basically. (laughs)
TROLAND: Different aspects of the whiskey business. How do these two
men compare?
F. JOHNSON: Um, that's kind of interesting. Uh, Papa Strong--
TROLAND: That's how he really made his money.
F. JOHNSON: Yeah. Yeah. He, he did the coal, but the moonshine
basically got him through, um, and back up in the mountains, uh,
they, they did it. They had their own way of moving it around, uh,
and they pretty much kept us shielded from that. Uh, my grandmother
was very religious, and she didn't drink at all. And so that part of
the business was not allowed in the house, so he did that outside the
Uh, no business was transacted in the house or in front of
any of us. Okay, so we would just know people would come and go and
bottles would appear and bottles would disappear, and we never, we knew
not to mess with it. Okay, but, um, in the mountain area, um, the two
things that were true--I guess that were consistent--was your word.
So up in the mountains, those folks, your word was your bond. In the
whiskey business, your word was your bond. Integrity has always been a
big part of, uh, of the bourbon and the whiskey industry. Integrity is
key. Um, that's one of the reasons they went to bottling bourbon was
because they were taking your whiskey, and if I bought a barrel from
you I'd take your premium bourbon and get somebody's cheap bourbon and
mix it together but I'd sell it under your name. And then you'd get
a chance to--you'd get word back that your whiskey wasn't tasting as
good as it used to, and you'd find out that this middle person had been
cutting your whiskey down and mixing it with other stuff. So integrity
has always been a critical part of this whole process and, uh, that's
something I learned from both of them. So they were--and they were
rigid. I mean, they were hard, but they were fair. Um, and my dad
was the same way. I mean, you know, I guess probably some of the
worst whippings I've ever gotten was, uh, probably well-deserved, but I
didn't think so at the time. (laughs) Um, but, um, it wasn't really--
J. JOHNSON: How about you creeping out of the basement?
F. JOHNSON: Oh, yeah. Yeah. Well, that one, that one hurt, too.
(laughs) Uh, actually we were supposed to have gone to bed, and my
brother had just reached that point in adolescence where, uh, you
challenge the system.
So my dad told us to go to bed. Well, my bed
was nearest to the door, and my brother's bed was on the other side
of the room. And so my dad had hollered in the door and told us to,
uh, to cut out the noise and go to bed. And so my brother started
mocking my dad and laughing and said, "Who does he think he is, you
know, acting like he runs this house," and all this stuff. Well, I'm
laughing while my back is to the door. Well, the next thing I know,
I'm seeing stars and he's knocked me underneath the bed, and my brother
grabs the covers and covers himself up real quick and protects himself
so my dad can't get to him. So my brother thought it was funny, but
what I learned from that, it was, like, Okay. Everybody that, that
makes you laugh is not necessarily your friend. (laughs) So, uh, uh,
but, uh, it was, like--it was never, we never considered it abuse. It
was, like, usually when we
did something and we were disciplined for
it, we knew we, we knew we'd really messed up. Um, my mother was the
intellect in the group. She used this process of, uh, when you did
something wrong, she would let you go get your own switch. Okay, so
you'd go out and cut the switch based on what you thought the severity
of the wrongdoing was. So my brother told me, says, "I've got this one
knocked." He says, "Let just go out and get a couple of little twigs."
He says, "We'll bring them back, and let's see if she's really going to
hold true to her word." So she comes back, we come back with these two
little twigs and she looks at us and she says, "Now," she says, "that's
what you want me to whip you with?" We said, "Yes." She says, "Now,
you see, that's the difference between you and mom." She says,
I'm gonna whip you with your switch." So she hit us three or four times
and those little things fell apart, and me and my brother look at each
other. My brother's starting to laugh. And she said, "Now you see,
this is why we're here." She said, "You see, that's how bad you thought
this was." And she reaches behind her and pulls out this big switch,
she said, "Now, this is how bad mother thinks it is."--(laughs)--and
she began to whip us. And she says, "If you think that's bad," she
said, "wait till your father gets home." Well, whenever those words
came out, we knew we had really messed up bad, um, but it was a, it was
a balance, okay. It was a balance between the two of them, and I think
that, that's what's important about this. Uh, to see the different
generations and be able to go visit--you know, you're living with your
parents. You go visit your grandparents in different surroundings.
You see how they're living, and you get to spend summers with them.
So you're riding on horses, your riding, you know, out in the fields,
you're, you know, you're taking care of the gardens. You're doing all
these things that you can
just have fun. You know, you've got your
buddies there with you. You'd take a tomato. I mean, there's nothing
more irritating than getting hit upside the head with a hot, wet, juicy
tomato, okay. But it was, I mean, there were fun things that really
didn't hurt you. We'd go up on the farm at Kentucky State and we'd
help them harvest, you know, bring in the hay and the grains in the
silos and take care of the cows and stuff, and it was just, it was just
fun, okay. Um, and it, I, to me, I think it made us better adults.
Okay, we just had a balanced life, so--
J. JOHNSON: You remember the night, that evening that you all were down
in the basement skulking and I came through and told you not to--to
stop that skulking? Huh? You remember that night?
F. JOHNSON: Uh-huh.
J. JOHNSON: I just walked through and casually told them, "You know,
boys, had enough of that tearing up your clothes." So I said, "Stop
that skulking." Then I just walked right on out and shut the door, and
I had no more than shut the door
until, Lord, it started all over again
with the boom boom. And I come right back through that door and I hit
both of them at the same time, and I like to tore their heads off and
I went right on through. And so I said, "Well, I told you not to do
it no more." And I just kept on walking, and they said years after that
one of them said to the other one, said, "One of us can't whup him,
but maybe both of us, maybe both of us could." Good Lord. And he said,
"No." Said, "Dad's been moving too many of them big heavy barrels down
there. We'll just forget the whole thing." (laughs) Yes, sir. Yes,
I just casually told them to stop, stop their skulking, wasn't nothing
but tearing their clothes up. They went right on back, just as soon as
I turned my back, they went right on back to the same thing, but that,
they changed their mind when I came back through there.
F. JOHNSON: Here's something that was amazing about that, time. Uh, um,
what we learned from, uh, our
grandparents--their recall. Uh, at that
time they had probably 200,000 barrels of whiskey around here.
J. JOHNSON: Uh-huh.
F. JOHNSON: They remembered those barrels, the placement, the ricks,
uh, where they were sitting, how they were aging, uh, their numbers-
-because everything was done by numbers--um, to this day, he's got
uh, a literature book that he, uh, that he just recited and this lady
documented. It's a prose of, uh, of English literature, and he still
recites all this stuff. Uh, numbers, he can click down through numbers
and, you know, we were looking at him and he says, "Well, that's just
the way you do it." And, and, uh, my grandfather was the same way, and
it's just something about, uh, a knack for doing those
kinds of things
and doing sequencing and things like that, and they just developed a
rhythm or a pattern. And they knew about, um, the right times to age
the bourbon, which warehouses to put it in, which grains to use. Okay,
what, you know, when those, when those grains come in and you make
certain kinds of whiskey, where to place them in the warehouse and what
that whiskey's going to taste like after so many years, and they'll
tell you whether it's aging too fast or aging too slow. Um--
J. JOHNSON: A lot of days, lot of times they'll just transfer a whole
floor of whiskey on up in the house to let it age faster and things
like that. The lower floor, the lower floors had to be moved up
because they wasn't aging fast enough down here, and when you got ready
to put it in the bottle, it was just tinted. Instead of being nice and
brown, it was just a weak tint. You understand what I'm saying? But
when you put it on that top floor,
you start getting that heat to it,
then it turns just like it's supposed to be, and the color comes back
to it. Um-hm.
TROLAND: Jimmy, let's go back, uh, a little while in time here to
when you were a young adult and just before you came to work here at
the distillery. What, uh, uh, what brought you to the distillery?
Obviously your father had worked there. Was it, did you always imagine
you'd work here or what thoughts did you have in those days?
J. JOHNSON: Well, uh, I finished high school in '36, and he got me a job
down here of driving his truck. But now it wasn't hauling but twelve
barrels at a time, but my cousin and I finished at the same year and
then both of us got--his brother's, my father's brother and his son--
F. JOHNSON: Benny.
J. JOHNSON: --Benny, got a job down here at the same time, and he worked
in the cistern remover where they dumped the barrels. And he was the
one who sent the whiskey on over to the bottling house through those
pipes. That was his job
over there, and so, and then, uh, later on
after I work-drove the truck for a while, then the next thing you know,
why, Mr. Blanton wanted somebody to help, uh, uh, patch the barrels.
That paid more money, and that's what I liked because it seemed at
the least off it was like another step up. So I quit driving the truck
and start patching barrels, and, uh, Mr., Mr. Smith didn't think too
much of that because he wanted his leak hunters to be the ones that
did most of the, of the work like that. And he'd go down there and
tell Mr. Blanton that "Down there the whiskey's leaking pretty bad.
You need some more leak hunters." And the first thing you know, well,
they had twenty-three leak hunters around here. That's a great big
bunch of men, and finally Mr. Blanton finally looked through it to
see what was happening. He was just getting his buddies on this high
job. And so lo and behold, Mr. Blanton told them, told everybody,
said, "Go through the warehouses, you know, leaks, to get the leaks
out. Go through the warehouses and pick out the worst barrel that
they can find and bring them over there and put them high on the
bottom floor." And that's what they did, and there were about twenty
barrels that were just horrible to work on that John Redken and I had
to fix. And it took us about two days to fix those barrels and put
some type of a black paste of stuff (??) on the face. After we sewed
it up with pegs and got the pegs drove in, then we were supposed to
put this black paste over it, then that would seal the whole thing.
And on this particular day we had just got through putting the black
seal on them, and I was up in the warehouse closing the windows and I
could hear whiskey running. And I
came downstairs and I'm going to say
it like this, somebody had turned every one of those barrels over to
where the bad spot was down on the floor. And a lot of the whiskey,
where the pegs hadn't sealed good, was running whiskey right down on
the floor and I turned them all back up and told, went over there and
told Utterback what had happened, and he told Mr. Blanton. And a day
or two after that, Mr. Blanton let Mr. Smith know that he was going
to have to get rid of some of those leak hunters because he said it
wasn't nothing but just pouring money down the rat hole as we said. It
was just pouring money down the rat hole. Said, "I might as well have
the whiskey running out to be paying all of these men extra money and
then not fixing the barrels to begin with." They got to be pretty rough
about that. And a little later on--(microphone drops).
F. JOHNSON: That didn't work out too well.
Uh-oh. I'm glad it was yours instead of mine cause--(laughs)
[Pause in recording.]
HAY: We're rolling again.
TROLAND: Okay. This is, uh, tape number two. My name is Tom Troland.
We're interviewing Freddie Johnson and Jimmy Johnson here at Buffalo
Trace Distillery. It is, uh, October 16, 2008.
HAY: I'm just going to pause you.
[Pause in recording.]
HAY: Okay. We're rolling.
TROLAND: So let's see if I understand this correctly, Jimmy. You began
work here at the distillery, uh, driving a truck and then later spent
time, uh, repairing barrels.
J. JOHNSON: Repairing barrels.
TROLAND: How old were you when you first came to work here?
J. JOHNSON: I don't have no idea. I don't know--have no idea.
TROLAND: Young man, though?
J. JOHNSON: But yes, a young man; out of high school. Eighteen,
eighteen, I was eighteen anyway. And I had to be old enough to, to
work down here.
F. JOHNSON: And to drive.
J. JOHNSON: Yeah (Freddie laughs). But anyhow, that's the way it
started out and then, uh, later on I got
ready to go into the service
and, uh, but I just finished high school. That's just as far as I
got, but I started working down here, but my cousin that finished in
the high school the same time I did, he went on to college, and, uh,
lo and behold we went in the army at the same time. And whatever
Jack put down on his paper--now he'd be--he'd been to college now--and
whatever he put down on his paper, me finishing high school, I just
put that down on whatever he put down. And I ended up, when they get
ready to grade it they've just got a great big sheet of a thing that
they just put over the, your paper, and that would tell you what kind
of education that you have. And it showed me with a, as a high school
graduate, with a college, a college degree 'cause I had chocked, took
everything that he had on his paper and put it on mine. And then
they sent me--we went
into the service together--and they sent us to
Snoopfield, Illinois to work on airplane wings. If I'd been working
on them wings they'd still be fly, flying back from somewhere. But
we stayed with that for about six weeks and didn't have another detail
but, but one, and that was p-, when the chimneys started blowing over.
And they gave us a detail of, uh, watching the chimneys, and I walked
out the door and looked, and my chimney was falling over. And I came
back and told him, he said, "That, that's the end of it." But yet,
still while I was getting back to, the whole time--I was in the service
for five years--and the whole time I was in the service, the company
gave me a week's wages every month. For the whole time I was in the
service, I drew a week's wages from the company and on holidays--
they've got companies all over the--offices all over the United States.
The company has got offices all over the United States--and they go,
went around and took up a collection and,
uh, the last one I got on
Guam was for $300 on Christmas Day. Um-hm. That's just, that's just
the way the company took out, took care of us.
TROLAND: Now you knew, uh, Colonel Blanton who played such a major role
in this, uh, distillery in the early part of the twentieth century.
What, uh, what are your recollections of Colonel Blanton?
J. JOHNSON: One of the fairest people that I've ever known. That's my
version of Mr. Blanton. Um-hm. Yes, sir. Uh, I took a, what is it?
The mumps where your throat swells up?
F. JOHNSON: Uh-huh.
J. JOHNSON: I had the mumps once, and when I got over the mumps, well,
the doctor told me, said, "You could go back to work, but you can just
do light duty when you first get back." And I came down here and told
Mr. Orville, said "I'm back but I can't' do anything but just light
duty," and
they let me know real quick, "You'll do whatever we tell you
to do just like the rest of them." And Dad went and told Mr. Blanton
what he said, what, uh, they said. And he sent word back up there,
said, "The doctor told him to do light duty. You'd better find him
some light duty." And it wasn't too long until I was closing windows
and things like that, you understand what I mean, because that's the
kind of fellow he was. He tried to be fair any way he could, in any
way, and then, on one day down, we was fishing down by the river, and
Dad caught a nice bass just about that long. And I said, "Oh, boy." I
said, "We can really have a fish dinner now, can't we?" Dad said, "No."
He said, "Mr. Blanton can have a nice fish dinner." And he cleaned
that fish that evening and brought us right on up here and gave it to
Mr. Blanton. He said, "Now we can eat them others we caught, but it's
just Mr. Blanton's going to get this one." That's just the way the
guy, he and dad--Mr. Blanton were just that close--
F. JOHNSON: They were close. They were close.
J. JOHNSON: Yep, so there. But yet still, there were several little
things that happened, and he would take up for the men right quick.
And he, if he liked you, you were just his, on his side of the thing.
And another case was a fellow by the name of Creedin Creen lived
up the street here, and he had, I think, about twelve kids--(Freddie
laughs)--and, uh, for some reason Mr. Blanton told, they fired him
that evening on Friday evening, and Monday morning Creedin was right
back down here to work what--what he'd, he'd been doing all the time.
And Mr. Blanton said, "Didn't I fire you Friday?" And he said,
"Albert, I've got twelve kids, and I got to work somewhere and it just
might as well be down here." Now Mr. Blanton done fired him on Friday,
and he said, "I got them
twelve kids to feed, and I might as well work
down here." And Mr. Blanton told him to go on and work but "just be
careful what you do from now on," and Creedin worked down here until he
retired. That's just the kind of fellow he was. Very nice.
TROLAND: Did you know him personally? Did you have a chance to speak to
him from time to time personally--
J. JOHNSON: I spoke to him several times.
TROLAND: --and if so, what were your impressions?
J. JOHNSON: Very good. Very nice man. He and I got along fine. Um-hm.
Yeah. No complaint about Mr. Blanton. He called me Jim. "Jim."
He'd holler "Jim," and that would be the end of it. And that, that
stone, uh, statue of him out there, if you're around here during the,
Christ-- uh, Christmas, um, the wintertime when the snow's on the
ground and snow's getting on it, it looks like that where the snow is
stacked up on it, it looks like he's holding his--he's real comical
to look at,
if you get a chance to look at it when the snow's on the
ground. Yeah, he looks like he just holding them up and brought his
head down in his, between his shoulders is the way he looks, but he was
as fine a fellow as you want to be bothered with, and I'm saying fair
all the way through. Um-hm.
TROLAND: Now you began working here, uh, as I understand it just a few
years after the end of Prohibition?
TROLAND: And you, uh, have been part of the rolling out of each
millionth barrel since, uh, after Prohibition?
TROLAND: Uh, what is your recollection of the first roll out? When
roughly was that? Was that very shortly after you began working here?
J. JOHNSON: It wasn't too long after that, and see they had to--those
barrels most time was in the I Warehouse on the bottom floor in Rick
Six and, uh, just one barrel back in there, and they would bring
visitors would come in there, and they'd carry them down there and
show them where, show them the whatever millionth barrel it was, and
then finally they built the little one-barrel warehouse, and that's,
and that's when they put it--put it in that place over there. Um-hm,
that's the way that went. And, uh, see at one time, the highway ran
right through the distillery. It hasn't always been, uh, closed on the
other end. At--uh, at any time of night, you're just liable to have a
bunch of people going through here going home, but--but now, the road
goes out around that way and in, in back around behind the distillery,
they cut that off 'cause they put the gates through there. Um-hm.
TROLAND: Is there a story that you remember from one of those barrel-
rolling incidents that particularly, uh, sticks in your mind?
J. JOHNSON: One in particular that, uh, I was very fortunate to be there
when it happened, uh, a fellow by the name of Flappey, Curtis Flappey,
was working
in O--in N. He was working in N--and, uh, Tubby was back
in the rick, and there--there wasn't but one or two barrels back in
there. He was, he was back in there by himself running them through,
and uh, those-- for some reason as those slats went down--I was just
coming across-- happened to be coming through there--and Flappey was
going down with a barrel, and I could hear another barrel rolling along
the old, the rail (??). I could hear another barrel rolling and, "Wait
a minute. The barrel's rolling." And Flappey's on his way down with
his head down like this, and I ran there, ran up that and caught the
barrel. Now just, somehow or another in my arm the Lord give me enough
strength to stop that barrel on the fourth rick just as it was about to
roll down.
F. JOHNSON: It would have crushed him.
J. JOHNSON: It would
have crushed him because it was already down like
I said, and all it would have to do just--one of them three or four
hundred pound barrels coming out of that rick--and, uh, it would have
crushed him. But I just had enough strength to stop it just as it
got right at the edge of the, of the rick, and it was one of the most
horrible things that I, that I ever ran into while I was down here. And
Tubby was way back in there, and he thought he was coming up. He got
confused, and he thought he was coming up on the elevator, on the rick
and he was going down. See that puts the barrel, him in the middle of
two barrels, and it just, would have just crushed him. You see?
F. JOHNSON: Uh-huh.
J. JOHNSON: And another time that I had, I had to, uh, show you how
crazy I was. Uh, one of my men--I won't call the name--but anyhow
he was my rick machine operator that, that evening. And we was-- he
was ricking in the six
tier back there, and he was so drunk, I was
expecting him to fall off the, uh, rick machine at any time carrying
these barrels up, kicking them off and come back to get another one.
And he was so drunk until he couldn't hardly stand on the thing, and
there I was down under the rick, understand, under the rick machine
looking up in case he fell. I was going to try to catch him. (laughs)
I, though, later on, I realized how, how stupid that was. If he fell
off and that barrel, too, there wouldn't be nothing left of me but just
a squash in the floor. But we got by with it. He was the only rick
machine man I had that day, and that got us two-thirds in the wind.
TROLAND: After World War II, uh, you came back to the distillery. Um,
what were your duties at that time immediately after World War II
working here?
J. JOHNSON: I was patching. That's when I was patching the
Um-hm. Yeah, and it wasn't too long after that, well, in '64, that's
when I took over as a foreman. Uh-huh.
TROLAND: And so how did your duties change once you became a foreman?
What was the difference between it?
J. JOHNSON: Most of the time they left me a new whiskey gang. That was,
most of the year when they were making whiskey, just-- about three or
four months out of the year--three months out of the year--that they
don't make whiskey, and yet still I'd be doing other jobs. But once
the whiskey started right back up, then I was right in there with the
new whiskey. It was a real nice thing to know because you got to the
point where you knew what you were going to be doing every day, and
you wasn't confused about getting--going over there and getting a few
barrels out here, uh, bringing a bunch in to dump or something like
that, this was just-- well,
booked it, you see? You put it down and
then, you've got, you've got-- as Freddie said, a lot of times they
would have a lost barrel; where maybe the rick machine or the truck
driver dropped it off at the wrong house or something like that. And
they would give you a number to look forward to, to, to, to see if
you ran across that barrel. You could tell them where it was and then
they could come get it and dump it because it was supposed to be in
this dump, but it wasn't in that area where it was supposed to be. And
maybe, sometimes it'd be a month or two we'd run upon a barrel that'd
be either in the wrong house or just setting in some, out of place and
come tell them where it was, and they'd come get it and dump it.
TROLAND: What, uh, happened on a typical day during that time after you
had become the foreman in, uh, 1964, you said? Uh, what was a typical
day like
here at the distillery for you?
J. JOHNSON: Well, you knew, you knew your men and we all got along fine,
and then just as I say, they knew that, what their job was and they
just went on and did it. And, uh, as I say, I never had to carry a man
to the office, and nobody never carried me to the office.
F. JOHNSON: But you'd, you'd pick up your work order for the day that
tells you which barrels needed to be pulled out.
J. JOHNSON: Oh, yeah, something like that. You'd go to the office and
get those. You'd have this big sheet of paper there with all of the
ricks and, and, uh, how many barrels were, you know, are going to be in
such an area. But the numbers were on the barrels so you'd know which
ones to get out and which ones to leave.
TROLAND: Now I once saw an ad for Jack Daniels whiskey, and it showed
pictures of several gentlemen sitting on rocking chairs in the rick
house. And the ad copy said that they just sat there, uh, and did
nothing all day long while the whiskey aged. Is
that what you, uh,
experienced when you were working here?
J. JOHNSON: Well shit no. Well no, you'd just--no.
F. JOHNSON: (laughs)
J. JOHNSON: First day, you know, John Gross went through, uh, and
checked the whiskey to make sure it was there. All right, and then,
here you come by with a bunch of men, and you get that whiskey out
and carry it downstairs and they bring it over to the re-gauge room
to dump. We didn't have to worry about it. Once we got it out of the
rick and on that truck, we was through with it and that was the end of
that, that barrel. And then, you know, uh, sometimes you'd just have
to go way back in there in the rick to get a barrel where they'd put
it back there by mistake or something like that. But as a rule, we got
along fine. We got along pretty good.
F. JOHNSON: Usually when they were making whiskey, the, uh, in the, uh,
in the morning they would be filling the barrels. And while
they were
filling the barrels, you'd have your order for the ones that needed to
come out of the warehouse, and so you'd bring those barrels out while
they were filling the other barrels. And then in the afternoon or the
evening you would then put the new barrels into the warehouse. A lot
of times you was making space by bringing those other barrels out, so
it was kind of like you had a, usually had a schedule set up of barrels
coming in--what they call new entry--barrels coming in and barrels going
out. And it was like, it was just like a production line, so you know,
you were making space and filling that space basically in the same day.
J. JOHNSON: Yeah, but when you're running six sixty it was solid all day
long, we didn't have enough time to get nothing out. It was six sixty
is what they run for years around here, and it was very few days that
we didn't get that whiskey up with sixteen men.
TROLAND: So you supervised a group of sixteen. Is that correct?
J. JOHNSON: Uh-huh. Yup, just as long as I run sixteen, sixteen man
gang, to see that they got in the rail. And see a lot of times we
to haul it way over in the fields with two trucks. We had two trucks
running to get it over there in the fields, and we had to rick it as
fast as those two trucks could bring it. That would hold the whole
wall, the whole thing up, see, and everything would usually run pretty
smooth all the way through. Now every now and then we'd get a new
man in the gang, and I'd tell him, I said, "Now your job is to roll
the barrel from there up to there. That's your job. Keep the barrel
coming off the truck." And I'd go around the corner or something like
that, and wouldn't be too long until you'd hear the doggonest racket
around there, and the man says, "What are you talking about? What's
wrong with you? What'd he tell you to do?" "He says to roll it from
there up to there, but he's gone now so I'm gonna--" "You're gonna roll
that barrel up there because if, when you stop it there, then I've got
to come back and pick it up and carry it
on up there to where you were
supposed to be putting it to begin with." And you'd hear one of the
doggonest rackets around here, and I'm sitting around there listening,
not saying a word. And he said, "And another thing we do" he said "Is
we work for a break." He said, "If we get a little ahead, we can go out
there and take a little smoke or go to the bathroom or something like
that." He said, "Jim is fair enough to let us, if we get ahead, he'll
tell us that we're running ahead, and he'll let us go smoke." And the
first thing you know, I'll get another new one and tell him the same
thing and this one will say, "Now we're working for a break." (laughs)
And I didn't have to tell him but once then he was telling the rest of
them, you know, when they came in. But it worked out pretty good all
the way around. Yeah.
F. JOHNSON: Something interesting--you're talking about strange things
or things that are different that he's encountered--um, tell them about
the old elevators that
had the leather straps instead of cables.
J. JOHNSON: We had this D, D and B, you come down off with three barrels
at a time, and it had an old strap for the thing and turn the wheel.
F. JOHNSON: This is to lift the, for the elevator to go up and down, in
the old days they, instead of cables, they were leather straps.
J. JOHNSON: The cables going up here, but the thing about it, the thing
that's turning the wheel--that the cable's wrapped around--it was made
out of leather. And every so often, they'd have a big can of stuff
sitting over there, and you'd have to go over and get the can and go up
and down this belt because it'd start slipping on you. Can you imagine
starting up there with three barrels of whiskey on it and this belt
starts slipping? You've got to go get the can and the belt, and do that
to the belt then you take off--duh duh duh duh duh (chugging sound)--
right on up there. That's D and B. Had
two, had two elevators in D, one
on each side but you couldn't haul but three barrels at a time. That's
all you could carry on them was three barrels at a time.
TROLAND: Were you the foreman for an individual, uh, warehouse, or, or
did your responsibilities include several warehouses?
J. JOHNSON: All of them.
TROLAND: All of them?
J. JOHNSON: Yeah, I could go on-- anywhere they say to put whiskey I had
to put it in that, in that particular house. Um-hm.
TROLAND: Now, Freddie, um, at a certain point in your life I imagine
your dad may have suggested to you the possibility of working at the
distillery. When did that happen and what was the result?
F. JOHNSON: Well, that was ac--it was actually during high school that,
uh, he was, he was suggesting that, you know. He was kind of asking
me what I wanted to do. I think he was more concerned about rent
at the time than he was, he just wanted to make sure I was gainfully
employed. But, but he was asking about it, and my background, uh, was,
uh, actually engineering and electronics. I had always been fascinated
that. I had actually won national recognition in a, for a
project that I'd done. This was what, in 4-H when they sent me over
to Washington, D.C? So, uh, so even when I got into high school it was,
uh, it was science and engineering, mechanical drawings, mechanical
engineering and things like that. So, uh, that was just tucked away
back there, so he had wanted me to do that but he couldn't figure out
how engineering would fit into working the distillery and following in,
in his footsteps that would be the warehouse, okay, and going up that
way. And at the time that was going on, um, uh, I was in my, I was in
my second year at Kentucky State and, uh, AT&T was doing a recruiting
drive, and they recruited me into an accelerated management program.
So I immediately came out of that, and it was kind of like he was
disappointed, but he was still supportive. And he says, "You know,
you know I want you to, you know, I want you to go on and do that. You
know." He said, "I'll support what you're doing." Um, and the way it
turned out,
if I had have, if I had have not taken that job and I had
come to work at the distillery, just at that time was when ownership
changed and the distillery what, dropped down to about fifty people;
fifty of about the most senior people? So the distillery was actually
at one point getting ready to shut down and I would have been caught up
in that, so I would have probably never, I would probably have not been
here today if I had come to work, uh, at the time he wanted me to come
to work. I would probably have not been here today. So it was kind
of interesting.
TROLAND: What was the change in ownership that occurred at that time?
J. JOHNSON: And I got out just in time. Just, I retired just about a
year before the other guys, other guys took over.
J. JOHNSON: And all those people lose their seniority, retirement,
F. JOHNSON: Yeah, it was kind of interesting. It went from, um, I guess
it was--that was back, I think, when the Shapiro brothers had it at
one time and then the, the Japanese
corporation didn't have it but a
brief period of time and then it shifted again in ownership. And then,
uh, the family, the Goldring Family purchased the distillery. So it
was during that transition that basically when that started happening,
they started stripping the distillery of, uh, of, uh, they spun off
two warehouses to make, uh, office space for the state. So those two
large buildings, those two large warehouses were actually warehouses at
one time and now they're business offices for, for, uh, for the state.
They lease those, um, and they gutted a lot of the equipment out.
They sold the name. So Schenley, the name Schenley which used to be
up on the water tower is now a, a Canadian product, okay, and a lot of
the products went with it. A lot of the equipment and technology and
things like that was basically stripped out, so it was a ware--it was a
distillery that had a lot of inventory, but as far as, uh, production,
equipment and things like that to really
crank up and run, it was
basically just being a cash cow living off of what was created here in
years past.
TROLAND: What epoch was that that you described just now?
F. JOHNSON: Beg your pardon?
TROLAND: What time, what dates roughly?
F. JOHNSON: Uh, that would have been prior to 1990 because in 1992
is when the, uh, when the family purchased this distillery and went
private. So that would have been between, uh--you retired when? In
the seventies?
J. JOHNSON: Seventy-eight.
F. JOHNSON: So '78, so right at about '79 or '80 is when that happened.
So between 1980 and 1990 all this stuff happened and basically a lot
of the employees went away. They either retired or, uh, as Daddy said,
they got rid of seniority and stuff like that. It was just like they
started all over again, so they were down to fifty employees. So the
distillery was basically getting ready to shut down is about what it
was. I guess Gary Gayheart would have been the master distiller at
that time. So--Elmer--Elmer had retired, and
J. JOHNSON: Not but three of them over at that side now. That's Riddle
and, uh--
F. JOHNSON: Ronnie.
J. JOHNSON: Ronnie and Kemper.
F. JOHNSON: Yeah and Obie. They're probably the original three.
J. JOHNSON: Obie. Tha--
F. JOHNSON: They're probably the original three.
J. JOHNSON: They're the original three that are still left here that,
uh, held on when the uh, when the change of hands, when the change of
hands, of ownership. Just those three that's over there now, that I
know of.
TROLAND: Now, Jimmy, you worked at the distillery for more than fifty
years, uh, what is, what is one of the major changes you saw take place
during that time?
J. JOHNSON: I can't say--well, the thing about it, what could I say
about making too much of a change? There's not that much of a change,
but the thing about it, they'll hav-, off and on they'll handle more
whiskey than they did. And that patching and stuff, that's one thing
that they stopped-- they just stopped patching the barrels,
and just
got just enough leak hunters to, uh, once or twice a year or something
like that they go through and just kind of scan over the whiskey. But
at, uh, when I come along, they had, uh, at least ten men every day
going from one warehouse to another just going through the ricks with
lights. That's all they did all day long was went through and just
checked to see if there was any whiskey leaking. And they would write
the barrels up that was leaking or else fix the worm holes or whatever
was there that they could fix. They just repaired the whiskey in the
barrels, so to speak, as best they could.
TROLAND: So the technology of barrel-making must have improved over
the years so there are far fewer of them that leak very much. Is that
J. JOHNSON: Well, the way that they talk, yes. I'll say it that way,
but, uh, they still have a lot of barrels that have broken staves in
them and things like that. And, uh, but they--what it gets down to, if
the stave is broken on the side or something like that, it just leaks
out half
of the whiskey. You understand what I'm trying to say? If
it breaks to where it leaks out half the whiskey, but just think what
it would cost if they had to pay somebody every day. With the leaking
of the barrels, it's going to be near as much as, uh, what they have
to pay the people every day to just go through the warehouses. That's
what Mr. Smith was trying to say when it was going down the rat hole.
The money was going down the rat hole. He's had twenty-three leak
hunters and trying to get more.
TROLAND: I'm going to stop here for just a moment.
F. JOHNSON: Good idea.
[Pause in recording.]
TROLAND: All right. Jimmy, you were saying that sometimes the river
flooded parts of the distillery.
J. JOHNSON: Yeah, it flooded the lower parts--
TROLAND: What happened then?
J. JOHNSON: Well, as I say, uh, you'd see a, where they'd taken the
barrels out, you'd see a little ball, what looks like a little mouse
or something going, and a few minutes later you'd see another one.
And come to find out it was water. Uh,
those little dust balls would
get water in them, and they'd start rolling right across the floor and
it looked like a bunch of little mice going across there. And that's
when you could tell them, "It's not going to be long fellows, because
it-- when she starts rising, she's rising a foot every hour." So I said
it wouldn't take very long. So the water would just come right on up
through, and there wouldn't be no more mice. We called them the mice
running across the floor. But, that was one of the things we could
tell when it was really coming up was watching, just watching for them
little balls. Yes, sir. And then one, I had one fellow that, uh, was
named Wes Moreland, we was getting ready to clean up after the thing
was over, and I had a bunch of men over the aisle on the floor brushing
it out with hose pipes Crawling along pushing those hose pipes, and
I had all the men back here like they was supposed to be, with a hose
pipe. And Wes Moreland said, I said, "Wes, it's your time." And he
said, "I'm not getting under there
unless you get under there." And I
said, "All right. Grab that hose." I said, "I wouldn't do nothing I
wouldn't tell you to do." And I said, "You better be-, meet me on the
other end of that aisle when I get down there." When I got down there,
Wes was right there beside me, too, because that was one time that
I was going to carry him straight to the office because all the rest
of the men had took their turn and went on through, and there wasn't
a complaint out of none of them. And here he was going to show off
and say he wasn't going to do it because I wasn't going to do it, and
I'm the boss. And I said, "When I get to the other end, you better
be there." From then on, I didn't have no more trouble out of Wes,
he was one of the best men I had because he realized that if I caught
him doing something wrong, I would just carry him to the office and I
wasn't going to play with him.
TROLAND: Tell me a little bit about, uh, your experiences here at
Buffalo Trace Distillery as an African American. You were presumably
one of the few,
I'm guessing, uh, one of the few African Americans
working here when you first came to work. Is that true?
J. JOHNSON: Um-hm. I was one of the few. Well--
F. JOHNSON: You and Cruse.
J. JOHNSON: Well, there was a bunch of them at one time. It was,
uh, Mr. Blanton had a bunch over here, uh, in the n-, new whiskey
department because what they called the one-barrel gang or whatever. I
never did get over there to see it.
F. JOHNSON: Yeah. It was the twenty-five--the gang, I think was it the
gang of twenty-five?
J. JOHNSON: Um-hm.
F. JOHNSON: And, uh, they, uh, this building right over here is
actually--uh, they used to make George Dickel Whiskey here at this
distillery. So even during prohibition we were still making whiskey at
this site, and it was the gang of twenty-five and they just kept going,
making whiskey over here. So it's still got the old ramps and stuff in
there and everything else. Uh, but, uh, Reverend Caldwell was one of
the, uh--he and Dad are probably
the oldest two living folks associated
with this distillery down here now. I don't know how old Maxine is.
Maxine is, I don't think she's as old as you.
J. JOHNSON: I don't know.
F. JOHNSON: Um, but, uh, they remember, uh, whiskey when it was made back
over in this old building over here. Uh, so--I was trying to think.
J. JOHNSON: They called it--each man had a barrel or some way that they,
they could--had, uh, something, a two wheel-dolly or something.
J. JOHNSON: That they could maneuver them barrels around, and, uh, they
were all colored people.
TROLAND: But the so-called gang of twenty-five was made up entirely of,
uh, African Americans.
J. JOHNSON: Uh-huh. See I wasn't over in this area. I was over on the
warehouse side and, uh, we had, never had too many blacks over there.
There was about five blacks over there on that side. Walter Trill
was one of them and, uh, John Lankins and Dallas Peters
and--I'm just
thinking, trying to think of the old ones.
F. JOHNSON: Was Harris over there then?
F. JOHNSON: Harris.
J. JOHNSON: No. He was on the yard. See, and that's another thing; they
had the yard gang that was all blacks. You know what I mean? There was
about twenty in that gang, so there has been a good, a good many blacks
work here. And then in the cistern room, well, uh, uh, there was Benny
and, uh, Clay and, uh--let me see. I know there was two of them.
F. JOHNSON: Lonnie was, Lonnie was, was he cooking?
J. JOHNSON: Lonnie, who?
F. JOHNSON: Cousin Lonnie.
J. JOHNSON: I don't know what he was doing down there, but what I'm
trying to say, there was a yard gang and then several in the, in the
warehouse--Walter Trill, he was one of the janitors and, uh--
F. JOHNSON: Had the mash house.
J. JOHNSON: And then, worked in the mash house
F. JOHNSON: Um-hm.
J. JOHNSON: And there was at least fifteen on the
TROLAND: Did you have the feeling that at least from your perspective
the work environment for African Americans was a friendly one and a
supportive one?
J. JOHNSON: Uh, just, there were just one or two guys that, uh, you
could say had any trouble out there, and by the rest of them taking up
for you, well, there wasn't much they could do about it because, uh--to
just give you the idea about one fellow, uh, from--Cameron. Morris
Cameron, he was a truck driver, and I had saved up my vacation from,
for two years, and I could get two weeks a year. And I'd saved them up
so that meant I'd be off for four weeks, and, uh, I was--we had plans
to go out west; my sister and her husband and my wife and myself, we
were going out west just to tour around and everything. And he come
up to me and asked me, "Jimmy," he said, "I hear you're going out west
on a four, four week, four week, uh, vacation." And I said,
"Yes." And
he said, "Well, do you have enough money to go all that distance?" And
I said, "I hope so, anyway." And he said, "Well, here. Take my credit
card." How many people are going to give you their credit card to be
gone a month on a vacation? Huh? You ain't gonna find very many to
do that. That's what he did, and then, lo and behold when I got back
home, when I seen him, when I got back home I was laughing. He said,
"What's the matter?" I said, "I got one ten dollar bill left." I had
spent it all down to one t-, ten dollar bill. Had a ten dollar bill
when I rolled back into Frankfort, but I still had his credit card if I
needed it for anything. Now how many people are gonna, you know what I
mean? You just think of appreciating them trying to do things like that
for you. And then he found out that I liked doves, and he had a farm
up in Lawrenceburg. And one evening I came in, he came down to
house and he had sixty-five doves that the people had gone out there
and shot them in the evening. They were, the sportsmen, sportsmen go
out there and kill the doves that flew over, and he picked them up. He
just brought me sixty-five doves, and I was going around on the hill
asking everybody, "Do you want some doves? Do you want some doves?" I
wasn't about, wasn't about to make all of Cameron's doves. But that's
the kind of fellow he was.
F. JOHNSON: I was going to say that's an interesting observation,
though. In the gallery in the gift shop there's a picture--remember
the one that you were referring to next door in here--that, uh, picture
in the gallery goes back to 1870, and if you look closely at it it's
a mix of African Americans and whites gathered in front of the oldest
residential building in Franklin County, so it's the old Commodore
Taylor Building, uh, and it shows you what was going on. So even back
then you can look at the dress. Some of them
are dressed in little
suits, you know, kind of like dressed up, and others you can tell are
the ones that are doing the mash. So some look like salesmen; some
look like workers. Um, but that was in 1870, and we've just, we've
just started looking back in history, and we discovered there were two
things that were kind of interesting. The first was, like, even during
the Civil War and the Revolution and all that, there were two places
that never got attacked and that was hospitals and distilleries. The
hospitals took care of soldiers from both sides, and the distilleries
sold whiskey to both sides. Okay, so they never attacked those two,
but I had a person that, that came through on a tour one time that
knew of a family member and their comment was this. They said, "It's
no different than back up in the mountains." She said, the folks that
lived around distilleries, that worked at those distilleries, were
very close-knit. They had their farms, they took care of one another
and basically the saying was "we took care of our own." So it didn't
matter whether you were black or, you know, white, African American or
whatever. The point was is that if
you were part of that structure,
then you were just a member of that structure and so it didn't matter
what people thought outside of that group. Within that group you
were just another person working at the distillery. So it's kind of
interesting. So, uh, Dad commented that one of the restrooms, uh,
here at the distillery--at one time they actually had, you know, white
and uh, black restrooms--and, uh, Dad said it was a, he said it was
a sad state of affairs. He said, uh, the whites used their bathroom
as much as they did. (laughs) So it wasn't like, he said, "If you
needed to go, you just went to the nearest restroom." You know, so that
was something that was, uh, it was done, but, you know, even at the
Christmas parties, the, the two groups were separated when it started.
When the party first started up, the Christmas party, the whites were
upstairs and the blacks were downstairs in, uh, in another area. And,
uh, he said, "But, by halfway through the night," he said, "Everybody
was all gathered around and they were just all talking and laughing;
having a good time." So, uh, you know it was there, but it was not, it
was just not--
J. JOHNSON: It was most, though, the office except for one or two in
the office force that tossed the whole thing and, uh, eventually they
found out it wasn't going to work the way they wanted it to work. And
they just, you know, you could go in any bathroom you wanted to in the
end, and if you was just close to this one, you went to this one and
that's the way it finally ended up. And it finally ended up that the
place where the blacks were supposed to go, they ended up in a chicken
house. (laughs)
TROLAND: Over the fifty years, uh, Jimmy, that you worked here, did
you see any significant change in attitudes towards African Americans
working here?
J. JOHNSON: No. Not that much, just that one or two every now and then,
you'd run into one. I had an incident where, uh, in the re-gauge where
I came through there one evening, and, uh, this fellow said, "We are
closed. You can't come through here." And I said, "Well, all the rest
of them are going through. Why can't I go through?" And he struck me,
uh, and they grabbed me. The rest of them grabbed me. And I said,
"Wait a minute. He hit me. I'm just coming through here with you
all." He said, "Don't you hit him back." And they helped me; wouldn't
let me. I don't know how they imagined this because I can't hit him
back. He said, "You go tell your daddy. Right now." He said, "You go
tell Dad." And I went and told Dad, and Dad came right straight to the,
or went right straight to the office. The next day, he didn't have no
job. So that cut out a whole lot of it right quick. You understand
what I'm trying to say? That cut out a
whole lot of it quick. And
another time that it happened, uh, they hired a brand new fellow, and
that time of morning, well, we all met out in the, over there by the
re-gauge room--that's where we got toge--together to get the different
gangs separated--and they hired this new guy in, in, uh, Dad's gang.
And he called his name off, and he let Dad know real quick he didn't
work for nobody black. And Dad told him, "Thank you." Said, "Stand
over there." And so he called them rest of them--he was in the new
whiskey at that time--he called the rest of them over, said, "Now you
all know just about where you're supposed to be." Said, "Go on take
your places." He said, "Now you come on with me." He said he looked
back at him and kind of halfway grinned. You know, and he carried him
in to Mr. Fissum and said, "Mr. Fissum, this is one of the fellows
you hired this morning, but he don't work for no blacks." Mr. Fissum
jumped up out of his seat said, "Oh, my Lord." Said, "Get him off of
the lot just as quick as you can." Said, "If we owe you anything, when
you go by the office, they'll pay you," but,
"Get him off the lot right
quick." That cut out, might have cut out in a way of speaking anybody
else that had any kind of an idea about something like that, that
they, they wouldn't be welcome down here, and that's the way that the
distillery went all the way through. And we very seldomly have really
any kind of ugly things around here. It went real well.
F. JOHNSON: Um-hm.
J. JOHNSON: One of the ones that really gets a tickle, though, Mr.
Blanton was getting ready to catch the train to go to New York and,
uh, Mac Miller was his chauffeur. And so Mr. Blanton called up to the
train station and told them, "I'm going to be just a lil-, few minutes
late, but I'm on my way." Said, "Would you, would you hold the train
for me?" Told him who he was. So they said, "Yeah, we'll hold it for
a minute or two." So Mac had him up there to the station and he got
his ticket and went in there and sat down on the train, and the train
didn't move. And so Mr. Blanton said, "Well, what's wrong?" Said,
"I'm on the train." And the conductor said, "Well,"
said "You got here
on time," but said "That little fellow, a little fellow in a little
ge-, car out here had backed down over the track, and we've got to
wait to get a wrecker to pull him out." So Mac had backed out over the
tracks and train still couldn't move, and come to find out it was Mac
that backed over them. (laughs)
F. JOHNSON: It was his own chauffeur that had run out onto the middle of
the railroad tracks.
J. JOHNSON: Yeah. That was Mac for you.
TROLAND: Now, Freddie, you've of course come back to work here, um, in
part perhaps for family tradition but also, uh, to perform a valuable
service. What do you like best or least about being a tour guide here?
F. JOHNSON: I, I thoroughly enjoy it. It's, uh, it's amazing in taking
the tours one of the things, uh, someone had asked me on one of the
tours, the change that I'd seen in the distillery from the time that
I was a child and coming back now and, and doing these tours. And
were up on the, uh, up by the stills out looking over the distillery,
and I said what amazes me is I said, "The people have changed but
the process is still the same." And you start looking at these old
warehouses, these old warehouses are still cranking out the product
just like they did back in the 1800s. You know, the temperature has
changed a little bit. Um, the stills, the stills are still, they're
not--we've got one new still; a little Micro--a little Microstill--but,
uh, the traditional stills have been here for years and years. Um,
they're learning of, they're learning more about the barrels and, and
things that you can do for the aging of your products and things like
that, but the process is still the same. And so we're just learning
more about something that the Scottish and Irish learned about many,
many years ago. So for me it's fascinating to see the things that,
uh, you know that
Mark and Harlen and all of them and Elmer and Ronnie
continue to stumble upon and they, by, by chatting and talking about,
"Well, what if we did this? What if we did this?" You know, we've got
over 1500 experimental barrels right now so, uh, if you think about 1500
experimental barrels sitting the warehouse--and prior to Prohibition
there were over 2000 distilleries just in Kentucky. So what, uh, what
I tell folks, uh, that take a lot of the tours, I said, "You know," I
said, "you look at these 1500 barrels, you look at the 2000 families
that were around here before prohibition." I said, "Some of the best
bourbon in the world is yet to be remade." And that's what they're
going through right now. They're, they're just putting other little
pieces together, and each time they do that, they uncover another taste
profile that creates an entirely different flavor and smoothness to
bourbon. So it's a, I guess it's, uh, it's an act of love.
J. JOHNSON: I'll tell you one thing that I really was surprised--and yet
I am still--is one they hadn't thought of a long time ago is how they
could work in that, start at the cistern room and kick that barrel out
the door and don't have to touch it no more until you're ready to put
it in the rick.
F. JOHNSON: Yeah. The barrel runs?
J. JOHNSON: Um-hm.
F. JOHNSON: Yeah. The barrel runs based on the way they are and the
lifts and the, and the, uh, rick elevator's on the outside of the
warehouse, so it can just go right on over to the warehouse it's going
to and--one stop shop.
J. JOHNSON: See, it used to be trucks that had to haul those barrels,
and that was three men right there.
F. JOHNSON: Um-hm.
J. JOHNSON: Truck driver and two helpers, so now, now they just kick the
barrel out the door. Doom, doom, doom, doom, doom (rolling sound) and
the first thing you know, the next man to touch it is up there tough--
rolling it into the rick.
F. JOHNSON: One of the most, Tom, probably one of the most significant
things as far as technology goes is the mapping
of the process. They--
with bar coding and computers--uh, it used to be Gary Gayheart and Elmer
and all of them and Dad and, uh, Granddad and all of them, you kept
up with all of those 200--over 200,000 barrels; you kept up with it on
paper ledger. What they've done in today's environment, uh, they've
got a thermometer on every floor, middle of the warehouse, every floor,
every warehouse; you've got a barrel with a thermometer in it. And,
uh, so you've got optimum temperatures that you're tracking for every
floor of every warehouse, and you just keep doing readings on that.
So you're monitoring what the seasons are doing and, and the, the, uh,
average temperature of your product. Um, you've got, your bar codes are
tracking the, where the trees are coming from. They go down and mark,
they tag the trees they want to make the barrels from. Uh, they've
kind of, like, honed in on, uh, what's the right char to use based on
the amount of time you want to age the bourbon in the warehouse
how long you want to leave it there and what floor you want to put it
on. So they've got all those things that they're doing now: size of
the barrel. What's the significance in the size of the barrel and does
the size make a difference in your taste profile of your bourbon over
time--so all those things are new things that are coming along that,
that tells you that we're just on a threshold of a whole new evolution
to bourbon. Okay. So, yeah. Those things are things that, that if
I look at when I was five years old coming in here and things that I
see today, uh, you're working just as hard at producing a, a better
product, but you're doing it smarter based on data and based on things
that you know are why the settlers did it this way many years ago. So
you're building on a foundation, so it's pretty cool.
TROLAND: When the day is done and you go home, perhaps you occasionally
pour yourself a bourbon. Uh, if so, what do you pour?
F. JOHNSON: Well, I,
um, I'm following my Dad's, uh, doctor's
prescription, and the doctor told him that he's supposed to have, uh,
a shot of bourbon a day. So, uh, on a good day we have at least one.
J. JOHNSON: But the thing about it, I had a heart attack at seventy-
eight and, uh, doctor told me, he said, "Jim," he said, "I'm taking
you off the heart pills. Listen to me. I'm taking you off the heart
pills because they get to be habit forming. Heart pills get to be
habit forming, but," he said, "I want you to take a drink every day."
Now what is the difference with taking a pill that's going to be habit
forming and taking a drink everyday and then sooner or later that's
going to be habit forming, too? But I took him up on his word, and I
take the drink every day.
F. JOHNSON: And the answer, and the answer to the other part of your
question is that Buffalo Trace has been interesting. Okay? Uh, it used
to be--(whistle
sounds)--twenty-five after. Uh, it used to be that,
uh, Ancient Age was kind of like the, the drink of choice, and that's,
it's, uh, basically a high volume bourbon. Uh, so when Benchmark,
um, when, uh, Benchmark came along, that was another one, and now it's
Buffalo Trace, one that, uh, is a pretty good mix. So, uh, if I'm just
sitting around sipping, Buffalo Trace is excellent as a small-batch
bourbon, and then the other one is Eagle Rare which is a single-barrel
bourbon. So, and both have unique taste profiles to them, so those are
the two that we kind of, like, pretty much enjoy sipping on.
TROLAND: I see, so, Jimmy, too, you might take a Buffalo Trace or you
might take a Eagle Rare?
J. JOHNSON: Yeah. Whichever one I can get close to. (laughs) Doesn't
make no difference.
TROLAND: I see. That's, uh, that's always a good choice. Is there
anything, uh, Jimmy, uh, that you'd like to say that I haven't asked
you about so far?
J. JOHNSON: No. Not that I can think of anything.
Just, just glad to
be here with you all, and I've enjoyed myself. Of course, I've been
after those two women because I've been wondering when in the world
they're going to get back here. I've got both of them, both at the
F. JOHNSON: Oh, no.
TROLAND: And you, Freddie, anything I haven't asked you about that you'd
like to comment on?
F. JOHNSON: Um, the, uh, the thing that probably, uh, hits closest to
home for me is, uh, is the recognition of my father and my grandfather
and their contribution to the distillery--(Jimmy coughs)--Um, I, uh,
I've mentioned to Angela and to Mark Brown and to, uh, to Meredith
and, uh, Amy and, uh, and, uh, Ronnie and, uh, and Leonard. They know.
It's the, um, the treatment of my father when he comes back; keeping
him involved, uh, in
things going on at the distillery, recognizing his
contributions or getting him involved. And I honestly feel like that,
that has enhanced his quality of life and it's, uh, it's increased his
longevity. And, um, as I mentioned to, uh, to Mark Brown, I told him,
I said, "If there's every anything I can do, uh, for this distillery
just for what it's done for my father," uh, he only has to ask. Uh, I
feel that good about it.
TROLAND: I'm struck in talking to the two of you as well as to, uh,
Ronnie Eddins and, uh, and, uh, Leonard, uh, Leonard, excuse me.
F. JOHNSON: Riddle.
TROLAND: Riddle, sorry. Forgive my, uh, failing memory. Leonard
Riddle. I'm struck by the sense of community that exists here, and
it's fascinating to hear you say that, uh, this sense of community goes
back as, uh, your memories, your collective memories,
uh, indicate so
far in time.
J. JOHNSON: Um-hm.
TROLAND: And that they encompass both black people and white people
and, um, all the people who are around this area. That's, to me, a
fascinating story, and, uh, thank you very much for taking the time out
to, uh, speak to us about this.
J. JOHNSON: One that he mentioned and we forgot to talk about, uh, we
were in O, in, uh, R warehouse around ten o'clock in the morning, and
we had some work in there to do and then after that we were going over
to O--and that's clear across the railroad track on the other side,
now--and so we were leaking with, oh, what's his name? One of the
fellows had a, that was a leak hunter, he had his tools in a bucket,
and he was walking along--
F. JOHNSON: That wasn't Frosty, was it?
J. JOHNSON: No. Frosty was a tiller. And the thing about it, uh,
Stokes. Stokes.
F. JOHNSON: Uh-huh.
J. JOHNSON: Stokes was the one that, uh, had this stuff in his bucket,
and he was a leak
hunter; stopper. And he had all his tools and
everything, and when we was going up--now we done walked all the way
across from that warehouse from clear over to here--and started up on
the elevator and Stokes said, "Jimmy, there's something funny. I can
smell pole cat just as if it was walking along beside me." And I said,
"You can? I don't want nothing walking beside you to hit it." And he
looked down in that bucket under just the little cloth that he had in
his bucket, and there was pole cat that he was packing all the way over.
F. JOHNSON: They'd stuck a skunk, a little dead baby skunk in his--
J. JOHNSON: In his bucket, and he was carrying that thing along. And he
was stinking up the breeze, and he said, "I'm smelling it just as if I
was carrying it along." And then he realized he was carrying it along.
He said, "If I knew who put this damn thing in here, I'd get him, boy,
and lose my job." And everybody looked at Frosty because we knew who
did it. Frosty done put it in there, and he's standing right there
beside him. Yes, sir. He put that pole cat in his bucket, and he done
packed it all the way across there.
F. JOHNSON: But there's a, even at this distillery today, there's still
a, a good, there's a core group of people that are still good. Uh,
even new ones coming in, uh, you know, there are, there are three or
four around here right now that are just as good as they can be. And
they're, that's the foundation, so you've got a new group coming in.
And they realize this, the, uh, the significance of what they're doing
and that the barrels going in there right now, uh, that's their name
twenty years from now, so, uh, and a lot of them see that. And that's,
those are the good ones. Those are the ones that's going to be around,
and you're happy to run into those folks so--
J. JOHNSON: Yeah. Dad had a little old tobacco crop out there, and, uh,
they'd ask, "Jimmy, when you gonna get, when you gonna
bring your crop,
bring your crop in?" "Oh," he says, "I'll get it in a day or two." In
a day or two, you'd better believe they'd all go out there and help
him get his little tobacco crop in. I'm sitting up there driving the
truck, driving the truck, and he'd want to holler every now and then.
I'd reach up and get a hand in just about turning brown and put it in
my mouth. He'd say, "You'd better hurry up and get the crop in 'cause
Jim's going to eat some. He's staying up for it. Get it in the barn
where he can't get it." Yes, indeed-y. But that's what-- the kind
of friends they were. They would go out of their way to help you if
you had any kind of problem. And then hog-killing day, that was just
another, another picnic. They would come out and just have a big time
killing hogs and things like that. Uh-huh.
F. JOHNSON: But thank you.
TROLAND: Well, thanks again both to you, Freddie and Jimmy. Uh, it's
been a pleasure talking to you both and, uh, I know I've certainly
learned a good deal.
J. JOHNSON: Oh, hey, Freddie. Can I tell them the one about--
F. JOHNSON: No. (laughs)
J. JOHNSON: I was going to tell them the one about when I was a
I was in a soldier in, uh, on Guam, and I had twenty-one prisoners,
Japanese prisoners, that I was in charge of, and I couldn't whip the
littlest fellow. He was just, he knew karate, and I couldn't a bit
more whip him for nothing. And yet, still I was guarding all twenty-
one prisoners with an empty gun, and some of them guys was six foot
tall, didn't have no way to whip them. Couldn't really whip the little
one, but we got to be the very, very best of friends. I told 'em, one
day, I told 'em me, five sons over the waves. That's the way I talked
to him, and I never heard a bunch of men as disgusted as they were
when I told them that. And they went back and tore up a sheet--now
each one of them got a square of that sheet--and there was one in the
bunch that was an extremely good drawer, and he drew something on that
sheet pertaining to
Japan. And he didn't have no crayons, but where
they needed something green, they got green grass, if they needed tan,
they got tan coffee stains, needed some black, they got black co-, coal
dust. And they were natural beauties, and I carried them home and they
got damp down in the basement. And I threw them away, and they were
still good. You could read it, make them out real good, but I just
threw them away. It's no telling what those things would have brought
if I'd got them to the right people, and knew that I was that kind of
friend to those soldiers over there. No telling what they would have
give me for it, and yet still I had three naked ladies in this bunch of
pictures. And do you realize I didn't, the last, when I carried them
to the basement was the last time I seen them?
You just never know what happens to good art.
J. JOHNSON: Do you hear what I'm saying? I don't know what happened to
them, but I had all them others. And I'm wondering who would have--
F. JOHNSON: Sometimes art just, it's priceless. You know? It's just
gone. (laughs)
TROLAND: That's right.
J. JOHNSON: Are you listening to this? I'm asking her. Are you
listening to this? Something happened to them, but I don't know what
happened to them. (laughs)
F. JOHNSON: I blame my brother. My brother blames me. Hey, what you
going to do? Long as it's two, no one can be held accountable. (laughs)
J. JOHNSON: (laughs) But there's no telling what I could have gotten for
the thing had I kept them and kept them dry.
F. JOHNSON: What, what he, when he talks about some of these things,
what I tell him is sometimes the worth is not in the tangible.
Sometimes the worth is, uh, is the intangible that has a lot, again,
to do with character and the type of person that you are. So that's,
uh, and that's you. So they just said what they thought of you, Dad.
J. JOHNSON: Yeah. Um-hm.
think, Freddie, that by the time your dad turns ninety-
three he'll finally outgrow his shyness or, uh, will it take longer
than that?
F. JOHNSON: No. I think he's just getting his second breath.
TROLAND: Oh, okay. (laughs)
F. JOHNSON: His second breath. Yeah, he's off and running again.
TROLAND: Well, it really is a pleasure to talk to you both. I looked, I
remember with pleasure meeting you both in May, uh, uh, at the event of
the barrel rolling. We chatted briefly here in this building after the
event during the reception, and--
F. JOHNSON: Um-hm.
TROLAND: Uh, and it was just a wonderful time to hear some of these
stories. And that's actually what gave me the idea of suggesting to
Angela that we do this oral history project because I thought these
stories--(clearing throat)--should be preserved; this history should
be preserved. And so Angela, uh, supported this and Mark Brown has
supported this and the University of Kentucky has supported it and, um--
[End of interview.]