Historic Johnson Farm

The following article by Jennie Jones Giles  consists of excerpts taken from an article written in August 2005 for the Hendersonville Times-News by Giles.

The Historic Johnson Farm operates as a heritage education center by the nonprofit Henderson County Education Foundation. It was bequeathed to the schoolchildren of Henderson County by the late Vernon and Leander Johnson. Before their deaths, the brothers also donated the land, a former cow pasture, to build Rugby Middle School.

The Johnsons

Vernon, 1891-1978, and Leander Johnson, 1895-1987, were bachelors.
“The story we have is if they found a girl they liked, Mama didn’t like her,” Lisa Whitfield said. “If she found a girl she liked, they didn’t like her.”
The brothers lived on the farm with their mother, Sally, who ran the farmhouse as a boarding house.
Their father, Leander Brownlow Johnson, had died in 1896.
“At the time of their father’s death, the family lived around Shaw’s Creek,” Whitfield said. “There are all kinds of stories about Sally working and struggling on her own for years, trying to be a single mom.”
Shortly after 1913, the family moved to the farm, which was owned by Sally’s family, the Leverett family. Tourists and visitors to Henderson County began staying at the boarding house. It was still a working farm, as they used the farm to feed the boarders.
Leander obtained a degree in chemical engineering from N.C. State University and worked for a time in Virginia. He also served in the Army during World War II, working as a chemist.
“We have his Army uniform upstairs,” Whitfield said.
Vernon, the older brother, obtained a degree in mechanical engineering.
“I don’t have any record of him working anywhere but here,” Whitfield said.
Both brothers shared their knowledge with anyone who was interested, especially schoolchildren.
“A lot of people tell me if you had any interest in anything they knew about, they were willing to share that information,” Whitfield said. “They are described kind of like Andy Griffith. If you were with them when they were plucking chickens, they would give a lesson in anatomy.”
Vernon is described as more gruff and Leander more soft-spoken, she said.
After the death of their mother in 1958, the brothers tried to keep the farm going as a bed and breakfast.
“Leander was a good cook, but it became too much for them,” Whitfield said. “Folks who were longtime boarders became almost like family, everybody pitching in and doing the chores.”
Vernon enjoyed playing the fiddle.
“We’ve got his fiddle, but I’ve never heard anybody say they heard him play,” she said.
Vernon was also the woodworker.
“Somebody gave him some really nice walnut and he decided to make his coffin and had it all planned out,” Whitfield said.
His woodshop was not large enough in which to build it, so he decided to make a cradle instead.
“It’s better to use that pretty wood to start a new life than to end one,” he reportedly said.
Leander was more interested in nature.
“He would take people out to see sunrises and he could tell you all the names of the plants, the common names and the Latin names, and what they were used for,” Whitfield said.
The brothers kept big work horses on the farm and had a bull.
“If anybody else got in the pasture with the bull, that bull would chase them,” Whitfield said. “But if Vernon or Leander was there, he was calm and let them pet him.”
There were also chickens and pigs on the farm. And Leander had a dog named Rebel.
The brothers got up at 4 a.m. to milk the cows.
“If boarders would get up at 4 a.m., they could milk the cows with them,” Whitfield said. “But they would only call you to get up once.”
The brothers especially enjoyed children.
When West Henderson High School was built next to the farm, they offered to help in any way they could, Whitfield said.
“They brought up plants and landscaped and brought up volunteers to build the football stadium seats,” she said.
The brothers enjoyed the field trips schoolchildren frequently made to the farm. They offered to will the farm to Western Carolina University, but the university did not accept the offer.
At that point, the brothers bequeathed it to the Henderson County Public School System.

Johnson family

The brothers descend from the first Johnsons to settle in Henderson County. Two brothers, James and Noble, moved to what is now the Horse Shoe and Mills River communities of Henderson County about 1798. Leander and Vernon descend from Noble Johnson, according to local genealogical books and Whitfield.
Noble Johnson, 1758-1800, had five children. One of those children was John Johnson, 1787-1848, who married Elizabeth A. Strange. They had 13 children. One of those children was Harvey Fletcher Johnson, born 1834, who married Margaret E. Bates.
Harvey Fletcher Johnson obtained a doctor of divinity degree and became the president of Whitworth Female College in Brookhaven, Miss. He and his wife, Margaret, died in Brookhaven, Miss., but their bodies were brought back to Henderson County for burial. He died in 1886. His wife died in 1905. They are buried in Oakdale Cemetery.
The angel, which is described in Thomas Wolfe’s book, “Look Homeward, Angel,” is reputedly placed at the grave of Margaret Bates Johnson, Vernon and Leander’s grandmother.
“One of her sisters bought it to place on her tombstone,” Whitfield said.
The couple’s son, Leander Brownlow Johnson, Vernon and Leander’s father, was married twice. His first wife was also named Sally. There were at least two children of his first marriage. A son was named after his grandfather, Harvey Fletcher Johnson.
“Part of Vernon and Leander’s college tuition was paid by their half-brother, Harvey Fletcher Johnson,” Whitfield said. “They also took in ironing while in college and worked to earn the rest of it.”
Vernon and Leander’s half-brother and sister lived in Mississippi with their grandparents, Whitfield said. Half-brother Harvey Fletcher Johnson was career Coast Guard, one of the highest ranking officers in the Coast Guard, Whitfield said.
“Some of that family still lives in Mississippi,” she said.
The listing of the family’s gravesites, according to the book Henderson County, North Carolina Cemeteries, is confusing.
Some of the families gravesites are recorded in the section of Oakdale Cemetery as ” Blocks 4 and 3 and 2, beginning at the northwest corner of Block 4 beside Highway 64 and running south to the drive between Bock 2 and 1. 14 rows.”
In Row 7, at the fourth gravesite is listed Leander B. Johnson, 1895-1987. But Leander is not buried in Oakdale Cemetery. He requested his ashes be scattered at the farm and they were, Whitfield said. It is possible someone put up a marker, but he is not buried at Oakdale Cemetery.
The next stone reads Sally L. Johnson, mother, 1866-1958, and Leander B. Johnson, father, 1855-1896. Next to the parents is listed Vernon J. Johnson, 1891-1978. Vernon was buried at Oakdale next to his mother, Whitfield said. But their father, Leander B. Johnson, is not buried next to Sally, despite the fact that a marker for his grave is listed in the book as being there.
Leander B. Johnson was buried next to his father in Oakdale Cemetery.
In Row 9, is listed Leander B. Johnson, 1855-1896. Next to his gravesite is his father, Rev. H.F. Johnson, D.D., June 7, 1831-Aug. 4, 1886. Next to this grave is Margaret E., wife of H.F. Johnson, May 13, 1832-May 26, 1905. In parenthesis in the book is stated, Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe, monument.

Leverett Family

Sally Leverett, the mother of Vernon and Leander, descends from an early local family, also. Her maiden name is spelled different ways through the years, as Liverett to Liverette to Leverette.
A Joseph Liverett, born in 1800 in South Carolina, married Mary Davis, born 1814, in South Carolina. He was the son of Thomas and Sally Liverett. One of Joseph and Mary’s children was Robert Henry, born 1836, who married Mary M. Woodfin.
It is believed Joseph Liverett and his wife, Mary, are buried in the old Summers-Liverett Cemetery in the Edneyville-Dana section, which is destroyed.
Son Robert Liverett and his wife, Mary, “bought a 310-acre farm and brick farmhouse from Oliver Moss, a wealthy tobacco farmer,” said a Liverette genealogy at the History Center on Main Street.
This land and farmhouse is the Historic Johnson Farm.
They bought the farm from Oliver Moss in 1888, Whitfield said.
“It was almost 400 acres at the time,” she said. “Only 17 acres are left.”
In 1913, Robert Henry Liverett got into an argument over farm work with his son, John, and shot and killed him, according to an early newspaper the Western Carolina Democrat.
The 77-year-old grandfather of Vernon and Leander Johnson then killed himself.
After this family tragedy, Sallie Liverett Johnson, the mother of Vernon and Leander Johnson, moved into the farmhouse to take care of her elderly mother and sister, Bettie. Her mother descends from the early pioneer Woodfin family of Old Buncombe County.
This family is buried at the historic Mill Pond Cemetery, off N.C. 191, close to the farm.
There are eight graves in Row 15 inside a coping at the cemetery: John I. Leverett, 1860-1913; infant of John and Hattie Leverett; John R., son of John and Hattie Leverett; Vernon Leverett, 1870-1925; Bettie Leverett, 1868-1918; Robert H. Leverett, 1836-1913; Mary M. Woodfin, wife of R.H. Leverett, 1828-1914.
Another brother of Sally Leverett Johnson, “Aunt Sally” as she was known to the many boarders and visitors to Johnson Farm, was George Pinkney Leverette, born 1861, who was elected mayor of Hendersonville in 1893 and 1895.
According to his obituary in an early newspaper, he was “the dean of Hendersonville’s mayors” and he died at Chimney Rock, April 27, 1940. He was also the city’s tax collector for several years. He and his wife, Blanche Thomas Leverette, are buried in Oakdale Cemetery.