THE Johnson of Hackensack
Journeys into Hackensack
Anyone at all familiar with Hackensack knows that it is a Johnson town.
One approach into the city takes you on Johnson Avenue. Johnson Park is a primary athletic and recreational spot along the banks of the Hackensack River. And, the Johnson Public Library on Main Street has been one of the anchors of the community for over a century.
But as the Johnson name surrounds us, few of us ever put a thought to just who was this person Johnson was who he so prominently.
The Johnson in question is William Mindred Johnson (December 2, 1847 − September 11, 1928), a U.S. attorney, philanthropist, and politician. He was the son of Whitfield S. Johnson, who served as New Jersey Secretary of State from 1861 to 1866
Born in Newton, Johnson first came to town in 1874 to practice law, and it is here that he and his wife raised three children.
In 1895, he was the first Republican elected to the New Jersey State Senate from Bergen County. He was re-elected in 1888, and served as President of the Senate in 1900. During this term, Johnson was Acting Governor from May 21 to June 19 while Governor Voorhees was out of the country.
Eventually, Johnson left the State Senate when he was appointed as First Assistant Postmaster by President William McKinley in August 1900.
He was also delegate to the Republican National Conventions in 1888 and 1904.
Johnson, known for his philanthropy, was a financial supporter of Princeton, his alma mater.
But is locally that he left his mark.
He almost single-handedly made the public library possible (Two earlier efforts started in 1833 and 1871 did not succeed – A third effort, aided by Johnson, was started in 1898)
In 1901 William M. Johnson announced his intention to present an adequate library building to Hackensack. He purchased the plot on the southeast corner of Main and Camden Streets and had the original structure built and also donated $5,000 for the purchase of new books. The trustees organized April 4, 1901 under the name of "The Johnson Free Public Library of Hackensack". It opened to the public on October 5, 1901.
By 1915, it became evident that larger quarters were necessary and Senator Johnson made a further gift of $30,000.
The building was worth 60,000 dollars at the time it was built. It was made of brown Belleville stone and the walls were covered with ivy. It has been enlarged twice since it was originally erected, but the original structure has never been torn down.
Senator Johnson’s home property was located the northeast comer of Main and Anderson Streets. It is, of course, the site of what later became Sears. The property extended from Anderson Street north to Knapp Place and from Main Street east to the river (Now Johnson Park).
Johnson died in 1928 of bronchitis at his home in town. Since that time the library has grown and evolved. But even today his role cannot be overstated.
He truly was a local hero – as the number of sites around town honoring him give testament to.
In the Mel Brooks 1974 movie Blazing Saddles all of the citizens of Rock Ridge, ("where people lived in harmony, they never had no kind of trouble, there was no hint of misery.") had the last name of Johnson (One of main street's storefronts is Howard Johnson's Ice Cream Parlor - advertising only 1 Flavor).
Hackensack too is categorized by the prominence of the Johnson name. But unlike the crude and racist residents in the film’s community, here, in Hackensack, the Johnson name is recalled and honored as part of one of the most diverse communities around – highlighting civic commitment to community and continuity that links then to now.
History of Bergen County; 1630-1923