Joseph French Johnson was born at Hardwick, Massachusetts, on August 24, 1853, the son of a country storekeeper. His parents moving to Aurora, Illinois, he attended high school there, transferred to a Methodist academy, Clark Seminary, from which he was graduated. For a year he taught in the Rockport, Indiana, Female Collegiate Institute. He was graduated from Harvard with high honors in 1878, having meantime spent one year abroad studying philosophy and economics in the University of Halle, Germany. After three years of teaching in the Harvard School for Boys in Chicago, he traveled in Europe as tutor to Marshall Field, Jr., whose son was to found the Chicago Sun (now the Sun-Times) as competitor of the Chicago Tribune and bring suit against The Associated Press as a monopoly when refused its service for his paper. For three years Johnson was on the Springfield, Massachusetts, Republican, first as New England editor, then as city editor. Founded by Samuel Bowles September 8, 1824, the Republican had been inherited by the founder’s son, then by his grandson, each with the same name. Employees passing the newspaper building would chant : “There’s Old Sam Bowles and Young Sam Bowles and Young Sam Bowles’s son; but Young Sam Bowles is Old Sam Bowles when Old Sam Bowles is done.” Johnson worked under “Young Sam Bowles’s son,” widely recognized as one of the nation’s best editors. He may well have heard something of the territory west of the Rockies during this association for “Young Sam Bowles” of the verse had visited the Inland Empire in the sixties. He wrote of his amazement in finding, above The Dalles, “another large and luxurious steamboat, built far up here beyond the mountains, with every appointment of comfort and luxury that is found in the best of river craft large staterooms, long and wide cabins, various and well served meals.” Years later, his son also visited the Far West. Interrupting his newspaper career, Johnson was superintendent of schools in Yazoo City, Mississippi, for a year, then was associated with Frank A. Vanderlip in an investment service in Chicago, from which he stepped to join the Tribune and to an association with another outstanding editor, Joseph Medill.
In these positions Johnson naturally became acquainted with wealthy men. Among them was H. H. Kohlsaat, who had made a great deal of money in a chain of Chicago bakeries and lunch counters. Mabel Hess Redding, Kohlsaat’s secretary at that time and later librarian of the Kellogg, Idaho, Public Library, supplied the following details about her former boss :
He was about 5 foot 10 in height and weighed around 160 pounds; was smooth shaven, wore glasses, had white hair. Conservative in his dress, he usually wore oxford gray suits and while you might not call him handsome, he was very distinguished in appearance. You could hunt the world over and not find a finer person than Mr. Kohlsaat.