Lillian Johnson, during the World War II and Great Depression era, left her job as a schoolteacher, for which she had a degree, to start a bakery with her husband Bill.
Johnson’s journey to earn a college degree from the University of Wisconsin-Superior wasn’t easy, but her ability to adapt and persevere has allowed her bakery — Johnson’s Bakery on West Third Street in Duluth — to keep cashing checks to members of the Johnson family nearly 70 years after its grand opening.
Johnson was born Feb. 24, 1918, on a Finnish farm not far north of Duluth. She was one of 10 children, and the town was so small that formal education ended at eighth grade.
After Johnson finished eighth grade, she moved to West Duluth with her older (married) sister Ellen. She graduated from Denfeld High School in 1935, then immediately enrolled at Wisconsin-Superior, hoping to become a teacher.
“Mom loved school,” said Sharon Torrison, Johnson’s daughter. “She did whatever she had to do to get through school, whether it was cleaning bathrooms or helping watch over her sister’s families that took her in.”
Johnson found a teaching job in Maple, Wis., but she ended up having to leave that job to start the bakery in 1946. During that time Lillian got married to Bill Johnson, whose family had known Lillian’s for decades. Bill and Lillian had three children: Sharon, Kurt and Scott. Kurt and Sharon were born before 1946, which is when they had opened the bakery.
The family moved to Piedmont Heights in 1950, after years of taking the toll bridge over from Superior. Travelers paid each time they crossed the toll bridge, and all riders -- no matter that age -- were counted.
“It wasn’t unusual to have stowaways when crossing,” Torrison said.
Every day, Lillian Johnson would go back and forth from the bakery to their Superior home to make her children lunch and dinner, according to Torrison.
Years later, Bill Johnson’s mother got very sick, and there was no one to watch over her besides Lillian. The two were not fond of each other. Bill’s mother was Swedish, and some Swedes were known to hold animosity toward Finns. Lillian’s father emigrated from Finland several years before Lillian was born.
Lillian had to make it work, despite a slight communication barrier and passive-aggressive comments coming from her mother-in-law, according to Scott Johnson.
Shortly after Bill’s mother passed away, Bill was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Lillian watched over Bill for 17 years until he too passed away. Through all that time, she continued to run the bakery.
Lillian Johnson started getting sick in 2004, when her daughter began caring for her. Lillian continued to work with her family and at the bakery, doing bookwork from home.
She passed away on her wedding anniversary -- Feb. 22, 2005. She was 86.