By Louise Lindgren
Once in a while someone is born who is destined to enrich the knowledge of an entire community. Such a unique individual was Forrest Paul Johanson.
Always assisting other historians in their research, their writings and public programs, Forrest preferred to stay in the background. He was happiest as the discoverer of odd facts, the preserver of aging photographs, the collector who valued an authentic 1890s miner’s candle over a potentially more valuable copper tray. From Granite Falls to Everett to Index, Forrest distributed photos, artifacts and information he had gathered in over 60 years of collecting and rigorous study.
Born in September 1952, the seed of his love of nature and history was planted as a child who had been given access to the forested land surrounding his home in Kirkland. His parents, Erick and Crystal, encouraged their children to explore and discover. Forrest’s brother Ron remembers: “By the time we were about 10, all three of us kids, including our sister, had climbed the trees. We’d played in the dirt at their roots. We’d learned how to make and throw toy spears made from the root and stem of bracken fern. Nestled among the trees, we treasured little glades where the sun reached the forest floor.”
In the summers, the family would take trips in a VW bus to Yellowstone National Park, the high Rockies, Oregon and north to British Columbia and Banff. Forrest’s love of maps was influenced by watching as his mother serve as navigator with a series of paper maps spread out on her lap. They stopped at every historic marker and often talked about the geology of each area. After Forrest died suddenly in April this year, his brother found that he had saved the hand-bound volume of maps from those trips — a special volume of memories among a collection that included numerous historic maps of our region.
From 1959 through 1962, Forrest was privileged to observe an important archaeological survey project in the Skagit Valley directed by his much older cousin, John Mattson, who gained his master’s degree as a result and went on to become a noted archaeologist with a Ph.D. (Mattson’s collection is on display at the Hibulb Museum in Tulalip.) Dr. Mattson continued to help his younger cousin learn the proper way to conduct historic research throughout their lives.
Ron remembers: “The discussions that followed were fascinating to us kids as the adults built a speculative story as to what the item was, how it was made, who may have used it and for what purpose, how it may have been lost and then preserved over the centuries so we could look at it. I think Forrest’s childhood exposure to archaeology is the single largest contributor to what he became and what he has been able to do. We all developed a profound appreciation of past cultures and technologies after experiencing that.”
Moving to a 55-acre farm near Lake Stevens opened up new avenues of learning. All things agricultural became part of Forrest’s trove of information. He won blue ribbons at local fairs for raising pigs. He learned welding, metal working, logging skills and auto mechanics. And always, there were hikes in the mountains when there was a break in school or farm work.
Dawn Gronlund, Forrest’s sister, noted that “He went way up in the mountains like a goat. He went places that were dangerous and places that were sublime — snowfields and mountain slopes that once beckoned to hard rock miners looking for gold bearing ore. I saw some unbelievably rugged mountain country with him.”
As a young man, Forrest became a journeyman welder and machinist. Unfortunately, he developed strong allergies to the chemicals used in that work, causing him extreme pain and resulting in an autoimmune disorder that led to early retirement. A stint at working as a long-haul trucker ended as well because of ill health. However, Forrest kept on with his historic research and collecting artifacts, especially regarding mining in the Cascade Range.
Monte Cristo was his favorite site for hiking and learning. He photographed and documented the mining ruins of that place with author Phil Woodhouse, who wrote the book “Monte Cristo.” He became a close friend of Enid Nordlund, owner of a cabin there, whose passion for the place and its history matched his own. When Enid died, it was Forrest who spent a year and a half, two days a week, volunteering at the Everett Library’s Northwest Room, sorting and annotating her large collection of photos, including an entire wastebasket of color slides.
Margaret Riddle, the library’s Northwest History Specialist (now retired) wrote, “His knowledge of mining and his love of Monte Cristo was contagious. He was always curious, highly intelligent, generous and kind. I learned a lot from him and considered him a careful, sharing scholar and friend. Forrest even showed me some mining books in our care and said they were rare, which led to our moving these to archival storage for better protection.”
Daryl Jacobson who, with other members of Northwest Underground Explorations, has produced numerous books about mining throughout the state remembers, “He spent countless hours in libraries, museums and universities pouring over information and copying thousands of pages of documents, maps and photos which he shared with us. He bought books and more books, spending his meager funds, not on cars, fancy clothes, vacations or movies, but on history. For many years he refused to be credited in the books he made possible.”
Another historian, Fred Cruger of the Granite Falls Museum, said that Forrest came to their organization at a critical early point in its transition from a small historical society, with its photos and documents in paper files, to a nationally recognized hands-on museum with interactive exhibits and digital displays. He noted that Forrest’s enthusiasm for scanning hundreds of photos he contributed so that they could be shared with the broader public was inspirational and infectious. Fred called Forrest a “relationship catalyst” as he worked with both high-school interns and older folks on that project.
One photo from Forrest’s collection that is on the Granite Falls Historical Society website and printed in large format at that museum causes viewers to gasp with appreciation — the Del Campo Mine above Weden Lake near Monte Cristo. Fred tells visitors who view it, “One of the most important things you had to learn as a miner was which door to use if/when you got up in the middle of the night to relieve yourself.”
The Index-Pickett Museum was the recipient of hundreds of artifacts on long-term loan from Forrest’s collection and has recently finished two new exhibits showcasing those items. One holds over 100 pharmacy items, from pill bottles to lab equipment — all at or nearing their 100th year. Of special interest is a small package labeled “Baume Bengué” — an ointment used to alleviate pain, which was brought to the United States from France by Dr. Bengué early in the 20th century. That became “Ben-Gay” cream, available even now.
An entire room at the Index museum’s annex is now filled with Forrest’s mining artifacts, including a duck-bill forge, an assayer’s oven, numerous hand-held drills and other tools, along with a well-preserved blacksmith’s bellows nearly three feet long. All of it is interpreted using the information, mining equipment manuals and other references that he shared.
As Daryl Jacobson noted, “Forrest knew that our perception of history can be clouded with time and carelessness if we don’t preserve it. He also knew you don’t write history books for profit. You do it for the love of researching, interpreting and preserving history.”
Toward the end of his life Forrest was working hard to write his own version of mining history with special emphasis on the processes involved from exploration to production. He spent many hours at the University of Washington Special Collections Library, doing that research. Any time he came across something that he thought might be of interest to one of his history friends, even totally unrelated to his own topic, he would copy and mail it to the grateful recipient.
The legacy this uncredentialed, self-taught man leaves is in the trove of information now available through the Index and Granite Falls museums, the Everett Library’s Northwest Room and in the books produced by Northwest Underground Explorations: The Everett and Monte Cristo Railway and several volumes in the Discovering Washington’s Historic Mines series. Much of his photo collection can be viewed online through www.gfhistory.org or by searching for the app “Mountain Loop Tour” on your phone.
Due to the suddenness of his passing, Forrest’s family is still searching through his remaining collection to find out if the book he was researching ever made it into manuscript form. Also, his remaining collection may benefit other museums and universities. There could be no better example of a person who embraced the concept of lifelong learning than Forrest Paul Johanson, and the results of his scholarship will assist future historians for years to come.