Johnson, Peter

(Phyllis Johnson Leseth)

Bio Photo

Peter Johnson

Peter Johnson, pioneer Decorah businessman, was born in Hadeland, Norway 14 Mar 1848, son of John Dybdahl and Anne Eidsand Dybdahl. When he was four years old, he emigrated with his parents and brother Anders to Koshkonong, Wl, eventually settling on a farm near Black Earth, Wl in 1856. (At some point Peter and Anders adopted the surname ‘Johnson"; offspring of John Dybdahl and second wife Thora continued the parents’ surname.)

As Peter grew to adulthood, he became renowned for his strength and skill with tools, machinery, and blacksmithing. At age 23 he opened a machine shop in Black Earth. In 1872 he married Emma Olsdtr Simley, born 2 Jul 1850 in Norway, daughter of Ole and Ingri Mienegen Simley. Ingri was a brilliant and articulate woman, a highly respected lay preacher in her native land. The Simleys emigrated to America and settled very near the farm owned by the Dybdahls. The first of Peter and Emma’s five children were born in Black Earth: Otis, Alfred, Alma, Ida, and Melvin. In 1881 the family moved to Stoughton, Wl, where Peter was a foreman in the Mandt Wagon Works. (Vesterheim Museum displays a farm wagon built by Mandt.) Two more children were born in Stoughton: Nora and Isaak. Several years later the Johnsons settled in Decorah. Peter was first employed by a farm machinery company, but soon became a partner in another firm. The last child, George William, was born in Decorah 27 Aug 1885. A year earlier Peter had decided to go into business for himself; three years later his young wife Emma died.

In 1889 Peter married Mary Ann Schori Bauder, a kindly widow with two sons; Oscar and Julius. Mary Ann mothered the small Johnson children as if they were her own and was beloved by her family and neighbors. The Johnsons attended Decorah Lutheran Church regularly and occupied the same pew. A member of the congregation once remarked, "When I saw big Peter sitting in the pew, I knew all was right with the world!" Peter participated in community activities, particularly serving as chief of Hose Company Number 2, Decorah Fire Department. A photograph shows the company attired in the natty uniforms, with big Peter seated proudly in the center.

Meanwhile, Peter’s firm was expanding from a machine and blacksmithing shop into a firm which included plumbing, heating, and automobile repairs. The company’s motto was “The best equipped plant and repair service in northeast Iowa.” That is indicative of the large territory the firm covered. Step-son Oscar Bauder became a partner in 1901, sons Melvin and George in 1912—thus the business became known as Peter Johnson & Sons.

Mary Ann Bauder Johnson died in 1919. Peter Johnson died 17 Jul 1921 in Decorah at age 73 and is buried in Decorah’s Lutheran Cemetery.

Ownership of the firm was continued by several succeeding generations until it ceased operations in 1992.

Johnson, Peter and Ellen (Lyngaas)


(Maryanne (Johnson) Esgate)

The poet Carl Sandburg wrote, “People are what they are because they have come out of what was." To be able to look at the past, separate the wheat from the chaff, and find in tradition a guide rather than a jailer leaves one with a sense of peace.

Bio Photo

Johnson Service Station parade float. Decorah Centennial, June 1949.
Left to right: Marian, Maryanne and Philip Johnson.

My family, for the most part, came equipped with “stick-to-it-iveness” . My Aunt Estella Johnson taught for 40 years in the Decorah Public School system and for several years before that in Wykoff, MN and Waterville, IA. She gradu

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this page was last updated on Sunday, 28 March 2021