The Octagon House: A Home For All, To a Plantation Home

Philip Paddleford Johnson 1828-1893

What do you need to live? Food, water, shelter and clothing is my answer and how to you choose where your home will be? A long time ago it was said the great prophet of the clan would stand a stick up in the soil and leave it overnight. The next morning when the people arose, they would check the stick. If it leaned to the north, they would travel north or if it leaned to anther direction that’s where they would go. If the stick was still upright and did not lean that is where the clan would stay. The Natives named their spot, Alabamos, which translates “here we rest”.

Elmore County, Alabama founded in 1866, lies in the east central part of the state, drained by the Coosa and the Tallapoosa Rivers. It was a perfect plain, fertile soil, water transportation, distinct seasons, good growing seasons, and a mild climate with abundant sunshine and rain.

Oh Keziah Atwood Gibbs, what a tale I have to tell you. Your mother, Hannah Doane, daughter of Doc Doane, was one of the founders of Eastham, MA, after leaving the colony of Plymouth. When your father died young leaving Hannah with a crippled leg, I wrote about “She Needed a Husband, He Needed a Wife.” From this union you had a step-sister named Abial Higgins, born December 29, 1740 at Eastham, Barnstable, MA. This small strip of land soon outgrow its population and there were no more trees for firewood. The family moved to Hardwick, MA where my Keziah married Abraham Gibbs. Abial would marry Israel Johnson there on her birthday Dec 29, 1761. Their first two children died in infancy: Charles, 1763, Zebediah 1766, Then Thomas Higgins 1768, Edward Flint 1771, Israel died 1774, Polly 1776, John B 1778, Eliphaz 1780, and Zebulon 1785. Abial and Israel Johnson lived in New Hampshire. Some of these children would join the Latter Day Saints and their children trek to Salt Lake, Utah. But the subject of my story is their first living son, Thomas Higgins Johnson who married a girl from England, Elizabeth Betsey Smith. All their children were born in New Hampshire: Abial, Thomas, Orson Thomas, Alexander, Caroline B. Elbridge Gerry, Moses S, and Ezra.

Thomas Higgins Johnson died when he was 84 years old in 1852 at Bath, NH. The family were very successful farmers. His son, Orson Thomas Johnson 1803-1883 would have 13 children with his wife Nancy Mason. His oldest son Philip Paddleford (known as PP) Johnson was born in Bath, NH. August 5th, 1828. By 1835 the family had moved to Kirtland, Ohio where the Latter Day Saints were organizing. They moved again in 1841 to Peoria, Illinois. Philip Paddleford Johnson married first Mary Larkin who died young. He then married Caroline Adelia Dixson and the couple had 9 children. PP farmed in Peoria County, Illinois, then pioneered in 1856 at Red Oak, Montgomery County Iowa. PP was 28 years old. He acquired vast acreage in all three states: SW Iowa, SE Nebraska and NW Missouri.

Johnson Inn at Red Oak, Iowa built by PP Johnson

It was in 1888 my version of the story continues. Caroline had been married for 35 years to the same man. Back on that September 3rd , in 1854, when they exchanged their vows she’s had no idea where their lives would land them. When she’d gone for the mail this morning she’d read in the paper about themselves. Chas. J. Hysham had purchased their stock farm consisting of 1320 acres for $48,000. Their cattle lands had sold for $36/acre and the good farmland for $55. Caroline was reminiscing about their life in Peoria, even though their had been some bad Civil War years. No battles were fought in the state of Illinois where Hazzard Larkin and Emma Amelia had been born at Trivoli. Orson, Mary, Simon, David and Daniel the twins, Seth and Nancy had all been born after they settled at Red Oak, Iowa. Iowa played a significant role during the war providing food, supplies, troops and officers for the Union Army and PP had prospered buying acres and acres of farmland and building the Johnson Inn. Oh my how her Philip Paddleford loved to party. The leap year New Year’s eve party of 1888 at Twoddell’s hall had been well attended, and PP had many compliments on the expense he had put forth for the lovely band. The amusing part had been the candy refusing to be pulled and it stuck to the hands like a duck’s foot in mud. The next day being New Year’s they attended Prof. Orland’s magic lantern exhibition and the wonderful shadowgraphs had made their evening’s entertainment. But it wasn’t all play for PP. He was a very intelligent and thoughtful person, always researching, reading and learning. He loved to travel and go to conventions. PP had met Orson Squire Fowler who was America’s foremost lecturer and writer on phrenology, the pseudoscience of defining an individual’s characteristics by the contours of his skull. Fowler also made his mark on architecture touting the advantages of octagonal homes over rectangles and PP had studied his widely publicized book, The Octagon House, A House for All.

One of our twins, David, who always bragged he came first had married and in 1887 was living in an octagon shaped stone house on a hill overlooking the Nishnabotna River valley, Missouri. It had a unique ceiling rigged with pulleys and ropes whereby it could be lowered in the winter and easier to heat and raised in the summertime so the house would be cooler. An octagonal house has 20% more space than a square with the same perimeter. It minimizes the external wall surface. And this house had amazing views.

We sold the land in Iowa and traded the Johnson Inn and moved to “The Laurel” Manor House near Montgomery Alabama. PP was tired of the blizzards and he had a new plan, at the age of 60. He purchased large tracts of land and then introduced the farmers who made large investments in his Alabama farm lands. He made friends where ever he went except for Frank Davis who pickpocketed him at the Burlington depot of $500. At the arraignment Frank pleaded not guilty and the court admired his nerve but as he was caught with the pocketbook in his possession, he finally plead guilty and was sentenced to a year and a half in the pen. Another trip he met the expert superintending the building of the cotton factory at Union Springs and PP recommended that Alabama ought to be represented by a big display of her natural wealth and products at the World’s Fair in Chicago.

“The Laurels” was built in 1840. I remember my first view of the two story white, wood frame as we travelled up the Magnolia tree lined lane which were in white blossoms. It was such a pleasant, inviting, comfortable country home. At the colonial entry were double parlors. These parlors had 16 foot heart pine flooring that spanned each room without joints and ornate ceilings with raised plaster of Paris designs. One of the outstanding features was the beautiful, self supported, curving stairway just beyond the parlors with mahogany hand rails on each side. Our son Davie and wife Myrt moved to Alabama to help us in our old age, the year of 1891. For Christmas that year we were blessed with the arrival of another Philip Paddleford Johnson named after his grandfather PP. This Philip was a brother for Wylie Boardman Johnson and Nancy May Johnson aged 3 and 2. What a happy lively home we had. Davie liked to enjoy life just like his father. He played poker, the jokes, the parties, the barbecues. He liked to entertain and built a club house to accommodate over night guests. He dammed up a stream that became a large lake for swimming and fishing. My P.P. died on September 6, 1893 aged 65. I moved in with my youngest son Seth, still a bachelor until he married in 1900. I lived out my life with daughter Amelia Johnson Colman at Arapaho, Oklahoma, until death 1905. I wouldn’t live to see little Nancy May our granddaughter, descend the lovely plantation stairway and marry Emmet Poundstone on April 20, 1913, but know that the spirits of Hannah Doane, Abial Higgins and Keziah Atwood Gibbs, Thomas Higgins Johnson, Orson and Nancy Johnson and P.P. and I were smiling down!

David, our twin son, lived a resident of Elmore County, Alabama, for 65 years after moving from Red Oak, Iowa. He entered the angus cattle business on a farm near the Tallapoosa River and owned the old plantation about 10 miles from Wetumpka. Much of the family was nearby including his younger brother Seth. When electric power came from the Tallassee dam the two of them built a private steel bridge to serve their extensive lumber and farm traffic connecting Montgomery and Elmore counties. The brothers, Dave and Seth played a huge part in the development of agriculture in central Alabama with over half a century of conspicuous achievement. From their native Iowa they followed in their father’s footsteps to become among the largest of Alabama’s landowners setting an example of successful farming and showing others the potential of the Alabama Black Belt. They were much more than farmers, active in all sorts of civic work in Montgomery.

Philip Paddleford Johnson is my 3rd cousin 4x removed. His great grandmother was my Keziah Atwood Gibbs half -sister and we share great grandparent Hannah Doane daughter of Doc David Doane and Dorothy Horton. (DNA confirmed) where comes my English ancestry.

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