Brazos Past: Johnson family embraces business, horses

A sprawling 1,000-acre ranch east of Robinson, off old Farm-to-Market Road 434, is home to two businesses — Johnson Roofing and JMB Ranch Co. And unless you’re a member of the “horse set” in McLennan County, you proably are more familiar with the former than the latter. The story of how the Johnsons played a leading role in developing the breed into a Central Texas showstopper starts with the founding father of the firm, Benjamin Fannin “Jack” Johnson (1914-91).

A Gatesville native, Johnson first became enchanted with the painted pony known as Appaloosa after seeing circus performers astride the bespeckled beasts when he was a child. But before he could indulge in his passion for spotted horses, he had to make a living in the midst of hard times.

After completing the sixth grade (the first in his family to do so) he became worked at delivering ice before launching a battery business with a brother-in-law. After contracting lead poisoning, the entrepreneur had to move on to another field of endeavor.

Johnson married Waco resident Margaret May Heussner (1916-2010), the daughter of German immigrants, in 1935. Their child, Billy Jack Johnson, was born on Dec. 6, 1941 — the day before the Japanese Imperial forces bombed the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor to push America into World War II.

Although the elder Johnson wanted to enlist after the attack, he was rejected by the armed services because of a steel plate in his leg — the result of fall from a horse.

But Jack Johnson served his community in other ways. He and his wife opened a grocery store on Third Street and Speight Avenue. They road their horses into town each morning to prepare sandwiches for the cotton pickers who would return and pay for their lunch at the end of the day.

That enterprise led to them opening a lumberyard, roofing and home improvement firm during the war years.

After a family vacation in 1952 to the second National Appaloosa Horse Show in Deer Lodge, Mont., Johnson bought Chinook, his first Appaloosa and the male offspring of a champion named Red Eagle. He also acquired Appaloosas for his wife and son.

A circus trailer was purchased and the colts alternated between riding in the trailer and being ridden back to Waco by Johnson and his son.

From there, the Johnsons built the largest herd of registered Appaloosas in the world and began to conduct the Johnson Horse Auctions, which played host to some of the largest registered Appaloosa sales in the world.

The family campaigned the breed across the U.S. and at one time won more national awards than anyone else.

Every other Tuesday night for 36 years, Johnson Horse Auction was host to consignments of all kinds and horses of all breeds.

Margaret Johnson collected the money and kept business transactions straight. The sales only ended when Jack Johnson’s health failed.

Johnson Roofing is still family-owned and operated. It is one of the largest roofing contracting companies in the country, according to its records.

The firm is managed by Bill Johnson and his daughters, Sherri McDonald and Shawn Brown.