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Johnson Pharmacy, which became 'America's 
First Christmas Store,' began selling handmade Christmas decorations in Smethport, Pennsylania, about 1935.  Click for bigger photo.
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Written by Paul D. Race for Family Christmas Online™

Remembering: America's First Christmas Store, From Family Christmas Online™

This article kindly remembers "Doc Johnson," the Smethport, Pennsylvania pharmacist whose Christmas-themed hobby grew into a tourist destination and influenced the front yards and Christmas trees of the United States for nearly 70 years.

This photo is from the Elenor Pierotti collection. Click to see a blow up and more information on the Smethport History web page. Before 1932, the Hamilton Building held a Hardware store, a small pharmacy, and a few upstairs apartments. Pharmacist Leonard Brynolf Johnson rented the building from the Hamilton family and updated the old H.C. Wells pharmacy along lines he had seen in larger cities. His updates included adding many non-pharmaceutical lines of merchandise so that the store became more like a general store with a pharmacy attached.

Still, Smethport was a relatively sleepy town, and there were slow times. During those times, Johnson would pursue his hobbies, including making wooden Christmas decorations. According to regional tradition, Johnson's customers began asking him if the Christmas decorations were for sale, then they started commissioning pieces, then Johnson started making pieces 'on spec' and selling them in the store. Some people date the "official" start of Johnson's Christmas decoration business to 1935. Whenever the Christmas decoration business started, the pharmacy also remained open as long as Leonard Brynolf Johnson was involved with the business.

Eventually Johnson's trademark decorations were selling year-round and attracting shoppers from several states away. The Christmas shop took over much of the first floor, and displays even moved into the next building and the alley in between.

This is a detail from a postcard that shows the store in its heyday. Click for bigger photo.By the mid-1940s, Johnson's Christmas display business employed six workers and three sales representatives. The postcard shown to the right, which was apparently from the store's archives, shows the Christmas store at its heyday. Note that the Johnson Pharmacy is still open for business.

As business grew, so did the "quality" of the clientelle. In Christmas in the White House, by Albert J. Menendez, reports:

    In 1954, when the lighting of the National Christmas Tree was pushed back to December 17 and moved to a publicly accessible park, Leonard Johnson loaned the committee in charge a ". . . Life-sized Santa Claus, eight reindeer, and an electrically operated Christmas Display."

If I am guessing rightly, that was probably Johnson's best Santa-sled-and-reindeer display, with eight realistically proportioned and detailed reindeer stretched out in front of Santa's sleigh. The lead deer was "animated" to the extent that his foot was stomping as if he was anxious to get started.

Our Family's Visits - My family's interest in the Christmas Store came about in part because, as a Frigidaire factory worker, Dad got a mandatory furlough every year in late summer when the factory would close to retool for the next year's product line. Frequently, Dad would append his vacation week(s) to the furlough, and we would pack the family and a big tent into the car and go camping in the Alleghenies. As a result, we wound up "swinging by" the Christmas store several times when I was very young.

These are four of a set of twelve bells Dad bought at Johnson's store in the 1960s. Click for bigger photo.Here's an irony: I barely remember going to the store, but I remember one trip there because of one special purchase that became part of our family's 'heritage' - a set of twelve china bells that said only 'Made in China.' Remarkable as it seems, all twelve bells have survived to this day, although Dad broke up the set when Mom died, giving four to each of his three children.

This is a postcard from about 1979, after the Lovels had taken over the business and expanded into the old pharmacy's space. Click to see a blowup on the Smethport's History page1979 - The Lovells Take Charge - After a very long run, Leonard and his family were ready to get out of the business. They sold the Christmas Store to Robert and Connie Lovell. The Lovells renamed the store "America's First Christmas Store" and kept the store running with new stock including Dept. 56-style collectibles. By then, most of what the store sold was imported from the far East, instead of being home-made or imported from Europe, but the store still focused on quality merchandise that it was hard to find together in one place anywhere else in New England.

1998 - The Buchanans Have a Turn - According to a Seton Hill University online publication, the Lovells sold the shop to Greg and Dee Buchanan, who were longtime customers. During their time operating the store, they increased the number of inventory items and set up new displays, including 40 Christmas trees with different themes.

2005 - The store closes - Unfortunately, another regional attraction, the Kinzua Viaduct was permanently damaged by a tornado in 2003. This cut down on some of the tourism. As late as 2004, the Buchanans still seemed to be going strong, but a year later, the couple reluctantly announced that the store would close at the end of the Christmas season. At the time, the city planned for the site to remain relatively untouched until they could find someone willing to purchase and reopen the store. Unfortunately the economy since then has been rocky, and other issues like $4-a-gallon gasoline have cut down on people driving places like historic Route 6 for pleasure.Click to see a blowup of this and other photos on the WayMark pages.

A visitor to Smethport in 2008 seemed to think that the storefront was still in good condition.

"Doc" Johnson's Legacy

Johnson's "signature" work was no doubt his collection of hand-painted plywood yard art. Johnson wasn't the only person to attempt such seasonal artistic efforts, of course, but Not all of Johnson's work bears this mark, but if you do find this mark on a piece in your attic or barn, we'd love to hear from you.he set the gold standard. Unfortunately, most of those pieces are either faded beyond usefulness or locked away in storage by folks who have no idea what they are. So we've had trouble tracking down photos that do anything like justice to the quality of Johnson's art.

Click for a slightly biggerphoto.As an example, this angel was photographed in the Christmas Store window about 2008. Although we don't know for certain, it appears to be a Johnson work. Note how the careful shading to the face, wings, and even the sheep make them look as three-dimensional as possible. Each piece required hours of hands-on attention to such details. Again, we would love to have more examples to include here.

A few pieces have surfaced on the art or antique market. As an example, one antique/art store in California, has had a Johnson Santa Claus for sale since I started this article several months ago. Leonard Johnson's son has written them to say:Click to see more information about this Johnson Santa on the store site.

    I . . . remember when he sold such Santas for about $25! I recall those years when he made hundreds of people happy at Christmas with his displays. I hope you get a buyer who will keep it as a real antique of Americana! - L. Morris Johnson.

If you find yourself purchasing this Santa, please tell them we sent you. :-)

Conclusion - Your Memories and Examples Wanted

Did your family have any Leonard Brynolf Johnson yard art, or photos of them or projects inspired by them? Let us know, and we'll include your comments and photographs if possible. A few examples are provided below to give you some idea of what we're finding.

Of course, if you are L.Morris Johnson or any other member of the Leonard Brynolf Johnson clan or a former associate who can shed more light on this important but rapidly fading chapter of American Christmas history, please let us know and we'll share it with our readers.

We still have many things to say about outdoor decorations, historical and contemporary, and much to sort out. Please check back every so often for more memories and ideas, and please let us know if you have any ideas you'd like to share with our readers.

Paul and Shelia Race

www.familychristmasonline.com


To return to the Memories page, click here.


Reader Photos

As I was hoping, readers have started writing to tell me about Leonard Brynolf Johnson displays that they have found in attics, purchased at garage sales, or inherited from their parents or grandparents. I keep asking for photos, but a few are starting to trickle in.

Click for a slightly larger photo.Nick Zito's Santa Set

A couple of years ago, Nick Zito found a Santa set in very good condition at a rummage sale. Last year, he decided to put it up. Here are a few photos he took when he was deciding what to do with the set. I included a "detail" of Santa's face to the right to give you an idea of the lifelike, three-dimensional quality that Johnson and his helpers painted into each figure. You'll also notice that the reindeer below have very distinctive "personalities." Click on each photo below to see a bigger picture:

Click for bigger photo Click for bigger photo Click for bigger photo

Call for Photos and Flyers

This image was taken from a low-resolution scan of the cover of 'Doc' Johnson's 1962 catalog.  We would love to get our hands on this flyer ourselves and make these images available in high resolution.As I've told many owners of Leonard Brynolf "Doc" Johnson art, the only reason Leonard isn't a celebrated folk artist, is that the people who consider themselves critics of folk art never realized how much real art went into these elaborate Christmas displays. If you have ANY of Doc Johnson's work, or any of the flyers he put out during the shop's peak years, please contact us so we can give you instructions for sending photos or materials, to help us continue sharing the craftsmanship, art, and sheer fun of these works with the rest of our readers.

By the way, at a reader's request, we have provided a sort of plan for making your own version of the Santa-in-Airplane display. Click here for more information.

This photo was taken from a low-resolution scan of 'Doc' Johnson's 1962 catalog. Unfortunately, we could not get a higher resolution version of this image.  But if you have any of 'Doc' Johnson's catalogs, we'd love to borrow or buy them from you and provide the high-resolution images here.

Other Pages of Interest

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Note: Family Christmas Online™ is a trademark of Breakthrough Communications(tm) (www.btcomm.com).
All information, data, text, and illustrations on this web site are Copyright (c) 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 by Paul D. Race.
Reuse or republication without prior written permission is specifically forbidden.


Visit any of the links below to see quality collectible Christmas gifts and
decorations that have been popular with our readers.

Click to see collectible table-top trees, including animated ceramic trees from Thomas Kinkade(r) and other world-class designers. Click to see collectible Christmas wreaths designed by world-known artists. Click to see classic nativity sets, including collections from world-known designers. Click to see collectible Christmas ornaments by world-known designers. Click to see Christmas collectibles with railroad themes - designs by Thomas Kinkade(r).


Note: Family Christmas Online™ is a trademark of Breakthrough Communications(tm) (www.btcomm.com).
All information, data, text, and illustrations on this web site are Copyright (c) 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 by Paul D. Race.
Reuse or republication without prior written permission is specifically forbidden.


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Tabletop Christmas Trees are Perfect Holiday Decor