Frontier Diary: Man carried shoes from Red Cliff to Glenwood and back
Frontier Historical Society
“You might be poor, your shoes might be broken, but your mind is a palace.”
— Frank McCourt, Angela’s Ashes
On any given day beginning in the early 1940s, a traveler between Glenwood Springs and Red Cliff might have seen a small man walking alongside the highway. Over one shoulder was a canvas bag, filled with shoes. The determined man walked with a limp, but the impairment did not deter him from his mission of either delivering shoes for repair, or returning repaired shoes to their owners.
The man with a mission was Arthur Norman Johnson. Johnson, born July 1, 1890, in Red Cliff, came from a family of limited means. His Swedish born father, Andrew Johnson, and Norwegian born mother, Christina Kambak, divorced when Arthur was a young child. His mother solely raised Arthur and his brother, Ralph, by working as a washer woman and as a domestic. There were times when Christina and her children had little of the necessities, much less luxuries of life. Occasionally, the only roof over their heads was a canvas tent.
Johnson was partially paralyzed on his right side, but the cause of the paralysis was never divulged. Although he could not read or write, he compensated for his lack of formal education with the will to work and to be of service to others. After his mother’s death in December 1925, Johnson began work at the Denver and Rio Grande train depot in Glenwood Springs as a “red cap” porter. He unloaded and transported passenger baggage, assisted passengers getting on or off the train, and provided directions and information. Arthur lived in the Rex Hotel at the end of the Hotel Denver block across the street from the depot, so he had to walk only a few yards to work each day.
By 1940 Johnson had moved back to Red Cliff. The town’s population numbered about 800, primarily making a living from mining. The nearby zinc mining town of Gilman had about 500 people. When the United States entered World War II on Dec. 7, 1941, the lives of every American, including Johnson’s, took a dramatic turn.
The war efforts required rationing. Rubber and leather for shoes was redirected to military needs. In 1942 rubber work boots were rationed. Anyone needing new rubber boots had to apply for replacement and had to turn in their old pair when they received the new pair. On July 2, 1943, each adult and child was limited to three pairs of leather shoes for the year. Rationing stamps had to be redeemed acquire the shoes. In order to support the war effort as well as to conserve their rationing stamps, people relied upon shoe repair.
Shoes are vital to life. Without functioning footwear, people cannot work, cannot recreate and cannot attend school. The miners and their families were wearing out their shoes. It was during his working years in Glenwood Springs that Johnson became friends with cobbler Bryan McDonald. Johnson struck a commission deal with McDonald to bring shoes to McDonald Shoe Shop at 701 Grand Ave. (the site of today’s Grind restaurant) for repair. For the price of 50 cents per pair, Johnson took worn shoes from Red Cliff and Gilman to Glenwood Springs, and then returned the repaired shoes to their rightful owners. But the only way Johnson could transport the shoes to Glenwood Springs and back was by foot at a distance of over 120 miles round trip. Undaunted, he filled his canvas bag with 50 pairs of shoes and started the solitary walk to Glenwood Springs.
When word spread of his service, demand increased. When the canvas bag became too small to fill all requests, Arthur procured a two wheeled dolly, pushing the shoes to their destinations. So he could safely be seen along the highway by motorists, he affixed red reflectors to the front and back of his cap. There were weeks where he made this round trip three times — about 350 miles a week on foot. Some motorists gave him rides, a kindness for which he was grateful.
Shoe rationing ended in 1945, and economic times improved, meaning people tended to repair their shoes less. Also, Johnson was getting older. He was a middle-aged man when he started his long walks to Glenwood Springs and back. In time, he discontinued his shoe courier service. As he aged, he moved permanently to Glenwood Springs and became a janitor. In 1960, at the age of 70, he officially retired from work.
On July 20, 1969, Johnson died in Glenwood Springs. He will always be remembered fondly as the man who rose above personal physical and economic hardships, and who took many steps to better the lives of his neighbors.
Willa Kane is former archivist of and a current volunteer with the Frontier Historical Society and Museum. “Frontier Diary,” which appears the first Tuesday of every month, is provided to the Post Independent by the museum, 1001 Colorado Ave., Glenwood Springs. Fall, winter and spring hours are 1-4 p.m. Monday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday. For more information, call 945-4448.
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