Alden Nels Johnson and Kathleen (Katy) Norma Dodson Johnson have lived their entire lives in the Rio Grande Valley. They have experienced, firsthand, the evolution of the cotton industry from the days of horse and wagon trailers to GPS operated tractors, from picking cotton by hand to round bale cotton pickers, from defoliating crops with army worms to Round Up ready seed. The cotton industry has been a part of Alden’s life since birth and has been instrumental in shaping his character, strengthening his faith, and providing a legacy for generations to follow.
Alden was born in 1927 and was raised on the family farm at Zapata Ranch, west of Sebastian. Alden’s father, Arthur Levine Johnson moved to the Valley in 1913 from his farm in Minnesota. After serving in WWI, Arthur married Esther, purchased land, and began farming cotton, corn, and grain sorghum in South Texas. In those early days of the Rio Grande Valley’s emerging agriculture industry, history played out in the fields of the family farm, with Texas Rangers on horseback clashing with banditos and outlaws along the largely undeveloped brush country and farmland.
Alden spoke Swedish in the home and Spanish in the fields, requiring him to repeat first grade at Sebastian Elementary School in order to learn English. When Alden turned 14, his dad purchased their first tractor with rubber tires. At age 16, while Alden attended Lyford High School, his older brothers were called to serve during WWII in the Air Force and 82nd Airborne Division, leaving him to work the family farm after school hours to help his dad who had grown ill with muscular dystrophy and was bound to a wheelchair. Alden would work long hours, often until midnight, after going to school all day. He graduated early to manage the family’s farming operation until his brothers’ returned from the war.
He later farmed in partnership with his two brothers, Gordon and Chester, for about two years before striking out on his own. In the early 1950s, Alden purchased 400 acres and began farming as a sole proprietor. He established a corporation and a partnership as he grew his farming operation over the years. Alden was always a fair and generous employer. One employee has worked with Johnson Farms for over 55 years.
Although retired from farming, Alden still makes the rounds to check crops, advise his sons and son-in-law, and help move equipment as needed. He also keeps up with the ag community at the domino table at Lyford Gin every afternoon. Alden served the cotton community for many years. He sat on the Board of Directors of Lyford Co-op Gin for multiple years and held the office of president several terms. He also served on the Board of Directors of Valley Co-op Oil Mill as well as the Willacy-Hildalgo Soil and Conservation Board of Directors. Alden was named the Willacy-Hildalgo Soil and Water Conservation District Outstanding Conservation Farmer in 1973. He was also awarded Honorary Lyford FFA Chapter Farmer for the year in 1975. Alden has been a member and served for many years at Lyford Methodist Church. He sings in the choir, has served as chairman of the board, and attended the Southwest Methodist convention as a delegate for his church. He has also served on the Board of Directors at Chapel by the Sea on South Padre Island.
Alden has been married to Katy for 66 years. Alden and Katy met while Katy was teaching Home Economics at Lyford High School. At the time she was earning $2000 a year and was once given a live chicken by a family at one of her home visitations as a way of saying thank you! Katy was raised in Santa Rosa, Texas, and attended school there. She furthered her education at Texas A&I in Kingsville, Texas, earning a degree in Home Economics and a teaching certificate. Katy’s father, Howard Dodson, and wife, Mary, farmed in the Santa Rosa, Texas area. He grew vegetables, citrus, and some cotton. Katy learned her work ethic having spent many days in the fields picking cotton by hand. She passed that work ethic along to her and Alden’s five children. After teaching at Lyford High School for two years, she became an at-home mom. Her children “fondly” remember her meeting them at the bus stop with several hoes and machetes so they could take care of any weeds in their designated 120 acre Palm Tree block before supper. She even had them hand plant several acres of cotton that had not come up. Those few tortuous acres were then destroyed by hail a few months later, and her children were introduced to just one of the difficulties a farmer must face.
Katy has always been active in the Lyford community. She served on the Lyford PTA Board and is a member of the Lyford Methodist Women. She has been a part of Lyford Women’s Club for many years, serving on numerous committees and in the office of president. She taught Sunday School for over 20 years. She was also a member of the Texas A&M Mother’s Club and served on the Cotillion Board.
Katy was an integral part of the farming operation, handling finances and most importantly taking meals to the fields twice a day to feed family and employees. Many holidays and birthdays have been celebrated with her homemade ice cream on the tailgate of a pickup truck in the fields. She is legendary for her delicious cooking and many will testify to her culinary skills.
Alden and Katy have 5 children, 13 grandchildren, and 22 great grandchildren with two more on the way. Their family has been very active in the Algodon Club. Son, Richard, and wife, Cheryl, served on the Algodon Board. Son, Lynn, and wife, Tami, are past Algodon presidents. Daughter, Ann Johnson Jud, was Duchess of Willacy in 1972. Granddaughters, Kristi Johnson Horton, Karyn Jud Hatch, Emily Johnson Rivera, Rachel Johnson Lippe, were all Ladies-in-Waiting. Granddaughter, Kelsey Johnson Stocker, was a Princess, and granddaughter, Katie Johnson Mayeaux, was Queen. Grandsons, Travis Johnson, Cale Johnson, and Cody Johnson, were all Ambassadors of Cotton. Cody also served as Crown Bearer. Several grandchildren were recipients of Algodon scholarships. Currently grandsons, Travis Johnson and wife, Sarah, are serving as Treasurer/Secretary of the Algodon Board, and Cody Johnson and wife, Brittany, are serving on the Algodon Board of Directors.
The Valley Morning Star featured a series of articles on the Johnson family farm and the cotton industry in 1997. Cotton farming and faith in the Lord is the heritage that runs through the Johnson family’s veins. Through hail, hurricanes, drought and many abundant crops, the Lord has blessed Alden and Katy’s family and those whom they employ through cotton farming in Willacy County.