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.
My family has been participating in Algodon (spanish for cotton) festivities for many many years. The Algodon club is an organization that hosts various events throughout the year to promote the cotton industry. One of the main events is a ball where guests wear 100% cotton formal attire. The evening is filled with dinner, live music, dancing and the much-anticipated announcement of the Don and Dona for the year. This pretigious honor is granted to a couple who has contributed to the cotton industry over the years, and it's a huge secret until announced that evening. My grandparents were selected as the Don and Dona this year so we got to be in on the secret. We were all over the moon. They are so deserving of this honor, and I couldn't be more proud of them. Many of the cousins came in town from all over the country to support them and see them recognized at the ball. We had a great weekend celebrating and enjoyed a fun, kid-free evening out.
Addie was modeling some necklace options trying to help her MiMi decide what would look best with her dress. :)
Friday, we met some of the family for an impromptu lunch at a little Mexican food dive restaurant in town.
Addie reading books with her Uncle Cale
Cale brought me a raspa (aka..snowcone) to enjoy that afternoon. Oh the taste of summer in the Valley....can't beat it.
Walking back from an afternoon of swimming
Too cool for school
Mom and Dad ready to head to Algodon
The hubs and I ready to party
Cody and Britt are on the board this year and were presented at the ball as well
The 2014 Don and Dona
The court all bows to the Don and Dona as they are presented
At the end of May, Addie and I took a long weekend and headed to Harlingen to see the family. I had been crazy busy at work for too long and needed a fun weekend away with my girl. Unfortunately, Jason had to stay behind because he was still too busy to get away. I'm not sure if it was her age or the events of the weekend, but we had the BEST time. I would venture to say it was our best trip to the Valley thus far. Ad and I flew down Thursday around lunch time, and she was perfect on the plane. My mom picked us up from the airport, and we headed straight up to my grandparents house to visit and met my dad at the farm. We hung out for a few hours before heading back to Harlingen to indulge in some Pepe's for dinner with Cale, Cody, Britt and Hayes.
Addie and Grandma
Friday morning, we woke up and headed down to Brownsville to the zoo. Cody and Hayes joined us while Cale and Britt were at work. Addie loved seeing all the animals at the zoo. She is starting to talk soo much and would tell us what the animals were and what they say, etc. The weather started getting HOT and very steaming just before lunch so we called it a day and went to meet Norton for lunch. When we got home, Addie and Dad napped while Mom and I headed to Marshalls to do a little shopping. When we got home, we took Ad to the neighbors pool to swim. She had a blast splashing with Papaw and jumped off the side of the pool to him several times. Cale, Cody, Britt and Hayes came over to my parents for dinner that night, and we all enjoyed a yummy spaghetti supper before turning in for the night.
We love the petting zoo
Petting the sting rays
Saturday morning, we got up early and headed down to the beach. Addie had never been to the beach so I was so excited to take her. We rented chairs and umbrellas and of course Papaw came prepared with lots of beach toys. Ad loved seeing the "yellow boat" (the banana boat) and even got a kick out of jumping the waves with Uncle Cale. Mom had packed a cooler with lunch so we ate under the umbrellas and just enjoyed the breeze and sound of the ocean. The beach is my happy place, and I couldn't have asked for a better day. Addie played so hard all morning and had the best time. She was literally snoozing in her carseat before we made it out of the parking lot and slept the entire ride home. We took her back to the neighbors pool late that afternoon before heading home to shower, get dressed and head to Cody and Britt's house for dinner. Cody fried fish, and we had yummy sides and dessert. Grandma, Grandpa, Travis, Sarah and their kiddos all joined us, and we had a great evening together. It was the perfect end to a wonderful day.
The highlight of her day....getting to sit on the yellow boat. Uncle Cale was the hero
Just chillin on the beach eating some chips
Snoozin on the way home from the beach
Uncle Cale being a good sport and letting the girls adorn his face with stickers
Sunday morning we headed to church and then caught a flight back to Houston. Addie was so exhausted from the weekend, she slept most of the plane ride home. She was sooo excited to see her daddy when we landed. Thanks Mom and Dad for such a fun weekend. It was the definition of carefree summer days, and I couldn't have asked for anything better.