The Peaks of Otter has been an existing community of people for more than 80 centuries.
Cherokee Indians, European pioneers, their descendants, travelers, and tourists have used the area to hunt, camp, and to live on and farm the land. Near the end of the nineteenth century, at the site of the present Peaks of Otter Lodge, was the thriving community of Mons. There were at least 20 families in the community, a church, an elementary school, two mills, an Odd Fellows lodge, and the Hotel Mons. The history of the Johnson family is intertwined with the history of the Mons community and the Peaks of Otter. They were tied to the development of the hotel and to the area's tourism industry.
David Hunter Strother. Virginia Illustrated: Containing a Visit to the Virginian Canaan, and the Adventures of Porte Crayon and His Cousins. NewYork: Harper and Brothers, 1857. Barrett Library. Shown: "South Peak of Otter, from the Hotel."
The Peaks area was established as a farming community when Thomas Wood first settled here in 1766. The cabin in which he took up residence is now referred to as The Johnson Farm. In 1852, John Therone and Mary Elizabeth Johnson bought the four-room cabin and the land on Harkening Hill. Two generations of Johnsons had lived on the mountain prior to this purchase. They were Castleton Johnson, John T.'s father and John Johnson, his grandfather. John T and Mary had 13 children that helped with the cash crops of cabbage, tomatoes, and potatoes. The family garden included vegetables used by the family. They raised sheep and operated a distillery in a nearby hollow making apple brandy from the trees on the farm. This was sold to an early hotel, The Hotel Mons. This part of the farm would remain in the family for three generations.
The Hotel Mons, Latin name for mountain, was applied to the hotel at an undetermined time. The Otter Peaks Hotel, the name preceding Mons, opened its' doors in 1857. At this time there was only one building proper with outbuildings including a barn and a springhouse. The hotel burned in 1870 but was promptly rebuilt. The Otter Peaks Hotel provided food and lodging for almost 50 years and then a larger hotel was built just west of the one rebuilt after the fire. The hotel had accommodations for 40 guests and was a summer landmark for people coming from as far away as Maine, California, and England. The Mons closed its' doors in 1936. Civilian Conservation Corps workers and other families lived in the hotel proper until the National Park Service dismantled all of the buildings of the Mons complex sometime in the early 1940's.
Jason Johnson, the favored son of John T. and Mary Elizabeth, bought the farm from his parents in 1884 for $410 and 220 acres of his grandfather's, Castleton Johnson, from heirs. Jason brought the house to its' present appearance with the addition of the dining room, kitchen and various porches and storage rooms. Jason was born with a clubfoot but wasn't bothered by this handicap and with his wife Mary Jane (Jennie) Cottrell produced nine children, two of whom died before aged 10, and kept up the tradition of being self-sufficient farmers. Trips to town were rare and only to sell their goods and buy coffee, flour, and sugar. Jason, because of his disability, often planted from horseback and according to a grandchild could hoe across a garden as quickly on his knees as most people could standing. The large apple and peach orchards flourished during this time on the terraced slopes of Flat Top Mountain. The best quality apples were shipped to England. Others found their way into gallons of apple butter made by the community.
Jason and Jenny and their family were tied economically to the Hotel Mons as were many in the community. Many family members were employees of the hotel. The hotel purchased goods from the families as well. Jason and Jennie often took in overflow boarders; the children ran errands and served as guides for hotel guests. Some of the children would take hotel guests on trips to Balance Rock or the Big Spring and receive 50-75 cents per trip.
After Jennie's death, daughter Callie Missouri Johnson and her husband Mack Bryant became the third generation to farm the same land. They continued to run a farm that provided for most of their needs, helped out at the hotel, and had some small entrepreneurial ventures. Mack acted as the local "vet". Callie is best remembered for supplying the Hotel Mons dining room with flowers from her garden as well as the ones she picked from the surrounding mountains. Mack suffered a paralyzing stroke and in 1929 the Depression began a decline for the Johnson Farm. Soon the farm and most of the Mons community made way for the coming of the Blue Ridge Parkway. After the Blue Ridge Parkway acquired the Peaks of Otter, the last family members sold the farm to the Peaks of Otter Company and then it was transferred to the National Park Service in 1941. Sometime in the 1950's steps were taken to stabilize the house, barn, smokehouse, and springhouse. Other buildings were destroyed. In 1968 the house was stripped back to its original log structure and reworked to approximate its' appearance when it was a log cabin. In 1974 the restoration of the house to its' 1920's/30's condition was completed and the interpretation of the farm was begun.
The second child and first son born to Jason and Jennie was Robert Lee Johnson. He was about 10 years of age when they moved into the Johnson Farm. As a young man he moved down the mountain to the Sheep Creek area where he continued to farm and planted an orchard. He also had a small grocery store in Ewing's gristmill. He planted tomatoes and built a canning factory on Sheep Creek. He married Rowena Gross and they had seven children.
The second child and first boy was James Elmo Johnson. He went to Reba School and New Prospect church, which was within walking distance. He once said you could hear the singing from the church in the summer time. His grandparents, Jason and Jennie Johnson were still living and also attended New Prospect church. His mother died, in childbirth, when Elmo was 12 years old. Much responsibility for the economic welfare of the family fell onto young Elmo's shoulders. He worked in the fields, orchards and in the mill where he ground grains for flour and sold the stock of merchandise to customers. His father, Robert, got Aunt Millie Johnson, who never married, to come and stay with the children; the youngest, Hampton, was only two years old. Robert would allow Elmo and his sister, Irene, who was two years older, to walk to spend the weekend with their grandparents, Jason and Jennie, on the mountain.
In 1972, Irene related this story. "One time Elmo and I was walking up the mountain. Elmo saw a squirrel; pick up a rock to throw at the squirrel on the tree. And what did we see, over on the side of the mountain. A big bear. He laid his rock down easy. And we were so excited, when we got to our granddaddy's house, we could hardly talk. Bears was often seen in the mountains."
Elmo continued to work with his father from childhood until he was a young adult. In 1917 he married Sarah Freddie Welch and they had four children. In 1918 he along with his father bought the farm, just a little further down Sheep Creek, now known as Johnson's Orchards and Peaks of Otter Winery. The first apple tree was planted in 1919. Elmo bought his father's interest in the farm shortly after the original purchase. Some of the plantings for the trees were brought from those originally at the Johnson Farm. Among the varieties that had existed there were: Yellow Transparent, Cannon, Bullskin, and Rustycoat. They can still be found among the nearly 200 varieties planted at Johnson's Orchards. In 1998, Danny Johnson, son of Elmo and Freddie, grafted some of these varieties and donated 11 heirloom apple trees to be planted at the Johnson Farm. Danny married Nancy Nestor Johnson in 1960 and they have two sons.
In 1971, Danny and Nancy purchased the family farm where they had lived and worked since 1960 and continue to operate it along with their son, Shannon and his wife Donna, who live on the farm and their grandsons, Josh and Jordan; and the encouragement of their son, Dan (Chip) and wife Kristin, who live in Seattle.