Rosemary Johnson greets visitors as they enter the iconic Captain George Flavel House that sits regally on a hillside in Astoria. She smiles broadly as she tells you about the Flavel family, the architectural and unique details of the house and the history of how it became a museum. You can tell she loves the grand old home and really knows in-depth details about it.
But her knowledge of Astoria doesn’t stop at this one single property, Johnson knows an unbelievable amount of information about pretty much every building in Astoria, and the history that goes along with each one.
Born and raised in Baltimore, Johnson married a national park ranger and the couple were transferred all around the country, ending up in Fort Clatsop in 1979. That’s when things changed for the Johnson’s. “We just decided we loved Astoria and didn’t want to transfer anymore,” Johnson says. “We had two sons and wanted to stay here. I love the area, the history, the weather. It’s not extremely hot, not extremely cold. There are no tornadoes, no bad bugs. Yes, it rains but when we get beautiful days, it’s really beautiful.”
Johnson has a background in art and worked for national park service in historic interpretation. She has performed a lot of historic research and even wrote a book on 1920’s Appalachians farmhouses. “Historic interpretation is talking to people, getting history to come alive,” she explains. “I’ve always loved history. Even as a little girl I studied the Civil War and World War II. Everything we do is based on what happened in the past, and everything repeats itself. So working with the parks service, I was really involved with the Lewis and Clark stuff here. That led to learning about the history of Astoria itself.”
When the family moved to Astoria, Johnson worked as parking control officer, then moved into human resources and eventually to planner and historic preservation officer. Johnson has a great collection of historical Astoria artifacts, such as a pennant from the Astoria Centennial, old photos and postcards. “I used my knowledge and love of history in my job,” she explains. People would want to restore old homes and she used her photos to help people see what their buildings would look like when restored to the original look.
Johnson doesn’t just help others restore their homes, she has an 1880 Italianate home and has been restoring it. “I did a lot of the exterior to look historic and am trying to keep the interior as historic as possible,” she says. When asked if she gives tours of her home, she said, “I’m one of the founders of the Lower Columbia Preservation Society. We did kitchen tours and mine was one of the first,” she smiles. When they did a workshop on how to paint your house, they used her house as well.
Now retired from her job as historic preservation officer, she still keeps very busy. Besides volunteering at the Flavel House, she is a planning consultant with the city to assist various departments with historic property research for community development projects.
When asked what her greatest project was, Johnson couldn’t narrow it down. “It’s more overall rather than single project,” she says. “Being planner and historic preservation officer is having your finger on the pulse of community. I knew what was happening, got to see projects through, see the city change as I helped guide it. The revitalization of Astoria during its big turn-around was exciting.
“In the 1980s it was depressed, and in the 1990s I was in on planning the trolley, cleaning up the plywood site, getting the downtown district on the National Register of Historic Places. To say that I was part of the maritime memorial from the beginning, that I was one of the ones that start the Monster Bash Halloween party, and just being involved in the community and seeing it develop has been so exciting.”
The biggest surprise that has come out of her work though, was a special recognition from the American Association of University Women. They selected her as one of “100 Women Who Helped Form Astoria.” To be acknowledged as a mover and shaker was a real surprise for her. “I don’t have a college degree, so to be honored by a group like that because of my love for the history of the community was a great honor,” she says.
Johnson has nothing but good things to say as Astoria moves towards the future, while keeping ahold of the past. “I think we’re on a good track,” she says. “People come to Astoria because of who we are. It’s important that we keep our character.”
And in case you were wondering just how much Johnston knows about her fair city, this should answer that query. “I know where the bodies are buried,” she laughs uproariously. “I literally have maps marked with graves so if anyone wants to develop, the information will be available.”