Rutabagas, Skillets, and Chestnut Square’s Johnson House

Johnson House outside 2

Johnson House Harman Studio ad

Though undated, this ad for James Harman’s studio probably ran in the 1860’s or 1870’s. Image from September, 2005 edition of The McKinney News.

As a professional photographer in the 1860’s and 1870’s, Mr. James Harman  gave us a window into McKinney’s past that few could rival. With the only studio in McKinney, he made portraits of many area residents. One particular picture, taken in 1872, earned Mr. Harman a significant place in Collin County’s history.

Stephen Ballew, sentenced to death by hanging for the murder of James Golden

Stephen Ballew, sentenced to death by hanging for the murder of James Golden





After a sensational trial and days of deliberation by the jury (which was sequestered in the Faires House, another Chestnut Square landmark), Ballew was found guilty of murdering James Golden of Missouri. He was sentenced to death, and would become the first white man legally hung in Collin County. The condemned man asked that James Harman make “a fine photograph” of him before going to the gallows.

Business grew after that famous portrait, and in 1874, James and his wife, Fannie, purchased the lot on the southeast corner of Anthony and Chestnut Streets. They built a two-story, Victorian house across from what is today the Dulaney Cottage. When they moved in to their new home, they couldn’t have known how long they would remain part of the community, even though their time in residence was short-lived. The Harmans sold the property to Mr. W.H. Ferrell in September of 1877 and moved to Galax, Virginia, where Mr. Harman opened a dental practice. In January of 1878, Captain John Johnson, CSA, and his wife, Polly, purchased the house and moved their family to McKinney.

James and Fannie Harman

James and Fannie Harman

Education was important to Captain Johnson, who left school at fourteen years old to support his mother and sisters after the death of his father. He and Mrs. Johnson had a total of thirteen children, and he pledged that they would graduate without the struggles he endured. It was the quality of McKinney’s schools that led him to move the family into town. Unfortunately, he believed book-learning was wasted on his daughters, so only the Johnson boys were able to take advantage of the educational opportunities offered.

As a boy, young John split rails to fill his role as breadwinner. When he turned twenty-one, he homesteaded a plot of land in Missouri, where the family lived. By 1861, he had turned his original claim into a large, prosperous farm. When the Missouri legislature voted to remain part of the Union instead of seceding, he sold his land for a handsome profit and came to Texas, leaving his family behind for a time. After purchasing two hundred acres east of McKinney, Mr. Johnson became an officer in the Confederate States Army.

The Johnson House in an earlier decade

The Johnson House in an earlier decade. On the left side, note the outbuilding and the lack of commercial buildings on Highway 5.

He took leave once his new property had suitable accommodations and traveled back to Missouri to retrieve his wife, children, and sisters. Since Missouri was a border state, the captain had friends and family fighting on both sides and had to take precautions until they managed to cross back into the CSA. Instead of driving one of the wagons, he rode his horse so he could disappear into the woods until the intentions of anyone they passed became known.

Johnson House bed

The furniture in the bridal room belonged to Tuck Hill, cousin of Jesse James. The portrait beside the bed is of the famous outlaw.

After the war, Captain Johnson represented Collin County and Grayson County at the 1875 Texas Constitutional Convention. He wrote the Homestead Bill that became law in 1876 when the new Constitution was adopted. It allowed the head of a family, or anyone over twenty-one years old, to claim one hundred sixty acres of unsettled land for a twelve-dollar filing fee. As long as a dwelling was built and a water source established, the homesteaders would own the land after working it for three years. The Captain also served as a state legislator from 1883 until 1885 and two terms as a state Senator.

Known for his brutally direct speech and fiery temper, Captain Johnson’s face and neck turned bright red whenever he got upset. Since he was, by all accounts, often angry, his florid complexion earned him the name Rutabaga Johnson. Another moniker, Skillet Johnson, was less amusing. According to Chestnut Square’s history…

Johsnon House John and Polly

Captain John and Polly Kimsey Johnson

Legend has it that he built shot-cabins by hand with scrap lumber that he carried to  the site each day.  When he went to collect rent from a mother, she did not have the rent so Mr. Johnson told her he would take her only skillet so that when she had the  money, she would pay him first instead of feeding her children!!

Captain Johnson died in 1899 at eighty years old, and his wife, Polly, followed him a year later, just after the start of the new century. They are buried in the Johnson Cemetery in New Hope, beneath the tallest grave marker in Collin County. The house remained in the family until it was purchased by Chestnut Square in 1987. Still on its original site, today it serves as the bridal suite for weddings held in the historic village.

The Johnson's grave marker

The Johnsons’ grave marker

The home is preserved as closely as possible to its original state, except for one upstairs bedroom. Known as Bobby’s Room, it is a memorial to Bobby Joe Younger, a native of McKinney who traced his roots to John and Polly Johnson. He attended Texas A&M after graduating from McKinney High School in 1942, but left College Station just a few months later to fight in World War II. He completed twelve missions over Germany as a belly turret gunner aboard the Bomber Dear, a B-17 Flying Fortress. On November 2, 1944, his plane went down after a bombing run over Merseburg. Nineteen-year-old Bobby didn’t survive that thirteenth mission.

The room may have looked much like this in the early 1940's

The room probably looked much like this in the early 1940’s

The Heritage Guild remembered Bobby Younger’s life and his sacrifice by recreating what his bedroom might have looked like when he reported for basic training. The display includes many of his personal belongings, as well as other articles common in 1943. Bobby’s Room was dedicated on Veteran’s Day, November 11, 2001. McKinney Mayor Don Dozier, Congressman Ralph Hall, and friends and relatives were on hand for the ceremony.

McKinney High School jacket and Texas A&M cheerleader uniform

Bobby’s McKinney High School jacket and a Texas A&M yell leader uniform

US Army Air Corps uniform from WWII

Bobby’s uniform from A&M

Neither the Harmans nor the Johnsons set out to shape McKinney’s future. Yet, in living out their days, both families helped lay the foundation for who we are as a community, just as we’re setting the course for those who will take our places in years to come. One day, like them, history will be us.


The Johnson House will be open to the public on Saturday May 14 from 9:00 am until noon as part of Chestnut Square’s Second Saturday activities. Included will be uniforms worn by Collin County veterans through the years.

The farmers’ market, open every Saturday, was voted the best in Texas. It features North Texas grown produce and meats, as well as the works of local artists and artisans. For more information, follow the link or click on the Chestnut Square link on the right side of this page.

If you have a memory of the Johnson House or anyone who called it home, please share it in the comment box below. If you’d like to see more posts about the history of McKinney, click on the FOLLOW button in the top right corner of this page.

View from the upstairs hallway

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One Hundred Twenty-Four Years Young

The Celt erased frontBeautiful things can be created in an ugly building. Mr. Isaac Crouch, Sr. proved it in 1860 when he erected a rough, two-story, wooden structure at the northeast corner of Tennessee and Louisiana Streets on McKinney’s square. At the time, the Collin County courthouse was also a two-story wooden building. From its crude factory and woodshop, Crouch Furniture built a solid reputation for producing attractive, quality furniture. Over the next decade, even in an economy crippled by war, Mr. Crouch’s business continued to grow.

Mr. Isaac Crouch

Mr. Isaac Crouch, Sr.

When the Civil War ended, soldiers returned home to start new families, while other families who had been displaced by the fighting moved west, looking for a new start. They turned McKinney into a thriving economic hub, and by the early 1870’s, Mr. Crouch needed more space. The business moved to a new, larger building on the south side of the square. In addition to the workshops upstairs, it included a showroom and retail space on the ground floor. That structure burned and was replaced in 1926 with the building that today houses Orisons Art and Framing.

The Celt with courthouse

A picture of the building, on the far right, prior to the 1927 renovation of the Collin County Courthouse

Mr. Crouch kept the building on Tennessee Street as an investment property, but not much is known about the businesses operating there in the early 1870’s. By the 1880’s, the former furniture shop housed a saloon. An article in the Daily Courier Gazette indicates it was the Rambo Saloon. In all likelihood, it included a brothel operated in the upstairs rooms.

According to McKinney lore, Jesse James hosted a poker game every Saturday night at the saloon when he was in town. In order to avoid unwanted attention, he cut a hole in the ceiling and moved a table and chairs up to the attic. It’s hard to imagine anyone disturbing Jesse James’s poker game, but the privacy would have allowed the cards to be dealt as long as someone was there to play a hand.

The interior of the building when it was Coffey's Drugs

The interior of Coffey’s Drug

By the early 1890’s, the Rambo had either closed or moved, and a local entrepreneur named Charley Battle had plans to open a grocery store in its place. Rough and unfinished when it was new, the old wooden building was unsuitable for a respectable business, especially one involving food. In 1892, Mr. Crouch had the structure dismantled and constructed the current brick-and-mortar building in its place.

The same space today

The same space today

According to The Celt’s staff, bricks from the original factory, probably the foundation and chimneys, were used in the new building. Those original bricks are still visible inside. The patterns are varied and uneven, possibly because of the differences between the new and recycled masonry.

Mr. Battle moved his grocery business from the sidewalk into the new building on Tennessee Street, and never looked back. He went on to become one of McKinney’s most successful citizens. According to a story in the McKinney Examiner quoted by Mr. Bill Haynes in the McKinney News, Mr. Battle began his career…

“…selling apples off a barrel head at ‘2 for a nickel’ in front of the building now (1930’s) occupied by the North Side Drug Store (Munzee Marketplace today). [He] bought the prettiest and best apples and would polish them until they shined like balls of fire. Everybody liked the energetic, wide awake boy and loved to buy his apples. But Charlie didn’t intend to sell apples off a barrel any longer than he could do better. In a few years he established himself in the most up-to-the-minute store (for those days) in our city. It was in the building where the Sanitary Grocery owned by Giles McKinney is now (1930’s). In a few years he was at the head of the Carter-Battle Wholesale Grocery business in Fort Worth, made a fortune and then move to Vancouver, B.C., entering the wholesale lumber and timber business. His firm ships lumber to all parts of the world. He gave us a big ad contract for our paper, when we issued its first edition in 1886.”


Within a year, according to the Weekly Democrat-Gazette, Mr. Battle had sold the business to Mr. A.J. Krause. It was then passed through a series of owners over the next three decades. The building finished its time as a food store at the end of 1931 when the Sanitary Grocery closed its doors for the last time. Coffey’s Drug opened for business in January of 1932, and it occupied the first floor of the building for more than thirty years. During that time, upstairs tenants included milliners, doctors, and attorneys.

The Celt Fireman's parade

McKinney firemen on parade. The picture is undated, but was taken sometime before 1913, since the First National Bank of McKinney is not visible in the middle of the block.

The Celt Today

Where the parade passed so many years ago

Coffey’s Drug closed in the late 1960’s, and by 1970 the food business returned to 100 N. Tennessee Street with the opening of the Golden Ox. For most of the decade, it was a popular steakhouse. Kam’s Chinese Restaurant replaced it near the start of the 1980’s. Glady and John Rowan, a local couple who moved to McKinney at about the same time, considered Kam and her staff part of their family. They ate at the restaurant at least weekly until it closed soon after Kam’s death in the 1990’s. Both the Rowans, as well as countless others, still insist Kam consistently served the best Chinese food they’ve ever eaten.

The Celt bar

The Celt’s bar

The start of a new century – the building’s third – brought big changes. Kam’s Eastern fare was replaced with an English menu and drink selections when The Londoner moved in. It was a popular spot in McKinney and saw the beginning of the square’s rehabilitation. When the restaurant and bar became Churchill’s, few changes were made in the decor since the English theme was carried on. Stan Penn took over the business in May, 2014 and changed the pub’s nationality from English to Irish. He re-named the restaurant The Celt.

The Celt Upstairs

Upstairs offers a comfortable place to relax

Today, The Celt is one of McKinney’s most popular spots, drawing crowds from around the Metroplex. In addition to a full menu (heavily Irish), they feature the largest selection of Irish whiskies in Texas, and possibly in the entire South, with more than fifty choices. Different bands, many of them Irish, provide live music each weekend. The atmosphere is lively and the crowds are happy.

For more than one hundred twenty years, the building at 100 N. Tennessee Street has quietly left its mark on McKinney’s history. Today, it’s learning to kick up its heels and have fun. If the old saying You’re only as old as you feel applies to buildings the same as people, Mr. Crouch’s place has a lot of history left to make.

No pub is complete without darts

No pub is complete without darts

For more pictures, see the gallery at the bottom of the page. If you liked this post and want to see more, click on the follow button near the top of the page on the right and you’ll be notified when new posts go up (and only then) about twice per month. Share your memories of the building in the comment section below.

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