“Two Uncommon Women: Mother and Daughter, Naturalists and Artists”
Minna Anthony Common (1882-1950) was an extraordinary woman who left an imprint on the North Country that is still visible and viable today. Born in 1882 Minna’s mother Margaret died of diphtheria when Minna was only five weeks old. Her father, Paul Anthony , brought her to Watertown , New York to be raised by her paternal grandmother Amelia Brown Anthony. Young Minna attended the local grammar school and graduated from Watertown High School in 1899. She served as high school librarian through her four year course there and then completed a post-graduate year. For the next four years she was a first grade teacher in the Brownville-Glen Park school. During that period she commuted from her home in the city, riding her bicycle in favorable weather and traveling by trolley in inclement weather. It was at that time that she began tutoring children. This interest in educating children continued throughout her life. After her marriage to James Allison Common in June, 1904 she and her husband resided in Potsdam, New York , and then in the city of Watertown.
The Commons had six children Faith, Robert, June, Catherine, Ruth and Vera. All of them received bachelors degrees and three received masters. Mr. and Mrs. Common lived in the summer at Thousand Island Park ( a village on Wellesley Island in the St. Lawrence River). Mrs. Anthony, her grandmother, was one of the first residents of this summer resort. While a cottage was being built for the Commons, Mrs. Common lived in a tent on the site.
Minna Anthony Common first became interested in nature study at Thousand Island Park where summer courses were conducted. One of her teachers was the late Anna Botsford Comstock a professor at Cornell University, and it was from her that she received her formal instruction in nature studies, something in which she had always been interested. After many summers she laid out a mile and a half nature trail on a densely wooded hill behind her cottage. The Rock Ledges Nature Trail has had visitors from all over northern New York, and still exists today over 73 years later.
Another talent which Mrs. Common possessed was developed from early youth. This was painting in several mediums. She had no formal art training but a neighbor, the art teacher at the high school, worked with her teaching her painting techniques and taking her along on numerous sketching expeditions. From another teacher she received lessons in pen and ink sketching and from a local artist she learned the art of china painting and watercolor work.
In 1947 she wrote and illustrated her first articles for the Farm and Garden section of the Watertown Daily Times. Each week , until she died, she contributed two articles, one on birds and one on flowers. For the previous 25 years her nature articles had been published in the Watertown Daily Times as well as the New York Times, the Herald Tribune, the Christian Science Monitor, and magazines such as Bird Lore and Audubon.
For the 24 years before her death Mrs. Common had been the official Federal Bird Observer for the Jefferson County area and kept the National Fish and Wildlife Service informed of bird migrations. She also conducted the yearly local bird census for the Audubon Society and the North Country Bird Club, which she founded.
Mrs. Common was long prominent in the activities which preceded the expansion of the Watertown School System and with the Watertown Improvement League worked to promote the new high school. Mrs. Common was a member and active worker of the First Presbyterian Church. Other memberships included the LeRay de Chaumont Chapter of the D.A.R., the Federation of Women’s Clubs, the Outlook Club, the Jefferson County Historical Society, and the Watertown Garden Club. After her death the Nature Center in Wellesley Island State Park was named for her. We can see the influence of this extraordinary woman on the life of her daughter Catherine Common Johnson. The legacy endures.
Catherine Common Johnson (1914-2004), Catherine with a “C” as she would remind those who did not know, was a most uncommon woman, a most uncommon person.
Catherine was born in Watertown, New York, the daughter of James Allison and Minna Anthony Common. Her Anthony ancestors were among the early settlers of Jefferson County, later moving to Watertown. She graduated from Watertown High School in 1931 and St. Lawrence University in 1935 where she was an accomplished athlete. Besides field hockey, baseball, soccer, tennis, canoe regatta, and “ speedball” she was also a member of the news bureau and the literary and drama clubs. The university inducted her into the Athletic Hall of Fame in 1987. In 1972 she was honored with an SLU alumni citation for her contributions as a journalist, artist, and member of civic and public service groups. In 1937 she received a masters degree in journalism from Columbia University in New York city and joined the Watertown Daily Times as a news reporter and later society editor. John B. Johnson became her husband in 1941, when he was a Times reporter before succeeding his father as editor and publisher in 1949. The Johnsons’ two sons are John B. Johnson, Jr. and Harold B. Johnson II both of Watertown, and two daughters are Ann J. Kaiser of Sackets Harbor, NY, and The Rev. Dr. Deborah J. Newcomb of Dexter, NY and Virginia.
Mrs. Johnson’s keen interest in nature study and the arts was inspired by her mother Minna Anthony Common. In her case, as in her mother’s, she was not content with the status quo but had the drive and inspiration to lead the way, and play a major role, in the creation of many groups and committees dedicated to furthering the appreciation of nature and the arts. An accomplished artist working in many media including oil, casein, scratch-board, pen and ink, acrylics, watercolor, collage, and calligraphy she won many honors in art shows around the country and abroad. She helped create the North Country Artists Guild and was a member of the advisory board of the Frederic Remington Art Museum.
To quote a Watertown Daily Times tribute “ …she did not interpret nature only through her art.” In 1960 Mrs. Johnson was first appointed to the Thousand Islands Park and Historic Preservation Commission. She stepped down, and was honored in 2000 after 40 years of service. The 600 acre site for a nature center on Wellesley Island was purchased by the commission in 1962 and named the Minna Anthony Common Nature Center after Mrs. Johnson’s mother who had inspired much interest in the area through her observations, sketches and writings. The building was dedicated in 1969 and Mrs. Johnson was the leader in the creation of the Friends of the Nature Center which has raised funds for and awareness of a variety of programs and projects.
Mrs. Johnson served two terms as president of College Women’s Club and was a charter member of the Jefferson County Branch of the American Association of University Women (AAUW). She was the AAUW New York State board international relations representative to a United Nations seminar and represented the AAUW at a session held by the Department of State and US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency in 1978. As president of the branch she was honored as a Named Gift Honoree of the AAUW Educational Foundation.
Catherine Johnson’s imprint is on many organizations in the North Country. To list a few she was director and officer of the YWCA; chairwoman of the Friends of the Library; life long member, and active participant, in the North Country Bird Club; member of First Presbyterian Church; member of Gov. Rockefeller’s Conference on Children and Youth; member of the board of New York Casualty Co.; and corporate officer and secretary of the Watertown Daily Times.
With all these honors and opportunities one can not forget that Catherine Johnson loved life, had fun, and inspired others to live as she did. She loved canoeing and cross-country skiing, birding, and traveling. She and her husband John traveled the United States, all of Europe, and the Soviet Union always looking for the perfect church to sketch for their annual Christmas card. No “plain Jane” she loved chic clothes and high heeled shoes.
To quote the Watertown Daily Times tribute to her September 20, 2004: “ Mrs. Johnson advocated for equal access to education for women, equal treatment for female athletes and recognition of women as leaders of our society. She relished in the success of her daughters and encouraged hundreds of young women to seek more education to prepare for promising careers. She assured Northern New Yorkers that this newspaper would treat women’s issues seriously.”
MINNA ANTHONY COMMON AND CATHERINE COMMON JOHNSON
Northern New York has been uniquely blessed by the lives of these two women. Their vision, their creative energy and their persistence has left an indelible mark which will endure and continue to inspire a whole region of New York State.
Prepared by Margaret Coe, Jefferson County Branch AAUW