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Johnston at 90

Living in our area of Mississippi, driving around Lincoln and Pike counties can be an everyday history lesson. Here, as in most places, names are tied to founders, prominent civic leaders or families of settlers from bygone days. Such is the case with Johnston Station.

George Johnston, born in South Carolina in 1770, settled in present day Pike County in 1810. One of his children, James B. Johnston, owned 300 acres in the area, once the site of a Choctaw Indian village. In 1857, he agreed to sell some of his acreage to the rapidly advancing railroad for a stop nearby for $1, under condition the stop be named Johnston Station.

The area prospered, building a post office in 1872, the depot in 1896 and incorporating the town of Johnston before the turn of the century with streets platted and businesses set up.

Several sawmills were in the area and thousands of board feet of yellow pine shipped to cities making for a thriving industry. Once the timber industry slowed so did the commerce.

By August 1929, the little village of Johnston Station was what we call today “in the middle of nowhere.” But Bryant Fenlin Johnston was born right near that namesake place on Aug. 15, 1929, the sixth of 12 children born to Benny and Eula Johnston who lived in the area their family settled five generations before. It was Bryant’s great-great-grandfather James B. Johnston who sold the land for Johnston Station. And James’ son, William B. Johnston — Bryant’s great-grandfather — survived a wound during the Civil War and is buried across the tracks from where the old depot once stood.

Bryant recalls growing up on the family farm and becoming “man of the house” at age 12 after his father suffered a debilitating back injury at a sawmill nearby while his older brothers were away from home defending our country during World War II. He sometimes recollects how he and his younger siblings helped their mother farm the place and made it through some difficult times as many of their neighbors did. His brothers remembered that after finishing his work he could often be found under a tree reading “one of those old Zane Grey novels.”

He sometimes shares how his family was devoted to each other and their church nearby, Johnston Chapel Methodist. But he and his siblings found time to be very active in basketball, track and baseball at Johnston Station High School, winning several titles during that time with him being a track star.

After graduating, Bryant was drafted into the Marine Corps and served as an airplane technician and mechanic in the early 1950s. He and younger brother Jewel completed bootcamp together at Parris Island. Once his military duties ended he came home to marry his high school sweetheart, Betty Jean Lea, of Brookhaven. After a few years of marriage, work and raising three children in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, he and Betty came back to Brookhaven permanently.

Bryant started work as a carpenter in 1959 and continued in the custom home building business until his retirement in 2004, working in Lincoln and surrounding counties. He and his crew are credited with much of the craftsmanship in many renovations and restorations of some of the beautiful historic homes in Brookhaven. They also built several medical offices, as well as Faith Presbyterian Church. On a recent visit he recounted to his granddaughter how he helped attach the steeple at Faith and that he never wanted to return to that height on a scaffold.

Bryant fondly remembers years traveling around for his own son’s City League sports, high school sports and all other school events. He and Betty rarely missed a game or school happening. He was instrumental in the physical building of Brookhaven Academy from clearing the site to building projects and serving on the board of trustees. He also put his building talents to good use by volunteering for several years with Habitat for Humanity. And he remains active at New Hope Methodist Church where he has attended all the years since living in Brookhaven.

Carpentry was Bryant’s trade, but the experience of growing up on a farm has served him well since having a very large garden has been a passion in retirement almost year round. He enjoys growing everything although tomatoes, corn, okra and purple-hull peas are mainstays. His homegrown Southern favorites have traveled over the years by car, commercial and private plane, train and bus to Texas, Missouri, Florida, Louisiana, Illinois, California, Oklahoma and more. Locally, folks across the county get excited when Bryant puts up his “CORN” or “OKRA” sign in front of his field where his friends and neighbors stop to buy some of the harvest. He is known to drop off fresh picked goodies or watermelons to many shut-ins and others not able to come out to the garden. Growing vegetables and fruits has been a constant for him over the years and he is still doing so in 2019 as he approaches his 90th birthday.

During breaks — or as he says his “rest time” — from gardening he again retreats to his books as a very avid reader, often of history, signing and dating each book as he completes it. He reads several newspapers daily front to back as he’s not of the age of online news. His other keen interest has always been his family, children, grandchildren, siblings and many nieces and nephews. He and Betty travel often to visit family members all over the country.

Generations descended from the Johnston Station family populate the area. Bryant is one of the few surnamed Johnstons from the settling family. As we greatly value our elder members for their connections to our past, his children and grandchildren are planning a celebration in honor of his 90th birthday, with all of his many friends invited to visit and celebrate with him.

The celebration will be Aug. 17, from 3 until 5 p.m. at Olde Towne Church in Brookhaven. The family asks, “Gift him only with your presence and a heartfelt happy 90th birthday.”

Story by Katie Johnston Adams