[Interview] Meet Lt. Col. (Ret.) Porter Johnson, Veteran Preservationist
In the winter issue of Preservation magazine, we highlight the story of Lt. Col. (Ret.) Porter Johnson, who was bitten by the preservation bug while serving in Baghdad from 2010-2011. After returning home, Johnson set to work restoring an 1850 plantation house in his hometown of Tallulah, Louisiana.
Johnson was one of the best and most enthusiastic interviews I had all year, and I wish I could have made more of his story fit on the page. Luckily for me -- and for you -- I get the chance to publish more of his unique story below.
You worked in the Army’s Strategic Effects Branch in 2010 and 2011. Can you tell me more about your time in Iraq?
Under that particular branch of tourism and antiquities, I had an opportunity to go out and take a look at some of the sites in Baghdad that had sustained damage from the war itself. The idea was to go out and make assessments and then work with the minister of tourism and antiquities to renovate those facilities. Basically, we would establish projects and supply funds and the expertise in making the renovations.
And how did that interest in history transfer over when you got back to the States?
When I got back home, I was a member of the Hermione Museum there in Louisiana. There’s a lady there -- her name is Mrs. Williamson -- she and I would talk about historical events in our area all the time, so she mentioned this house to me.
Left: Johnson is working to secure an official Confederate gravestone for Thomas Scott’s son Charlie, who was killed at the Battle of Chickamauga and is buried on the property. Right: Johnson displays a photo of Union Army Brigadier Gen. Elias Dennis, who led troops nearby.
So was it an easy decision to buy?
I was kind of reluctant to buy because [the house] needed a lot of work. But my brother -- he’s a mechanical engineer, Harold Johnson -- he came out with me and he did an interior inspection of the house and looked at all of the molding and the woodwork and it was incredible. And I said “What do you think? Is it OK if I buy it?”
And he said, “Man if you don’t buy this, I’m going to buy it.” So I bought it. And when I got into the history of it, I knew that this building has some significant history and the value has got to be off the charts. It had already been on the National Register, so that was a big deal there because I knew there was some credibility.
Tell me more about that history.
[The house] was occupied by Thomas B. Scott and he was the first sheriff of Madison Parish, but he was also an attorney. One of his duties at the time was to go out and people who could not afford slaves, he would actually go out and repossess [them]. He was [also] pretty instrumental in getting the parish started.
My team is trying to figure out why General Grant didn’t burn that house down [during his Vicksburg campaign]. And here’s my stand on it: The first African-American brigade fought in a battle that’s about five miles from that house, and that was the first time they were used in battle. I’m assuming the reason that they didn’t [burn the house] is because the African-American troops were stationed there as a base for training. Now that’s my theory. I haven’t been able to find anything of the memoirs of the officers involved in the battle.
Since 2011, Johnson has replaced the house’s roof, restored windows, doors, and shutters, and repainted the interior. He also plans to use two 200-year-old trees recently felled on the property by a tornado to complete the attic space, which was never finished.
You’ve said the research is your favorite part of owning the house.
I can go 13 generations on Scott’s family members and where they came from. They came out of Scotland and settled in Vicksburg and then later moved to Louisiana. I’m constantly finding out new things about them.
I also have contact with the [living] family members of Thomas Scott. They’ve provided me with pieces of writing, obituaries, a lot of these nice, fine things that you can use to do a lot of research. So I’ve got this really, really good relationship with them.
Since you bought the house, you’ve replaced the roof, painted the interior with historically accurate colors, and restored the windows, doors, and shutters. Tell me about the process for you.
At one point I was sitting there like, “I don’t know if I can do this.” But as I got more involved in the research, and as I got the building insured for an ungodly amount of money, I thought, “You know what? This is a slow process. This is a marathon and it’s not a sprint.”
I try to keep all of the material original. That’s where I get my fun. I really love that. That’s my passion.
What are your plans for the future of the house?
I’m trying to get the schools involved in coming out and connecting it with their curriculum, letting chamber of commerce people come and meet, and just showcase it for the community. At this point, I have no desire to move into the house because I don’t think I could live in it and not share it with someone.
Right now I’m just having fun getting it up and running and showcasing it. And every time I tell this story, people are fascinated by it.