Preserving historic 1886 residence
Rocklin, Calif.- Contrary to the old adage, “You can never go home,” Gene Johnson has not only returned home, but he’s also working to protect the rich heritage of his hometown.
When he retired after a career as a mechanical engineer working at Aerojet and IBM in New York and Varian in Palo Alto, Gene found Rocklin calling to him.
“Where else to retire, but an empty house with Prop 13 tax advantages,” he explained of the 1996 decision to move back to his childhood community. His parents, Raymond and Florence Johnson, then 100 and 96, had left the Victorian-era home at the edge of Johnson-Springview Park and settled into a retirement complex in Auburn.
Historic 1886 residence
Not only did Gene want to be close to his aging parents, but he also wanted to preserve the historic 1886 residence that had belonged to his grandparents. So, Gene and his wife purchased the landmark residence from his mother in December 1996 – just one month after his father died.
Since Gene, now 76, admits to workaholic tendencies, he wasn’t deterred by the amount of work needed to bring his childhood home back to life. Leon “Shorty” Vicencio, who now lives on the property and helps maintain the grounds, and stonemason Jerry Messner worked alongside him throughout the restoration effort.
“The house was not in great shape,” Gene said. “There was a distinct three-inch slope” in the foundation. In fact, Margaret added, if anything was dropped on the kitchen floor, it would roll clear across the room.
While the project was sizeable, it was not the first time Gene had undertaken the restoration of a residence. “When we bought a house in New York, the intent was to have somebody restore it. We couldn’t get anybody to work on it. That’s what got him going – that nobody was interested,” Margaret said. “He did all the plumbing and electricity.” A picture of that stone cottage is prominently displayed in the living room of the couple’s Rocklin home.
Once the repairs on his childhood home were completed, Gene turned his focus on his hometown. “My family was active in the community and encouraged us to join the historical society. Mother had been on the Board of Trustees; my father and grandfather (Anders Wickman) both had served on the City Council and as mayors,” he said). “I had always been interested in Rocklin’s history. My first high school essay was Rocklin, Death of a Town. While in a college art class I did sketches of Big Gun Quarry.”
Preserving Old St. Mary’s Chapel
While Gene’s parents had encouraged them to join the historical society, Gene also found it hard to say “no” to Roy Ruhkala, a lifelong Rocklin resident and the primary force behind the Rocklin Historical Society’s efforts to create and maintain a museum as well as the restoration and preservation of Old St. Mary’s Chapel on Front Street.
“He asked Gene to look around for a site for the museum,” Margaret explained.
“I just can’t get away from that man,” Gene added with a laugh. As a teenager, Gene had worked at a gas station in downtown Rocklin. “Roy would come in and tell me his car needed to be greased. I was the grease monkey, so I’d service his car. When Roy came back he’d tell me that when he had it done in Sacramento, they would also clean the inside of the car. So, I’d have to sweep out his car. It’s been like that ever since.”
Gene is proud of how the community, the society, and the city of Rocklin partnered to create the museum and save the historic church. “On the other hand, the effort to establish a dialog related to the Big Gun Quarry property and historic structures has been difficult,” he said. “It has taken a lot out of me.” However, he says he remains hopeful the community can again work together and find the best solution for the quarry, artifacts and adjacent properties.
Gene is also an active volunteer with the Rocklin Kiwanis Service Club – working at the annual See’s Candy sale, the holiday shopping spree for kids at Kmart and the annual Community Festival. As co-chairman of the Old Town Rocklin Tree Lighting, he says it is particularly rewarding to see how the Rocklin churches, service clubs, chamber of commerce and the city work together to create a great family event.
While Gene said he needs to slow down, his focus remains squarely on protecting Rocklin’s history. “Rocklin needs a sense of place,” he explained. “What better than our unique and interesting heritage of rock, rails and ranches.