What do you get when you combine African American history and bourbon in Frankfort? You get the story of the Johnson family. Buffalo Trace Distillery is steeped in tradition and rich in history. From O. F. C. Distillery, to the George T. Stagg Distillery, to what we know today as Buffalo Trace Distillery, much has been written about E. H. Taylor, George T. Stagg, Albert Blanton, and their legendary master distillers. And, since the distillery was recognized as a National Landmark in 2011, more and more visitors flock to the oldest continuously running distillery in the U.S. Much has even been written about Freddie Johnson, the legendary tour guide of Buffalo Trace. But his story didn’t start with him. His story was generations in the making. The Johnson Family history is intertwined with Frankfort’s African American history. They have always and continue to leave their mark on Kentucky’s capital city.
As the bourbon industry reaches a fever pitch in Kentucky, more and more people are flocking to the Bluegrass State to discover the places where their favorite spirits are made, the history behind those places, and the intricacies of making them. They feel connected to these places from this knowledge. Buffalo Trace Distillery has seen their visitor numbers explode with the popularity of bourbon. Last summer, they welcomed their one millionth visitor to the property since they began tours in 1999. And Freddie Johnson was there to greet that person. And no one makes a visitor to the distillery feel more connected and impart them with more knowledge than Mr. Johnson. Pick up any magazine, click on any website or blog, that has to deal with whiskey, bourbon, spirits, or Buffalo Trace Distillery, and you’ll find him there. But he’s not doing it for fame. He’s not doing it for fortune. At 71 years old, he doesn’t even have to work at all. But he does! And he’s doing it to fulfill a promise and to serve his Frankfort community.
Despite how gifted Freddie is at being a tour guide, he was not the first Johnson to show visitors the charms of Frankfort! That was actually his dad, Jimmy or “Jim”, at a very tender age of 8 or 9 years old. Jimmy’s grandfather, George Wilson or “Papa George”, worked up at the Frankfort Cemetery and Jimmy lived with his family up on Glenn’s Creek Road behind the cemetery. And Jimmy’s dad, Jimmy Sr., worked a lot of hours down at the George T. Stagg Distillery. So, little Jimmy spent much of his childhood with his Papa George up in the Frankfort Cemetery. In an old interview from 2008, Jimmy Jr., then 94 years old, recalls that his grandfather had given him a small job of keeping up 3 lots in the cemetery by “cutting grass and stuff”. He explains that, during his time in the cemetery, “a lot of days, the people came by in automobiles with running boards on them, and they would ask me ‘did I know where Daniel Boone’s monument was?’” Of course he knew where it was! And he would happily hop up on their running boards and personally show them where the monument was located. He would also point out other people of interest within the cemetery. After he showed the curious spectators around the property, they would tip him a dime or even fifteen cents. Sometimes though, he’d even get tipped a quarter, which was “big money back there then in the twenties”. Sometimes, he’d no sooner get off one car showing them around the cemetery, when another car would pull up and ask the same question. And little Jimmy was off again to show someone else to Daniel Boone’s grave site. Some days, he made more money than his Papa George did working in the cemetery – just showing people around. So, Freddie Johnson comes by his “gift” of touring people honestly from his own dad, the late Jimmy Johnson Jr.
While little Jimmy was showing visitors around the Frankfort Cemetery, big Jimmy was down at the George T. Stagg Distillery making a living.
Jimmy Sr. was born to a slave and her Irish master. After the Civil War, his mother decided to stay with him, the father of her two children, and they traveled. Jimmy and his sister would accompany their parents on their adventures. It was during this time period, that Jimmy became childhood friends with a kid by the name of Albert. Eventually, Albert went to work at the O. F. C. Distillery as an office boy at age 16. That was in 1897. Of course that was THE Albert Blanton, who later became known as “Col. Blanton” at the distillery. The elder Jimmy eventually joined his friend in working at the distillery as well. And in 1912, he became one of the first African Americans appointed as a foreman in Kentucky. When Blanton rose to run the distillery in 1921, Jimmy was both a confidant and a companion. The pair even traveled together and Johnson acted as a business adviser to Blanton. The elder Johnson established a legacy of commitment and quality in his 52 years at the distillery, retiring in 1964. At that time, he passed his foreman position on to his son, Jimmy Jr.
The younger Jimmy went to work for the distillery right out of high school in 1936 as a “yardman”, which is a truck driver shuttling barrels from warehouse to warehouse. Even during a 6-year stint in the Army, the distillery held his job for him and even paid him a small monthly wage. Upon leaving the Army, he returned to Frankfort and working at the distillery with his dad. Jimmy Jr. would go on to handle every single millionth barrel that came out of the warehouse after prohibition was repealed in 1933 – from the one millionth to the sixth millionth. His passion for the distillery was evident in his urging of Freddie to carry on the family legacy there. Although Jimmy Jr. retired in 1978, the distillery welcomed him on their daily operations and special events until his passing in 2011.
Freddie Johnson was encouraged at a young age to work at the distillery and take part in the family legacy there. But in high school, Freddie had other ideas. Highly intelligent and adept at science and math, he had other goals and ambitions at a young age. As all teenagers do, sometimes they just tell their parents things just to get them to shut up. Freddie told his dad that he would work at the distillery, but knew that wasn’t where his passion was. He went on to attend Kentucky State University and was eventually recruited by AT&T. His job was on the cutting edge of the fiber optics technology and he held two offices simultaneously – one in Atlanta and one in New Jersey. Although his dad was disappointed he did not go to work at the distillery, he was supportive of his son’s efforts in the corporate world.
Eventually, Jimmy’s health would call Freddie to come back home to Frankfort. And, after the Sazerac Company bought the distillery and renamed it Buffalo Trace, Freddie was hired on as one of the first tour guides. By returning to his roots in Frankfort, he fulfilled his dad’s wishes to continue the Johnson Family Legacy at the distillery. At age 71, Freddie Johnson continues to work for the same reasons his dad and granddad did – passion. With his intelligence, kindness, and wisdom, he delights visitors from around the world with his special blend of personal experience, an in depth knowledge of the bourbon industry, and the energy of someone half his age!
The distillery honored the Johnson Family Legacy in 2016 with a “Wall of Fame” near the gift shop area at the Visitor’s Center. Decades of photos adorn this gallery montage.
The George T. Stagg Distillery, under the leadership of Col. Blanton, did not see color barriers. An establishment ahead of its time and the Civil Rights movement of the 60’s, racism was not tolerated. Everyone worked hard. And everyone there, no matter color or creed, was part of the distillery family – a community within the Frankfort community. A tradition upheld and honored today under the ownership of the Sazerac family.
The Johnson family roots run deep in Frankfort. Having lived in South Frankfort, on Glens Creek Road, and in East Frankfort, they always return home to the capital city. They contributed throughout the community outside of the distillery through their church and honoring those at the Green Hill Cemetery. These Johnson men were and are still men of honor, of strength, and endurance. They are as much a part of Frankfort’s African American history as Dr. Martin Luther King was to American history.