Johnson’s Corner speaks to life’s poetry

A traveler leaving Denver and heading for points north (or vice versa) passes Johnson’s Corner. It looks conceptually like one of those old outposts once situated on the cusp of the then-untamed West.
A weary driver on the tail-end of an 18-hour highway journey will feel the same sense of comfort approaching this neon oasis as our predecessors must have felt parking their prairie schooners inside the safety of the fort.
Although it overtly functions as one, don’t mistake Johnson’s Corner as just a truck stop. It has faithfully served the local community and I-25 travelers alike for almost 46 years.
Recently, I spoke with 15-year operations manager Gary Baird about the history, present and future of Johnson’s Corner.
Created in 1953 by Joe Johnson, there were once four Johnson’s Corners: two in Longmont, one in Sedalia and the surviving one outside Loveland at 2842 SE Frontage Road on I-25. Joe died in the early ’80s, and the command of Johnson’s Corner passed to Chauncey Taylor, Joe’s stepson.
When I went to visit Gary, the place seemed to be running amiably and harmoniously. The staff seems invariably happy and good-natured. Gary said business is steady and healthy.
Johnson’s Corner is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The amazing thing is, it has never closed. In 46 years, it has not closed for a minute. Not for a second. I found this not just remarkable, but somehow heroic. It is in the same league as Gehrig and Ripken.
The old joke about “why do they have locks on the door” came to mind, and I wondered what would happen if someone really needed to lock up. “All right, dang it, who knows where the keys are?”
The place has seen births and deaths, the filming of a Bill Murray movie, people sleeping on the floors when the highway has closed and a wicked ice storm that left Johnson’s Corner without power for 11 straight days.
The storm occurred in 1983, and without power, services offered by the store were severely limited. The cafe relied on gas to cook, a refrigerated trailer for cold storage, gas-powered generators for lighting and portable heaters for warmth (I personally would have been despondent over the lack of French fries, but I suppose sacrifices have to be made).
The gas pumps were of course nonfunctional, so travelers with critical gas needs were given five gallons of gas supplied by a tank wagon. Business was transacted with the aid of battery-powered calculators and relied on guess-timations and the honor system. Gary said it created a bookkeeping nightmare from which it was nearly impossible to escape.
Again I was struck by the fact that the store wasn’t driven to stay open solely by profit motive. It plays an integral part in the day-to-day comings and goings of that community and that stretch of highway. It was imperative that it remain functioning to the greatest degree possible. Not many businesses can say that.
Johnson’s Corner offers auto/truck repair, a gift shop, a trucker’s lounge, a pool room, showers, laundry, a convenience store, farm fuel delivery, seven acres of parking, meeting and banquet facilities, overnight parking for sleeping truckers and, of course, the cafe. One could theoretically live there.
Revenue is pretty evenly divided among the gas pumps, fuel delivery and the cafe. They deliver more than 1.5 million gallons of gasoline and diesel a year to area farms and businesses. They pumped more than 1.3 million gallons of gas at the pumps last year. They serve more than 600 people a weekend at the cafe.
The volumes are staggering, but the pace seems relaxed. A steady perseverance.
The cafe serves timeless, good food; it is prepared simply with no surprises. There are two rooms of tables and two large counters for single-diner service. The counters are filled with farmers and truckers, sharing local gossip and exchanging stories, some of them probably even true.
The menu is extensive, but the recipes were all around when FDR started his first term. The cinnamon rolls are famous, and with good reason. Sour, yeasty bread dripping with sweet caramel topping. Weekend prime rib is a big hit, and, of course, hamburgers are big sellers. Shocker. Lunch is the busiest meal, but the cafe is populated most of the time.
Late night is prime people-watching time. The dog-track crowd stumbles in. Bikers, truckers, the supposedly alienated young and late-shift workers all commingle for coffee and moonlight fried-food yearnings.
The cafe seems to serve a higher purpose. It is not there simply to be a restaurant. The fact that there is nothing extraordinary about it should not be surprising. Johnson’s Corner reflects who we are. We are for the most part simple in our needs, we move around, we eat, we sleep and we die.
If you don’t see the poetry in Johnson’s Corner, you may just be in a hurry.