Director’s Letter October 2022

Cabin in Gothic

Dr. John C. Johnson brought RMBL to life. A community has carried it forward.

Dr. Johnson first encountered Gothic on July 4, 1919. He had just finished a PhD in Parasitology at the Univ. of California, Berkeley and he was visiting friends and family in Gunnison for some rest. But by his own admission, Johnson was not someone for whom idleness came easy. He jumped at a friend’s invitation to drive to Gothic. Arriving early afternoon, he was struck by the wildflowers and shadows of Gothic Mountain. Shortly after the visit, Dr. Johnson accepted a position at Western as Dean and Head of Science.

In the 1920’s, along with others, he helped direct the Rocky Mountain Biological Station, a Western-sponsored field station, in the Taylor Canyon several miles above Almont on land set aside by congress for biology. Escaping the influence of the Klu Klux Klan on Western, in 1928 Dr. Johnson moved on to West Chester University of Pennsylvania, abandoning the Taylor vicinity. Remembering both Gothic’s beauty and abandoned buildings, that same summer Dr. Johnson established the Rocky Mountain Biological Station, soon to be rechristened the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, as a 501 c3 non-profit, accepting all responsibility for the finances.

While Dr. Johnson accepted the title as founder of RMBL, he noted that “The very warp and woof of the RMBL is made up of the scores of persons who have given freely of their time, their academic skill, and long hours of work of a very menial kind.” In an article for the Colorado Magazine Dr. Johnson cited community members who made RMBL possible, ranging from local Crested Butte families (e.g., the Yaklich’s, the Verzuh’s, and Mihelich’s), the USFS (e.g., Ranger Clifford Chappell), and county commissioners, listing approximately 50 scientists by name.

Family has always been an important part of the RMBL community. Dr. Johnson’s first wife, Vera Adams Johnson, was among the five incorporators of RMBL and Dr. Johnson commented on the thousands of hours contributed by his second wife, Mildred Fischer Johnson, as well as the quality of refinement and morale she brought to RMBL. Also noted were the four Johnson children, Clarence, Lawrence, John Jr., and Clea Marie for many hours of chores, including chopping and carrying wood, filling kerosene lamps, and hauling furniture with their donkey cart and wagon.

The Johnson family has always been central to RMBL. Dr. John Johnson Jr. (Chris) was an ornithologist and faculty member at Pittsburgh State University in Kansas who served as Director of RMBL for almost 10 years. His daughter, Carol Johnson, served on RMBL’s Board for many years, played a vital role in developing philanthropy as central to RMBL’s finances, and helped organize RMBL’s first major capital campaign. The adjoining article describes how she and her brother Doug helped establish an endowment to support RMBL scientists in honor of their parents and grandparents. This endowment has been critical to supporting scientists, many with families of their own, make RMBL their own.

Even a place as beautiful as Gothic is only what we make of it. Each year a new generation of students and scientists has an opportunity to carry forward the legacy of community and science provided by Dr. Johnson, his extended family, and all the scientists and community members that came before!


Additional Reading Material, available upon request:

Recollections of People and Events, Early and Recent Accounts by Dr. John C. Johnson and Others, Founding and Development of Western State College and the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, John C. Johnson, Jr. and Dorothy G. Johnson, Editors, 2000 2nd Edition

A Brief History of the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, Dr. John C. Johnson, 1961, The Colorado Magazine

Ian Billick - Director RMBL

Ian Billick | PhD
Executive Director, RMBL