Why do I call Bob Johnson our Deep River phenomenon? Well, for one thing ‘Johnson’ and ‘phenomenon’ rhyme, and I like that. But he really is a phenomenon of sorts.
Bob is really Robert F. Johnson. He is 85. But I think you’d guess 75. Tall, lean, raring to go. Like most of us octogenarians, he has some complaints…sore back, painful foot. He’s had an operation or two of late. But he’s out and about every day, and still a Dapper Dan. His hair is always slicked down. His sport jacket buttoned.
Now here’s a startling thing. He has been selling real estate in Deep River and environs for 64 years. It’s a record. Nobody comes close. And he’s still at it. “I like to keep the phone ringing!” he says, chuckling. Bob chuckles a hundred times a day.
He gave a talk about his life at the Deep River Rotary Club not long ago, and he kept the men and women around the big table chuckling also.
But now let me tell you about him the way he told us about himself.
First, I must mention he is a widower. His wife, Rosa Krieger, died three years ago. Alzheimer’s. It’s her picture right away that you see when he opens his wallet—age 39 when it was taken. A beautiful lady. Truly so. He met her at her brother’s in Manchester. He was a friend of Bob’s. She was German. Visiting from Bavaria.
“I was 40. A bachelor. She was 39. A bachelorette,” He chuckles, “I got to take her out only three times. Before she flew home, she said to me, ‘If you ever come to Germany, Bob, please visit us. She was living with her parents.”
“I didn’t waste any time.” Chuckles. “I flew over for three weeks and she met me at the airport. I brought an engagement ring with me and she said yes. We were married in her church, which was 800 years old, on Oct. 28. 1965. We flew to Switzerland for our honeymoon. I flew home alone, which I didn’t like. She had to wait two months—legal papers, you know. We were married for 41 years.”
He brought her to Deep River to live. She managed to adjust. Got to like Deep River and its folks. But she missed home. “We went back nearly every year. I always loved to go visit with her. She had a wonderful family. In fact, I lived there for a year. Beautiful town. Good people. But I just couldn’t take to it permanently.” No chuckle this time.
Their son is Robert Xaver. He lives in Killingworth with his wife Janet and children, Emily, Katie, and Lindsey. And their dog, Max. Bob dogsits Max when they go away. Robert X. speaks German fluently. “His mother always spoke German to him. That was a good thing.”
Deep River has always been home, sweet home for Bob. “I was born in my homestead at 14 Lafayette Avenue. I still sleep in the bedroom where I was born and still have the same mattress. Ha-ha!” (Not so about the mattress.) That’s why he calls his agency Lafayette Realty. It’s right around the corner from Main Street, close to Adams Supermarket and the Town Hall. You know what they say in real estate…Location, Location, Location! Bob feels he has the perfect location.
“My father was a big builder. He built our 8-room house in 1914 and he had only one helper. He dug the cellar at night with a lantern. I had two brothers and a sister, but they are gone now.”
His brother Erwin was seven years older. He was born with a short left arm. “It never fazed him. Very clever. Hard worker. A real entrepreneur.” Bob bring him up often. He teamed up with Erwin on many projects.
Erwin had the food concession for the three Pratt Read factories. They made all the working parts for pianos and sold them to piano companies all over the country. At age 15, Bob began selling lunches at the Pratt Read factories. He would start with the big factory on Main Street—now Piano Works Condominium. “I had a cart with sandwiches and drinks. I’d go to each floor and blow my whistle. People would come and buy .A hot dog was 10 cents. A coffee five cents. A ham and cheese sandwich 20 cents. Then I would go to the next factory, which is now Silgan. That is here they built the big transport gliders for World War II.”
He loved selling. Dealing with people. “When I was 15 years old I delivered the Hartford Courant. A few years later, Christmas trees. Also fireworks. Also gravestones.” Chuckles. “I really did. I also drove a taxi in Essex for a while.”
He went to Deep River Elementary School, then Deep River High School. “I quit in my junior year. I didn’t like school. I enjoyed working and making money.” A chuckle. “But you shouldn’t say that. It’s embarrassing.”
“I always loved horses. When I was 15, I bought my first horse. Learned to ride it. Then a year later my second horse. I loved to ride them. And I rented them out for $1 per hour. Finally I raffled off the second one. I sold tickets for $2 and took in $154. A man in Middletown won it. I owned seven horses in all.
“Speaking of raffles, at the Chester Fair a couple of years ago I bought an Elks Club $10 ticket for a raffle on a red two-eater convertible. I won it! It was valued at $28,000. No way could I ride that around town! I sold it back to the dealer.
“Speaking of being lucky, here’s another story. In 1938 I was 13 years old. I and two friends—both a bit older–were over by the Baptist Church on River Street. They later became state troopers. It had a large barn around the corner on High Street. . Those two began tossing rotten apples at the barn. What a mess they made. I was blamed, too. But I was just looking. Well, the parents were going to have to paint that side over. Guess what–the 1938 hurricane blew the whole barn down! I was lucky again!”
Some years later he bought a monkey. Susie. Thirty inches tall. But she was not much fun. And she never took to diapers. The messes! Finally Bob took her to a pet store. It would find somebody to love her. The owner called Bob two days later. “Mister Johnson,” he said. “Come pick up your monkey! We do not want her! She is a big, big problem.”
He first flew across the Atlantic in 1958. Flying to Europe was unusual back then. John Colbert, co-owner of the town’s New Era weekly newspaper, went along.
“Propeller planes in those days. Our destination was Copenhagen. A long trip—24 hours from New York. John was looking out the window. He turned and said to me, ‘Bob, the seagulls are passing us!” Chuckle.
“Just one stop—Iceland for four hours. We were gone for one month. And with the round-trip air fare, the Mercedes Benz we rented, gas food, drinks, trains and buses, the Oktoberfest in Munich, and of course the women (chuckles!!), the total cost for each of us was only $1,000. Things have changed a little since then, haven’t they?” Chuckle.
I myself, your reporter, have lived in Deep River eleven years. One day Bob called. “John,” he said. “Let me show you Deep River.” He wasn’t talking about selling me a place. I already had one. He took it upon himself to take me on a walk up and down Main Street. He had a story to tell at every house.
“That was the movie theatre. That was the A&P store. That was a pharmacy. We had three of them. That was Dr. Devitt’s house. Where Walgreen’s is now. That Devitt Field is named for him. The Whistle Stop was the Bob-O-Lou Restaurant back then. I built it with a pal. We ran it. A soft-shell crab sandwich was 35 cents. We sold the restaurant and went to other ventures.” There have been many.
He took me for a ride down Kirtland Street to the Town Landing on the Connecticut. Then back up River Street to the center of town. He pointed to 18 houses he had sold along that two miles. Two of them twice.
“I took to real estate and devoted myself to it all these many years. My first sale was an eight-room house for $4,000 in 1946. The second one was a two-family with six rooms each for $6,000. Erwin and I developed Castle View Drive in Chester. It was what had been the Kirtland farm. We called it Castle View because you had a nice view of Gillette Castle across the river. Lots went from $1,000 to $2,500. Erwin built the first house to get things moving. A total of 26 houses went up there. Very nice.
“I was a partner with him in building the first motor hotel in Old Saybrook. What we call a motel now. We called it the Old Saybrook Motor Inn but now it’s the Knights Inn.”
When the movie, “It Happened to Jane”, was made in Chester, he rented homes to the stars, Doris Day, Jack Lemmon, Ernie Kovacs, and others. And I was an extra in the movie. Just one in a in a small background group. I did it for eight days. I had a nice Plymouth sedan. They also wanted it in the movie. I got $8 a day and another $8 a day for my car. It was a lot of fun.”
He is hard put to say how many houses and other buildings and lots and farms he has sold. He showed me a scrapbook. It was filled with newspaper clippings, some brown and fragile. His real estate ads. News stories about his ventures. Photographs. He shakes his head when he sees what real estate prices are nowadays. And is astonished when he sees how many buildings he knew well have been torn down and replaced. “It’s really unbelievable.” He’s phenomenal also in remembering names and dates and prices. They all pop right up.
He’s always up to doing something exciting. “When I was in Florida last winter, the local airport had on display B-24 and B-17 bombers. Those planes helped win World War II. They go all over the country. People go see them and can take a ride in them. I went up for a half hour. How those four engineers roared. That ride cost $400. But sure worth it.”
Many adventurous memories. Once, in Pennsylvania, down 1,600 feet into a coal mine, then a two-mile trek under a river. Another time, a tour through the largest refinery in the world. In Canada, a visit to a huge pulp mill–trees being converted into rolls of toilet paper!
He and Rosa bought a house on a canal in Stuart, Florida, near West Palm Beach, and went every year for 27 years. Now his son, Robert X., owns a condo there. Bob visits there. This year his car is being trucked down and he’s flying. “I just don’t like the snow and the ice any more.”
His travel fever was not limited to Europe. He has traveled all over the U.S and up into Canada and Mexico. Twelve islands in the Caribbean. Numerous cruises. Crossed the Panama Canal. “In Mexico I saw eight bulls killed in one afternoon. I never want to see a show like that again.”
He sold two houses last year. They were houses whose owners had died. He expects to handle a couple more like that. He would like some more listings. “I need the challenge,” he said. “And the fun of it. Yep, I like to keep going. Just like the Eveready Battery.”