Merlin Johnson knows a thing or two about running a hobby farm. He grew up on one, near Lisbon, ND, along with his parents and two younger siblings.
When he was born, more than seventy years ago, he was very sick and spent quite some time in the hospital. His parents knew that he was likely to have developmental delays, which become apparent by the time Merlin was old enough to attend school.
There were no special education classes back then and after an attempt at sending Merlin to public school, where he lasted exactly one day, they chose to keep him at home. Soon, the authorities began to make periodic visits to the family, pressuring them to send Merlin to live in the state institution at Grafton.
“It was really intimidating,” said his sister, Peggy Johnson. “I remember sitting on the stairs and listening to the conversations.”
Merlin and Peggy’s parents were adamant, however, that they would not send their son to such a place.
“I didn’t realize the full scope of it until I was an adult,” Peggy said, “And I’m so proud of my parents for standing up to everyone and protecting my brother’s rights, because that just wasn’t done back in the day.”
Their father ran his own road maintenance business and kept pigs, sheep, chickens and cows. So instead of spending his days in an institution, Merlin learned all about raising animals. He helped feed the animals, milked cows and helped his father fix things around the farm.
Merlin said his favorite memories from his childhood were milking the cows and playing with the family dog, Penny.
“Every dog we ever had was named Penny,” laughed his sister, “Because he could actually pronounce the name.”
Merlin always had an active social life. He went everywhere with his parents and knew everybody in the small town of Lisbon. And everybody knew him. He was very blessed to have enjoyed life to the fullest, a far cry from the institutional life he may have led if his parents had not been so strongly opposed to it.
When he was 57 years old, he moved with his mother to Grand Forks, where his sister was a teacher in the public school system. Not long after, his mother passed away and his sister assumed legal guardianship of Merlin.
For a while, he lived with Peggy, but she realized he needed additional supports to become acclimated to the community in the manner he was accustomed to. She began looking into a group home setting, but Merlin was completely against it, as he thought it was too much like a nursing home. He wanted his own place.
Seemingly at a dead end, one day Peggy ran into an acquaintance who happened to work at The Arc, Upper Valley, and was invited to visit the office to learn more about community living options.
“I had no idea what our options were. The Arc was there for me when I needed help.”
One month later, Merlin was living independently in his own apartment in a 4-plex and soon made friends with the other tenants in the building. With staff to assist him when needed, he learned to ride the City Bus and began exploring the community.
Now in his seventies, he is officially retired. He loves to play pool, a pastime he enjoyed with his father; has been involved in league bowling, takes walks with friends at Special Olympics and attends L.I.S.T.E.N. dances every Friday night. He likes to take a trips to Devils Lake to go fishing.
He says his favorite things about Grand Forks are that it’s a good town and he has his own home.
Merlin and Peggy have a close sibling relationship. Being seven years older and blessed with an excellent memory, Merlin recalls when Peggy was born and watching her drink from a bottle.” Consequently, he still sometimes refers to her as “Baby,” in a teasing manner.
They enjoy many outings together. On the day they were interviewed for this story, they were at Perkins for pie and coffee. Before too long, Merlin was pointing at his watch and reminding Peggy that he had dinner plans that evening.
Asked about his plans, he simply smiled and said, “Pancakes.”
“He goes to every pancake feed and benefit in town”, said Peggy, laughing.
And with that, we parted ways. Because you never want to be late for pancakes……