Thomas Jefferson Johnson, school founder and teacher, was born near Norfolk, Virginia, on October 8, 1805. After his education at Augusta College in Kentucky, he taught in Jefferson City, Missouri, where he met Catherine Hyde; they were married on May 7, 1837, and moved to Texas in 1844. Jefferson taught school in Huntsville, Lockhart, and Webberville before he founded Johnson Institute in 1852 on Bear Creek sixteen miles southwest of Austin in Hays County. He founded the school as a boys' school, but soon girls were admitted. Johnson ran the school with the help of his family. His wife, known as Aunt Katy, taught piano, cooked, and watched over the girls who boarded at the school. Four of Johnson's six children taught at the school, including his daughter Lizzie (see WILLIAMS, ELIZABETH E. J.), who later rose to prominence in the cattle business. Johnson, known as "Old Bristle Top" to his students because of his unruly hair, was well-liked but remembered as a stern disciplinarian. Two hundred students were enrolled at the school when he died unexpectedly at the institute on September 2, 1868. He was buried on the grounds, where his grave is marked with his reputed last words: "Glory, glory, all is bright ahead."
Johnson, a devoted Methodist, invited preachers of different denominations to hold services at the institute, and on Sunday mornings local residents attended services there, where Johnson himself taught Sunday School. After his death his son, Benjamin F. Johnson, operated the school until it closed in 1872. Walter Prescott Webb later purchased the site for a boys' camp, Friday Mountain Ranch.