William Whipple Johnson, West Texas entrepreneur, one of seven children of Ethan S. and Jane B. Johnson, was born in Ionia, Michigan, on October 11, 1843. He attended school in Ypsilanti, Michigan, and became active in business in Ionia shortly after 1860; he described himself as a hotel keeper in 1867. He formed a partnership with his father and his younger brother Harvey to provide general merchandise for the people of Ionia. The three were devastated economically in the general collapse of the national economy in 1873. Johnson moved his base of operations to Corsicana, Texas, in the late 1870s, probably in search of a refuge from his debts. At this time he also entered a short-lived first marriage. His second and lasting marriage was to Anna Fatzinger Campbell, a childhood friend who also had had an unsuccessful first marriage. Both the daughter and the son born of this second marriage died in childhood.
By midsummer 1880 William and Harvey Johnson lived in Strawn. There Harvey became postmaster on September 13, 1880, and William became assistant postmaster on January 4, 1881. In Strawn the brothers became involved in horse and cattle ranching, the procuring and selling of cedar posts, retail merchandising, and land acquisition. In 1887 they established the Johnson Coal Mining Company south of Strawn. The purchaser of the extracted coal was to be the Texas and Pacific Railway, and the railroad agreed to build a spur line to the mine. The Johnson brothers jointly participated in the formation of a second company, the Palo Pinto Coal Mining Company, in November 1887. On January 30, 1888, Harvey died, but not before he sold his entire estate to his brother for one dollar.
Throughout this period William Johnson's freedom of movement was restricted by his lingering debts in Michigan. His debt agent there, Albert Williams, erstwhile attorney general of Michigan, strongly advised him to keep his relatives from talking about his prosperity and to remain in Texas because of the state's legal protection of debtors. In the summer of 1888 Johnson made arrangements to sell his coal mines to the Texas and Pacific Coal Company. The location of the mines had been called Johnsonville, but the area was now renamed Thurber. By May 1889 Johnson and his wife were described as living in the finest residence west of Fort Worth.
Johnson's varied business activities between 1889 and 1900 included the organization of joint control of the Stock Traders Bank of Strawn in 1892, lumber development in East Texas, acquisition of a livery stable in Shreveport, Louisiana, in 1892, and interests in Mexican cattle, lumbering, and mining throughout the period. His mining interests diversified into agate, silver, and copper mines, while he continued to provide cedar posts for fencing the ranges of West Texas. He also became involved in the Acme Gas Company of Carthage, Missouri; the American Coal Mining Company; the Central Coal Mining Company; the San Antonio, Llano and Northern Railroad; and the International Construction Company. His involvement with the International Construction Company, which was to build a rail line connecting San Antonio with the Texas and Pacific, was hidden through sale of its control to the Llano Suburban Company, which Johnson also cofounded and in which he held a major interest.
In 1900 Johnson organized the Standard Coal Mining company, which after two years had to surrender its charter to the state because of failure to pay its franchise tax. In 1902 the Mount Marion Coal Mining Company was organized with Johnson as vice president. This company drilled a test hole for oil in the Strawn area in the early years of the twentieth century. In 1913 Johnson, who had adapted his thinking to the fuel of the twentieth century, oil, participated in the last business organization of his life, the Forest Oil Company of Wichita Falls. His death of typhoid fever at his residence in Mineral Wells was announced by the Dallas Morning News on October 14, 1914.