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December 26, 2013
Nuts for Nutcrackers

Joan Johnson has collected 225 nutcrackers over the years 

Joan Johnson is really getting into the Christmas spirit this year.

The 68-year-old Grantsville resident is wearing a red sweater that echoes her auburn hair. On her feet, she’s got socks with red and green accents.

Oh, and she’s set out her collection of nutcrackers, all 225 of them, in her living room. She’s collected the iconic Christmas toy for 20 years.

“I can’t think of what made me start,” she said. “It’s like (collecting) anything else. You just start and you say, ‘Oh that’s cute.’ Maybe it was seeing the production of ‘The Nutcracker’ (ballet). (Collecting) has its own force. You get caught up with it. Then you see another one and you say, ‘I want that.’”

Johnson said she loves the ballet because “it’s the story of (the main character, Clara), getting what she wanted for Christmas. It’s such a fairy tale and a Christmas icon. I’ve gone to it a couple of times when Utah Ballet has done it at the Capitol Theater. Clara is my favorite character. Everybody knows The Nutcracker. The music, of course, is just incredible.”

She bought some of her nutcrackers on a whim. Some, she deliberately buys to add to a series. For example, on one shelf, all are book or movie characters done up as nutcrackers, like the Mouse King, Frankenstein and a toymaker.

“Some people have great imaginations and figure someone’s going to come along and do something out of it,” Johnson said.

None in her collection are identical. One of her favorites is a tiny one “because (it’s so small) it might get lost.” She likes “Jester” because he’s so different. Another favorite is “Scrooge.”

“On State Street, there was a shop, Zim’s, where you could buy nutcracker pieces,” she said. “That’s where everybody got craft supplies and they were going out of business. I went in there and saw (Scrooge). I thought, ‘Oh, but he’s not even painted. They had this nice gray jacket on him.’” But she got him anyway.

Once, she got a nutcracker from Germany. “We were there in the summer, but there were tons of stores selling (nutcrackers). I got one for a bazillion dollars. It was instant love. It’s ridiculous because it was more than I normally spend on one.”

“I love them, even those that are cheap,” she said. “They’re just a joy to me. Sometimes they get broken and they have to have surgery.”

She collects other things, too, not just nutcrackers.

“This is an antique I found in Erda,” she said, pausing in front of a tall and narrow secretary. “I found it in a field. (The owners) didn’t care for it because there was a bullet hole in it.”

She held up a wood caddy and shared the story behind it.

“Last summer, my sisters and I went back to Alaska to our homestead. The government let (my grandfather) have a quarter of a mile square. For the next five years, (he had) to improve the land.”

“My parents had built a nice house, not a shack, but it was gone. The house had been lifted from the foundation and moved somewhere else. It was a tribute to how well my parents built the house.”

Johnson and her sisters found the outhouse, however. “We knew it was our outhouse, because my mother, being a fairly classy lady, put linoleum on the back wall, on the seats, and (the caddy) was screwed on the wall. It’s where you would put your toothbrush and toilet paper. This is the cleaned up and sanded version.”

Even though Johnson has lived long enough in Grantsville to be considered an “old-timer,” she grew up 23 miles outside of Fairbanks, Alaska. The day she was born, the temperature was 45 degrees below.

“It didn’t bother me,” she said, smiling. “My mom got in the hospital — she was a dispatcher for the cab stand that Dad owned. He got free labor, and she went into labor. She got to the hospital at 11:30 a.m., and I was born at 12:06 p.m. The doctor said, ‘What’s the matter Mrs. Casperson? Couldn’t you get a cab?’ She was not humored by that.”

Her dad was from Preston, Idaho, the late LDS Church President Ezra Taft Benson’s hometown. “My dad couldn’t talk enough about Ezra Taft Benson,” she said. At that time he was the Secretary of Agriculture in the Eisenhower Administration.

Her husband Ron is also from Preston. One day early in their marriage in the 1960s, he told her he had a dental appointment at Utah State University.

When he came home, he said, “I just signed a contract to teach in Grantsville.” She replied, “Where’s that?” He said, “I don’t know. I think that’s where President McKay was from.”

“It was a hot August day when we were moving (to Grantsville),” Johnson recalled. “Omigosh, I thought I was going to die. It was so hot. I tried to not complain about it since we’ve lived here for 49 years since 1964.”

“We were just coming to scope Grantsville out for a place to live. We didn’t know anything about Grantsville. Ron just knew they would pay him to teach school. We found a place to live across the school, where one of the teachers rented out her parents’ apartments.”

When they moved to Grantsville, they discovered they had ancestors who had lived in the area — just one of the many reasons they’ve loved the city.

Just as Johnson and her family embraced Grantsville, it has taken them for one of their own. Pretty much every year, Johnson and her husband perform in the annual Grantsville Old Folks Sociable, which celebrates Grantsville’s elderly and history through a day-long event that includes a variety show.

“It’s been a warm and wonderful town,” Johnson said of Grantsville. “They’ve always had Ron sing. Tom Stamm came into town and started theater with ‘Fiddler on the Roof.’ Ron and I and the kids were in it. From there, (we performed) at Promised Valley Playhouse.”

Today, some of their brood of eight are still performing. Their youngest daughter is in “Elf the Musical” at Pioneer Memorial Theater in Salt Lake City. Another daughter is trying to establish an acting career in Los Angeles.

“Our kids really enjoy life so much,” Johnson said. “That’s very satisfying. When they get together, like at Thanksgiving, they have such a good time together.”

With her kids growing up and leaving the nest, she hasn’t put out the nutcrackers in the last two years. In fact, she almost didn’t put them out this year. “It’s a lot of work,” she admits.

But she says she’s “tickled” to have them out now. “I’ve missed them. With the stresses that we all have at Christmastime, the nutcrackers make me happy. They’re all smiling. They don’t require being fed. They don’t back talk. You never have to change their diaper. They are a delight. They put a smile on my face every time I look at them.”

With a twinkle in her eye, Johnson looked at her nutcracker collection. She said, “It’s as though I have 225 grandchildren.”

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