by Beth Browne
photographs by Jill Knight
Sam Johnson has been fixing sewing machines for as long as he can remember. At 90, he’s worked in the same South Raleigh location for more than 50 years. He learned the business from his father, Archie, who started selling sewing machines in 1910, before Sam was born. Sam’s had sewing machines in his blood ever since. When an Archie Johnson & Sons customer asks why Sam didn’t give her an estimate on her repair, Sam’s daughter Mary sighs and says, “He just went ahead and fixed it. It’s what he does for fun.”
The fun started for Sam when he was a boy riding around the countryside with his father selling sewing machines. They would drive until they saw smoke coming out of a chimney. Archie, Sam’s dad, would pull over to the side of the road, peer over at the house and say, “That house looks sewingmachiney.” Together they’d make their way past the tobacco or cotton fields up to the house. If the family already owned a sewing machine, Archie would offer to work on it or see if they needed a newer, fancier machine, which he kept in the back of the car.
Archie was more of a salesman then a repair guy. “A pair of pliers and a screwdriver was about all he had,” says Sam. If the household sewing machine needed repair, Archie would send Sam out in the yard to rub metal parts in the sandy soil to get the rust off. Otherwise, Sam stood by his dad’s side and watched every move. Sometimes, the two would be invited to stay for supper.
When Sam was about 12, Archie brought home a broken sewing machine motor that “even the radio man couldn’t fix.” Sam took it apart on the dining room table, discovered the trouble and made the repairs. When he got it reassembled, he used a car battery to start it and it roared to life with a vroom. Archie heard the sound from upstairs and came running down, shouting with excitement, amazed at his son’s ability.
Building the business
Sam probably would have followed his father right into the business after high school, but the war intervened. In 1943, Sam graduated from high school and the next day went to Ft. Bragg for basic training. He trained as a bombardier and a gunner for the Army Air Corps, but he never saw active duty.
After the war, Sam enrolled at N.C. State on the GI Bill and earned a degree in mechanical engineering. Then he got a job in Tennessee at the Southern Dairies ice cream plant, maintaining and repairing machinery. Sam liked the job all right, but he missed his parents and his 11 siblings. Apparently, they missed him too. He got frequent letters from his father saying, “Looking for you to come home any day now.”
“So,” Sam says, “we loaded up the old Dodge and came to Raleigh.” With a wife and an infant son, he needed work. So he took the back seat out of a 1936 Dodge he bought for $125 and started going door-to-door, selling and repairing sewing machines. Before long, he realized he could make as much in one day fixing sewing machines as he made in a whole week at the dairy back in Tennessee.
In 1950, Sam built a little cinderblock building as his sewing machine shop next to his father’s house on a dirt road called Rhamkatte Road. Sam jokes that it was only paved so the mayor could get to the golf course more easily. A few years later, both the lake and the road were re-named for Mayor Fred B. Wheeler, who had been one of Sam’s professors at N.C. State. Eventually, Sam built a house for his own family behind the sewing machine shop, right next door to Archie’s house. Sam did all the wiring and the plumbing himself.
In 1985, a customer came in who was desperate for a sewing machine that could make ruffles for curtains. She had just started a curtain-making business and had an order too large to fill. At that time, the only ruffling machines available were for commercial use and too expensive for a small businessperson. Always up for a challenge, Sam got down to work and modified a machine to make ruffles. It worked so well he applied for a patent, which he received in 1986. He has been making the Johnson Ruffling Machine ever since.
At first, Sam had his machines manufactured in Taiwan, but eventually the company moved operations to China. The quality quickly went downhill. Sometimes a machine would arrive in Raleigh with loose screws. Sam found himself checking – and sometimes even repairing – every machine that arrived from China before he was willing to sell it.
Nowadays, Sam’s son, Sam Jr., 62, custom-makes each machine by modifying high-quality used Japanese machines. Because the modifications are time-consuming, the Johnson Ruffling Machine costs a little more than it used to. But it has many devoted customers. There are currently 70 people on a waiting list for a new Johnson Ruffling Machine. Sam Jr. says he’s simply not able to keep up with the demand.
In addition to building new ruffling machines, Sam Jr. repairs machines, even occasionally making “house calls” to work on machines at schools and at department stores that still do alterations. Like his father, Sam Jr. bemoans the lack of manufacturing in the U.S. today. He says sewing machine manufacturers no longer care whether the machines work or not. “They’re difficult to work on, fragile, and complicated at the same time.” The new machines, he says, are often not worth fixing.
Sam Sr.’s daughter, Mary, works out front in the shop and does the books. Her son, Justin, is learning the ropes, which makes for four generations in the family business. Justin worked as a graphic designer and in a variety of trades before returning to Archie Johnson & Sons. “I figured out that there’s way more money here,” he says. Justin admits that it can be a struggle sometimes, working with the family, but he says he loves it and wants to keep the business going.
Mary says they’ll keep the shop open as long as her daddy keeps on fixing machines. She says he especially likes it when a machine he’s never worked on comes into the shop, although it’s hard to find a model he hasn’t worked on before. He loves the challenge of figuring out what’s wrong with a machine and fixing it. Sometimes he has to make a new part; it never gets old. When a customer comes in with a broken machine, Mary fills out a ticket with its information, and Sam sits down to fix it almost before the customer is out the door. His 90-year-old fingers, agile as ever, have the machine apart within minutes.
“Here’s the trouble,” he says one recent morning, with a tableful of parts before him. “Somebody tried to adjust it and really messed things up.” His concentration is complete. Mary has to nudge him more than once to get him to go out to the house and eat some lunch. In his soft Southern drawl, with just a hint of apology, he says, “It keeps me entertained, working on machines.”