Dream Book

Wildly uncommercial titles meet millionaire backers in Minnesotaís most unlikely press


As a young mother of four children, and without the benefit of a college education, Johnston began to carve out a career for herself as a freelance writer in the 1970s. This mostly involved penning articles on her two lifelong passions, art and history, for a variety of local and national publications. Often as not Johnston found that writing these pieces only served to further spark her interest in the subjects, and eventually she started expanding some of her projects into books.

She went to the bank and borrowed money to publish her first five titles, under the Johnston Publishing banner. As encouraged as she was by the success of those books--including a history of Stillwater built around John Runk's historic photos--she was also finding the challenges of self-publishing increasingly daunting. Johnston Publishing was strictly a family business; books were stored in the family's garage and hand-delivered to local bookstores, media outlets, and distributors. And Patricia was pretty much her own marketing and sales force.

"Her whole story is sort of a fairy tale": The "wizard" of Afton Historical Society Press, Patricia Johnston
Craig Lassig
"Her whole story is sort of a fairy tale": The "wizard" of Afton Historical Society Press, Patricia Johnston

In a stroke of good and enduring fortune, she one day received a call out of the blue from Duncan MacMillan, the now retired Cargill director and an heir to the Cargill-MacMillan fortune. Cargill was then, and still is, the largest privately held company in America, and MacMillan was interested in enlisting Johnston to help him produce a history of his family and its historic grain business. The resulting two-volume MacGhillemhaoil, with its lavish design, full-color illustrations, and tartan covers, was in many ways a model--however impossible to duplicate--for things to come.

While she was working on the commission Johnston was also finishing off a book on pioneering Minnesota wildlife painter Francis Lee Jaques. She had sold the Jaques manuscript to a South Carolina publisher, which intended to release it as the seventh book in a "Masters of the Wild" series, but the press went bankrupt after the release of the sixth title.

Johnston then approached MacMillan with the idea of starting a nonprofit press devoted to publishing books of regional importance. MacMillan was surprisingly amenable to her proposal, and incorporation papers were signed in July 1993. By the following year Afton Historical Society Press was in business with the publication of Johnston's Jaques book. Titled The Shape of Things: The Art of Frances Lee Jaques, the book made an immediate splash, winning both a Minnesota Book Award and a best first book citation from the Midwest Independent Publishers Association.

"I recognize how truly fortunate I was to cross paths with Duncan when I did," Johnston says. "And I also know that were it not for Duncan's generosity and vision, and the support of his entire family, Afton Press would not exist."


For Johnston, Afton remains "the center of the universe," and she says her original mission--which she has some how managed to follow to the letter--was to "publish the very best and most beautiful books we possibly could, books that would have the very highest standards of scholarship, design, production, and literary value. We also wanted our books to have a strong Minnesota connection, but also felt it was important that they have some broader appeal."

According to former Minnesota Governor Elmer L. Andersen, who is working with Star Tribune editorial writer Lori Sturdevant on a forthcoming collection of speeches and essays for Afton, "The central factor [in the success of Afton] is the genius and vigor of Patricia Johnston. She's been fortunate to have substantial financial support, but that's really a reward for her initiative and vision."

Johnston says that she had a long list of dream projects when she started Afton nearly 10 years ago, and she hasn't come close to knocking all of them off yet. She's got a couple of books in the can on the 150th anniversary of Millard Fillmore's "Grand Excursion," the steamboat caravan from Rock Island, Illinois, that brought more that 1,200 politicians, journalists, and other dignitaries up the Mississippi river to St. Paul. And further out there's a book Johnston hopes to do on Roland Reed, an Indian photographer who was an overlooked contemporary of Edward Curtis. After that, who knows?

"I had absolutely no idea when I started out that this was going to go where it's gone," Johnston says. "I was perfectly content when it was just me in a one-room office down the street. And to be honest I'm still never quite sure where we're headed, but something interesting always seems to turn up."

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