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Unplugged and ‘free’

The story of a man who ‘freed himself’ from mass media

Ernest Mann (Larry Johnson), learned to balance things on his head during his travels.  Photo by Carol Christensen, a friend of Larry Johnson AKA Ernest Mann

Ernest Mann (Larry Johnson), learned to balance things on his head during his travels. Photo by Carol Christensen, a friend of Larry Johnson AKA Ernest Mann

    A headline on the front of the June 2013 AARP Bulletin boldly proclaims “Why You Need Social Media.” Inside, on page 20, the article cites the importance of having a Facebook identity, a blog, a personal website and a profile on LinkedIn. Before you doze off from both the formidable fear of social media and the certainty its various forms and foibles have nothing to offer you, let me reassure you that the writer, Jane Bryant Quinn, knows what she’s talking about. Trust me, I googled her. She’s 69 years old and obviously uses modern technology to her advantage. But, I’m here to advocate for the other side. I think you can safely live without them.

    I think the greater world could live with a lot less of all that, too. Just think how much more productive the world could be if individuals didn’t feel a need to process all those techno bits and bites that eat up time each day. Consider the following tweets that came in my email this morning: (It will take me a minute to find them in my deleted file…)

1) You guys like @TheWalkmen @FreeEnergy @greazygreg @NAMESSTRANGE & @prissyclerks & paying $10 for a show? We got you. 2) Yes! “@dbrauer: Love this project: Are Twin Cities restaurants too loud? We’re testing them—and you can help.…” 3) .@melanie_warner I was singing Pandora’s Lunchbox’ praises @MPR today w @KerriMPR You have creeped out/inspired me! 4) Radio personalities talking about their biggest social media mistakes & regrets. You can watch live at #smbmsp56

    The only one that has any real meaning for me is # 4 and may prove my point. But I’m not going to take the time to check it out because I want to tell you about a guy who succeeded in gaining followers of his personal philosophy while living a very simple life.

    His name was Ernest Mann. Actually, that was his pseudonym, one that he chose to reflect his idea that personal gain, to the detriment of other people’s dreams, was no gain at all.

    Ernest Mann (also known as Larry F. Johnson) was born in Coldwater, Mich., in 1927. His early years weren’t particularly remarkable, though he found success as a real estate agent in Minnesota. He owned several pieces of property and set down roots in Minneapolis. He had a wife, a comfortable life, and became a father.

    Then one day, perhaps feeling a little tired of the day-to-day rat race or maybe it was the mind-bending experience he happened upon (even Steve Jobs and Bill Clinton admit to the same influence), Larry Johnson opted out. He took a little trip that day to visit some people who had set up camp on a piece of his property near Georgeville, west of the Twin Cities. A clearer statement would be that it was a group of hippies who refused to pay the rent. Larry stopped in. The hippies were hospitable and invited him to stay with them.

    As the legend of Ernest Mann recounts: They expressed their philosophy that owning property was theft from the greater world and invited him to stay with them on his own property. He stayed, tried their mind-altering substances and in the end changed his whole idea of what life should be. In 1969, he gave up his job, began living what he described as P.E.S., the Priceless Economic System, and started writing about his newly chosen lifestyle. He also gained followers, published what he called “The Little Free Press,” and lived the rest of his life as a free man. He also acquired the identity of the “grandfather of the zine movement” as coined by a Minneapolis librarian.

    By 1972, he no longer owned property, had a wife, nor exerted fatherly influence on his daughter, joining the company of artists and philosophers throughout history who have done much the same. He laid out his principles for living and set them in print under the title, “HOW I AM BECOMING A FREE PERSON”

1. Stopped believing anyone had a right to order me around. 2. Extracted myself from the mob and began making my own decisions and stopped conforming. 3. Stopped absorbing the mass media. Then my fears began to fade away and courage and self-reliance began to grow. 4. Destroyed all of my credit cards! 5. Cut my expenses down as low as was comfortable. 6. Built up a reserve supply of money to enable #7. 7. Stopped working for money as soon as was possible. 8. Then I traveled and read a lot and learned more about myself and people. 9. I wrote in a journal what I learned and thought and reviewed it occasionally and even published it as the LFP. 10. I continue to learn and experiment with my freedom. 11. I have found a work that I think needs to be done and I do this work for free. I give my product (my newsletter) to anyone free of charge. 12. I use my savings to pay for the printing and to supply my meager needs. 13. Should everyone else seek their own freedom we would soon have a happy sane world and things would be free for me too.

    His writings are what set him apart from other society dropouts. He thoughtfully analyzed why he chose to live an unfettered life and in the days before Facebook, Twitter, blogs and websites, gained more than 1,000 followers who read his Little Free Press, which he produced and printed with his personal computer.

    “Zine” is short for fanzine or magazine. Zines were usually self-published and distributed with the circulation under 1,000. Ernest Mann achieved the top end of circulation for this format and influenced people around the world. He also wrote two books: Free I Got and I Was Robot.

    Free I Got says the following about the author: “The author was in business in Minneapolis for 20 years. He gained enough knowledge in Economics from Business College and from practice to retire at the age of 42 in 1969. Since then he has had the time and space to observe economics from a different perspective and has had 21 years to travel to many countries; read, observe, discuss, think, evaluate and form his own conclusions about the economic situation, politics, religion, life and individual freedom. Now his belief systems are far different than they were when he was busily engaged in trying to keep his bills paid.”

    An introduction to a reprint of I Was Robot, written by Trevor Blake in 2012, both reveals that Mann’s writings are still circulating and that his influence and advice for living a free life continue long after his death in 1996. Blake writes, “I Was Robot is the best of Ernest Mann’s newspaper, Little Free Press. The book speaks to you from the 1970s through the 1990s, commenting on itself as it goes. It isn’t a story told in chronological order. He sold copies of this book for five dollars but also gave it away on BBS.”

    Blake also commented on Mann’s personal philosophy, “Own fewer things, work less and volunteer more. Don’t waste your time with protests, revenge or negative thoughts. Live where you can walk most of the time to where you need to go.” This way of living may be even more applicable to the 21st century than to the late 20th.

    In 1988, Mann decided to spend the winter in Mexico and get his teeth fixed at what he figured would be only 10 percent of what it would cost in the states. He wrote on Dec. 20:

    “So here I am in Mexico. I sure lucked out on the $99 ticket and here I am sitting in a hotel. I had a good fish supper with a beer and coffee for 9,000 pesos and a 1,900 tip. The peso is now 2,240 pesos for one US dollar. So supper was $5.18 and the hotel about $8.00. I choose hotels in which only Mexicans stay. They are much cheaper than the tourist hotels. But the food was too expensive. I should try to find a place when I get to La Paz that, I can cook my own dinner and just have coffee and desert (sic) out. It was 78 (degrees) here this afternoon. It is a little cool this evening. I’ll sleep with a blanket. I must get one from the clerk. I feel a little lethargic. I missed my ferry boat this afternoon for La Paz, but everything else slid-in together, like on a greased slide, to get my ticket, get ready, run my van to Cushing, get back to Minneapolis, sleep at my friend’s and finish all the odds and ends in time to catch my plane. So I can’t complain about missing the ferry. I’ll catch it tomorrow and won’t have to hurry. I feel a little better now after writing. It is something to do. I didn’t bring a book. I’ll try not to spend my time reading on this trip. Instead I’ll observe, talk to people, think and write and loaf. And go to bed early tonight. I’m tired. Flying is hard on one I think, so I won’t expect too much of myself. Traveling alone takes lots of extra energy too, I think because one must be ever alert to make all the right decisions. But it certainly is not as tiring as driving and worrying about traffic and the car. Tomorrow at 8:30 a.m. I will find out what time the two ferries arrive in La Paz (there was only one ferry a day this year) and decide which one to take. I think I’ll take a cabin.”

     The next evening, after waiting for several hours to buy a ticket for the ferry to La Paz, Mann wrote, “If I don’t like La Paz I think I can make it back here in time for the return flight to Minneapolis. So I have some options. I have plenty of other options too, if I want to list them. I don’t have to do what seems logical, just do what feels best! I think I need this winter time to spend doing nothing. Then I may get some inspiration, i.e., solutions to the world problem. And I can have my teeth extracted and false teeth made at my leisure.”

     The next afternoon while waiting for the ferry, he had time to plan what he would do when he went back to Minnesota in the spring. “When I get home in the spring, I think I should try to buy an old store building I saw on my journey this fall. Then move into it and invite my readers to join-in a sort of co-operative with one share each, one share only, per person. One share, one vote. We could somehow share in the ownership of the property and fix it up and start a ‘chicken dinner only’ restaurant to bring people in and to create income. We would all live there and share the work and profits equally. Each working at what they like doing. Attempt to underprice our competitors and give better service, quantity and quality. Attempt to get someone out there who has printing presses. Start a publishing business too. Also, try to get a ham radio operator. Maybe buy a farm nearby and raise our own food by the Japanese farmer’s method (in One Straw Revolution). A lawyer to help with the tax free non-profit corp. Papers and a fool proof corporate charter that couldn’t be taken-over, and yet one person couldn’t rule. We’ll need a plumber, bricklayer and roofer. We’ll need a way to expel laggards and discontents. For people who wish to leave, we could buy back their share at market price. Or if we are short of money, we could pay them back in installments. So that no one would be trapped. And no one should have to give their money to the cooperative. But they could loan it, if they wished. I’ll need to contact all my readers to see if they would be interested in brainstorming this project.”

     By Christmas Eve, Mann had decided he would get his teeth fixed when he got back to Minneapolis. The day after Christmas he had booked his flight back to Minneapolis and on December 27, he was back in Minnesota, trying to figure out how he would stay warm for the winter.

     Mann repeatedly made plans, drove long distances, changed his mind and went in a new direction. He crossed the country, met people and made friends but always came back to Minnesota.

     Though Ernest Mann’s writings brought him a certain degree of fame, he remained relatively unknown in the Little Falls area which he called home, at least in a transient sort of way. Some viewed this quiet bearded man as a wanderer who loaded up his VW and headed for the southern states on a whim. He was free but those still tethered to the rat race may have seen him as irresponsible, though they may have secretly envied him. Others knew him as a wonderful friend.

     In 1996, Mann was living in a small trailer house in Morrison County. He had taken in his teenage grandson who was dealing with issues of anger, drug and alcohol abuse. On March 13, in a tragic end not unfamiliar to other visionaries, Ernest Mann, the gentle soul and his grandson, the troubled youth, both died in what investigators found to be a murder/suicide.

     No obituary appeared in local papers but David Schimke of the Twin Cities Reader picked up the story. He wrote how both Mann and his grandson were eulogized at the local Black and White Sandwich Shop in Little Falls. It had been a favorite hang-out for Mann and had, for a couple of years, hosted a Utopian Conference over the Fourth of July weekend though Mann was the lone attendee. The memorial service had a backdrop of some spare flowers from the local funeral home; attendance was friends of both Mann and his grandson, family and community members. Friends shared poems they had written and pieces from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass were read. Mann had liked Whitman who he felt lived a life like his.

     Mary Warner, of the Weyerhaeuser Museum in Little Falls has written about Larry Johnson/Ernest Mann for the museum newsletter and website. See her work at  and do a search for the article “Getting to Know an Ernest Mann.” If you stop in at the museum, look for samples of Mann’s zines. Ask for Lawrence F. Johnson AKA “Ernest Mann” filed under Cultural/Social Writer.

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