Born on January 25, 1865, in the village of Hockanum in Hadley, Massachusetts, Clifton was the oldest of Chester and Jeanette Johnson’s four children. He and his siblings, Henry R., Charles E. and Jeanette (Nettie), came from a long line of Johnsons who had lived in Hockanum along the Connecticut River since the late 1700s.
He attended the Hockanum one-room schoolhouse and then Hopkins Academy in Hadley. In 1880 at the age of 15, Johnson dropped out of Hopkins Academy and began working in order to help pay off the family mortgage. He was employed by Bridgman and Childs book and stationery store (later Bridgman and Lyman) in Northampton, Massachusetts. As his brothers became old enough, they too worked at Bridgman and Childs.
Because it was too difficult to cross the river separating Hadley and Northampton on a daily basis, he was forced to board in town. Being apart from his family was difficult and Johnson was so homesick during his first week that he considered quitting so he could return home.
Though he never learned to love it, Johnson never regretted this early work experience. He later wrote, “I would not swap the education and broadened outlook I got in the store for a course in a university. Nor do I regret the sweeping and dusting, the care of the fire in the coal stove, and the long hours from seven in the morning to nine at night.” Ultimately, Johnson stayed at the bookstore for over four years and it was during this time that he began writing and drawing. Though upon returning to his family’s farm, he said of himself that “for a number of years [he] wasn’t much of a farmer, nor much of an author, nor much of an artist.”
Johnson continued to work in earnestness at all three roles and was able to earn some money for what he wrote and drew. It was also around this time that Johnson returned to the Hockanum schoolhouse where he had been a student to teach one winter semester. Shortly thereafter, Johnson’s career as an author and artist began to gain traction.