Johnny Kaw, Bigger Than Bunyan
On the family tree of American folklore characters, Johnny Kaw is a youthful twig. He was birthed in 1955 -- not the pioneer days of yore -- by George Filinger, a horticulture professor at Kansas State University. Filinger was upset that Kansas newspapers were ignoring Kansas history, particularly Manhattan's 100th birthday. He felt that a larger-than-life state hero would spur pride in Kansas's past.
According to Filinger, Johnny Kaw was the color of golden wheat, and could bring rain by lopping off tornado spouts with his supersize scythe. He helped Pecos Bill dig the Grand Canyon, then used the dirt to smooth out Kansas for farming. Paul Bunyan once trampled Johnny's crops, so Johnny grabbed the lumberjack and plowed the bed of the Mississippi River with Bunyan's face.
A character of such mythic proportions deserved an epic statue.
It took 11 years before funds could be raised to build one, with Filinger himself contributing much of the money. Newspapers at the time wrote that Johnny was purposely scaled to be bigger than the 27-foot-tall Paul Bunyan in Brainerd, Minnesota. Built of cement and steel, like other 1960s civic symbols such as Albert the Bull and The Golden Driller, Johnny Kaw was designed to last.
Less than a month after his dedication on May 15, 1966, a tornado ravaged much of Manhattan, but Johnny survived without a scratch.
Filinger died in 1978, unfortunately unsuccessful in his effort to make Johnny Kaw a household name. The folklore giant of Kansas remains unknown to most of the world. But he's a perennial favorite in Manhattan, where his statue is well-maintained in the city park.
Johnny Kaw, with his harvester shoulders and brawny arms, looks ready to whup old plow-face Bunyan if he shows up again.