| Ravenstone Press
Stories of Kansas and the Great Plains
|The Statue of Johnny Kaw - The Pioneer Kansas
Kansas Tall Tale Hero Towers Over the
Manhattan City Park
A 30 foot tall statue of Johnny Kaw, the Pioneer Kansas Wheat farmer,
stands in the Manhattan City Park. The statue was constructed in 1966,
eleven years after the Manhattan Centennial celebration that inspired
George Filinger to write the story of Johnny Kaw.
The 1955 centennial committee had trouble getting people and the media
interested in Kansas history. Filinger, a professor of horticulture at
Kansas State University, believed that a tall tale character might
spark interest. He created Johnny Kaw to be Kansas' answer to other
heroes like Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill.
Johnny created the Kansas landscape, geography and pioneer trails. He
dug the Kaw River Valley, planted wheat, invented sunflowers, and grew
giant potatoes. Johnny even controlled the weather, lopping the funnels
off tornadoes and wringing out the clouds to end droughts. His pets
were the wildcat and the Jayhawk, who, though fast friends, enjoyed a
good scrap now and then. The result of their fights was the Dust Bowl.
Johnny didn't take kindly to Paul Bunyan tromping down his wheat so he
had quite a fight with the other big fellow and used his nose to plow
the Mississippi River Bed. He even went west and helped Finn McCool dig
the Grand Canyon and then piled up the rubble to form the Rocky
Filinger had a fine tall tale imagination and his stories captured the
interest of people across the state. Johnny was intended to be a Kansas
figure, not simply a local Manhattan one, and he was careful to include
as much of Kansas as he could.
(Photo copyright 1997 by Geraldine A. Garretson.)
Filinger's Stories and His Johnny Kaw
When Dr. George A. Filinger created Johnny Kaw for the Manhattan
centennial, his stories were originally published in the Manhattan Mercury, the local
newspaper. He self-published the stories in a booklet, The Story of Johnny Kaw
- The Pioneer Kansas Wheat Farmer, illustrated with the same
illustrations that accompanied the newspaper articles. The ink drawings
were contributed by Elmer J. Tomasch of the Kansas State University Art
Filinger published a revised edition in 1969, this time including
photos and information about the construction of the giant statue.
Filinger sold his book personally, as well as through consignment at
local stores and the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce. It sold for $1.00.
It was not reprinted after the 1969 edition.
When George Filinger died in 1978, his Johnny Kaw manuscripts, the
Tomasch illustrations, and Filinger's collection of newspaper articles
and Johnny Kaw paraphernalia were donated to the Riley County
George Filinger - Author of the Johnny
George Filinger was born on a farm near Munden, Kansas, near the
Nebraska border, on April 23, 1897. He was a member of the Kansas State
University faculty from 1931 to 1966, serving as a professor of
horticulture. He had a strong interest in tall tale characters and
created Johnny Kaw " for fun " to help publicize the Manhattan, Kansas
centennial in 1955. Dr. Filinger worked to promote Johnny throughout
the rest of his life, expressing the wish that the stories of Johnny's
exploits not be forgotten at the end of the centennial. Filinger died
Bringing Johnny Kaw to Life - The
Artists for the Filinger Book and the Statues
Mrs. Walter O'Neill
There were three small statues of Johnny before the giant one was
erected in the City Park. Mrs. Walter O'Neill of Manhattan sculpted the
first one for the centennial. It was featured in the City Park during
the 1955 Centenntial, but it was beheaded by vandals. It was then moved
to a farm, where someone backed a wagon backed over it. Photos of the
sculptor, Filinger, and this statue may be seen in Filinger's book.
J. Cranston Heintzelman
The first scale model for the giant statue was sculpted by J. Cranston
Heintzelman of the KSU Art Department.
Elmer J. Tomasch
The drawings and design for the statue actually constructed were made
by Elmer Tomasch who drew the ink drawings for the newspaper articles
and book. Tomasch was born November 16, 1914 in Cleveland, Ohio. He
joined the Kansas State University Art Department in 1947. Tomasch's
exhibited his work in both group and one-man shows. It is also found in
private and museum collections. He had a lifelong interest in
portraying the solidity and mass of the human figure. His monumental
illustrations of Johnny Kaw reflect that style. Professor Tomasch died
William Stewart was Elmer Tomasch's graduate assistant. He was the one
who actually oversaw construction of the statue in the park. He found
this difficult, as he had been promised volunteer labor and
construction materials that were not forthcoming. Evidently, this was
one of the reasons the statue cost more than expected. Glenn C. Klimek
and his son Paul did the plaster and finishing work.
Although the statues resembled one another in stance and "farmer with
wheat cradle" conception, they are distinctly different. One surviving
model is at the Riley County Historical Museum in Manhattan. Another is
at the Agricultural Hall of Fame at Bonner Springs, Kansas.
Constructing the Statue
George Filinger worked hard to promote the statue's construction and
donated a large share of the money required. Dr. E. J. Frick and the
Park Board, and the Community Johnny Kaw Boosters (Frank Anneberg, C.C.
Brewer, Bill Colvin, Dave Dallas, Bill Farrell, Lud Fiser, Jack
Goldstein, Lowell Jack, O.W. Kershaw, Hurst Majors, and J. Robert
Wilson) were instrumental in furthering the project. It cost
approximately $7,000 and was erected at no cost to the city, though it
far exceeded construction cost estimates of $3,000-3,500. The group
hoped that the statue would establish Johnny Kaw as a local legend and
prove to be a tourist attraction.
The statue is constructed of concrete over a steel beam framework. The
design was intended to withstand wind and weather and be easy to
maintain. Photos of the construction are included in the second edition
of Filinger's book and were featured in newspaper articles at the time.
Two local businessmen donated the steel and concrete; other businesses
gave materials or reduced bills, and donations were solicited to pay
for construction. Those interested could join a Johnny Kaw Club and
receive a membership for just $1.00.
The statue was completed and dedicated in May 1966.
Notes: In the late 1990s, Jerri Garretson,
who was then Head of Children's Services for Manhattan Public Library,
researched the information included in this article in the George
Filinger and Elmer Tomasch files at the Riley County
Historical Museum, 2309 Claflin, Manhattan, Kansas, tel. (785)
565-6490. She and Jeff Hixon, then the consultant for the North Central Kansas Libraries System,
created the original of this web page on the Manhattan
Public Library website. It has since been removed.
In September 1997, Jerri Garretson, published a retold, adapted version
of the Johnny Kaw story for children titled, Johnny Kaw - The
Pioneer Spirit of Kansas. Jerri collaborated with local
artist and then KSU Art Department faculty member Diane
Dollar, who created the illustrations for the book. That book
is now out of print, but the entire story and illustrations are
included in a new anthology, Kansas
Tall Tales, published in 2008.
In September 2011, Ravenstone Press published a new, color edition of Johnny Kaw,
with additional photos and resource material.
For more information about Johnny
Kaw, the books about him, and the creators of his stories and art,
follow these links.
Johnny Kaw - The
Pioneer Spirit of Kansas (book by Jerri Garretson)
Johnny Kaw - More about the creators and
Johnny Kaw and Kansas Katie Teacher and
Johnny Kaw in the
Kansas Tall Tales
Tall Tale Bibliography
Kansas Tall Tales Audio CD (includes
Johnny Kaw, Kansas Katie and Twister Twyla, read by author Jerri
Last Updated October 10, 2011