You might say that Bob Johnson was a mooover and a shaker. In a career that spanned more than 60 years, Johnson created scores of conspicuous outdoor sculptures for private businesses, churches and other organizations. But perhaps none were so memorable as the pair of Golden Guernsey cows that jutted out from billboards across the Twin Cities.
The strikingly lifelike 3-D renditions measured 10 feet from muzzle to head, with horns stretching 12 feet from tip to tip. The behemoths promoted a rich butter-colored milk first marketed by the Ewald Bros. Dairy, which hoisted the first billboard across the street from its Golden Valley plant in 1954.
Additional billboards of various sizes sprang up in downtown Minneapolis and along major byways in Excelsior and St. Louis Park. Smaller reproductions were placed in grocery stores.
“They were landmarks for people to turn left or turn right at the cows,” said Bill Ewald, whose great-grandfather founded the dairy delivery business in 1886 with $25, a milk wagon and a couple of horses. “It clearly helped define Bob’s career. But it defined the future of outdoor advertising, as well, because the signs attracted so much attention.”
Johnson, of Robbinsdale, died of pneumonia on April 20 at age 93.
Johnson grew up in Becker, Minn., and served in the Navy during World War II. He had a year of formal art training and spent some time at St. Cloud State University, but school “wasn’t his thing,” said his oldest daughter, Janis Eastlund.
He didn’t sing, but he briefly joined the church choir to be near Mary Lue, a Robbinsdale native whom he’d met through a friend. The couple were soon married and raised three daughters on his salary as a freelance commercial sculptor.
“He always said he wasn’t a fine artist, but there were more people who saw his work even if they didn’t know who made it,” Eastlund said.
Early in his career, Johnson made papier-mâché sculptures for floats, including for Miami’s Orange Bowl Parade. Later, he switched to fiberglass and went to work as a contractor for Naegele Outdoor Advertising. He made a towering “Sandy Saver” to promote Gold Bond stamps. His 15-foot-tall green octopuses sat high above at least eight Colonial Car Wash locations.
“We spent a lot of time at the shop when we were kids,” his daughter said. “He’d come home for supper and he’d go right back to work. My mom and her three daughters would go with him so we wouldn’t be alone.”
Johnson worked out of a number of locations, sometimes needing spaces that could accommodate tall ladders and scaffolding. To build the eagle for the University of Northwestern in St. Paul, he rented a barn in Golden Valley off Hwy. 100. Construction of the Guernseys took place in an aircraft hangar.
“I remember sitting in the ear of the cow’s head,” said Eastlund. “My sisters remember sliding down the nose.”
Ewald Bros. produced its last bottle of milk in 1982. After the dairy plant was demolished in 1983, the original Golden Guernsey billboard moved to the Minnesota State Fair, where it now sits at the edge of the swine barn. Sold for about $3,000, it has taken a beating from the winters.
Bill Ewald is leading an effort to raise money to reconstruct the sign, which fair officials have estimated would cost $25,000. Fair officials say they also are interested in moving it to another location with better public access.
Ewald corresponded with Johnson for many years and spent a memorable day in his basement on a snowy day about a year ago, listening to stories and looking at the sculptor’s prolific work.
Johnson’s death has renewed Ewald’s resolve to raise the funds to preserve both his family’s legacy and Johnson’s.