Kaw is a sort of Midwest compilation of American folk heroes into one great Kansas myth. While Bunyan was creating the Grand Canyon, Kaw was digging the Kansas River Valley. While Johnny Appleseed was wondering the countryside to plant trees, Kaw planted wheat and grew giant potatoes. He is also credited with inventing sunflowers, the state flower of Kansas.
Kaw did not have a sidekick blue ox like Bunyan, but he did have a pet wildcat and a pet jayhawk (the wildcat is the mascot for Kansas State University and the jayhawk is the mascot for Kansas University). Just like the rivalry between the schools, Kaw’s pets weren’t too keen on each other and their supposed fights were the cause of the Dust Bowl. Kaw had his own effect on the weather he was supposed to be able to control the weather by lopping the funnels off of tornadoes and wringing out clouds to bring rain to dry crops.
While the tall tales of Bunyan and Appleseed have developed over time, the legend of Kaw was invented in 1955 by George Filinger, a professor of horticulture at Kansas State University, to celebrate the centennial of Manhattan. The myth of Kaw was published in The Manhattan Mercury to celebrate the centennial and later collected into various books.
In 1966, Kaw was memorialized in a 30-foot, statue that cost $7,000 to build. He was designed by Elmer Tomasch, a member of the Kansas State University’s Art Department. Just as Kaw’s legend was created in Manhattan, the local residents created the statue by donating time, materials, and money in the hopes of cementing Kaw’s status as a Kansas folk hero.
I had never heard of Johnny Kaw before I moved to Kansas and still had not heard of him until I saw the statute on a recent trip to Manhattan. As the faded yellow and red Kaw looks out over Manhattan, children were running and screaming through the park playing on the jungle gyms and cooling off from the triple degree heat in the public pool. They didn’t seem to pay much attention to the giant folk hero towering over them as they played, but I suppose they are used to seeing the stoic yellow face with hollow eyes and a set, square jaw set against the clear blue sky.
For me, it was interesting to see though rather unremarkable. Since learning the legends of Johnny Kaw, I feel like the statue doesn’t do him justice. It is tall and it is prominent, but it lacks the whimsy of his adventures. It is monotone – a yellow and red painted statue that is only notable because it is big. When he was built, Kansans hoped the statute would solidify Kaw’s standing as a folk hero and the statute itself would become a roadside attraction. Well, he has become a roadside attraction but I don’t think as great a one as he could be. I wish there was something more to tell the wandering traveler who this legend is – who is the brawny man clutching a scythe so large it would clear a field in one swoop?
Even if the Kaw statute is not entirely awe-inspiring, I have fallen in love with the legend of Johnny Kaw. There is something quite brilliant about having a folk hero for your own state; something that conveys a sense of pride in the natural wonders of your home and the imaginative myths created to explain them. While Kaw may not have Bunyan’s fame, he certainly has a lot to smile about when he looks out from his home in Manhattan.
Total Time Traveled: 3 hours
Total Distance Traveled: 170 miles
Soundtrack: "Are You Man Enough?" Betty Blowtorch