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Build It and Goats Will Climb It
Of the many charms you’ll find on the acreage of Marcia and David Johnson in rural Windsor, Illinois, one reigns supreme. Where wheat once grew, a whimsical, seemingly misplaced medieval tower rises into the sky.
But you’ll find no damsels in distress here. In fact, the snow-white goats who spend their days traversing the tower seem downright happy.
“We like to think of it as a folly,” says David, drawing on an architectural term for an eye-catching, but less-than-useful structure (though the goats would disagree).
This towering achievement was inspired by a Decanter magazine story featuring photos of Fairview Winery’s famous goat tower in South Africa. So with spare bricks and more than a little imagination, a passion project found its footing in central Illinois.
The unique structure makes fanciful form of 5,000 handmade bricks from North Carolina. Measuring 31 feet tall and 7 feet across, the tower features 276 cantilevered concrete steps that wind their way up toward a copper roof.
Using a goat pictured in the Decanter story for scale, Johnson worked with a local bricklayer to design and build the tower over a three-month period in 1998.
“When we got past the second level, we realized it was out of scale, so we added an extra wrap, and it became the world’s largest goat tower – by accident,” says David, a former school principal who went on to launch a successful crop insurance company.
The fact that he lacked goats – and his wife’s approval – proved minor hurdles.
“It was already in the works before I found out about it,” recalls Marcia. “The one decision I got to make was where they put it. I made sure it was right outside the kitchen window. Every morning, the goats watch for me, and I watch for them.”
Led by Queen Goat Bella, the happy herd of six Saanen goats spends its days climbing up and down those winding steps and savoring the view. Six cozy compartments offer relief from the summer heat and warmth in the winter.
“Saanen goats are a Swiss mountain goat that loves to climb. They are very calm and sweet,” says Marcia.
The tower and its occupants never fail to generate double takes (and full stops) among passersby. In fact, this whimsy in Windsor has become a tourist attraction in its own right.
Every year, the Johnsons welcome visitors from around the world – as far away as Costa Rica and Poland. One St. Louis man even chose the tower as the site for an “unfor-goat-able” marriage proposal.
“You don’t build something like this if you don’t want to share it,” notes Marcia, a retired English teacher. “The most common reaction we see is disbelief.”
Pieces and Places That Inspire
But the extraordinary is ordinary for the Johnsons, who share a love of nature, travel, art – and a penchant for the past.
They modeled their 4,000-square-foot Georgian-style home on the historic houses of Williamsburg, Virginia; while their quaint carriage house has a doppelganger in Germany.
Their home is brimming with pieces that have a story to tell: an iron stairway that once led patrons into a small town post office; a 19th-century square grand piano that played hymns from its perch in a church balcony; the century-old wood that once adorned David’s grandfather’s home.
On the grounds, you’ll find a striking piece of natural history: a 1-ton glacial stone, or “erratic.” Up on the chimney, a life-like metal sculpture of nesting storks brings a bit of European folklore (and good luck) to central Illinois.
“Some people think the storks are real and the goats are stuffed,” notes David with a laugh.
“The goats stand very still for long periods of time,” adds Marcia. “A lot of people think they’re statues.”
Along with eye-catching art, you’ll find ear-catching singing stones in the yard. Made by an artist in Paris, France, the set of five curved slabs of granite make soothing, wind-chime-like tones when struck.
While those notable goats steal the show, the Johnsons are committed to making a happy home for wildlife, as well.
“We wanted to help the environment, so we dedicated this 93 acres as a wildlife habitat,” says David.
The couple created six ponds, planted 250 trees, and set aside acreage for prairie habitat and wildflowers to attract birds, bees, and other pollinators. Recognizing their efforts, the National Wildlife Federation declared the Johnson homestead a Certified Wildlife Habitat.
“I have identified 100 different species of birds on this property,” says David, who – perhaps as much as the wildlife – savors the sanctuary they have created.
The Johnsons grow their own organic food and generate enough power to meet all of the farm’s needs, due to a large solar installation.
Love for the natural world runs deep on the Johnson farm, where a simple philosophy has taken root: “You have to take chances in life,” says David. “It’s important to think outside the box and do things that are different.”
Whether preserving the past, protecting the environment, or adding a bit of whimsy to a weary world on the Johnson farm, the goats aren’t the only ones with a grand view.
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