A Retired School Principal Finds Joy in a Unique Passion Project

David Johnson ended up building the tallest goat tower in the world.

Posted in , Jun 25, 2020

The Johnsons posing with their goat

In the much-loved movie Field of Dreams, Kevin Costner’s character follows a mysterious calling to build a baseball diamond in an Iowa cornfield. In rural Windsor, Illinois, David Johnson followed a fanciful notion to build a goat tower in a wheat field—proving a lesser-known adage: “If you build it, they will climb.”

Inspiration came unexpectedly in the pages of a magazine, where David, a retired school principal and an entrepreneur, found himself charmed by photos of a famous goat tower in South Africa. He also happened to have 2,500 spare bricks from the construction of the Colonial-style home and carriage house he shares with his wife, Marcia, a retired English teacher.

“When I saw the picture of the Fairview Winery’s goat tower, I asked our bricklayer if he thought he could build it. He told me I was the craziest person he knew,” recalls an undeterred David. “I have always enjoyed challenges.”

And so a passion project found its footing. Lacking blueprints, the duo tried to plan the structure on their own. “Being an old farm boy, I knew the size of goats,” David says. (Or so he thought.) “We scaled the dimensions of the tower relative to the goats in the magazine picture. But apparently their goats were a different size than our goats. When we were halfway done, we realized the tower was out of scale, which made it look short and squat. We had to make it taller and ended up with the world’s largest goat tower by mistake.”

Marcia and David’s impressive home for goats
   Photo Courtesy Celeste Huttes

Over a three-month period in 1998, the structure rose to stand 31 feet tall and seven feet wide. Consisting of 5,000 bricks, the tower features 276 cantilevered concrete steps that wind their way up toward a copper roof. Today, it’s home to a happy herd of seven Saanen goats, a Swiss mountain breed that loves to climb.

“Most Saanen goats are calm and sweet, although they do establish a pecking order,” Marcia notes. “Bella is now head goat and the first to greet visitors. She seems to like people better than goats.”

As they climb up and down the tower, the goats make frequent stops to take in the view. “Sometimes they will stand motionless on the steps for long periods of time. People often think they’re fake,” Marcia says.

The herd has dismissed the Johnsons’ goat shed, preferring to lounge and sleep in the tower’s six cozy cubbyholes. “It keeps them out of the winter wind and summer heat. They spiral up at dusk to a favorite compartment and watch for me in the morning when I come out to feed them,” says Marcia, the family’s chief goatherd. “The thing I enjoy most is watching them from my kitchen window.”

When they’re not goat-watching, the Johnsons are avid birders. They have identified more than 100 different species of feathered friends on their 93-acre property, a Certified Wildlife Habitat that runs on solar power alone.

The charm of the goat tower has proved sustainable, too. Like a beacon, it draws visitors from as far away as Poland and Costa Rica. With a warm Midwestern welcome, the Johnsons invite roadside photographers to drive up their lane to take pictures of the goats. “People young and old enjoy the goats, and the goats like having their picture taken with people,” says David, who welcomes the chance to share a little whimsy with the world. “Making the goats—and their visitors—happy brings us great joy.”

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