The Cedar-Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis is a fascinating mix of theaters, ethnic restaurants, dive bars, Somali culture and university students. As you enter it from the south via Minnehaha Avenue, you pass a Taco Bell on the right and Scooterville on the left. Just past Scooterville, 19th Street veers off behind a block-length red and black building that houses MaxIt Pawn. If you’re paying close attention, you might notice something odd on the small triangular patch of ground behind the pawn shop. At first glance you might think it’s a jumble of firewood.
But look more closely from a different angle and it’s something far more interesting.
While it’s badly decayed and lying on its side, it becomes clear that this is a life-size wood carving of a dude popping a wheelie on a motorcycle. And the inscription at the base reads “John the Ghost”.
When I saw this, it piqued my curiosity. So I went into the pawn shop to ask about it. But the people running the shop were only vaguely aware of this sculpture’s presence, and knew nothing about it.
I went home and looked up the site on Google Street View. In 2009, John the Ghost wasn’t there. In 2011, he was there and looking pretty good, even if Google’s snapshot was a bit blurry.
About a block away, there’s a short section of Cedar Avenue that hosts a row of biker bars: The Cabooze, The Joint, and Whiskey Junction. The street dead-ends at a light rail station that overlooks Franklin Avenue below. When I walked into these bars on a Saturday afternoon, nobody there could tell me anything about this derelict wood carving. But someone suggested that I contact the owner of Whiskey Junction by phone on a weekday. Which I did the following Monday.
The Whiskey Junction lady told me that John the Ghost had originally been across the street from the row of bars, but at some point had been moved to its spot behind the pawn shop. She said the carving had been made by a guy named John Olson, or possibly by a friend of his, and she gave me John’s phone number. Jackpot! John told me the whole story.
John Olson owns the Hugo Tree Care company in Hugo, Minnesota, about 20 miles north of St. Paul. John’s friend Ken Wells is a reclusive wood carver living in a trailer park in Moundsview. He never sells his work, but often gives it away. Ken made this particular carving in the image of John Olson. John used to ride a motorcycle that his friends called “The Ghost” because they thought it looked like a ghost. (I assume it was a white bike.) Hence the sculpture’s title, “John the Ghost.” It was carved from a tree cut in north Minneapolis. Jim Brown at the Cabooze wanted it in front of his joint, so John put it there. At some point it was moved to its current location behind the pawn shop, where it stands to this day, gradually falling into ruin.
When I talked with John by phone, he mentioned that the carving features an index finger pointing upward. There is apparently some significance to this finger, which I didn’t quite grasp from John’s explanation. If you look at the biker’s hands, all of his fingers are gripping the handlebars. But there is something resembling a finger sticking up from behind the “John the Ghost” plaque.
And that’s all that I know about John the Ghost.