All photos courtesy of Al Johnson’s Restaurant
Where is the best spot for grazing goats? Would you consider a restaurant roof where tourists can gawk and giggle?
On a 40-acre farm outside the small town of Sister Bay, Wisconsin lives a herd of goats with a secret life many in their species would envy. Around 8:00 in the morning, a truck backs up to their pasture gate. One of their favorite people calls out a good morning then asks, “Who wants to go on the roof?” The first four to seven goats to trot up the ramp into the pickup bed get to go.
They ride for about five minutes, down a picturesque country road, before arriving at Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant and Butik. There, they trot up another ramp to the roof where they spend the day grazing, napping, and watching people. Breezes from the bay keep temperatures pleasant for most of the summer. Around 5:00 or 6:00 in the evening, or when weather gets bad, the goats descend to their pickup and return to the farm.
These goats are far from a secret in Sister Bay or surrounding Door County. There have been grazing goats on Al Johnson’s roof, during summer months, for over 40 years.
In 1973, Al and his wife Ingert had a traditional Scandinavian building, complete with sod roof, built in Norway. The building was then numbered, disassembled and shipped to Wisconsin. They reassembled the building like a giant set of Lincoln Logs around their existing restaurant. The business managed to stay open and serving customers during the entire process.
At the time, Al had a friend named Wink Larson. Every year, Wink gave Al some sort of animal for his birthday. That year, it was a billy goat. As a practical joke, Wink put the goat up on the small sod roof that shades the restaurant’s sign in front. The large billy was not pleased with the precarious trip up the ladder. As they neared the top, the goat gave a mighty leap to firm ground and the ladder went backward. Wink suffered a broken collarbone, but the goat was on the sod. The next day, the goat appeared on the roof itself and the rest became history.
Now the goats are such a part of Sister Bay that “The Roofing of the Goats,” a parade and festival in their honor, occurs yearly on the first Saturday in June. Owners from around the county bring their goats to town. Tradition encourages costumes for goats, owners and spectators. They all march (or trot, kick and leap) through town along a parade route, which culminates with the official roofing of Al Johnson’s star grazing goats. Live music, kids’ games, and a Swedish-pancake-eating contest follow. Anyone wearing authentic Norwegian folk attire gets a free drink.
Al’s son, Lars, was already helping with the goats when he attended college. He took them to their winter barn in the fall and brought them back to in spring, several months before grazing goats on the roof. One weekend in April, as he drove a covered truck full of goats back to the farm, he stopped at the restaurant.
The restaurant sits along the bay in the peninsula and the ice always freezes solid in the wintertime. In late March or early April, ice leaves the bay for the season and returns to open water. The ice had only just left that day.
The goats riding in back looked nervous. Two escaped and ran across the street. When Lars ran after them, they jumped in the bay and started swimming. Luckily, someone watched the scenario from a small fishing boat and was able to boat-drive the goats back to shore. Lars got their collars and leashes on. The goats were no worse for wear, from their dip in the frigid bay, and that was when Lars discovered that goats swim.
No longer that inexperienced college kid, Lars is now in charge of the goats. Years of experience taught that his goats do best on a natural diet, which means quality hay and forage for grazing goats. He says, the minute you introduce grain or too many treats, they start having health problems. Lars used to think he had to keep introducing a grain mixture, but since he is not milking them he stopped offering grain and feels they live a much happier, healthier life on just the hay and grazing.
Although many breeds have made their way to the roof over the years, Lars prefers fainting goats. He says these miniature goats are docile and tame and stay the perfect size, about halfway between a pygmy and a French Alpine goat or Nubian goat. Fainting goats don’t actually lose consciousness. When startled, a hereditary condition called myotonia congenita causes them to freeze for about three seconds. Younger goats, when they stiffen, often tip over. As they get older they learn to spread their legs or lean against something. Apparently not much panics Al Johnson’s goats because babies occasionally make it to the roof.
“We’ve had them up on the roof, with human contact just after they’ve been born,” Lars told me. “So it’s not unusual to have them up there just months, after they’ve been born, on their own. They tend to stay close to mom if that’s the case. During the Goat Parade and the Roofing of the Goats, it’s not unusual for us to have anywhere from four to eight babies on the roof, along with their moms, for a few days. I don’t want them on the roof for a full-blown period of time until they’re a little older. Once they have reached that magic one year age, they’re a little more independent.”
Door County occupies a peninsula between Green Bay and Lake Michigan. It contains miles of shoreline, historic lighthouses and five state parks in its 482 square miles. It’s a great place to visit. While you’re there, take the scenic drive to Sister Bay to see the goats and enjoy Swedish meatballs, Swedish pancakes or homemade pickled herring. If you can’t make it in person, don’t worry. You can watch the grazing goats from wherever you are thanks to the live streaming webcams on the roof.
Originally published in the January/February 2018 issue of Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.