Jennifer Brooks
See more of the story

Sometime after the turn of the last century, Grand Marais artist and art lover Anna C. Johnson painted a charming portrait of an elderly woman in a jaunty red cap, balancing a bundle of sticks on her back.

Sometime after the turn of this century, someone stole that painting from the gallery that bears her family name and replaced it with a duplicate.

We need to get that painting back, Minnesota.

Johnson painted what she knew. The soaring trees of the North Woods. The winding paths of the Gunflint Wagon Road.

She made art and she taught art. She had a pet moose she liked to walk around town. Visitors to the Johnson family's log-hewn trading post could browse a gift shop stocked with her work — paintings, pen-and-ink sketches, stained glass, ceramics fired at her home kiln.

You can still find her work on display around the North Shore, eight decades after her death. Nowhere more than the gallery dedicated to her memory, on the spot where the Johnson trading post once stood.

"Woman Hauling Sticks" was a crowd pleaser at the Johnson Heritage Post Art Gallery.

It was so popular that the Cook County Historical Society decided to have the painting scanned and reproduced so visitors to their gift shop could bring home their own smiling lady and her bundle of sticks.

But when they took the painting off the wall, they found out someone had beaten them to it.

The image inside was a reproduction — scanned onto a canvas-like surface and reinserted in the original frame.

"They recreated it to look like it was a painting and reframed it," said Katie Clark, interim executive director of the Cook County Historical Society. "It has been on the wall for years."

They don't know when the switch happened, or who violated their trust, or how they're going to find the money to improve their security systems in the middle of a pandemic.

They don't know why the thief went to all this trouble for a painting with an appraised value of $600.

But somebody out there knows.

The gallery discovered the counterfeit in March. It's not easy to go public about a brazen art heist, but the Historical Society hopes that someone will recognize "Woman Hauling Sticks" and help bring her home.

"It's out there somewhere," said Marja Erickson, president of the Cook County Historical Society Board.

"We just want people to keep an eye out for it," Clark added.

This isn't Northern Minnesota's first brazen art heist.

In August 2005, someone broke into the Judy Garland Museum in Grand Rapids, smashed a display case and made off with two of the few surviving ruby slippers the Minnesota-born actress had worn on the set of "The Wizard of Oz."

Eleven years later, the FBI recovered the shoes. The slippers are safe, but the case remains open and under investigation. Grand Rapids is still waiting to learn whodunit.

The ruby slippers were worth a fortune.

This painting is not.

But it's a community treasure and it belongs in the community art gallery.

The Johnson Heritage Post Art Gallery began as a bequest from Anna's son, Lloyd Johnson, to his hometown. A fire had destroyed the original Johnson's Trading Post in 1926, but his financial support allowed the construction of a log replica, complete with a permanent collection of Anna C. Johnson originals.

The theft was painful news for officials at the Lloyd K. Johnson Foundation, which supports arts, cultural, community and economic development projects across Cook, Lake and southern St. Louis counties.

"It's a wonderful painting," said executive director Joan Gardner-Goodno.

The gallery and foundation are separate, but both were meant to be gifts from the Johnson family to the community.

"It makes me very sad that it's missing and I really hope it can be returned," she added. "It's really one of her classic paintings."

If you can help get "Woman Hauling Sticks" back where she belongs, contact the Cook County Historical Society at 218-387-2883 or e-mail • 612-673-4008 • @stribrooks