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The fiberglass cow had been the focal point of tradition. Coon Rapids High School students once stole the 300-pound animal as a homecoming prank. So did students from Blaine.

But always, the cow came home.

Then it disappeared — for more than two decades. Five years ago, former owner Eric Kemp went on a mission to get it back.

One thing to note at the outset: This Kemp’s cow is not a Kemps cow. Eric isn’t a member of the Kemp family of dairy fame. Also, the animal is variously described as a cow and as a steer, but it’s fiberglass, so let’s let bovines be bovines.

Back to the history of the animal:

Eric Kemp’s family converted an old schoolhouse across from Anoka High School into a grocery store/meat market, which opened in 1964. The meat market was considered among the area’s best. And it was easy to find. It had the fiberglass steer.

“It’s life-size,” Eric Kemp said last week. “Identical to a full-sized bull. I’m not sure where my father got it.”

The Kemps kept the steer in the back of an open truck, but occasionally it wandered. After it was stolen the first time, Eric’s father, Bill, bolted it to the truck floor. When high school bandits loosened the bolts and kidnapped the steer a second time, the Kemps welded the animal to the truck.

“I’d get these prank phone calls, people pretending to be police officers, telling me, ‘Mrs. Kemp, they just found your cow in the middle of the highway,’ ” recalled Jeanette Kemp, Eric Kemp’s mother.

“One day, I got a call from a police officer who said, ‘Oh, Mrs. Kemp, Your cow is in the middle of the street. Go look.’ Sure enough, there it was.”

She still isn’t sure why anyone would take the time to steal the steer.

“People would come to the store and sit on the cow,” Eric Kemp said. “That cow was an icon.”

New home

But the cow could not compete with the big-chain grocery stores that had sprouted in neighboring communities like Coon Rapids. In 1992, Kemp’s Market closed its doors. It was an easy decision — even though the Kemps and their seven children lived above the store and would ultimately move.

“My folks were ready to retire anyway, and the property was worth more than the store,” Eric Kemp recalled.

The steer went to auction and was sold for $1,500.

Eric Kemp, who owns Dust Busters Pavement Sweeping in Anoka, didn’t know who bought it. But he knew that one day, he had to have it back.

Five years ago, Kemp, now divorced and the father of two boys, began hitting the trails. He thought he’d found his prize in Milaca. But wouldn’t you know it?

“I told the owner, ‘That’s not the Kemp’s cow,’ ” Kemp said. “It was a different bull. Can you believe that?”

Yes, someone else had a life-size cow statue at their home.

He’d come so close. And, then, it turned out the real Kemp’s cow was so close. In Nowthen, right in Anoka County.

A month ago, Kemp offered $1,000 to the owner.

“I paid $1,500 for it more than 20 years ago,” the man told Kemp. The man who bought the steer at the auction still had it.

The man, who did not want to be identified for this story, wanted what he paid in 1992. He got it.

Kemp has power-washed the steer, trying to erase the red that may have been smudged on when the Coon Rapids kids took it for their homecoming.

He has big plans for his acquisition.

“I’m going to chain it down in the back yard,” he said.

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419