Manitoba History: Erwin Johnson: The Giant of Sinclair
by Rob McInnes
For the past 20 years, I have been exploring Manitoba’s history primarily through my hobby of collecting antique postcards. Almost ten years ago, I saw an image of a postcard that pictured a young man named Erwin Johnson, towering above a young woman. The caption said he was 18 years old and eight feet tall. A note that accompanied the card said that he was from Manitoba. I was intrigued and, wanting to acquire a card of my own, searched for years. Earlier this year, I finally found one. Once it was in my hands, I was driven to learn more about Erwin. My online searches initially produced only scattered bits of information and articles—none that painted a very full picture. As I researched further, and learned more about him, I became even more fascinated with him and the course of his life’s journey. Convinced that others would also be captivated with his story, I wrote this short biographical sketch of a unique Manitoban.
On 3 September 1906, Gunnar Erwin Johnson-Bardal was born in Sinclair, Manitoba near the Saskatchewan border. His parents Joe and Lauga (also known as Fredricka) were of Danish descent. Born and raised in Iceland, they had immigrated to Canada in 1883 and 1889, respectively. In the early 1890s, Erwin’s father and his brother each acquired homesteads in the Sinclair area. Joe took a mechanics course in Winnipeg one winter and there he met and married Lauga, bringing her home to Sinclair. They had two children—Erwin and his younger sister Oddney. From early on, Erwin was an extraordinarily tall boy—equalling his father’s height of 5’ 11” by the age of seven.
Erwin attended Bardal School, roughly 10 km from Sinclair, from 1914 to 1923. The similarity between the name of the school and his last name, Johnson-Bardal was no accident. Years earlier, his grandfather Kristjan Jonnson had lived at Belmont—where there happened to be another Kristjan Jonnson. To overcome the resulting confusion, Edwin’s grandfather added “Bardal” to his name. (His home in Iceland had been in the Bardal Valley.) Later moving to Sinclair, Kristjan and two other men were instrumental in establishing a school for the area, and the school was named after him.
In June 1924 at the age of 17, Erwin was 7’ 4” tall, and caused a bit of a sensation when he arrived in Winnipeg for a visit. It gave rise to an article published in Regina’s The Leader newspaper, which, among other things, asserted that the “young skyscraper” was born and raised in Maryfield, Saskatchewan. It is untrue that he was born there but there is a slight possibility that Erwin might have spent part of his life in Maryfield as it is close to the Manitoba border and only about 15 km (as the crow flies) from Bardal school. Apparently, in those days it would be quite easy for a Saskatchewan resident to attend a Manitoba school.
I suspect that the visit to Winnipeg and the notoriety that followed (it was reported in newspaper articles at least as far away as Wilmington, Delaware), caught the attention of someone in the circus/carnival business in the United States. Sometime after that event, Erwin was recruited to work the US carnival circuit to be exhibited for his abnormal height. At 18 years old, entering through Seattle, Erwin was admitted to the United States as a permanent resident in March 1925.
It must have been quite an experience for this young man from a small Manitoba town, whose only exposure to a city had been two short visits to Winnipeg (one at the age of six), to enter the circus life and travel the length and breadth of the US. Sometimes billed as “The Canadian Giant”, Erwin’s height was recorded as 7’ 4” when he first entered the US, but he was still growing. Over the next few years, his height was reported to be as tall as 8’ 3”. While the heights of extraordinarily tall people have been known to be exaggerated, Erwin’s height was recorded as 7’ 11” at the time of his death—so he may well have attained those heights in his younger years. The carnival life was a seasonal one and Erwin reputedly used the off-seasons to complete his high school diploma, two years of university study, and to indulge in his fascination with radio mechanics. Throughout that period, he is known to have appeared with both the Morris & Castle Shows and the Clarence A. Wortham Shows.
On 18 December 1928, Erwin returned to Winnipeg, this time on his way home to Sinclair to spend the winter with his parents. According to an article published in the Manitoba Free Press, he declared that he was “through with the circus” and hoping to pursue a career in radiotelegraphy. Unfortunately, his plans did not work out—as newspaper articles show that he was back on the carnival circuit in the spring of 1929. Possibly, those plans changed because of the difficult time he had during his visit home. His uncle Kris died in January, just weeks after he arrived, and his father died just a few weeks after that, on 4 March.
Sometime after the death of his father, Erwin returned to the United States, once again engaged in the circus/carnival circuit. His mother and younger sister Oddney spent several years keeping house for bachelors in the Sinclair area. Later, Oddney found work in Winnipeg and her mother moved to Mozart, Saskatchewan where she worked as a nanny. According to the family, Lauga moved back to Manitoba and spent her latter years living in both Glenboro and Deloraine (or Killarney). When she died, she was buried at Ebor, Manitoba. Sadly, Oddney contracted tuberculosis and spent several years in the Ninette Sanatorium at Ninette. She died in Winnipeg, on 29 September 1938, when only 28 years old. She is also buried at Ebor.
I have come across some reference material suggesting that Erwin spent decades of his life in the circus, but I can’t find any indication that this was true. Rather, late in 1929, he joined a travelling puppet show. Billed as a “modern version of Punch and Judy shows”, it featured mind-reading and magic acts, and was highlighted with a 20-minute presentation by Erwin on his own life experiences. The show took him to Orlando, Florida. It was there and then that Erwin chose to quit the carnival circuit and begin to build the normal life that he had always longed for.
From early on in his life, he had been known to friends and acquaintances as Hi Johnson. “Erwin” was his legal name but it seems that to him it was more his stage name. In his new life in Florida, he was just Hi. Initially he set up a blacksmith shop on Orlando’s Church Street. Later, he began work as a radio repairman with the Lee Ownsby radio shop in Orlando. Sometime after 1945, he opened his own radio repair business on Winter Garden Road in the small community of Orlovista (also known as Orlo Vista), just west of Orlando—a community which he loved and where he had already been living for many years. It must have been thrilling for him to be able to both live and work in that same community.
Hi never married but he enjoyed a rich life. With the advent of television, he expanded his business to include television repairs. He enjoyed his quiet hobby of growing orchids. In the early 1950s, Hi organized a volunteer fire department in Orlovista and served as Fire Chief for many years. Reputedly, he was a driving force in establishing the community’s Lake Hill Baptist Church. In 1976, in conversation with one of Hi’s visiting cousins, a local woman said that Erwin could readily be called the “Father” of their community—as he had done so much good throughout his years there.
In May 1972, Erwin applied to become a naturalized citizen of the United States. On that certificate, he affirmed his birthplace as SE½ Sec 2-8-9 Sinclair, Manitoba and applied to have his legal name changed to Hi Johnson.
Hi died on 9 July 1992. A few days later, an article in the Orlando Sentinel paid tribute to his life. While mentioning his height and the time he spent on the carnival circuit, the article focused on the outstanding role that Hi had played as a citizen of Orlovista. It reported that friends said that he once tore up “tens of thousands of dollars”-worth of IOUs from customers because he knew those people couldn’t pay him. It quoted his long-time friend Jim Schwartz as saying “He was the kind of man who if somebody needed saving or help, he would have given his life.” It also recorded these touching comments delivered by Rev. Vernon McAllister at Hi’s funeral: “He lived with this thought in mind: ‘What can I give? What can I do for others?’ ... Hi’s life tells us of the love he had for this community.”
We thank Clara Bachmann for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.
We thank S. Goldsborough for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.
Page revised: 7 January 2021