Monday, April 12, 2021

The legend of Paul Bunyan lives on

| February 28, 2021 12:00 AM

I was scrolling through Facebook last week when I came across a post on Glacier National Park’s page that caught my eye. It was a long-ago article written by Park Ranger Ray E. Newbury for the Glacier Nature Notes titled “Paul Bunyan’s Mistake.”

Being a native of Minnesota, where several oversized statues of the legendary lumberjack Paul Bunyan and his blue ox Babe still grace the landscape, I started reading because Newbury’s article offered a bit of Paul Bunyan folklore I’d never heard before. As the legend goes, Paul Bunyan was enthralled with the wildlife in Glacier Park but decided the mountain goats were too scrawny living at lower elevations and would do better among the mountain peaks.

“Being a man of great determination, Paul carried them up to the crags one at a time, until almost every mountain had at least one pair of goats,” Newbury wrote. Problem was, when the goats often strayed back down the slopes, Paul confused them with park rangers and began hauling the rangers up the mountains.

“Imagine his chagrin when he discovered that he had carried animals that were not goats at all,” Newbury continued. “He found them to be three park rangers and one ranger naturalist.”

And ever since, Newbury noted, rangers and naturalists have worn their telltale green uniforms and wide-brimmed hats “to avoid similar mistakes.”

I’m pretty sure when I was studying Minnesota history in grade school there was ample classroom time devoted to the legend of this folk hero and his feats of superhuman strength. How else would I know Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes were created by Paul and Babe’s footprints.

In our family photo album there is a picture of me and my oldest brother at the Paul Bunyan statue in Bemidji in 1960, each of us sitting on one of Paul’s big feet. It was quite the tourist attraction back then, and perhaps still is.

We Minnesotans always claimed Paul Bunyan as our own, but as I perused his Wikipedia page I discovered three Minnesota cities claim to be the birthplace of Paul Bunyan — Bemidji, Brainerd and Akeley — but other states claim to be his birthplace as well, including Bangor, Maine; Eau Claire, Stevens Point and Wausau, Wisconsin; and Oscoda, Ossineke and St. Ignace, Michigan.

As the story goes, Paul was so enormous at birth, it took five storks to deliver him to his parents. Perhaps there were a lot of stopping-off points for those weary storks before they delivered him to his rightful birthplace in Minnesota!

I also didn’t know it was Paul who carved the Grand Canyon by dragging his ax across the landscape. Apparently the big guy got around. He’s also said to have created Mount Hood by piling rocks on his campfire.

Was Paul based on a real person? It’s possible, according to an article written by Debra Ronca for the HowStuffWorks website. She noted that some historians believe the larger-than-life legend was based on a French-Canadian logger named Fabian “Joe” Fournier who was known for his brawn. Or it might have been a French-Canadian war hero named Bon Jean, she added.

The folklore may have been confined to logging camps if Paul Bunyan hadn’t been the focus of a 1916 advertising campaign that forever commercialized the larger-than-life legend. Red River Lumber Co. hired William Laughhead for the marketing job, and as a result that lumber company launched Paul Bunyan toward national fame, “and established his marketing appeal which continues into the 21st century,” according to Wikipedia.

Paul Bunyan’s great strength and work ethic are a wonderful part of both American and Canadian folklore. It’s no wonder so many states want to claim them as their own.

News Editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or