In an Era of Hyperbole, Paul Bunyan Is as Tall as Ever

Bunyan was given life in the late 19th century by the oxygen of stories told around the logging camps of the Great Lakes, where pine forests once stretched for a seeming eternity. The jacks distracted themselves from isolation and danger by spinning exaggerated tales of a big, strong, clever foreman named Paul Bunyan.

BEMIDJI, Minn. — He’s huge in Minnesota. Huge.

In Bemidji, he towers like Colossus over the lake. In Brainerd, he sits in a building that barely contains him while he spins tall, self-referential tales. In Akeley, he holds people in the palm of his massive hand for the endless photo ops.

He’s big. Very big. A lot of people say so. A lot.

But why does this guy generate such fascination? Just what is it about Paul Bunyan?

Credit...Todd Heisler/The New York Times

In this age of hyperbole — when a presidential candidate can stick to his absurd claim of having seen “thousands of people” in Jersey City cheering the collapse of the twin towers — it is no exaggeration to say that many Minnesotans still hold a certain gargantuan lumberjack in reverence.

In Bemidji alone, there is the Paul Bunyan Sub Shop, the Paul Bunyan Mini-Storage Center, the Paul Bunyan Communications Company, the Paul Bunyan Playhouse, and the Paul Bunyan Mall — just off Paul Bunyan Drive. Bemidji police officers wear patches that feature both Paul Bunyan and his companion, Babe the Blue Ox.

This Bunyan abundance was spawned in 1937 by the construction of an oddly proportioned statue of Bunyan, 18 feet tall and two and a half tons, beside Lake Bemidji. There he and Babe stand guard over the visitors center, where a live-streaming camera captures his every moment of stillness.

Carol Olson, the center’s helpful manager, who has been Bunyan’s spokeswoman long enough to call him just “Paul,” says that people come the world over to pose at his feet. Kodak is said to have once declared him the second-most-photographed attraction in the country, she says, though she has yet to find any record of this honor.

Credit...Todd Heisler/The New York Times

But why does he remain so popular? It has to do, in part, with his ubiquity, Ms. Olson says. “When I was growing up, Paul was just always there.”

Always there, and always available for dress-up. Over the years, the Bunyan of Bemidji has worn scarves, hats, shirts and even an Olympic medal. Whenever the Shriners came to town, he would sport the requisite fez — that is, until the City Council ended the practice in 2014, ensuring that Bunyan would always be photographed in his pure, dignified state of red-and-black plaid.

The Council’s decision set Shriner tassels atwirl. For one thing, what were the Shriners to do now with a certain item kept in a shed? As one Shriner lamented to The Star Tribune in Minneapolis: “If you know somebody that can wear a size-four-foot fez, let me know.”

But everyone in Minnesota knows that there’s only one person who can rock a size-four-foot fez.

Bunyan was given life in the late 19th century by the oxygen of stories told around the logging camps of the Great Lakes — beginning in Wisconsin — where pine forests once stretched for a seeming eternity. The lumberjacks distracted themselves from isolation and danger by spinning exaggerated tales of a big, strong, clever foreman named Paul Bunyan.

Bunyan existed in a world so cold that spoken words froze in the air. He was at least six ax handles tall, and spoke with such force that limbs fell from trees when he called his men to dinner. He once sneezed so hard from a pinch of snuff that he cleared all the timber for 11 miles. And he was so thorough a logger that he turned the Dakotas into prairies.

The stories spread with the logging trade from Maine to the Pacific Northwest, with a few appearing in small publications. Then, in 1914, the Red River Lumber Company, which ran a sawmill operation in Akeley, began peppering its brochures with Bunyan stories — some old, some newly created, and none copyrighted. Journalists were soon adding embellishments to the canon, causing the Bunyan stories, as Michael Edmonds of the Wisconsin Historical Society puts it, to “escape the woods.”

In other words, the spontaneous expressions of common people were blended with stories ginned up by authors, advertisers and journalists for commercial purposes. American folklore became confused with what academicians call “fakelore.”

“He got co-opted,” says Mr. Edmonds, the author of “Out of the Northwoods: The Many Lives of Paul Bunyan.”

The giant lumberjack became a national figure, an American Thor who mirrored the post-World War I emergence of the United States as a global power. He also reflected a captivation with big things, at a time when skyscrapers were transforming cities, including Minneapolis.

According to Annette Atkins, a professor emerita of history at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University, outside St. Cloud, the large Bunyan statues that sprang up became “rural skyscrapers.” As agricultural communities lost their populations to urban areas, they used these looming figures as a way to announce their continued relevance to tourists and, perhaps, to themselves.

The statues were also monuments to larger-than-life leaders, Ms. Atkins says, at a time when, say, Franklin D. Roosevelt was expected to guide the country out of the Depression and World War II.

“The cult of the big man,” she says.

Although Bunyan’s popularity declined after World War II, he maintains a powerful if sometimes tacky presence in towns throughout Minnesota. Hackensack, for example, has a 17-foot statue of Bunyan’s girlfriend, Lucette, who required a makeover awhile back when a lake gust blew her head off.

Naturally, the omnipresence of Bunyan has generated mild competition over authentic claims to the inauthentic, with Bemidji holding fast to its distinction as having the first, original statue.

The town of Akeley honors its claim to being Bunyan’s birthplace by displaying the “World’s Largest Paul Bunyan Statue” — if he ever stood up. As it is, he is kneeling, his right palm outstretched, his gaze trained toward the Dollar General across the street.

Nearby sits a modest one-story museum, where volunteers record souvenir sales in a spiral notebook. One day, a few postcards and a bobblehead doll for a total of $14.25; another day, nothing.

Not to be outdone, Brainerd has Paul Bunyan Land, a pleasant, grassy amusement park whose centerpiece is the “World’s Largest Talking Animated” Bunyan, a source of pride for the city since 1950. Sitting 26 feet tall, he moves his eyes, head, arms and mouth. Through a system whose magic will not be revealed here, he greets gobsmacked children by name, and tells a tall tale or two.

His owners, the siblings Lois Moon and Alan Rademacher, say that part of Bunyan’s charm is in how he recalls northern Minnesota’s long-gone timber industry, which laid bare the verdant landscape without replanting. He also conjures memories of happier, less fractious times, which some seek to relive by watching grandchildren marvel at what thrilled them when they were young.

As for the claim that Brainerd’s is the Bunyan, Ms. Moon suggests asking him. “He tells you he’s the real one,” she says.

The Bemidji Bunyan and his spokeswoman, Ms. Olson, will have none of this. Why, here are Life magazine articles about the city’s statue that date to 1937. Here, on display, is his oversize telephone. Here is his oversize razor. Here are some of his massive clipped toenails. Really.

And yes, sometimes people actually ask whether Paul Bunyan is for real. These days, when anything seems possible, what can you say? Maybe just that he’s huge in Bemidji. Huge.

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