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Paul Bunyan’s Wisconsin Roots

Jun. 22, 2010
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A visit to the great Northwoods of Wisconsin is an annual summer trip for many locals, and no journey into the state’s sprawling forests would be complete without a sighting of Paul Bunyan, the lumberjack of lore and one of America’s most-recognized folk heroes. Typically portrayed as a giant in the company of a colossal blue ox named Babe, Paul Bunyan is often employed to sell something, from all-you-can-eat breakfast at Paul Bunyan’s Cook Shanty in Minocqua to lumberjack meals at Paul Bunyan’s Restaurant in the Wisconsin Dells. As an emblem of America’s strength and ingenuity, stories of Bunyan abound, but where the phenomenon started has long been a topic of debate.

According to the book Out of the Northwoods: The Many Lives of Paul Bunyan by Michael Edmonds, when thousands of novice loggers entered the Great Lakes wilderness to work for the burgeoning lumber industry in the early-1880s, “Grizzled veterans in logging shanties from Saginaw, Michigan, to Duluth, Minnesota, began to tell tall tales about the old days, when things were really tough. Some of them claimed to have worked for a camp foreman named Paul Bunyan, whose unusual size, strength and cleverness helped his men escape catastrophes or solve problems.” Some of the stories were intended to intimidate the new loggers, most of whom were teenagers fresh from home, by exaggerating the extreme winter conditions or the danger of mythical forest beasts. Occasionally, the tales were told simply for fun, or to pass the time, as loggers competed with one another in creative lying contests.

The earliest reliably dated reference to Paul Bunyan comes from a logging camp north of Tomahawk, Wis., during the winter of 1885-1886, when a timber cruiser (a person who estimates the value of standing timber) named Bill Mulhollen told a tale about the famous lumberjack. Charles Brown (1872-1946), director of the Wisconsin Historical Society Museum who collected Bunyan stories from 1906-1946, heard the tales from a retired camp foreman in Oshkosh, Wis., in the early 1890s. By the beginning of the 20th century, Bunyan stories were being told aloud in logging camps from coast to coast, until many states laid claim to his birth.

According to the Wisconsin Historical Society, Bunyan was first mentioned in print in the Duluth Evening News on Aug. 4, 1904. The first collection of Bunyan stories to reach a large audience appeared in the Milwaukee-based nature magazine The Outer’s Book in February 1910. These were reprinted in The Washington Post and the Wisconsin State Journal within the year.

Bunyan made his advertising debut in 5,000 promotional brochures printed by the Red River Lumber Co. of Minneapolis in 1914. During the 1920s, two professional writers who labored in the timber industry as young men resurrected the Bunyan stories and reworked them into short fiction. By the 1940s, Paul Bunyan’s name and image had been so exploited by advertisers, and there were so many stories, both sterilized and embellished, about the folk hero that Richard Dorson, the “dean of American folklorists,” coined the term "fakelore" to describe the Bunyan tales.

University of Wisconsin-Madison undergraduate Bernice Stewart (1894-1975) and her English professor, Homer Watt (1884-1948), were the first scholars to try to systematically gather Bunyan stories. Scholars believe their work, gathered while traveling through Wisconsin lumber camps and northern towns between 1914 and 1916, contains the most authentic versions of original Bunyan tales.


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