The Legend of Paul Bunyan


I would venture a guess that most Minnesotans have a photo in their collection that looks like this:

paul bunyan
Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox – Bemidji, Minnesota (1993)

But how much do you know about the man behind the myth?

Paul Bunyan and Babe his blue ox are fairly legendary here. I’m not sure where I heard it, but growing up I knew that Paul Bunyan was a lumberjack who could “out saw, out chop, out talk, out roll a log or climb a tree faster than any other logger.” I was amazed to think that our 10,000 lakes were made from Paul and Babe’s footprints as they walked across the state, and the rivers from dragging his ax when he was too tired to carry it. When I set about Googling, I learned that there was a lot more to the legend of Paul Bunyan. First off, Paul Bunyan is not unique to Minnesota!

While it is debated whether Paul Bunyan was a real man or just a myth, evidence suggests it originated in Canada. There is a theory that the story started in 1837 during Canada’s Papineau Rebellion. Local French Canadians in the Two Mountain region in St. Eustache revolted against the Queen of England, their new ruler. With local loggers joining the rebellion, Paul Bunyon [the Canadian spelling] fought back. His hatred of the British and his epic war tales spread through logging camps across Canada. By the late 1800s, these tales had made it to the United States and had evolved into Paul’s deeds in logging. The first written publications appeared in 1910 in pamphlet form and by the 1920s, children’s stories were coming out. The 1930s found cities around the country trying to capitalize on the Paul Bunyan legend and Bemidji was no different.

The city of Bemidji is located in a beautifully wooded part of the state filled with lakes. Popular with tourists as early as the 1890s, visitors came to hunt and fish. Over the years, the tourist trade continued to boom and cottages, hotels and resorts sprang up until the Great Depression hit and like the rest of the country, the economy suffered. That’s when Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox were born thanks to Bemidji’s history in logging and lumbering.

In January 1937, a winter carnival was organized to promote the city’s winter sports and when it opened, two giant statues were unveiled to serve as carnival mascots. Paul Bunyan stood approximately 18 feet tall and 5 feet across at his base. Babe the Blue Ox was about 10 feet tall and 8 feet across at the front hooves. From nose to tail, Babe measured about 23 feet. They were added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1988 and are believed to be one of the most photographed statues in the country.

To read stories about Paul Bunyan and his trusty blue ox, visit American Folklore.

Sites used for primary research on this blog post were:
Paul Bunyan Scenic Byway
The Minnesota History Center

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Heidi Van Heel

Heidi Van Heel

Writer, freelancer, and believer in magic living in Minneapolis. In my free time, I love reading, exploring the great outdoors, and experimenting in the kitchen.

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