On June 29, 1776, George and Sally Bunyan gave birth to a boy named Paul. This was somewhere in the Maine wilderness. In less than a week’s time, the signers of the Declaration of Independence would give birth to the country as well—a task no less daunting than Sally’s own recent delivery of an eighty-pound baby—though the details of the country’s birth received far greater attention than Paul’s. While most Americans have some sense of the legendary happenings that occurred in Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, relatively few agree on even the most basic facts surrounding the Bunyan baby born in the woods. America was in the throes of revolution, and Paul Bunyan’s entrance—while noteworthy—was soon eclipsed by more pressing political matters.
Fifty-eight years later, on February 13, 1834, Paul Bunyan was born yet again, this time to Jaques and Sarah Bunyan, natives of Bangor, Maine. In this version, Paul wasn’t born in the Maine wilderness, but instead, in the comfort of his parents’ town.
A clue, I thought, and when I called the Bangor Chamber of Commerce in search of Bunyan’s birth certificate, the official on the other end assured me she was happy to provide it.
“Really?” I asked. “You have Paul Bunyan’s birth certificate?”
“Oh sure,” the woman replied. “Let me just dig it out for you. I think we’ve got Babe’s somewhere around here, too.”
“Oh,” I said. “Great.”
All my carefully crafted visions of tromping through unexplored America in search of enormous axe blades and sail-sized flannel shirts no longer seemed a necessity. A lucky phone call had not only yielded proof of Bunyan’s existence, but proof of his blue ox, too.
Within minutes, she emailed me copies of both Bunyan and Babes’ certificates, and upon closer inspection, I was surprised to note the obvious care taken in their production. Paul Bunyan’s, in particular, appeared identical to the birth certificates issued to any other Mainer. It’s affixed with the state seal (a farmer, sailor and moose surrounding a pine tree), as well as the signature of former Bangor city clerk Russell J. McKenna (whose name confirms the document as a “true abstract of a certificate which is in the official custody of this locality”). Paul was a “live birth” according to his birth certificate, which contradicts the other version of his arrival—that he was delivered via airmail to the Bunyan home by five thrill-seeking storks.
At least this is how the story is told fifteen hundred miles to the west, in Bemidji, Minnesota, a town that also claims Paul Bunyan as its own. What the city lacks in notarized birth certificates it more than makes up for in statues. On the exact location of Bunyan’s alleged birthplace, the city erected an 18-foot tall, two and a half ton statue of its favorite son (as well as an accompanying statue of its favorite ox, horns spread 14 feet tip-to-tip). According to Visit Bemidji—a website sponsored by the town’s visitor’s bureau—baby Bunyan’s wails were once so strong they cleared all the nearby ponds of its frogs. Equally unbelievable was baby Bunyan’s insatiable appetite—an entire herd of Bemidji’s finest dairy cows dedicated to filling the newborn’s bottle.
While Bunyan was born and raised near the shores of Lake Bemidji, he was also born and raised in Bangor, and Nova Scotia, and Prince Edwards Island, and Oregon, and Minnesota, and Wisconsin. Of the many states (and Canadian provinces) that claim him, historian Charles E. Brown prefers him in Wisconsin, arguing this state holds “the best right to claim the birthplace…”
“The Bunyan tales were first told, as stories, in the Wisconsin logging camps in the 1850’s to the 1880’s,” he explains, noting also that the tales traveled with the lumberjacks. As the men moved west, so too did the stories of Paul. His tales were told and retold in bunkhouses throughout the country, the myth eventually taking root as the trees began to lose theirs.
Throughout the early twentieth century, as large scale lumber operations declined, surrounding towns hoped to fill the economic void with another natural resource: tourism. If the north woods could no longer sell lumber, perhaps they could sell the lumberjacks’ tales, instead. Yet the Bunyan tales served more than an economic interest, functioning also as a point of pride to residents of the upper Midwest.
“Many localities claim to be Paul’s birthplace or proclaim themselves as the site of his famous lumber camp in order to identify with the broad shouldered, ‘can do’ image of this folk icon,” notes a placard alongside the Paul Bunyan Lumber Camp in my town of Eau Claire, Wisconsin (a city that not only proclaims itself Bunyan’s birthplace, but the site of his famous lumber camp as well). “What must be remembered,” the placard explains, “is that Paul’s Tall Tales are large enough for all to share.”
Because even a giant of Bunyan’s proportions has now become stretched a bit thin.
The uncertainty of Paul Bunyan’s birthplace is the beginning—though far from the end—of his contradictions. As a result, Bunyan’s ambiguous nature has proven particularly troublesome for those, like me, who hope to find him.
According to Walt Disney’s 1958 animated classic, Bunyan measured in at “63 ax handles high” (approximately 190 feet), though most of the old lumbermen remember him to be of far more human proportions. Most remember him as a modest seven feet tall, though others recall his cap peeking over the tops of the tallest pine.
Some say he could fell a forest with a single blow, though many challenge the claim.
Others say the sound of his voice sent the trees trembling, but this was not always the case.
He was brave when he was not fearful, sober when he was not drunk.
A bachelor when he was not married.
A poet, though illiterate, too.
His inability to fit within a singular profile is not Bunyan’s fault, but the fault of those who made him. While an incalculable number of nineteenth and twentieth century lumbermen took part in the retellings, perhaps W.B. Laughead—a lumberjack turned advertising man for the Red River Lumber Company of California—is the one most credited for coaxing Bunyan out of the bunkhouse and into American lore. Tasked with creating an advertising campaign for the lumber company, in1914 he published a booklet entitled Introducing Mr. Paul Bunyan of Westwood Cal. (because, of course, Bunyan hailed from Westwood as well). The booklet’s primary purpose was to entice prospective lumber buyers to buy from Red River Lumber, though a secondary purpose was to entertain its lumber-minded readers as well. It was an awkward hybridization, one that proved only mildly successful at achieving either aim.
In 1916, Laughead’s booklet was revised and released as Tales About Paul Bunyan, Vol. II, then revised and released again in 1922 as The Marvelous Exploits of Paul Bunyan. On the title page Laughead notes that the tales have been “Embellished for Publication”—an authorial choice that seemed to sit well with his newly expanding audience. No longer restricted to prospective lumber buyers, Laughead’s later Bunyan installments were of interest to anyone who liked a good yarn, adults and children alike.
In a letter dated November 30, 1947 Laughead reflected on his role in promoting the Bunyan myth, noting that he viewed his Red River Lumber Company campaign as “just another advertising job,” though it soon turned into much more. “It never occurred to me it was ‘Folk Lore’ or anything that would interest a critic,” he explained. “I had made no research or attempt to document sources.”
Yet even Laughead’s lack of documentation seems to fit well within the Bunyan tradition. Ever since the initial printing of Paul Bunyan’s name at the turn of the twentieth century, there continues to be a great borrowing of information. Once the orally told tales were transcribed to paper, the stories many uncanny resemblances became clear. Rarely were the details properly documented (MLA offers no citation guidelines for bunkhouse tales), and as a result, the various authors’ various versions—when not echoing one another—contradicted one another, instead.
These contradictions were not altogether surprising; communication breakdowns had long been a part of the lumber camps. Historian Charles E. Brown reports that when a lumberjack wanted to write a letter home, rather than resorting to pen and paper, he simply “stepped outdoors and shouted the words he wished to write.”
“These [words] froze solid,” Brown explains, at which point the lumberjack gathered the frozen words in a gunnysack and sent them as a package rather than a letter. “When the sack arrived, all his folks had to do was to thaw them out in or on the kitchen stove, and they had the letter just as it was spoken.”
Yet Bunyan’s tales never had the benefit of the preservation of winter’s chill. Instead, his tales were told in the warmth of the bunkhouse, and any versions sent via gunnysack seemed to have thawed and reformed in a wide variety of combinations. Perhaps this, too, explains the many contradictions of Paul Bunyan: a side effect of tales taken out of their element.
Rather than focus on the nuances of narrative detail, Americans tried freezing Bunyan in illustration, instead. The first sketches of Paul Bunyan helped fans place a face to their hero, though even his likenesses were often unlike one another. Laughead’s booklets are credited with first bringing the mustachioed, pipe-puffing, flannel giant into the American consciousness, though Bunyan’s incredible size remained mostly unnoticeable without the proper scale. Laughead’s illustrations depicted him as the lumber industry’s “everyman,” a hardworking American whose abilities was rivaled by none.
This depiction of Paul often makes me wonder if the temporal proximity between his birth and the country’s birth (at least according to one version) is more than mere coincidence. While I am far from the first to deem Paul the personification of the American spirit, it remains an apt comparison. If twentieth century Americans needed a man to look up to, Paul Bunyan not only fulfilled the height requirement, but the philosophical requirements as well. America was exceptional (we knew that by the conclusion of the Spanish-American War), though Bunyan’s industriousness and ingenuity seemed to confirm it.
Yet far more interesting is the portrait of Bunyan we rarely see, the one published in an all-but-forgotten 1921 issue of Eagle River, Wisconsin’s Villas County News.
This drawing depicts Bunyan not as a perfect patriot, but an untamed wild man of the woods. While a broad-nosed, wide-eyed, Paleolithic-looking man could hardly serve as the face of the Red River Logging Company, the Villas County News’s rugged interpretation provided a puzzlingly alternative.
Just three years removed from World War I (and the country’s first twenty-first century loss of innocence), was this, too, a commentary on America’s spirit?
In 1916—five years prior to Paul “The Wildman” Bunyan’s appearance in the Villas County News—Bernice Stewart and Homer Watt of New York University published the first scholarly account on Paul Bunyan, claiming the tales surrounding the figure were “designed to be swallowed by camp-followers and tenderfeet for the entertainment of hardened dwellers in the woods.” Bunyan was a rite of passage for the new recruits to the forest, an enjoyable diversion to ease their otherwise harsh entrance into a dangerous world.
The lumberjacks’ extreme solitude, too, may have contributed to the continual reimagining of the stories. The more experienced men had heard all the tales before until they hadn’t, until one legend wove into another, creating a continent-wide game of telephone, each bunkhouse retelling adding its own local flavor—and making Bunyan quite difficult to track. This, too, is well documented on the placard outside the Paul Bunyan Lumber Camp just half a mile from my home.
“Often the tales took on certain regional details like Paul’s fingerprints forming the Finger Lakes of upstate New York, or footprints of his blue ox, Babe, filling with water all over Minnesota to form the 10,000 lakes…” the placard reports.
As a result, local communities set on exploiting Paul Bunyan’s myth forced the folk hero to outgrow any kernel of truth that may have born him. Or, to phrase it more optimistically: added to the grand (and constantly influx) tradition that is Paul Bunyan.
Though the man had to start somewhere, and while various “real life” heroic figures are often credited as a model for the myth (most famously French-Canadian Paul Bunyon (with an –o) who fought in the Papineau Rebellion of 1837), Stewart and Watt believe the Bunyan that has endured to this day was born of lesser known roots.
“[Bunyan] was probably some swamper or shacker or lumberjack more skillful and more clever than average, about whose exploits grew a series of stories…” they argue. “[G]radually, he became in time an exaggerated type of the lumberjack, and the hero of more exploits that he could possibly have carried out in his life-time.”
The exploits are unbelievable—even for a man of Bunyan’s skill. Yet proof of his existence is everywhere; his trail best tracked not by his stories, but rooted in the landscape he left behind. Thanks to local storytellers continual reimagining of the tales, much of America’s geographical wonders are the result of Bunyan’s adventures, including Niagara Falls, the Great Lakes, and the Mississippi River. One day, while dragging his axe, an embarrassed Bunyan turned to find he’d carved what would later be known as the Grand Canyon. Similarly, while digging a watering hole for Babe, he dropped his axe, forming a gouge in the earth and springing Old Faithful’s leak.
Here in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, we are not without our own geographical proof of his time here. Half Moon Lake—the ox bow lake surrounding Paul Bunyan’s Lumber Camp—is rumored to be the result of Bunyan’s boot print. Paul was said to have downed many of the pines in this region, and to this day the town maintains the logging camp in his honor. Keeping watch over his camp is a 500-pound statue of Paul, alongside an equally enormous Babe. After a near fatal statue tipping in 2002, the city of Eau Claire has taken the precautionary measure of bolting Bunyan’s boots to the ground. As if to say: We’ve tracked him this far, and we intend to keep him.
To pay respects to Paul Bunyan, one must travel to Kelliher, Minnesota, two-square miles of town two-hours south of the Canadian border. With a population hovering around 260, each Kelliherian counts, though none more so than their famous dead one.
Under the “Tourism” tab on the city’s website you will find a single link, and upon clicking on it, you will be redirected to a single photograph of Bunyan’s grave. There is no explanation, no story to accompany it, just a picture of a grave marker resting unobtrusively beneath a pine.
The marker reads as follows:
The simplicity of his gravestone seems wholly at odds with the long-winded stories in which he stars. Perhaps the marker’s makers were intimidated by the many accomplishes that might have listed, and rather than trying to fit “Prince of the American Lumberjack” and “Grand Canyon Carver” and “Old Faithful Founder,” they sided with simplicity, instead.
Since so many places claim his birth, it’s only fitting that several claim his death as well. Paul Bunyan is not confined to Kelliher, but in fact is buried elsewhere as well, allegedly in an unmarked grave on Rib Mountain near Wausau, Wisconsin. Today, Wisconites can be found skiing its slopes, wholly unaware that the body of Bunyan may (or may not) lie directly beneath the pine needled snow. The various ski runs are known by a number of names, though none of them are named for Paul Bunyan. He has become Rib Mountain’s elephant in the room (or at least its giant beneath the ski slopes).
This morning, while jogging through Carson Park, proof of Paul Bunyan is everywhere. Not only does Bunyan and Babe’s statue stand firm at the top of the hill alongside his lumber camp, but a pile of downed pines gather not far below their steely gaze. Perhaps it is nothing more than a drop-off point for Christmas tree recycling, though the other answer (the one more fitting for folk heroes of their stature) is that sometime during the night those creatures sprung suddenly to life, breaking their bolts and taking once more to the woods. Last night I slept soundly, while half a mile away, Bunyan and Babe took turns felling tree after tree. Eventually, the cracking of timber reverberated across Half Moon Lake—past the beach where I swim when the weather permits, past the hospital where my child will soon be born—and found its way to my bedroom.
Somewhere, I reasoned groggily, there must be a giant man and his ox chopping trees.
Because what is the alternative? That the Grand Canyon carved itself? That those birth certificates meant nothing? That we are—and have always been—a country without curiosities, without myths? What is freedom, after all, if we can no longer fabricate truths?
One day, this unborn child and I will swim on the shores of Half Moon Lake and peer up at these north woods trees Bunyan spared. I’ll tell the child how lucky those trees are to be standing, how thanks to Bunyan and Babe, a million less-lucky feet of timber no longer line that ridge. I’ll explain how Paul and his men once floated logs on a lake not unlike the one we’re swimming in now.
“There was a time,” I’ll say, “when a man was as quick as lighting. Seven feet tall with a seven foot stride and a voice that trembled the trees.”
“An American hero,” I’ll say, “the best we ever had.”
But was he real? the child will wonder. Did he really chop these trees?
What is a father to say but yes, no, maybe? To point to placards and pine trees as proof, awaiting the answers buried deep inside the thaw.
B.J. Hollars is the author of Thirteen Loops: Race, Violence and the Last Lynching in America, Opening the Doors: The Desegregation of the University of Alabama and the Fight for Civil Rights in Tuscaloosa, and a collection of stories, Sightings. He teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.