A debate in Bemidji over whether to allow organizations to dress up the city’s giant Paul Bunyan statue is rearing its huge plaster head.
The 18-foot-tall lumberjack and his 10-foot-tall sidekick Babe the Blue Ox have stood on the shores of northern Minnesota’s Lake Bemidji since 1937, beloved concrete-over-steel-frame examples of what critics might call quirky roadside architecture.
“The statue speaks of Bemidji and is an identity for our community and of northern Minnesota,” said Bemidji City Manager Nate Mathews. “The community loves to use Paul and Babe to promote itself. But at the same time there’s a lot of people that say, ‘Hang on, let’s respect it.’ There’s a sacredness to Paul and Babe up here.”
Through it all, Bunyan has sported his classic lumberjack/hipster look: red-checked shirt, black cap and pipe. On special occasions, though, he was known to change attire. When the U.S. men’s curling team won an Olympic medal in 2006, he wore the bronze. When the quilt show came to town, Babe was wrapped in a massive blanket. Bunyan was even known to don a 4-foot fez every year to promote a local Shriners’ parade. He has worn a giant Lions Club vest, too.
That all ended in 2014, when the City Council voted to suspend the tradition of community groups clothing the pair to market local events. Council members argued that allowing noncontroversial costumes could make it difficult to deny inappropriate ideas in the future.
The city was also concerned about damaging the statues, which are on the National Register of Historic Places. The Chamber of Commerce also raised concerns that tourists stopping to snap photos would be disappointed to find the pair adorned with the latest promotion.
The issue resurfaced recently after organizers of Bemidji’s Hockey Day Minnesota event dressed Bunyan in a giant Minnesota Wild hockey jersey, a middle-of-the-night maneuver that seemed to defy the city’s ordinance and renewed debate about whether it might be time to revisit its wisdom.
The City Council plans to discuss the issue Monday. One member thinks city leaders’ mood might have changed.
Council Member Ron Johnson, who voted against the 2014 ordinance, said he supports using the statues as a marketing tool as long as the city can establish regulations. “I think its time for people to lighten up,” said Johnson, a lifelong Bemidji resident. “It seems to me when you have big events happening around town you’d want your No. 1 citizen to participate.”