Bemidji and Bangor are battling over Bunyan bragging rights.
For decades, the Minnesota and Maine communities have hosted rival Paul Bunyan statues and made dueling claims to be the birthplace of American folklore's largest lumberjack.
Bangor's Bunyan is bigger. Bemidji's is better, according to Bemidji sources close to the 18 foot-tall creation of cement, steel and plaid who has loomed amiably over the lakeshore since 1937. Bemidji also boasts a statue of legendary sidekick Babe the Blue Ox — something Bangor's Bunyan lacks.
Now, Bangor wants to close the Babe gap.
"Out of the East, a new rival has arisen to make a claim against the supremacy of Paul and Babe in Bemidji," the Bemidji Pioneer warned its readers last week, breaking the news that Maine artist J. Normand Martin, who designed the original Paul Bunyan statue for Bangor in 1956, had approached the city about adding a 20-foot-long blue ox to the tableau.
Bangor residents fired back on social media and newspaper comment sections with their own reviews of the merits of Bemidji's Paul and Babe.
"Their Paul Bunyan & Babe look like they were put together by a class full of kindergartners experimenting with construction paper and paste for the first time," one Bangor Bunyan backer wrote.
Bemidji Mayor Rita Albrecht swung to Paul Bunyan's defense.
"We love the fact that [Paul and Babe] are folksy looking. It's a folksy story," said Albrecht, who estimates that in her two terms as mayor, she's spent as much time talking about Paul and Babe as any other civic issue. "Obviously, people in Bangor don't understand us and don't understand the folklore surrounding Paul and Babe."
Everyone who knows the folklore knows that Lake Bemidji, like the other 10,000-plus Minnesota's lakes, is just the water-filled imprint of one of Paul Bunyan's boots. The Great Lakes are watering holes Paul dug when he couldn't find a trough big enough for his blue ox. The Mississippi River was created one day when a heavy cask of water Babe was hauling sprang a leak, which trickled south until it hit the Gulf of Mexico.
So Bemidji residents banded together almost 80 years ago to celebrate their hometown folk hero. They poured 737 hours of volunteer labor and seven and a half tons of concrete stucco into a statue for an upcoming winter carnival, using then-Mayor Earl Bucklen as a model for Paul Bunyan. The Bemidji Rotary Club built a Babe to keep Paul company later in 1937.
The Bangor Paul Bunyan is a fiberglass creation, commissioned by the city from a professional artist. He's a strapping metrosexual of a lumberjack, with a tailored plaid jacket and a pearly white smile beaming out from his luxurious beard. The proposed Babe statue is a smoothly muscled beast, standing with head lowered, ready to gore unwary tourists.
"It looks like the Wall Street bull," Albrecht said. "We see Paul as this strong, silent type who stands guard on the shores of Lake Bemidji."
Rival Paul Bunyans are nothing new. There are towns from California to Quebec that claim to be Bunyan's birthplace. In Minnesota alone, you can find Bunyan statues in Bemidji, Brainerd, Chisholm, Jenkins and Akeley — the actual birthplace of Paul Bunyan, if the giant cradle on display in town is to be believed. That's not even counting the statues of his sweetheart and son in Hackensack or his grave in Kelliher.
But Babe? Everybody knows Paul rescued a baby ox from a snowbank, blue with cold, one cold Minnesota night. How cold was it? It was so cold, the geese flew backward, the snow turned blue and words froze in midair, so people had to wait until the morning thaw to hear what everyone said at dinner the night before.
It's tough to track the paper trail on someone who never actually existed, but Lisa Von Drasek, curator of the Children's Literature Research Collections at the University of Minnesota, scoured the Bunyan lore for hints to his origins. Bangor claims to have Paul Bunyan's birth certificate, but the trail Von Drasek followed led right back to Minnesota.
The university's sprawling Paul Bunyan Collection at the University of Minnesota spans more than 200 books, 20 boxes of manuscripts, 10 boxes of art and Paul Bunyan's ring — a heavy chunk of metal stamped with the initials PB, the size of a dinner platter, so heavy the librarians have a hard time lifting it.
The collection includes interviews with lumberjacks working in the Pacific Northwest in the early 1920s, which found that loggers from the Upper Midwest knew the Paul Bunyan stories, while those who came from Maine did not. The first written accounts of the Paul Bunyan tall tales were in advertising pamphlets circulated by the Minnesota-based Red River Lumber Company.
But if you really want to know where Paul Bunyan comes from, all you have to do is ask.
"I walked into a room and asked, 'Where's Paul Bunyan from?'" Von Drasek said. "They all said Bemidji."