Many middle-aged Minnesotans remember the first time the 1,000-foot-tall robot turned his head and spoke. Your parents had taken you out on the road for a Special Day, and special it was: The giant blinked, looked at you, and greeted you by name. Oh, what a day! What sheer, utter, mortifying terror! How did he know my name? Is he working with Santa?
It may have changed your life; you may have changed your pants. But you never forgot the way the Paul Bunyan statue spoke to you, and time turned it into a fond memory. Whatever happened to that place? Or was it a dream?
No. It was real. Paul still speaks at Paul Bunyan Land, part of Brainerd’s This Old Farm Pioneer Village roadside attraction.
“We’ve had Paul Bunyan for 11 years,” says Paul Bunyan Land co-owner Lois Moon. She’s a teaching assistant who co-owns the park with her brother, an auto-shop manager.
“We bought it from the family that owned it for 50 years. We never imagined buying an amusement park,” she chuckles, “but they were done with it, and it was time for them to move on. They were going to sell the entire park, and parts were going to leave the state — Babe was going one way and Paul was going the other.”
Of course that couldn’t be allowed to happen. And it didn’t. “Babe is still in the parking lot like he was before.”
Paul is as garrulous as always, calling kids by name and asking if they’d take a seat on his size 40 shoe. Is there one person who does Paul?
“It depends who we’ve hired, and we have older gentlemen who love visiting with the kids. They have to know the stories, how to operate him, they have to learn how he raises his hand, blinks his eyes.”
It’s almost like the interactive computer-generated exhibits at Disneyland, where an unseen operator manipulates the character on screen, but it’s much humbler.
“Oh, we’re not competing with Disney by any means. But we have the grandparents and mom and dad bringing the kids, because they want the memory they had for their kids. Over and over, generation to generation. With the cowboy statue — he’s sitting down with his arm over the back of the bench — it’s the same. Everyone had a picture with the cowboy when they were a kid, so they look for him in the park, and take their kids’ pictures.”
Paul falls silent after Labor Day, but surely he doesn’t sit there shivering in the winter.
“When we moved him he got a new home, and it has doors that close. We protect him quite well. Paul’s our pride and joy.”
The state’s as well. Thanks for keeping him alive.
James Lileks • 612-673-7858