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Paul Bunyan and Babe in Bemidji

Eric Dregni, Star Tribune

A new Paul Bunyan legend: Being hip

  • Article by: Jeff Strickler
  • Star Tribune
  • April 20, 2013 - 2:38 PM

Suddenly Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox are trendy.

They have their own line of athletic shoes (eat your heart out, Michael Jordan) and were way ahead of the curve with the urban lumberjack look. They’ve even spawned their own hipster jargon: fakerjack, which is defined as a city slicker who pretends to be outdoorsy.

So it should come as no surprise that everyone from Maine to California is claiming part of the giant woodsman’s heritage. Minnesotans, of course, aren’t giving up our favorite son — not to mention our biggest son — that easily. Sure, Paul and Babe occasionally might have left to dig out the Grand Canyon or make the Black Hills, but this was their home, and we have the statues to prove it.

“If you travel the width and breadth of all the other states claiming to be his home, not one of them has a giant statue of him. We have several of them,” argued Don Shelby, the former WCCO-TV anchorman, who is providing the voice of the giant woodsman in an upcoming performance of the “Paul Bunyan” operetta.

So many, in fact, that retired University of Minnesota art history Prof. Karal Ann Marling visited all of them for her book “The Colossus of Roads.” In addition to the well-known statues in Bemidji and Brainerd, she found Paul Bunyan’s cradle in Akeley, his rifle in Blackduck and the anchor to his boat in Ortonville.

There’s also a statue of Mrs. Bunyan, Lucette, in Hackensack, although for years there was a question whether she posed for the piece before or after she was married.

Other places claiming ties to Paul include the Canadian province of Quebec, as well as Maine, Michigan, New York, Arizona, New Mexico, Oregon, Idaho, Washington, California and Wisconsin. (Seriously? Wisconsin? Have you ever seen a statue of Paul wearing a cheesehead hat?)

Lumberjack romance

For Shelby, there’s no question of Paul’s background,

“He’s a Minnesotan,” he pronounced. The proof? “The way he dresses,” he continued. “Only a person from Minnesota would not care what anyone else thought about how he was dressed.”

Paul Bunyan tales are full of references to Minnesota. Even the folks who claim that Paul was born elsewhere concede that he moved to the Midwest, where he dug the Great Lakes so Babe could use them as drinking holes. Our 10,000 lakes were created by Paul and Babe’s footprints, and in a story every Minnesotan can relate to this year, Paul was here for “the year of two winters” when the lumberjacks’ beards grew so long that they knit the ends of them into socks.

Minnesota has a verifiable historic connection to Paul, said Brian Horrigan, an expert on state lore and an exhibit curator at the Minnesota Historical Society — which, by the way, owns a 20-foot-tall inflatable Paul.

Although the first written reference has been traced to a Michigan newspaper recounting lumberjack lore, Paul and Babe didn’t gain their true stature until a former lumberjack turned advertising man named William Laughead drew their images for a 1920s promotional campaign for the Red River Lumber Co. in Akeley.

“They were advertising mascots,” Horrigan said.

Is he implying that they — gasp! — “sold out” to corporate greed?

“They were put to use as symbols,” he said. “There was nothing evil about Paul Bunyan. He represented the romance of lumberjacks. There was a bit of wish fulfillment, the glamour and the appeal of larger-than-life characters. He looked a little scruffy, but he was appealing, and the [Red River] company grabbed onto that.”

Paul and Babe as stylistas

The modern-day Paul and Babe aren’t resting on their laurels. The urban lumberjack look — also called “American heritage classic” — has been gaining steam since it arrived on the scene during the winter of 2011-12, said Mike Ader, owner of MidNorth Mercantile, a vintage men’s shop in Minneapolis.

Does that mean that Paul Bunyan is hip again?

“I don’t think Paul Bunyan ever quit being hip,” he said. “To me, he’s always had it.”

Babe has his own T-shirt line, which was designed by Aaron Draplin, an Oregon designer who “fell in love with the North Woods” while attending the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.

“Even though they morph from place to place, the Paul Bunyan and Babe stories are still great to tell to little kids,” he said. “We’re losing all that stuff now, that goofy, sentimental stuff that people roll their eyes at. Instead of telling kids stories, we hand them an iPhone. I think it’s important that Babe the Blue Ox perseveres.”

The shirts are available on his website, www.draplin.com. Will he soon be adding a Paul T-shirt?

“I’m going to have to now,” he said. “Who doesn’t like Paul Bunyan?”

In November 2011, New Balance introduced Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox versions of its athletic shoes. Paul’s shoes are brown to resemble a work boot, while Babe’s shoes are — what else? — blue.

This isn’t the first time Paul has shown an interest in athletics. In fact, he’s an avid football fan, having lent his name to two traveling trophies: Paul Bunyan’s Axe, which goes to the winner of the Minnesota-Wisconsin game, and the Paul Bunyan Trophy, which is up for grabs when Michigan plays Michigan State.

Of course, Paul also has been the subject of countless books, both of the written and comic variety, and several movies, videos and TV shows, including an animated feature film that’s in the works for release in 2015. And don’t forget the operetta, which was written in 1941 by Benjamin Britten based on a libretto by W.H. Auden.

“It figures that a couple of guys from England would write the quintessential American folk tale,” Shelby said.

Shelby knows that he has some big shoes to step into in portraying Paul, but he insisted that he’s not going to be intimidated by the challenge or the size of Babe.

“I’m a method actor,” he explained. “I’ve spent the last two weeks visiting giant animals — although I think some of them might have been fiberglass.”

 

Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392







 

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