Most days, the Paul Bunyan statue in Bemidji sports his classic lumberjack look: red checked shirt, black cap and pipe.
But on special occasions, he dons something different. A yellow vest, a hard hat, a ski bib. When the U.S. men’s curling team won an Olympic medal in 2006, Paul Bunyan, too, wore the bronze. When the quilt show came to town, his buddy Babe got wrapped in a massive blanket.
But the days of dressing up the duo are apparently over.
Last week, the City Council voted to suspend the tradition of community groups clothing Paul and Babe to market events, such as conventions and ski races.
The issue arose after the Headwaters Shrine Club applied to put a fez atop Paul Bunyan’s head — as it has year after year — to mark the 18th annual Bemidji State University Shrine Bowl and screening clinic for children with disabilities. The permit was denied.
“It’s an embarrassment and a slap in the face,” said Bill Batchelder, a Shriner and lifelong Bemidji resident. “The Shriners are really, really offended.”
Council Member Roger Hellquist made a motion to deny this and future requests, arguing that allowing noncontroversial costumes could make it difficult to deny inappropriate ideas in the future.
The city had recently started requiring groups to fill out an application and get council approval to dress the statues, which have stood on the shores of Lake Bemidji since 1937.
“It became the issue of where do you draw the line and with whom,” Hellquist said by phone. “I don’t want this coming in front of the council on a weekly or monthly basis.
“Stop and think of all the organizations that may want to put something on Paul and Babe.”
The city was also concerned about damaging the statues, which are on the National Register of Historic Places, said Kay Murphy, the city clerk. “The pipe in Paul’s mouth could get bumped loose,” she said. “Just to refurbish Babe cost over $100,000.”
Council members were also concerned about tourists stopping to snap a photo with Paul and Babe — then finding them looking not quite like themselves. When Paul wore a hard hat to mark nearby construction, visitors complained to the Chamber of Commerce, said Lori Paris, the chamber’s president.
“To have another something on Paul kind of takes away from their experience,” she said. “We need to be mindful of the visitor.”
The one council member who voted against suspending the tradition, Ron Johnson, argues that “we’ve gotta lighten up a little bit.”
Paul Bunyan is “the ambassador of the city,” said Johnson, the design and promotion manager at Lakeland Public Television. When Gov. Mark Dayton comes to town this fall to host the Governor’s Deer Hunting Opener, the statue ought to be wearing an orange vest, Johnson said. “Paul needs to participate.”
The city hasn’t seen a flurry of applications, he noted. “It’s a handful of times a year,” Johnson said. “And usually it’s a good cause.”
The Shriners parade and football game draw attention to the annual screening clinic and raise funds for the Shriners Hospital for Children in Minneapolis, said Larry McConkey, who applied on behalf of the group.
Paul Bunyan has donned the fez for years, said McConkey, who stores the massive hat in his shed. “If you know somebody that can wear a size 4-foot fez, let me know.”