Matt McKinney •

It took three years for planners in Bemidji, Minn., to draw up renovations to the town's Paul Bunyan Park, and just an hour or two of heated, accusatory jeers from locals last week to stop the plan cold.

The problem: a pile of boulders and a berm installed last month near the town's cherished statues of Paul and Babe the Blue Ox. The changes — just some of the $1.5 million in park renovations scheduled for this summer — were meant to make it easier for tourists to take selfies with their favorite plaid-wearing lumberjack. But soon after the boulders appeared, some locals began fretting about changes to the town's two most famous denizens.

"I come before you tonight for what I feel is probably one of the gravest situations that this city has faced in recent time," intoned Bemidji resident Bill Batchelder before the City Council on Monday. He demanded the removal of the boulders and berm, as did about 20 others who spoke. Some called the statues sacred. One woman made comparisons to the Lincoln Memorial.

"I've spent my life defending Paul Bunyan wherever I go," said town resident Derek Claypool. "And I'm sorry, you mess with Paul Bunyan, you better be careful." He sat down to applause.

The council quickly backtracked and voted 5-2 to take out the berm and boulders, undoing a plan that had been in the works since 2012.

The City Council meeting was heavily attended, with all seats taken. The local newspaper, the Pioneer, sent four reporters to cover it. Others followed on social media, with some residents using the Twitter hashtags #Paulmageddon and #Babeghazi.

Despite the circuslike atmosphere of the meeting, Bemidji resident Carl Sewall said most people weren't that worked up about the site renovation itself. It was more the conflict over Paul and Babe that drew people's attention. The Paul Bunyan statue has more meaning in town than you might think for an 18-foot-tall sculpture installed in 1937 by the local Rotary club at a cost of $600.

"I don't think there is a good comparison to other towns for what Paul and Babe mean to Bemidji," Sewall said. Locals often point out that it was once listed as the second most popular roadside attraction in the U.S. The Bemidji Paul Bunyan (alas, there are others) was the model for the MNsure ads of a few years ago. And every local has memories of the Paul and Babe statues, or of people taking their pictures in front of them.

Sewall remembers when Babe was mounted on a truck and driven through Bemidji for parades, the truck's exhaust venting through the sculpture.

"Babe would be driving down the street with smoke coming out of his nostrils," Sewall said.

It's not yet known what the removal of the boulders will cost, or how much longer the project will now take.

City Council Member Reed Olson, one of two members to oppose throwing out the renovations, said the public came "with pitchforks and torches" Monday. "We have laws. We have policies. We have procedures," he said. "We can't just shift course because 15 people are upset with us."

And yet that's what happened. Batchelder, while addressing the council Monday, said the problem may go beyond Bemidji. He said he had been speaking to the mayor of Fosston, Minn., home of Paul Bunyan's younger brother.

"He is gravely concerned because he's trying to restore Cordwood Pete," Batchelder said.

For now, the Bemidji Chamber of Commerce website shows a photo of Paul and Babe amid torn-up grounds, a construction fence behind them. "Paul and Babe will not be available for close-up photography at this time," it warns.

Matt McKinney • 612-673-7329