Paul Bunyan | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Paul Bunyan

America's Best-Known Folk Hero

Paul Bunyan | Wisconsin Historical Society
Enlarge Paul Bunyan statue, WHI 3123.

Paul Bunyan statue

A man and boy pose in front of a giant Paul Bunyan statue. View the original source document: WHI 3123

Paul Bunyan is America's best-known folk hero. In 1922 Charles E. Brown, who collected tales about Bunyan directly from Wisconsin loggers, summarized him this way: "All lumberjacks believe, or pretend to believe, that he really lived and was the pioneer in the lumber country. Some of the older men even claim to have known him or been members of his crew. In Wisconsin, the location of one of his camps is stated to have been 45 miles west of Rhinelander. Bunyan was a powerful giant, 7 feet tall and with a stride of 7 feet. He was famous throughout the lumbering districts for his great physical strength. So great was his lung capacity that he called his men to dinner by blowing through a hollow tree; when he spoke, limbs sometimes fell from trees." [American Folk Lore: Paul Bunyan Tales, prepared for the use of students of the University of Wisconsin Summer Session. (Madison, Wisconsin, 1922)].

Bunyan's great size and strength supposedly enabled him to clear North Dakota of its forests and to dig out Lake Superior. Many of the stories are set in his gigantic logging camp on the "Big Onion River" during the "winter of the Blue Snow" and involve the exploits of his colorful crew, his camp cook, or his enormous blue ox (only named "Babe" by an advertising executive when the stories were first printed).

The earliest reliably dated reference to Paul Bunyan comes from a logging camp north of Tomahawk during the winter of 1885-1886. Charles Brown heard them from a retired camp foreman in Oshkosh in the early 1890s, and by the opening years of the 20th century they were well known in logging camps from coast to coast. They were first mentioned in print in the Duluth Evening News on Aug. 4, 1904, and a handful were printed in the Oscoda Press (Oscoda, Michigan) on August 10, 1906. The first group to reach a large audience appeared in the Milwaukee-based nature magazine, "The Outer's Book", in February 1910; these were reprinted in The Washington Post and the Wisconsin State Journal a few weeks later. The first books of Bunyan tales were promotional brochures issued by the Red River Lumber Company of Minneapolis in editions of about 5,000 copies in 1914, 1916 and 1922. Over the next quarter of a century, Red River distributed more than 100,000 copies, and popular collections by author James Stevens reached a similar-sized audience through bookstores. By the 1940s so many sanitized and embellished Bunyan collections had been issued, and his name and image had been used by so many advertisers and promoters, that folklorist Richard Dorson coined the term "fakelore" to describe the Bunyan stories.

But before they were printed, the Bunyan tales had a long oral tradition. From the 1880s through 1910 they were often improvised aloud in logging camps by groups of veteran lumberjacks to test the gullibility of new recruits. Some of the stories were also intended to intimidate the novice loggers, most of whom were teenagers fresh from the farm or the city, by exaggerating the dangers of extreme winter conditions or mythical forest beasts. Occasionally Bunyan stories were also told simply for fun, as loggers competed with one another in creative lying contests.

Here is an example in the words of a lumberjack who worked near Butternut, Wisconsin, before World War I: "As it has been so long ago since we logged on the Little Onion, I can't remember what the color of the snow was. I do remember, however, that it was so cold that winter on the Little Onion that your 400 below weather would have looked like the climate of the tropics beside it. It was so cold that words froze right in the air. All winter long the weather remained that way. If one said 'Hello' he could see it hanging in the air. If a teamster swore at his team, the sound of his voice would freeze also. That spring when the thaw came you could see all of those oaths thaw out the same day. Never in all history since the beginning of man was a more terrible profane barrage thrown over than there was that spring on the Little Onion." [Jenderny, Fred. "That Lumber Camp." The Stars and Stripes (Paris, France), June 13, 1919: 4]

The most authentic collection of original Bunyan tales, and the first one made by scholars who gathered them directly from loggers, was formed between 1914 and 1916 by University of Wisconsin undergraduate K. Bernice Stewart (1894-1975) and her English professor, Homer A. Watt (1884-1948). Their stories were published in the 1916 volume of the "Transactions of the Wisconsin Academy of Arts, Sciences and Letters" and have been reprinted ever since.

When tourism began to replace logging as the foundation of the Northwoods economy in the 1920s, Paul Bunyan became the symbol of an idealized past. Promoters from Bangor, Maine, to Portland, Oregon, organized festivals, erected statues, and laid claim to his birthplace. In the 1930s he was used as an icon of the heroic proletarian worker, and in the 1940s he was enlisted to fight the Nazis. His name and face appeared on uncounted restaurant menus and tourist attractions across the country, and were used to advertise everything from construction lumber to loaves of bread. As the traditional lumberjacks died off, Bunyan migrated from forest bunkhouses onto the pages of children's books, where he symbolized American power and modeled an ideal masculinity. Today he's mentioned in more than 1,000 books, and more than 300 have been entirely devoted to his exploits (never mind the 200 audio recordings, videos and musical scores or the half-million Web pages) and is one of the most widespread icons in our culture.