Telling tall tales of legendary heroes or characters was a way for people to entertain others before the invention of television or radio. These stories were told by word of mouth, and nothing was better than settling down by a fire after a hearty dinner and listening to people tell entertaining stories.
But when the character has the same job as everyone there? Even better. This is the case regarding the legendary folk hero Paul Bunyan.
He’s a Lumberjack and He’s OK
Paul Bunyan, first and foremost, is a lumberjack. This heroic figure from American and Canadian folklore wasn’t like your average everyday lumberjack however; he was a giant. According to some of the many stories about him, he was seven feet tall and had a seven-foot-long stride.
He was stronger than 100 men, and his superhuman labors have become so commonly told that many people believe Paul Bunyan was a real person. Paul Bunyan also had a sidekick named Babe, a 5-ton blue ox.
In some legends, Babe was originally a giant white ox, but during the “winter of the blue snow,” either in 1862 or 1865, Babe decided to lie down in the snowbanks, turning him blue. Together Paul and Blue cleared hundreds of acres of timber, created geographical landmarks, and were known for their large appetites.
Since there are so many stories about Paul Bunyan, there are a few different places that claim to be his birthplace. The cities of Bemidji, Akeley, and Brainerd, Minnesota, swear the giant lumberjack was born there.
Others say the state of Wisconsin was where he was from, and then there is Bangor, Maine. Yes, Bangor, Maine, the birthplace and place of residence of author Stephen King, is said to have ties to Paul Bunyan myths. According to some tales, it took seven storks to carry the giant-sized baby Bunyan when he was born.
What Did He Do?
Besides being a lumberjack in the 1800s, Paul Bunyan has countless stories about some of the fantastic feats and well-known geographical areas of the United States. Paul Bunyan was credited with creating Lake Superior; he made the great lake as a reservoir to ice his logging roads in the winter.
Paul created Mount Hood in Oregon by placing large stones on his campfire as a way to extinguish the flames. The Grand Canyon? Yeah, that was also Paul. He created the Grand Canyon by dragging his giant ax behind him on the ground as he walked.
While many tales involve Paul Bunyan by himself, others include his ox, Babe. One legend states that the Mississippi River was formed because Babe slipped and knocked down a water tower, which presumably was Paul Bunyan-scale.
The footprints of both Paul Bunyan and Babe, the blue ox, were filled with rainwater and became the 10,000 lakes of Minnesota. In one legend associated with the giant lumberjack Paul Bunyan and his crew of regular-sized men “cleared one million feet of timber from a single 40 acres of land that was shaped like a pyramid with trees growing on every side.” Once, Paul Bunyan and Babe pulled an entire house and its cellar up a mountain or across a long distance, depending on who tells the story.
Legends of Paul Bunyan mention the man’s appetite. He was said to be able to eat 50 pancakes in a minute (I know the type), and one of the earliest recorded stories about Paul Bunyan from 1904 tells what the mess camp was like. “The range on which an army of cookees prepared the beans and ‘red horse’ [corned beef] was so long that when the cook wanted to grease it up for the purpose of baking the wheat cakes in the morning, they strapped two large hams to his feet and started him running up and down a half mile of black glistening stove top.”
In another tale, the cook or his assistant were made to strap ham on their feet and would “ice skate” across the surface of the stove. Doughnuts had to be carried out of the kitchen or baking area using two large poles, which two men would carry on their shoulders. Or if there weren’t any poles, the doughnut would be rolled down the tables, and the other loggers would grab them as they passed.
There is a story that near the Round River camp he was said to work at, there was a hot spring, and Paul Bunyan accidentally spilled a load of peas into the spring. While the other lumberjacks were convinced the peas were completely wasted thanks to Paul’s clumsiness, Paul decided to make some soup! He added salt and pepper, which made enough “hot pea-soup to last the crew all winter.” In Wisconsin, this same story is told, but instead of peas, beans were featured instead.
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There are countless stories about the many adventures of Paul Bunyan and his blue ox, but was Paul Bunyan real or based on a real lumberjack?
Why The Tall Tales?
Stories about Paul Bunyan come from fireside stories and bunkhouse tales from logging camps in the US and Canada. The stories about the lumberjack and his pet ox have an unknown origin; these stories were told for years before anyone wrote down the stories in a collection or a book.
It is believed that seasoned lumberjacks would tell stories of Bunyan to new members of the crew to entertain them and give them a sort of “hero” to aspire to. Nobody can clear as many trees as the mythical giant, but humans can always work harder and strive to achieve more than they believe. Many of the tales of Paul Bunyan are obviously fictitious and not based on anything beyond fiction.
In the United States, Paul Bunyan was made popular by freelance writer William Laughead in 1916. He created a promotional pamphlet for the Red River Lumber Company. The promotion was a failure, and Paul Bunyan became a popular folk character and was featured in many advertisements when Laughead published a short book of tales called Tales about Paul Bunyan II.
Laughead made changes and took great liberties when he put these stories on paper. Laughead gave the name Babe to the blue ox and made Paul responsible for natural landmarks and other adventures of the lumberjack.
When Paul Bunyan became popular with a wider audience due to children’s books and cartoons, authors would make up their own stories about the things Paul did and even invented their own secondary characters. These included a wife for Paul, he has daughters who do all the cooking, a hunting dog named Elmer, Big Joe Mufferon a cook, Big Ole a blacksmith who was the only person who could shoe Babe and was able to do it with one hand.
Some historians claim Paul Bunyan was based on known lumberjacks from history, but others argue that he is a folk hero. A giant lumberjack and his blue ox are obviously fictitious but a fun yarn to spin over campfires in logging camps in the 1800s.
Top Image: Paul Bunyan as he is typically depicted: giant, and with a red check shirt. Source: Seth Melton / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.