Paul Bunyan Day: How an Ox and an Axe Changed North America

Paul Bunyan is one of North America’s most famous folklore heroes. For National Paul Bunyan Day, let’s take a road trip to see how far his influence reached.

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As adults, it’s easy to forget just how much fun folklore can be. From reading fairytales in children’s books to telling scary stories around a campfire, folklore has entertained us, shaped our beliefs, and changed our values. On June 28th, we can dedicate the day to dusting off the folklore we grew up with. Why? Because it’s National Paul Bunyan Day- a mighty holiday for a mighty man!

Who Was Paul Bunyan?

The story of Paul Bunyan came to life in the 18th century. During this time, North America was in desperate need of new infrastructure to accommodate its growing population. To make room for new cities, Northeastern American and Eastern Canadian loggers were tasked with clearing large areas of mostly unexplored wilderness. Their job was physically-demanding, exhausting, and sometimes dangerous. In order to relieve tension and stress during the workday, they began to tell the story of a larger-than-life lumberjack who could clear an entire forest with one swing of his axe.

The original story of Paul Bunyan spread quickly among the workers. But each time it reached a new logging camp, the folktale changed and grew. One bunkhouse insisted that Paul Bunyan made friends with renowned American pioneers like Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone. Another bunkhouse suggested that these famous friends gifted Paul Bunyan with his loving companion- Babe the Blue Ox.

In 1906, 21 years after the first known reference to Paul Bunyan, his folktale was finally written down. James McGillivray, a journalist for his local newspaper, penned and printed the first Paul Bunyan story, “Round River,” in Oscoda, Michigan. It took ten more years for the story to become popularized. In 1916, William Laughead wrote an advertisement for a logging company using the legend of Paul Bunyan. By compiling Laughead’s written accounts of Paul Bunyan’s adventures, we have the story we all know and love today.

Paul Bunyan is a hero of North America’s lumberjacks. With the help of Babe, Paul Bunyan is said to have cleared forests from the Northeastern United States to the Pacific Ocean, altering the landscape along his way. For National Paul Bunyan Day, let’s follow his giant footsteps across North America- stopping at the largest Paul Bunyan statues along the way!

Bangor, Maine

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Our first stop is a monument in Bunyan’s hometown, the birthplace of the lumber industry! According to legend, it took five storks to carry the (already ginormous) infant Paul Bunyan to his parents’ home in Bangor, Maine. Not convinced? In Bangor’s city hall, Bunyan’s birth certificate is on display. According to the official document, he was born on February 12th, 1834.

To honor Paul Bunyan’s legend, the city of Bangor erected this 31-foot tall statue on Bunyan’s 125th birthday. The statue weighs 3,700 pounds and can withstand winds up to 110 miles per hour. It was designed by artist and Bangor resident J. Normand Martin, who was only paid 137 dollars for his efforts.

Port Hope, Ontario

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I hope you brought your passport! Next up, we’re heading to Port Hope, Ontario. Although written legend says very little about Paul Bunyan’s exploits in Canada, Paul Bunyan’s character has strong Canadian roots. In fact, historians believe that Paul Bunyan was inspired by a real lumberjack: a French-Canadian logger named Fabian Fournier. At a time when the average man barely reached five-foot tall, Fournier stretched to over six feet. He was rumored to have meaty hands and two full sets of teeth, which he used to help chop down trees. While not working, he enjoyed brawling and drinking, which got him into trouble. In 1875, Fournier was murdered in Bay City, Michigan after starting a fight with especially rowdy loggers.

If you think the real Paul Bunyan story is chilling, just wait until you hear about this statue. Does it look familiar? It should. Port Hope’s statue is a slightly smaller replica of the permanent fixture in Bangor, Maine. Standing at 20 feet tall, this statue was brought to Port Hope for the 2019 filming of Stephen King’s It: Chapter Two. During filming, Port Hope residents could spot Pennywise sitting on the shoulder of this beloved hero. Through the use of special effects, filmmakers made Paul Bunyan’s statue one of the creepiest- and by far the weirdest- monsters in this movie. Splintered and bloodied, Paul Bunyan terrorizes an adult Richie. This scene became one of King’s favorite scenes in the whole movie.

Eau Claire, Wisconsin

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Next up, we’re heading down towards the Midwest. Unfortunately, we’ll have to take a detour to get around those pesky Great Lakes in our way. And who put the Great Lakes there? Paul Bunyan, of course! According to legend, while Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox were traveling across the United States, the pair got quite thirsty. Paul Bunyan scooped out the Great Lakes with his bare hands and waited for them to fill with rainwater. These huge water bowls have done wonders for Wisconsin’s economy- they support recreational boating and carry precious cargo from other major ports on the lakes!

To honor Paul Bunyan’s contribution to Wisconsin’s lakes and logging, Eau Claire built the Paul Bunyan Logging Museum in 1934. Visitors are able to visit a real logging camp, learn about the men (like Paul Bunyan!) who worked at them, and understand the history of American forests. At the entrance to the museum stands a 13.5-foot tall Paul Bunyan statue. This statue was built in 2016 by a local firefighter, Kim Nessel, in order to replace the original statue that was built in 1983. The 2016 statue has to be restored often to keep up with Eau Claire’s elements, woodpeckers, and vandals that have destroyed and damaged Paul Bunyan’s statue over the years.

Bemidji, Minnesota

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We’re only crossing one state border to get to our next destination- Bemidji! Traditional Minnesotans feel very strongly about their connection to Paul Bunyan. Remember the pamphlet that Laughead wrote to popularize Paul Bunyan’s character? It was written in Bemidji, leading many residents to believe that Minnesota is the real birthplace of Paul Bunyan, not Bangor, Maine. University of Minnesota fans take their love for Paul Bunyan to another level while watching Division I college football. When the Minnesota Golden Gophers play their biggest rivals, the Wisconsin Badgers, the trophy given to the winner is a replica of Paul Bunyan’s axe.

Legend has it that Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes were made by Paul Bunyan’s giant footsteps filling up with water while he explored the state. With the sheer number of lakes, traces of Paul Bunyan can be found in almost every Minnesotan city. However, the largest and most recognizable Paul Bunyan monument is found in Bemidji. The 18-foot-tall Paul Bunyan statue was erected in 1937 during Bemidji’s winter carnival. It was an immediate sensation and, two years later, a 10-foot-tall Babe the Blue Ox was built at his side.

Portland, Oregon

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We’re taking a giant leap over the United States to get to our next destination in Portland, Oregon! During this journey, the wind from Babe the Blue Ox’s tail blew down the rest of the trees in the Dakotas, and Paul Bunyan’s axe carved out the Grand Canyon. While in Oregon, Paul Bunyan decided to finally sit down for a rest, igniting a fire to keep him and his companion warm. When it was time to move on, Bunyan decided to extinguish the flame by covering it with rocks. This rock pile became Mount Hood, a potentially active volcano and Oregon’s highest peak!

The Paul Bunyan statue in Portland, Oregon, was built in 1959 to commemorate Oregon’s 100th year of statehood. It was unveiled during the International Trade Fair in the Kenton neighborhood in Portland. Even without a platform for Paul Bunyan to stand on, this statue stands 31 feet above the Portland streets, making it the second tallest Paul Bunyan statue in the United States.

Klamath, California

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For our last stop on our Paul Bunyan-inspired road trip, we’re driving to Klamath, California! Paul Bunyan had a habit of erecting volcanoes on the West Coast. According to legend, by the time Paul Bunyan had made it across North America, he was extremely hungry. He asked Big Joe, his cousin and a talented cook, for help. In order to make a meal large enough for the mighty Paul Bunyan, Big Joe transformed a nearby mountain into a stove. This stove became California’s Lassen Peak, an active volcano that erupted in 1914.

And just like a volcano, it’s impossible to miss Klamath’s Paul Bunyan and Babe statues on Highway 101. Paul Bunyan stands over 49 feet tall, and he weighs 30,000 pounds. His arms are 27 feet each, and his boots alone are 10 feet high! Furthermore, this Paul Bunyan statue is the only Paul Bunyan on our list that moves and speaks. With a wave of his hand and a booming, “Hello there!” this lumberjack greets every visitor entering the parking lot. Although Babe doesn’t speak, this statue is just as ginormous, measuring 35 feet tall and weighing the same as Paul. Children are often seen climbing over Paul’s boots or Babe’s hooves.

For this National Paul Bunyan Day, go explore the great outdoors! Who knows, maybe you’ll find this mighty lumberjack’s influence has reached your hometown. If you are interested in reading more about the lesser-known supernatural creatures found in folklore, go to Bookstr.