Monday, January 20, 2014

Paul Bunyan

There are many stories that involve Paul Bunyan, the giant lumberjack who is always accompanied by his animal companion, Babe the Blue Ox. Most tell of his involvement in shaping our country today. Let me share a few. When Paul was born it was said that it took five storks to deliver him to his parents. Even as a child, his claps would shatter glass in the windows. He took an early penchant for wood cutting, evidenced by his sawing the legs off his parent's bed. Some tales claim that Paul found Babe in the cold and saved him, thus becoming fast friends, while other tales claim that Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett gave Babe to Paul. With his large blue friend in tow, Paul set about to clear out all the trees across the northern U.S. Along the way Paul and Babe managed to create many waterways and landmarks. Paul created the Great Lakes when he needed a watering hole big enough for Babe. While Paul and Babe were trekking across Minnesota in a deep blizzard, their footsteps ultimately became the 10,000 lakes. Paul created the Grand Canyon when he dragged his giant ax behind him. Paul made the Missouri River to ship his logs downriver. He also created Pike's Peak just so he could see where else needed to be logged. I could go on and on with these, but you get the picture. Paul and Babe were two larger than life characters that were the epitome of westward exploration and expansion. 


According to writer James Stevens, the first Paul Bunyan myth came from the French Canadians during the Papineau Rebellion in 1837 (Canada's answer to America's Revolutionary War, though this one failed). This assertion is under a bit of scrutiny, as many folklorist claim that there is no mention of Paul Bunyan in writing until James MacGillivray's story, The Round River Drive, published in 1910. Some peg it a bit earlier at 1906, in other MacGillvray articles published in the Oscoda (Michigan) Press. Jennifer Granholm, our last governor, has decided that 1906 is good enough proclaimed that starting on the centennial, August 10th (the first articles publishing date) would forever be known as Paul Bunyan day. The funny thing about MacGillvray's stories is that they don't say anything about Paul being a giant, or that he was friends with large blue ox. That came in early 1910 when J.E. Rockwell described Paul as being eight feet tall and weighing three hundred pounds. The Paul Bunyan and all the tales we know and love all came in 1914 when William Laughead, who had once worked in lumber camps, reworked the tale for Red River Lumber company as an advertisement pamphlet. Laughead named Babe and made both character humongous giants. In fact, basically everything we know about Paul Bunyan comes from this guy and his ad. 

This has caused a lot of controversy in terms of the validity of Paul Bunyan being a American folktale. I'm not sure what the statute of limitations is on folktales, but apparently Paul Bunyan doesn't meet it. That's what historian Carleton Ames believes, calling the whole character part of "fakelore". Bunyan was just a creation of the 20th century, passed off as a 19th century lumber camp legend, he believed. Now, this is pretty interesting, since I'm sure there was a Paul Bunyan like character out there since the 1800's, but like I mentioned before, that version was not a giant or owned an ox. So, is that Paul Bunyan, or is the one we know now Paul Bunyan? I would say that the real one was created by Laughead, since what we all know is what he made up, it just happens to not be as old as we thought. I'm not sure it's as big of a problem for me as it might be for others. It hasn't seemed to stop many cities from claiming to be the hometown of Paul Bunyan, ranging from California, all the way to Maine. In my book, it would probably have to be Oscoda, or maybe Grayling, MI. That's where MacGillvray got most of his inspiration for his stories. So yeah, suck it other northern states! There are a ton of statues and parks dedicated to Bunyan, and as you've probably guessed, I've been to a ton of them. There's a bunch in my home state and the Paul Bunyan Land theme park located in Brainerd, MN was a favorite of my families when we visited our family's old stomping grounds. Yes, it was an awesome theme park. Paul Bunyan even talked to you as you came in to the park, even calling you by name. Fun or terrifying? The answer will not surprise you. America doesn't have a whole lot of folklore compared to countries in the old part of the earth, so it's not surprising that many Americans love Paul Bunyan, a larger than life character who reminds us of the early days of America.

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