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Origins of the Paul Bunyan story

Posted by mandyf on June 8, 2012

Most of us heard the story of Paul Bunyon and his giant blue ox Babe when growing up but it’s likely none of us ever questioned where the idea of this pair came from, I know I never thought to. Was he pure fictionalized fantasy or did he have some roots based on a real person that just became sensationalized and pardon the pun, larger than life over time? What follows are the answers to these questions and an overview of the origins of the Paul Bunyon story.

For starters, Paul Bunyon was obviously not a real person, there never was a giant man and a giant blue ox that accompanied him everywhere. He was in fact purely fictional with no basis in any one living man, but rather a composite of countless men in the lumber industry. Some contend his story dates back to old stories told around logging camp fires in Minnesota or possibly old French Canada but there are no written records of such. The thing is, the lumber industry had fallen on some unpopular times, specifically the Red River Lumber Company and they needed someone to serve as a friendly face for their business. As many things start, an advertising agency entered the picture and Paul Bunyon along with Babe were created to attempt to raise public support for the logging industry as a whole. That’s right folks, Paul Bunyon was an advertising scheme.

It wasn’t until 1906 that the first adventures of Paul Bunyon appeared in print and the author credited on that first publication was James MacGillvray. In 1910 he expanded on the Paul Bunyon story in The Round River Drive. It never had widespread appeal as a regular series and faded slowly. Before the story faded altogether William B. Laughead seized upon the idea as his and in 1914 wrote an advertising pamphlet for the Red River Lumber company in 1914 titled “Introducing Mr. Paul Bunyon of Westwood California” which slowly gained popularity. It wasn’t until 1922 when the third pamphlet came out and contained illustrations that the story of Paul Bunyon really took off and became known all across America.

As odd as it may seem the official home of a fictional charachter is under dispute even today. Westwood California claims him as their own as does Bemidji Minnesota. Which is right is anyone’s guess, but I lean towards Minnesota, legend does say after all it was Paul and Babes footprints that created Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes. Plus the timeline of Paul Bunyons appearance in print was clearly before he was introduced as Westwood’s favorite, and largest, son.

So what is the real origin of Paul Bunyon? Well we know commercial use by the Red River Lumber Company brought him fame. We certainly know James MacGillvray was the first to publish anything about him. It does seem most likely however he truly was the creation of loggers and lumberjacks sitting around the camp fire swapping stories to help pass the time. We may never know the complete truth, but the combination of all these factors made Paul Bunyon and babe beloved characters that have put countless children sleep at night.

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One Response to “Origins of the Paul Bunyan story”

  1. txwikinger said

    Reblogged this on txwikinger's blog.

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