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Paul Bunyan: Bemidji's icon has company

Bemidji's Paul Bunyan wears his Minnesota Finlandia vest in preparation for the weekend's races. Hopes are for cooler weather to produce additional snow cover for the ski marathon. The Paul Bunyan figures are popular icons around the country, but Bemidji's is the original. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

Bemidji's statue of Paul Bunyan erected for the January 1937 Winter Carnival was, since 1988, the only Paul on the National Register of Historic Places. But the Portland, Ore., Paul joined Bemidji's statue on the National Register Jan. 28.

The 31-foot-tall Portland statue was commissioned in 1959 by the Kenton Businessman's Club for visitors to the state's Centennial Exposition. An article in the Oregonian newspaper announcing the National Register recognition of Portland's Paul described Bemidji's 18-foot, 8-ton icon as "relatively puny."

The Bemidji Paul was modeled after 6-foot-tall Mayor Earl Bucklen with the dimensions tripled. Babe the Blue Ox was modeled from photos of a team of oxen at the government Headwaters Camp, again with measurements tripled.

"Ours is smaller, but ours is the original," said Gayle Quistgard, executive director of VisitBemidji.

She said she doesn't argue with any of the Paul Bunyan claimants. And, when Brainerd was touting that city's Paul, Quistgard said the little controversy was generally good press for Bemidji.

According to, 27 states and one Canadian province - British Columbia - feature Paul Bunyan statues, with a few accompanied by a figure of Babe.

Carol Olson, Bemidji Tourist Information Center manager, said one of the Paul-and-Babe sites is at the roadside attraction Trees of Mystery in Klamath, Calif. In 2007, when Bemidji was repairing Babe, she said folks from Trees of Mystery sent the Bemidji Babe a get-well card. Then the Klamath Babe sustained a serious injury. Its head fell off and landed snout down in its enclosure, according to RoadsideAmerica.

As a gesture of Bemidji's good will, Olson also sent the Klamath Babe get-well greetings.

The Web site dedicates 37 pages to images and references to Paul Bunyan attractions. Some of the statues are one-of-a-kind homemade, like Bemidji's, and some are carved from wood or cobbled up from junk vehicle parts.

But the majority of the statues are Bunyanized versions of "Muffler Man." The promotional giant statues, most derived from a single mold, were created by International Fiberglass in the 1960s and 1970s. The most common types are easy to spot because of their characteristic pose - right hand palm up and left hand palm down to display the muffler.

International Fiberglass also created the Phillips Petroleum Cowboy and the Sinclair Dinosaur. A local "Muffler Man" type statue is the American Indian at Morell's Chippewa Trading Post across from the Tourist Information Center, Olson said.

Bangor, Maine, claims to be Paul Bunyan's birthplace. But Minnesotans insist Paul Bunyan's true birthplace was Akeley. The town also features a Bunyan statue, as well as Paul's purported cradle. Baxter, Brainerd, Warroad, Pequot Lakes and Mall of America in Bloomington all sport Paul Bunyan statues. Pequot Lakes also uses Paul's fishing bobber for its water tower. Paul's girlfriend, Lucette Diana Kensack, is immortalized with a statue in Hackensack. Ortonville displays a huge granite anchor Paul is said to have used when he was boating on Big Stone Lake. And Kelliher marks the long mound of the lumberjack's grave in Paul Bunyan Memorial Park. The inscription on a block of limestone nearby states, "Paul Bunyan; Born 1794, died 1899. Here lies Paul and that's all."

Olson said she believes the mystique and popularity of Paul Bunyan in folklore and folk art strike a sympathetic chord in Americans.

"I just see it as something that's relaxing," she said.

Paul and Babe remain on the Lake Bemidji waterfront, landmarks for anyone giving directions around Bemidji. They are, according to a survey by the Kodak camera company, the second most photographed outdoor sculptures in the United States. The first are the presidents carved on Mount Rushmore in the Black Hills of South Dakota.

Paul also helps the city celebrate, not just the winter carnival, now called Brrrrmidji Polar Daze, but also special events. For example, this week Paul wears a skier's vest to announce the annual Minnesota Finlandia Ski Marathon.