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Paul Bunyan Days celebrates 70 years

This weekend marks the 70th year the Akeley community has celebrated its logging heritage and claim as the birthplace of the written legends of Paul Bunyan.

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The 70th annual Paul Bunyan Days this weekend is a celebration of the large lumberjack whose legendary feats were used in advertising by the Red River Logging Company of Akleley. Frank Lamb, seated on Paul's large hand, was 11 years old during that first celebration. The Paul Bunyan statue was created by Dean Krotzer in the 1980s. A large cradle is also featured at the park, along with a picnic area and historical museum. Lorie Skarpness/Enterprise

This weekend marks the 70th year the Akeley community has celebrated its logging heritage and claim as the birthplace of the written legends of Paul Bunyan.

Paul Bunyan Days will be held June 22-24.

Long-time resident Frank Lamb said he wants to emphasize that the 1949 was truly the first Paul Bunyan Days, and he knows because he was there.

"It wasn't in 1955 like some people believe and the Bloods didn't start it like an article I read said," Lamb said. "Most of the ones that started it were in the Commercial Club. They did it to have fun and promote the area."

Lamb said he was 11 years old when the first Paul Bunyan Days celebration was held.

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"Highway 64 that goes south from 34 was still a gravel road," he recalled. "They had foot races in front of my house."

Lamb explained that start and finish lines were made by someone drawing lines in the gravel with their foot.

"People were standing at each end of the race to stop traffic, but there wasn't much traffic in those days," he said.

Lamb won his age division and so did his brother, Carl. Money prizes were awarded to the winners. "A dollar was a lot of money in those days," he said.

Lamb remembers many men in town grew beards for the first Paul Bunyan Days contest. He said there may have been more events that first year, but "I didn't get to go uptown much in those days."

Paul Bunyan Days grew

As years went by, new events were added. When he was a teenager, Lamb said talent contests were popular. He took second place in the 1950s with his rendition of "The Darktown Strutter's Ball," a ragtime number.

"They had a piano on the back of a truck and I snuck up there before the contest and put thumbtacks on the hammers so it would sound rinky tink," he said.

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As other piano players came on stage to play for singers in the talent contest, Lamb recalls they had funny looks on their faces at the strange sounds the piano was making because of the thumb tacks.

Lamb said parades were part of the festival as long as he can remember.

"The carnival and dances were what my kids enjoyed most when they were teenagers," he said.

The celebration wasn't always the last full weekend in June like it is today. "It was in July a couple times, and maybe even August one time."

Birthplace of Paul Bunyan

While several towns claim to be Paul Bunyan's birthplace, Lamb said Akeley was the place where the legend of Paul Bunyan was born. He explained that since Paul Bunyan is a fictional character, it is pointless to dispute his "birthplace."

"The Paul Bunyan legend started in Maine, probably coming from Europe," Lamb said. "It traveled to Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and eventually California, but that was just word of mouth. The birthplace of the printed word regarding Paul Bunyan was here. The printed word of his exploits started here. It was used by advertising of the Red River Lumber Company quite heavily in the early 1900s."

According to an article by Nels Kramer in the "Discover Akeley" brochure, Akeley was a booming community with a population close to 5,000 and 54 businesses at its peak from 1915-16.

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"The Red River Lumber Company used Paul Bunyan in an advertisement in 1914," he wrote. "William B. Laughead created Paul and Babe the Blue Ox and the other characters to use in the Red River advertisements. This gives Akeley the claim as Paul Bunyan's birthplace."

Lamb said he heard "exaggerated type stories" about Paul Bunyan growing up.

"They said he was so big that he stepped and made lakes with his feet and dragged his foot and made a river," he said. "One time I was in the museum and a kid came in with his dad and asked me if Paul Bunyan is real and I said 'He's real big!'"

Akeley's Paul Bunyan Historical Museum, located behind the statue, displays many artifacts of the city's history along with Paul Bunyan memorabilia. Admission is free, but donations are welcome.

"We can use more volunteers, too," Lamb said.

Museum hours are noon to 4 p.m. during the summer when volunteers are available to staff it. Anyone interested in volunteering may call Lamb at 652-2885.

Krotzers created Paul Bunyan statue

Paul Bunyan's cradle, which was under a wooden shelter, was in the the park long before the Paul Bunyan statue was built. "People would stop and take pictures there, but it wasn't nearly as big of an attraction as Paul is ," Lamb said.

According to the "Discover Akeley" publication, Dean Krotzer had a vision to build the Paul Bunyan statue in 1984.

"Using over 4.5 tons of welded steel, 180 gallons of resin and 350 yards of fiberglass cloth, Paul was reborn," the article states. "His hair and beard are made up of over 6,000 feet of baling twine saturated in fiberglass. Our legendary Paul kneels at 30.5 feet and if standing would be 56 feet tall."

Lamb said since 1985 the dance and many other activities have been held in the area near the statue which locals refer to as "Paul's Patio."

Akeley's big event

As the years went by, the Paul Bunyan Days festival grew from a town celebration to a three-day event. While other towns have a variety of summer celebrations, this is the one big summer event for Akeley, and everyone is invited to take part in the celebration.

In honor of the 70th Paul Bunyan Days, the popular treasure hunt is back. Participants are given a map and search for numbers along a designated route to win prizes. See the Paul Bunyan Days insert for a complete listing of events.

Related Topics: AKELEY
Lorie Skarpness has lived in the Park Rapids area since 1997 and has been writing for the Park Rapids Enterprise since 2017. She enjoys writing features about the people and wildlife who call the north woods home.
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