Paul Bunyan’s Wisconsin Roots
According to the book Out of the Northwoods: The Many Lives of
Paul Bunyan by Michael Edmonds, when thousands of novice loggers entered
the Great Lakes wilderness to work for the burgeoning lumber industry in the
early-1880s, “Grizzled veterans in logging shanties from Saginaw, Michigan, to
Duluth, Minnesota, began to tell tall tales about the old days, when things
were really tough. Some of them
claimed to have worked for a camp foreman named Paul Bunyan, whose unusual
size, strength and cleverness helped his men escape catastrophes or solve problems.”
Some of the stories were intended to intimidate the new loggers, most of whom
were teenagers fresh from home, by exaggerating the extreme winter conditions
or the danger of mythical forest beasts. Occasionally, the tales were told
simply for fun, or to pass the time, as loggers competed with one another in
creative lying contests.
The earliest reliably
dated reference to Paul Bunyan comes from a logging camp north of Tomahawk,
Wis., during the winter of 1885-1886, when a timber cruiser (a person who estimates
the value of standing timber) named Bill Mulhollen told a tale about the famous
lumberjack. Charles Brown (1872-1946), director of the Wisconsin
Museum who collected Bunyan stories
from 1906-1946, heard the tales from a retired camp foreman in Oshkosh, Wis.,
in the early 1890s. By the beginning of the 20th century, Bunyan stories were
being told aloud in logging camps from coast to coast, until many states laid
claim to his birth.
According to the
Wisconsin Historical Society, Bunyan was first mentioned in print in the Duluth Evening News on Aug. 4, 1904. The
first collection of Bunyan stories to reach a large audience appeared in the
Milwaukee-based nature magazine The Outer’s Book in February 1910.
These were reprinted in The Washington
Post and the Wisconsin State Journal
within the year.
Bunyan made his
advertising debut in 5,000 promotional brochures printed by the Red River
Lumber Co. of Minneapolis in 1914. During the 1920s, two professional writers
who labored in the timber industry as young men resurrected the Bunyan stories
and reworked them into short fiction. By the 1940s, Paul Bunyan’s name and
image had been so exploited by advertisers, and there were so many stories,
both sterilized and embellished, about the folk hero that Richard Dorson, the
“dean of American folklorists,” coined the term "fakelore" to
describe the Bunyan tales.
University of Wisconsin-Madison undergraduate Bernice Stewart (1894-1975) and her English professor, Homer Watt (1884-1948), were the first scholars to try to systematically gather Bunyan stories. Scholars believe their work, gathered while traveling through Wisconsin lumber camps and northern towns between 1914 and 1916, contains the most authentic versions of original Bunyan tales.