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Party of Paul Bunyan Proportions : August Fete Highlights Bemidji's 'Year of the Legend'

Charles Hillinger's America

August 02, 1987|CHARLES HILLINGER | Times Staff Writer

BEMIDJI, Minn. — Boys and girls living in the North Woods of Minnesota can tell you right off who created the Mississippi River, the Grand Canyon and all the lakes in their state. Why, Paul Bunyan, of course, the mightiest logger of them all, who logged all of North Dakota in a week.

Everywhere Paul Bunyan stepped a lake formed. That's why Minnesota has 10,000 lakes. He was 60 feet tall. He wore a size 73 shirt, size 80 boots, so the story goes.

Paul Bunyan accidentally created the Mississippi River one day when he tipped over the tub he was washing his clothes in, northern Minnesota youngsters explain.

Schoolchildren in the North Woods of Minnesota more so than anywhere else in the country are brought up on Paul Bunyan stories as part of the heritage of the area's logging tradition. There are annual Paul Bunyan tall-tale contests in elementary schools with winners competing in regional storytelling runoffs.

Youngsters spin yarns about Paul, his blue ox Babe, about his pals Johnny Inkslinger, Big Ole, Brimstone Bill, Sourdough Sam, the Seven Axmen and other characters from the legend.

Last September when the new all-city kindergarten and preschool opened in Bemidji, students voted to select the school's name. Several were suggested. Paul Bunyan was the overwhelming choice of the 450 boys and girls.

More things are named Paul Bunyan in Bemidji, population 11,000, than in any other town in the nation. Paul Bunyan Drive is the main street. Paul Bunyan Telephone Company. Paul Bunyan Playhouse. Paul Bunyan Mall. Paul Bunyan Amusement Park. Paul Bunyan Motel. Paul Bunyan Dairy. Paul Bunyan Construction Company. Paul Bunyan Lounge. Paul Bunyan Subs (a sandwich shop). And on and on.

The town's logo is Paul Bunyan and Babe. It appears on legal documents, is inscribed on police cars, garbage trucks and other municipal vehicles. Paul Bunyan and Babe adorn police arm patches.

When Paul Bunyan was born, it took five giant storks, working in relays, to deliver him to his parents. It took a whole herd of cows to keep his milk bottles filled when he was a baby.

Giant statues of Paul Bunyan tower over Bemidji, Baxter and Akeley in northern Minnesota, with the oldest and best known statues of Paul and Babe on the shores of Lake Bemidji.

To mark the statues' 50th birthday, a yearlong salute to the greatest woodsman of all time has been taking place here since the Paul Bunyan sled dog race took place on frozen Lake Bemidji in January.

As part of Bemidji's "The Year of the Legend," there will be a Paul Bunyan Festival Thursday through next Sunday, with parades, dances, fish fries, barbecues, a log drive, and professional loggers shinnying up tall trees and whacking off the tops in true Paul Bunyan tradition.

"Any ham-radio operator contacting an amateur station in Bemidji on Aug. 8 and 9 will receive a special Paul Bunyan birthday certificate," said Marvin Toepper, 60, WBOJOF, custodian at Paul Bunyan Kindergarten and member of the local amateur radio club.

Three years ago the Dean Krotzer family of sculptors, who live on 90 acres of timberland outside Akeley on the edge of Paul Bunyan State Forest, spent eight months creating a 32-foot-high statue of a kneeling Paul Bunyan for the small town.

"It was here in Akeley that William Laughead published several collections of Paul Bunyan stories issued in brochures by the Red River Lumber Co.," said Krotzer, at 56 the patriarch of the family. "It seemed only natural to have a statue of Paul Bunyan in this small town where many of the Bunyan stories originated," Krotzer added.

Krotzer, his six sons and son-in-law work together as sculptors and are all Paul Bunyanesque themselves. They average 6-foot-4 and 250 pounds; most have beards. They noted that their statue is eight times the size of an average Krotzer and would be 56 feet tall if the figure were standing.

The Krotzers are covered with tattoos. "The tattoos are my fault," said Jim Krotzer, 34, with a laugh. "I originally planned to be a tattoo artist. I learned the trade by practicing on my father and my brothers."

When Paul Bunyon was 1 year old, he would eat 40 bowls of porridge just to whet his appetite.

At Baxter, a suburb of Brainerd, Minn., the Paul Bunyan Amusement Center features a 26-foot-high animated sitting Paul Bunyan whose mouth, eyebrows and arms move. Police arm patches in Baxter, as in Bemidji, also have Paul Bunyan and Babe figures.

When children pass through the gates of the park, relatives or friends pass along their names to the ticket collector. Seated nearby and hidden in a booth is a person projecting the voice of Paul Bunyan. When the statue greets the children by their names, they can't believe it.

There are Paul Bunyan statues in Littlefork, Brainerd and other Minnesota towns. The town of Kelliher claims to have Paul Bunyan's grave. In the Kelliher town park is a 40-foot grassy mound supporting a marble headstone that proclaims: "Paul Bunyan 1794-1899. Here lies Paul, and that's all."

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