Paul Bunyan – Background

Paul Bunyan – Background

Paul Bunyan was the logging industry; not, to be sure, as it is found in Forest Service Reports or in profit and loss statements, but rather as it burned in the bones of the true North Woods lumberjack. To understand the significance of the Bunyan stories one must know something of the men who first told them.

While the lumber industry has found a place in every section of the country except the treeless plains, it was the pineries of the Lake States which furnished most of its romance. Logging had begun on the Atlantic Coast even before the first permanent English settlement, but it never reached a size sufficient to challenge the imagination until it came to the Lake States. While the industry had begun on Lake Erie about 1800, its development in the West was slow until after the Civil War. By that time saw mill machinery was ready to make lumber rapidly and cheaply, and the fast growing population of the Mississippi Valley brought the market within reach of the forests. After 1865 the lumbermen swept across Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota like a whirlwind, laying waste with ax and saw that mighty pine forest, until by 1900 all that remained were small fragments of the original forest and hundreds of miles of stumps. Then they passed on to the Gulf States or the Pacific Coast.

“Down East” logging had been largely a side line to agriculture or other occupations, although there were some men who were full-time loggers, but with the opening up of the Lake States, logging became a distinct profession, with a professional pride in work and a devotion to it which kept the logger from straying off into other industries. The logger went into the woods early in the fall, spent the entire winter snow-bound in a lonely camp with other men like-minded with himself, a dozen to a hundred or more of them. With the spring thaw they brought the logs down the river in a great drive, and then spent their winter stake in a blaze of glory among the bright lights of a sawdust town. Then they went into the saw mills till it was time to return to the woods in the fall. It was during the long winter evenings in the bunk houses, with the loggers gathered about the red-hot stove and the air full of the smell of drying clothes and tobacco smoke, that the Paul Bunyan tales were born and grew.

These stories find their original in a French-Canadian, Paul Bunyon, who first came into prominence during the Papineau rebellion in 1837, when, by remarkable feats of strength and daring, he won the admiration of his countrymen. Then for many years he was the outstanding logging boss in all the St. Lawrence River country. When the loggers from this region went into the Michigan woods about 1850 they took with them the stories of their great hero, which stories, naturally, lost nothing in the telling, particularly as they served admirably as a form of compensation device for their feelings of inferiority. Nor is it remarkable that the Yankee loggers should parody these stories to ridicule the French-Canadians.

Another element which entered into the making of the Bunyan myth was the tendency to exaggeration which is common to all of us and which finds expression on so many occasions. The lumber camps had long been filled with extreme stories of many sorts, but these were usually only isolated tales. Many of them had been told to impress the tenderfoot, while many others had been wish projections, a sort of day-dreaming in which one was able to do that which he never could accomplish when he had to work with stern reality. After the French-Canadians brought Paul Bunyon to the camps and the practice had begun of improving on these stories, it became easy to invent a new Bunyon tale or connect up one of the other stories with the Bunyon cycle wherever the need arose for over-awing a tenderfoot or of securing a refuge from the sense of frustration, or just for simple amusement. In the process the French-Canadian Bunyon became naturalized into the Yankee Bunyan and all contact with reality was lost. Bunyan, his old Blue Ox, Babe, and their exploits grew to fantastic extremes. Size was never measured in terms of feet or pounds and so it is difficult for us to give exact dimensions, but it was agreed that the blue ox, Babe, measured forty-two axehandles and a plug of tobacco between the eyes, while Bunyan himself once had the misfortune to lose two large logging engines in his mackinaw pocket and did not find them for a month.

Yet these stories were never told lightly, for a true lumberjack will never, by word, look or tone, give any suggestion that these stories are not the exact truth. In fact elaborate precautions are taken to establish their veracity and citation of proof is nearly universal. Sometimes the evidence cited is the word of one from whom the story was heard, for few of the tales are told as the personal experience of the story teller. The story came direct from one of Bunyan’s loggers, from a pioneer, the Bull Cook, or some one else equally well informed and reliable. Sometimes the proof is to be found in the continued existence of something connected with the story. Thus the lack of stumps in North Dakota is cited as proof of the fact that Bunyan drove all the stumps into the ground when he logged off that country, while the story that the Mississippi River was started when one of Bunyan’s water tanks broke is proven by the fact that the river is still running.

Paul Bunyan and his Blue Ox

Paul Bunyan and his Blue Ox (image by: Brendan Corris

According to the best authenticated stories, Paul was born in Maine some time before the Revolutionary War, so far back that a century or so one way or the other made little difference. He had been a lusty infant and a good-sizeable boy, but he did not reach his full growth until he went to Michigan. It was then that he really began his life work of logging off the regions south and west of the Great Lakes. He gained experience and some reputation in his logging operations on the Big Onion, the Big Auger, the Little Gimblet and the Big Tadpole Rivers, but it was the logging of the Dakotas that really made his reputation. Legend has played around this event even more than is usual with Bunyan exploits. This was really done to provide room for the Swedes who were coming to the United States. There were many lesser things which Bunyan did, most of which are mentioned only incidentally, such as the logging of Missouri, the accident when he dragged his skiing pole and so made the Grand Canyon of the Colorado, or the building of Crater Lake or the Island of Cuba. Later Bunyan went to the Pacific Coast where he did many mighty feats of landscape engineering; in fact he largely made the West, but he never seemed to find logging on the West Coast congenial, probably due to the fact that machinery had invaded the Western woods by the time he got there. And Paul never could endure those “pesky” donkey engines. While it was sometimes necessary for him to resort to the use of power machinery in his cook house, he would never have it in the woods. Even when he had a crew so large that it took eight cement mixers to stir the batter for their hot cakes and a stern-wheel steamer to stir their soup, the Blue Ox could easily haul all the logs they could cut without help of any donkey engines or any other such “fandangoes.”

Bunyan, however, was not alone in his logging ventures. He had many helpers, but none of them were cast in quite such an heroic mould as was Paul himself. There were the seven axemen who helped him the winter he logged Dakota, who kept a cord of four-foot wood on the table for toothpicks, and whose singing could be heard of an evening down on the Atlantic. There was the little chore boy who turned the grindstone which was so large that every time it turned around once it was payday. There was Johnny Inkslinger, the bookkeeper, who made the first fountain pen, which held twenty-four barrels of ink, and who kept two complete sets of books, one with each hand. Brimstone Bill cared for Babe and made for him those wonderful yokes of cranberry wood, which made it possible for Babe to pull anything which had two ends to it. Big Ole, the blacksmith, had two tasks. One was to shoe Babe, and every time he did it he had to open up a new iron mine. The other was to punch the holes in the doughnuts for the cook. Another helper was Cris Crosshaul, a careless cuss, who was responsible for taking wrong logs down to New Orleans, which made it necessary for Paul to bring them back up the river. This was done by feeding Babe a large salt ration and then letting him drink out of the upper river. He drank the river dry and the logs came up stream faster than they went down. Of the other helpers it is perhaps sufficient to mention only Joe McFrau, who was able to ride anything which ever floated and in any water, and the two cooks, Sourdough Sam and Big Joe. Sourdough Sam made everything except coffee out of sourdough. When Shot Gunderson put his winter’s cut of logs into Round River and then drove them around its whole course three times before he found that it did not have any outlet, Sam made up a large batch of sourdough and dumped it into the river and when it got to working it lifted the logs over the divide. But Sam was seriously injured one day when his sourdough barrel blew up and Big Joe was employed. His famous Black Duck dinner was so fine that none of the American loggers cared to eat again for five weeks; but he could only satisfy the French-Canadians by dumping a car load of split peas in a boiling lake.

The most authentic group of Bunyan stories came from the Lake States where they originated. A comparison of these older stories with the newer ones from the Pacific Coast shows a marked difference. (And it is noteworthy that the Bunyan tales never had much of a vogue in the South.) According to the Lake States version, Bunyan always stayed in the logging camps or on the drives, he attended strictly to business, while according to the Western tales he branched out into all sorts of enterprises. The Lake States tales were the product of the true, the professional lumberjack, the winter recluse, who was shut in with others like minded with himself and with none but his kind as auditors. The Western logger was not so exclusive a type. There were many of the professional loggers, but there were many men in the woods whose main interest was elsewhere, and so the story teller did not have such a select audience. There were other interests in the West to divert Bunyan from his real job and naturally it suffered in consequence.

It was perhaps inevitable, but none the less unfortunate, that the Bunyan stories did not reach the outside world directly from the Lake States story tellers, but first passed through the hands or mouths of the Western loggers. Of all the publications perhaps W. B. Laughead, in Paul Bunyan and His Big Blue Ox, published by the Red River Lumber Company of Minneapolis, has most nearly preserved the Lake States flavor of the stories. Certainly James Stevens and Esther Shepperd in their books of the same title, Paul Bunyan, have more nearly portrayed the Western Bunyan than the Eastern one. The same is largely true of the poems here given. They take the Western point of view, and most of them are Western stories. The first of these represents the Western conflict between the professional and the part-time logger, the second is unwarranted in bringing Noah into the picture, where he does not belong, while the others all deal directly with the West. But certainly the Western tales make better stories than do the Eastern ones.

SOURCE:Paul Bunyan and His Loggers by Otis T. and Cloice R. Howd

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *