Souvenir Paul Bunyans with Babe the Blue Ox.
Souvenir Paul Bunyans with Babe the Blue Ox.

Paul Bunyan: Friend or Foe?

Paul Bunyan has given trees a lot of free publicity. But he's also known for chopping them down in big numbers. Mythical, legendary, ugly numbers. Environmentalist nightmare numbers. The legendary lumberjack is famous for leveling entire forests -- not exactly a role model for a tree-friendly generation.

Bemidji Minnesota: Early postcard of the mighty woodsman.
Bemidji Minnesota: Early postcard of the mighty woodsman.

And yet few heroic tales are told about the adventures of a tree, or an environmentalist for that matter. Paul Bunyan may have an image problem -- to be honest, so do some trees -- but he remains our most well-known postcard ambassador of America's woodlands.

His birthplace is claimed by several states, but where you really trip over Bunyan is in the northwoods of Michigan and Minnesota -- both thickly forested with big Bunyan tributes. The earliest giant statues of Bunyan depicted him as hulking woodsman, oblivious to the people at his feet, ready to buzzsaw the ecosystem into pulp. But Paul has changed over the years from a fearsome lumberjack into a grinning forest greeter. His ax, large enough to cleave a redwood with one swing, now usually rests on the ground, its days of destruction over, a photo-op prop for Paul's many tourist friends.

Several giant Bunyans have been wired to talk to visitors, their wit and conversational ability depending on the person -- often a teenage minimum wage employee -- who sits out of sight on the other end of the loudspeaker. Your visit to a talking Paul might find him a likable joke-teller or a humdrum observer of the obvious ("You know, my ax is one big ax.").

Muffler Man Lumberjacks make good Paul Bunyans -- if they cradle a big tree-chopper -- but they're so numerous and similar that they really can't qualify for a roundup of unique Bunyans. We've included one on the following list because its owners wisely added a companion Babe the Blue Ox.

Some towns and businesses try to get by with merely large Bunyans and Babes, but a Paul Bunyan who isn't a giant might as well just be a big lumberjack (Although there's nothing wrong with big lumberjacks as attractions). Other towns promote Bunyan relics, which are pretty much any oversized thing that the local chamber of commerce can think of. And some communities go off-topic, showcasing obscure Bunyan relatives or their own overscale folk hero rivals.

Klamath, California: Paul Bunyan and Babe at Trees of Mystery.
Klamath, California: Paul Bunyan and Babe at Trees of Mystery.

Paul Bunyan never replanted, or worried about erosion or ecosystems. He probably took early naturalists by the head and used them to grease his mighty skillet. Yet without Paul Bunyan statues and other Bunyan-size tributes, many tourists might never travel to see the trees that environmentalists work so hard to protect.

One wonders if today's smiling Paul Bunyan is secretly sad. You can't blame him for being concerned that the wooden pendulum might never swing back from its current spot. But as long as we keep visiting Paul Bunyan statues and tributes, he cannot be swallowed by the trees he once happily hewed into 2x4s and toothpicks.

Ten Top Bunyans

Other Noble Bunyans

Bunyan Relations and Rivals

Bunyan Artifacts

Akeley, Minnesota: Outstanding photo op in Bunyan's inviting palm.
Akeley, Minnesota: Outstanding photo op in Bunyan's inviting palm.

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November 27, 2020

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