The Great River Road

Old Man River, Father of Waters, “body of a nation,” Big Muddy—by any name the mighty Mississippi cuts a mythic figure across the American landscape.

The Legends of Paul Bunyan

Like most other myths born on the American frontier, the legend of Paul Bunyan is obscured in the mists of time. Tall tales describe his life: When he was born it took five storks to deliver him and it took a whole herd of cows to keep him fed; at just a week old he was big enough to wear his father’s clothes; he once bent a crowbar and used it as a safety pin to hold his pants together; he was able to fell trees an acre at a time; and he used to whistle through a hollowed-out log. The stories are impossible to trace, though their widespread popularity is due primarily to a public relations man at the Red River Lumber Company, William Laughead.

Beginning in 1914, and continuing for the next 20 years, Laughead and the lumber company, which was owned by the Walker family (founders of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis), published a series of illustrated booklets recounting the stories already in general circulation around the logging camps. The booklets bore the full title The Marvelous Exploits of Paul Bunyan as Told in the Camps of the White Pine Lumberman for Generations, During Which Time the Loggers Have Pioneered the Way through the North Woods from Maine to California, Collected from Various Sources and Embellished for Publication.

The first large statues of Paul and Babe were built in 1937 in Bemidji, where they now stand along the lake. Statues of Paul and Babe were later built in nearby Brainerd, Minnesota, and others can be found in logging towns from coast to coast, like Klamath, California, and Bangor, Maine.