Monday, December 01, 2008

My favorite folk tale: Paul Bunyan (How Paul dug Puget Sound, and dozens of other tales)

click to enlarge - Jack inspects Babe The Blue Ox's testes in Klamath, California

Growing up in Kent, Washington, every week I trudged a few blocks up 4th Avenue to check out five or six books from the Public Library, . There were two books I checked out over and over through the years. I now own Paul Stevens' Paul Bunyan, (Alfred A. Knopf., NYC, 1925, 3rd edition...alas...but signed by the author, in great shape, with an intact dust jacket) and another, later book (collecting even more Paul Bunyan stories, Tall Timber Tales - More Paul Bunyan Stories by Dell J. McCormick (Caxton Printers/McCormick 1939 - I have the 16th printing in hardcover, from 1985 ).

I go back every couple of years and read the tall tales of Paul Bunyan and Babe, The Blue Ox. Paul Bunyan is a genuine American folk hero (right up there with Johnny Appleseed, John Henry, Pecos Bill, Koba, Atticus Finch [not a true folk hero, being from a novel], and Zorro), and a prototype of typical American tall tales you find gathered in folk tale anthologies. I was able to read all the stories I could get my hands on to my three children.

Something about Paul and Babe resonated with me. Partly it was the constellation of characters Paul assembled--people like Sourdough Sam; Cream Puff Fatty, and the other cooks; Johnny Inkslinger, the brilliant poet, accountant and all round deep thinker; Babe of course, with his Gargantuan feats of strength; Paul's foreman, the Swede Hel Helson; Brimstone Bill; Big Ole; Chris Crosshaul; and Sport ,the reversible dog.

The tales were about mosquitos the size of wild horses; logging problems and troubles moving the logs downriver; a winter so cold the flames froze, when all their cuss words froze and fell to the ground only to unthaw in a cacaphonous babble later that spring; Biblical rainstorms that lasted for months (welcome to Seattle); and natural obstructions like mountains ranges that Paul needed to level to make progress in his clearing of the land. Paul Bunyan was popularized by newspapers across the country in 1910 and has been a part of the American culture ever since. Unfortunately, Paul liked to cut down vast forests (he wasn't replanting seedlings or "reforesting" either...he was CLEARING land), and eat bacon and ducks; he is probably not Sierra Club, Greenpeace, Grist, or PETA-approved.

Delaney Brummet standing on Paul's logging boot in Klamath, Califorina.

Paul Bunyan was a hero of North America’s lumberjacks -- those sawyers and fellers, choke-setters, and woodsmen who cut down the trees impinging the road of progress, and, conversely, needed to build the foundations of the burgeoning West and Southwest. Paul was known for his strength, speed and his incredible skill with the crosscut saw, the maul, and the axe. Paul, Babe, and the crew leveled forests from Maine to Minnesota, all the way to right here in Seattle, alongside the Pacific Ocean , from which he would excavate a large swath to create Puget Sound (he threw the sand, rock, and mud he dug out over his shoulder, and created Mount Baker and the San Juan Islands). Paul Bunyan also dug the Mississippi river, built the Rocky mountains, and hollowed out the Grand Canyon,

Some people say Paul Bunyan comes from the middle western Great Lakes area of the United States. Other people say the stories about him originated in French Canada.

· Paul Bunyan was 63 ax handles tall.
· Babe, Paul's blue ox, was 42 ax handles wide from the tip of one horn to the tip of the other horn.
· Paul Bunyan had a frying pan that covered an area of one acre, which was used to make pancakes. The cooks greased the pan by ice skating across the griddle with sides of bacon strapped to their skates.
· Paul Bunyan and Babe created the 10,000 lakes of Minnesota. Their footsteps created impressions in the land that filled with rainwater, forming lakes throughout the state.
· Paul Bunyan once trained giant 2,000 pound ants. Each ant could each do the work of 50 men.
· Paul Bunyan herded whales in Lake Superior.
· Paul Bunyan created the Puget Sound in Washington by digging a hole along the west coast of the state, and simultaneously created Mt. Rainer and Mt. Baker, and as I mentioned, the San Juan Islands.
· Babe could eat 30 bales of hay, wires and all, in a day.
· It took a crow a day to fly from one Babe’s horn tips to the other.

The legends of Paul Bunyan incorporate dozens of points of interest in the United States, including: Maine, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Arizona, Washington State, The Grand Canyon, The Grand Tetons, Puget Sound, and The Great Lakes.

Paul Bunyan and Babe cleared the trees from the states of North Dakota and South Dakota to prepared the area for farming.

In the early days, whenever Paul Bunyan was broke between logging seasons, he traveled around like other lumberjacks doing any kind of pioneering work he could find. He showed up in Washington about the time The Puget Construction Co. was building Puget Sound and Billy Puget was making history by moving dirt with platoons of dirt-throwing badgers.

Paul and Billy Puget got into an argument over who had shoveled the most. Paul got mad and said he'd show Billy Puget a thing or two, and started to throw the dirt back. Before Billy stopped him Paul had piled up the San Juan Islands. [Jack note: another story about the Creation of Puget Sound says that Paul was actually digging a grave for his beloved Ox Babe and it became Puget Sound (which I can see from my front yard...and therefore always feel a little connection to Paul) when Babe miraculously recovered.

There are statues of Paul and Babe in Klamath, California [see the photos, above, of Jack and Del in Klamath), Brainerd, Minnesota; Hackensack, Minnesota; Westwood, California; Del Norte County, California; St. Ignace, Michigan, Ossineke, Michigan; and in Eau Claire, Wisconsin; Old Forge, New York; Akeley, Minnesota; Tucson, Arizona; Bangor, Maine; Minocqua, Wisconsin; Rumford, Maine; Oscoda, Michigan; Portland, Oregon; St. Maries, Idaho; Shelton, Washington; Lake Nebagamon, Wisconsin; Aline, Oklahoma; and also on top of a Vietnamese restaurant in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He is also depicted on the world's largest wood carving, at the entrance to Sequoia National Park in California. There is a group/fraternal order called the Mystic Knights of the Blue Ox in Bayfield, Wisconsin.

Paul Bunyan Land, an amusement park east of Brainerd, Minnesota, features a talking statue of Paul with a statue of Babe (its original Baxter location was cleared in 2003 to make room for new commercial development). There are two other (smaller, non-talking) statues located in Brainerd.

The Trees of Mystery, a roadside attraction in Klamath, California, features a 49 foot tall statue of Bunyan and a 35 ft (10m) tall statue of Babe. There are also carvings and characters from stories of Paul. See Babe and Paul photos above....

How Paul Bunyan created Puget Sound, by S. E. Schlosser - When Paul Bunyan was with the Puget Construction company and old man Elliott and Mr. Rainier on the contract to dig Puget Sound, the city council of Bellingham sent in to the company and asked them if they couldn't have Paul come up and make a bay for them so the ships from Alaska could get nearer land than they had before. They were willing to pay for it, and Paul went up with the blue ox to dig it for them. But when he got there he found that the land where he wanted to make the bay was held by an old homesteader by the name of Baker, who refused to give it up.

Paul offered to pay him three times as much as the farm was worth, but the old man was stubborn and would not give it up anyway. Well, Paul tried several times to argue with him and talked himself blue in the face nearly, and even hired a lawyer who could talk both backwards and forwards, but still the old man wouldn't give in. By that time Paul was getting pretty mad and he went down to see the old man again and they had a row that time.

When Paul dug out the bay he threw the dirt up into a big pile on the other side of the city. It didn't take him long to finish the job.

A couple of months later, after old man Baker had got out of the hospital, Paul met him on the street one day. "There's your farm," says Paul. "It's all there, I guess. You can name it for yourself if you want to." And that's how Mount Baker happens to be Mount Baker.

The Log Jam by S. E. Schlosser - One spring day, the loggers on the Wisconsin River discovered a huge log jam, the biggest they'd ever seen. The logs were piled about two hundred feet high and the jam went upriver for a mile or more. Those loggers chopped and hauled at the jam, but it wouldn't budge an inch. So they called for Paul Bunyan to give them a hand.

Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox sized up the log jam. Then Paul told the loggers to stand back. He put Babe in the river in front of the log jam and began shooting his rifle, peppering the Blue Ox with shot. Babe thought he was being bothered by a particularly nasty breed of fly, so he began swishing his tail back and forth.

Well, that stirred things up a bit in the river. It got so agitated that the water began to flow upstream, taking the logs with it. Bit by bit, the log jam broke apart. Finally, Paul pulled Babe out of the water, and the river and logs began to float downstream again the way they should.

Frozen Flames, by S. E. Schlosser - One winter, shortly after Paul Bunyan dug Lake Michigan as a drinking hole for his blue ox, Babe, he decided to camp out in the Upper Peninsula. It was so cold in that there logging camp, that one evening, the temperature dropped to 68 degrees below zero. Each degree in the camp thermometer measured sixteen inches long and the flames in the lanterns froze solid. No one, not even Paul Bunyan, could blow them out.

The lumberjacks didn't want the bunkhouse lit at night, because they wouldn't get any sleep. So they put the lanterns way outside of camp where they wouldn't disturb anyone. But they forgot about the lanterns, so that when thaw came in the the early spring, the lanterns flared up again and set all of northern Michigan on fire! They had to wake Paul Bunyan up so he could stamp out the fire with his boots.

Paul Bunyan's Kitchen, retold by S. E. Schlosser - One winter, Paul Bunyan came to log along the Little Gimlet in Oregon. Ask any old timer who was logging that winter, and they'll tell you I ain't lying when I say his kitchen covered about ten miles of territory.

That stove, now, she were a grand one. An acre long, taller than a scrub pine, and when she was warm, she melted the snow for about twenty miles around. The men logging in the vicinity never had to put on their jackets 'til about noon on a day when Paul Bunyan wanted flapjacks.

It was quite a site to see, that cook of Paul Bunyan's making flapjacks. Cookie would send four of the boys up with a side of hog tied to each of their snowshoes, and they'd skate around up there keeping the griddle greased while Cookie and seven other men flipped flapjacks for Paul Bunyan. Took them about an hour to make enough flapjacks to fill him up. The rest of us had to wait our turn.

The table we had set up for the camp was about ten miles long. We rigged elevators to the table to bring the vittles to each end, and some of the younger lads in the camp rode bicycles down the path at the center, carrying cakes and such wherever they were called for.

We had one mishap that winter. Babe the Blue Ox accidentally knocked a bag of dried peas off the countertop when he swished his tail. Well, them peas flew so far and so fast out of the kitchen that they knocked over a dozen loggers coming home for lunch, clipped the tops off of several pine trees, and landed in the hot spring. We had pea soup to eat for the rest of the season, which was okay by me, but them boys whose Mama's insisted they bathe more than once a year were pretty sore at losing their swimming hole.


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