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Odd Wisconsin Archive

The Peculiar Birth of Paul Bunyan


No, this is not one of the famous tall tales. It's the story of a young Wisconsin woman who rescued those tales from oblivion 100 years ago.

In 1901, when William Laughead (1882-1958) was staying with three brothers in a logging camp in the Pacific Northwest, they entertained him with tales about a giant lumberjack named Paul Bunyan. They had gone out from Michigan in 1884 and brought some of the stories with them. Laughead returned to Minneapolis in 1908 as public relations manager for the Red River Lumber Co., and in 1914 printed 5,000 copies of a brochure for customers called, Introducing Mr. Paul Bunyan, of Westwood, California. Interspersed between pictures and descriptions of the company's products were a handful of the Paul Bunyan stories Laughead had heard, dressed up in advertising language. The booklet was not commercially published, but rather was mailed directly to all the Red River Company's business contacts.

Laughead's idea fell flat on its face because, outside of logging camps, Paul Bunyan was unknown in 1914.

"There were even a lot of people in the logging business who had never heard of Paul Bunyan," he recalled in 1957, "but when it got to the wholesaler and lumber dealer and the manufacturer who was buying the lumber for factory purposes, they didn't know anything about Paul Bunyan and there was all kinds of confusion." Most of these 5,000 first printings of Paul Bunyan tales are thought to have been immediately thrown away. To remedy the confusion, Laughead mounted in lumber trade journals a public relations campaign that associated Red River Lumber Co. with the fabled lumberjack's name (Red River sold "Paul Bunyan's pine"), bought advertisements that used Bunyan in the company logo, and issued a second pamphlet, Tales About Paul Bunyan, vol. II, in 1916.

These two little booklets sent out by the Red River Lumber Co. in 1914 and 1916 are the first printed collections of the Paul Bunyan tales, and Laughead is generally regarded as the person who brought the stories to public notice.* Unfortunately, his popular versions of the tales were not very faithful to the original oral tradition; he later admitted he even invented new characters on his own. When this was discovered, some scholars coined the term "fakelore" (instead of "folklore") to describe the Paul Bunyan stories.

By the time Laughead's first booklet appeared in 1914, however, a young University of Wisconsin student named K. Bernice Stewart was already in the field carefully collecting the tales directly from lumberjacks. She was the daughter of an Antigo timber cruiser, had spent several winters of her girlhood in logging camps in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and northern Wisconsin, and had grown up hearing the stories directly from loggers. Under the guidance of her UW-Madison English professor, Homer A. Watt, she started systematically interviewing and collecting the Paul Bunyan tales from Wisconsin sources about 1912. She first reported on her research at the April 1, 1915, meeting of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters, following it up with further reports at the meetings of 1916 and 1917.

Bernice Stewart's version of the tales was published, with the help of Prof. Watt, in a 13-page article in Vol. XVIII, part II, of the Transactions of the Wisconsin Academy for 1916. This was excerpted in the Eau Claire Leader on April 21, 1917, which also printed her picture. Stewart and Watt's 1916 essay was the first systematic effort to accurately collect the tales and the first serious attempt to interpret them. While Laughead had embellished and elaborated the stories and caricatured Bunyan for advertising purposes, Stewart had gathered the oral tradition in order to preserve it. She and Watt launched a tradition of scholarly study of the tales by folklorists, literary critics, and other academics that continues to this day.

Soon after Stewart and Watt's scholarly work and Laughead's commercial ones, Paul Bunyan began to fascinate readers young and old, in stories, poems, songs, and plays. He appeared in the Enyclopedia Britannica in 1929, was the subject of everything from comic books to graduate theses between the wars, and has appeared in dozens of books, cartoons, videos, and other publications since then.

In addition to Bernice Stewart's early collection (linked above), we've put Laughead's standard anthology of them online here, and the largest Wisconsin collection of them (edited by Charles E. Brown) here.

Have fun, and while you read them take a moment to thank Ms. Stewart for rescuing accurate versions of them from oblivion.

* Prior to this, various tales had appeared in newspapers in 1904 (Duluth, Minn.), 1906 (Oscada, Mich.), 1910 (Detroit) and as a poem in 1914 (The American Lumberman); Eugene Shepard of Rhinelander issued this poem over his own name between 1917 and 1923, but was not its author. The first printing of any group of tales to a sizable audience apppeared in Feb. 1910 in the Milwaukee-based nature magazine Outer's Book. It was compiled by J.E. Rockwell of the Duluth Evening News, and was reprinted in the Washington Post and Wisconsin State Journal a few weeks later. There is very little overlap between the 1904-1910 Duluth/Outer's Book group of tales and the 1906-1910 Michigan group of tales.

[Sources: In addition to those linked above, W. W. Charters, "Paul Bunyan in 1910." The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 57, No. 225. (Jul. - Sep., 1944), pp. 188-189 and W. H. Hutchinson, "The Caesarean Delivery of Paul Bunyan." Western Folklore, Vol. 22, No. 1. (Jan., 1963), pp. 1-15, provided documention.]
:: Posted in Curiosities on July 29, 2007

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