For over 70 years, the 18-foot-tall concrete statue of Paul Bunyan and the 10-foot-tall statue of Babe the Blue Ox have attracted tourists to Bemidji. The statues are located on the southwestern shore of Lake Bemidji, near a tourist information center in the adjacent Paul Bunyan and Library parks. They are also visible from the nearby highway (MN 197), which was originally a portion U.S. 71 and U.S. 2, both major thru-routes of the Upper Midwest. In postcards and promotional materials dating to the 1940s, Paul and Babe have become iconically associated with Minnesota. Although they are not the only roadside colossi in the state, they are among the oldest and best known. The statues are built of steel frames and metal mesh with concrete overlays. Paul features a red plaid shirt, blue jeans, a mustache, and pipe. Babe, with a slightly lowered head and extremely long horns, is painted blue.
Bemidji locals created the statues for a 1936 winter carnival sponsored by civic organizations and businesses. When the carnival ended in 1937, the Paul statue was moved to this site along Lake Bemidji near a tourist information center that featured a fireplace built with stones from every state in the union. Babe remained in use as a parade float, before joining Paul permanently on the lakefront.
Although Paul Bunyan is considered an American folk legend with potential origins in lumber camps from the northern Midwest, the Pacific Northwest, and the Northeast, it is generally agreed that journalists and timber concerns created, or at least promoted, the “legend” in the early decades of the twentieth century. Some scholars attribute his fame to former lumberjack William B. Laughead, who worked in advertising for the Red River Lumber Company. Founded by Minneapolis business leader, T.B. Walker (1840–1928), Red River grew into an immense company with lumber operations in Minnesota and the Northwest. Laughead created one of the oldest known images of Paul Bunyan for Red River in 1914 and is also said to have invented his sidekick, Babe the Big Blue Ox. They remained Red River’s trademark until the company’s closure in 1946.
As lumbering’s heyday passed, areas once timbered in northern Minnesota increasingly became tourist destinations with resorts and attractions. Paul and Babe exemplify this mythologizing of the recent past and the transition from an industry economy to recreational tourism.
Bacig, Tom, and Fred Thompson. Tall Timber: A Pictorial History of Logging in the Upper Midwest. Bloomington, MN: Voyageur Press, n.d.
Hess, Jeffrey A., “Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox,” Beltrami County, Minnesota. National Register of Historic Places Inventory–Nomination Form, 1988. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, DC.
Marling, Karal Ann. The Colossus of Roads: Myth and Symbol Along the American Highway. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.
Walker Art Center. “Paul Bunyan.” Minnesota by Design. Accessed March 30, 2016. http://www.walkerart.org/minnesotabydesign/objects/paul-bunyun.