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  Current Issue: Summer 2004

THE PAUL BUNYANS

The great mythic hero of Cascadia still towers over the Northwest, axe in hand. A visit to eight big Pauls.

By Angela Sanders
Paintings by Michael Brophy

Robert Frost and Carl Sandburg told the story of Paul Bunyan. There are Paul Bunyan short stories, paintings, comic strips, and ballets. There are stained-glass panels of Paul Bunyan and his ox at Mount Hood’s Timberline Lodge, created by Works Progress Administration artists in 1938. The poet W. H. Auden and composer Benjamin Britten wrote a Paul Bunyan opera — as “bewildering and irritating a treatment of the outsize lumberman as any two Englishmen could have devised,” noted Time magazine.

Yet some of the most compelling art celebrating Paul Bunyan isn’t from established artists, but from sculptors scattered through the timber country of the Northwest. I paid a visit to these Pauls recently. Notes:

Westwood, California
Westwood, California sits nestled in pine trees on the southeastern slope of Mount Lassen. A fox, scared by the gunfire of dove hunters, scampers over a stone wall at the edge of town. Alex de Martimprey stands in front of Westwood’s community center. From here he can survey the entire town, from the two-pump gas station all the way down to the tavern three blocks away. De Martimprey is the owner of the local hardware store, a ski instructor, a teacher of 35 homeschooled children, a soccer coach, inventor of a technology to cut steel with cold oxygen, and the inspiration behind the 28-foot redwood statue of Paul Bunyan and his blue ox, Babe. The Bunyan statue is reputedly the largest wood statue in the world carved in one piece from a single tree. In 1988, De Martimprey convinced the Chamber of Commerce to commission the statue from a chainsaw artist at Burlwood Industries to celebrate Westwood’s 75th birthday. The statue holds an axe in his left hand and a long saw blade in his right. He wears a red and black plaid shirt, sports a luxuriant mustache, and bears a striking resemblance to Tony Orlando.

“We, more than any other place, have the right to call this Paul Bunyan’s home town,” De Martimprey says. As he points out, without Westwood and the marketing genius of the Red River Lumber Company, it is likely that Paul Bunyan would have gone the way of John Henry in American myth.

In 1912, the Red River Lumber Company crafted Westwood from the remote Robbers Creek wilderness in a frenzy of building. T.B. Walker, then the fifth richest man in the world and owner of the Red River Lumber Company, had cleaned out the timber stock in Minnesota and purchased nearly 750 million acres of virgin pine forest in Northern California to feed the mill town he planned to create. Over the next few years sprang up an opera house, a hospital, a skating rink, scores of bunkhouses, and all the businesses needed for Westwood to be self-contained, including a town bakery — “Westloaf, the toast of the town.” Central to the town was a massive pine mill. In the 1930s, the Guinness Book of World Records cited Westwood as having the largest pine timber mill in the world. Ripley’s Believe It or Not featured the mill as having the world’s largest pile of sawdust, used to fuel Westwood’s central boilers for steam heat. Before long, more than 10,000 people lived in Westwood.

With low crime rates, year-round work, and guaranteed health care, Westwood must have indeed seemed a paradise — or at least an anomaly in the timber business. The conservative Methodist Walker family oversaw Westwood’s growth, managing everything from church attendance to liquor consumption. Eveline Walker left a bowl of change outside her front door so that no resident of Westwood would go hungry. While the opera hall ultimately failed to draw well-known acts, Mrs. Walker was usually good for a few hymns on a slow weeknight.

The Walker family hired a cousin and former logger, William Laughead, to lead marketing for the Red River Lumber Company. In 1914, Laughead made Paul Bunyan the company’s mascot. He elaborated on the stories he’d heard about Bunyan in timber camps and printed them in pamphlets sent out with shipments of lumber. Laughead named Bunyan’s ox, Babe, and invented Johnny Inkslinger, Sourdough Sam, and many other characters. He combined the face of a local foreman with the mustache of one of the French Canadian cooks at the mess hall to create the portrait of Bunyan he used to illustrate the stories. Besides a poem written about Paul Bunyan for a Detroit newspaper two years earlier, no known written record of Paul Bunyan existed before Laughead put Bunyan to work as a shill for timber.

By 1940, the Red River Lumber Company had printed eleven editions of Paul Bunyan stories, totaling tens of thousands of copies. People wrote to Westwood from around the world requesting the stories. Laughead’s work publicizing Red River Lumber was so successful that a minister of propaganda in the Soviet Union reportedly requested copies of the pamphlet to use as a model for his own work.

As the Walker family had created Westwood, so it engineered the town’s death as well. When the opulent stands of sugar pine surrounding Mount Lassen had nothing left to give, the family sold the mill to a fruit-crate-making company and left town. Two years later, the cardboard box was invented, throwing the crate company out of business. By 1957, Westwood’s population had plunged from 10,000 to fewer than 200 people. Families picked up and moved, boarding up houses and abandoning dogs. Once again Westwood made the record books as the Guinness Book of World Records cited Westwood as the town with the most dogs per capita.

Some observers of Westwood’s history are not as generous as De Martim prey about the town’s bucolic past. They mention 1917, when 50 million board feet of pine went up in flames, rumored to be a casualty of an I.W.W. protest. They point to the 1938 riot, when hundreds of men took picks and axes to each other on the town’s wooden sidewalks and gravel streets in an effort to join the union and resist a 17.5 percent pay cut. It may have been difficult for the immigrant workers relegated to the shanty Pinetown bordering Westwood to ignore the Walker Mansion with its trophy room festooned with the spoils of African safaris. It may have galled some of the town’s workers to be asked to clear a wide strip of timber up the mountain so that the Walker family would have a clear view from their sunroom of Mount Lassen’s eruption. Some residents of Westwood may have resented being paid with scrip which was only accepted in Walker-approved businesses carrying Walker-approved merchandise at Walker-approved prices.

But Walker cynicism is a minority view in today’s Westwood. Today the town’s 2,000 inhabitants rely on tourism, the state prison in Susanville, and the mill in Chester to provide their livelihoods. And each summer Westwood holds a Paul Bunyan festival with blues music and logging competitions.

Viola, California
On the opposite side of Mount Lassen from Westwood is Viola, population 94, and the home of the Lassen Pine Retreat Center, a Christian summer camp and weekend retreat. Four people staff the Center, and it’s hard to figure out where exactly the other 90 residents of Viola live. As Pastor Gordon, the founder of the Retreat Center, says, “We are Viola.”

The Retreat Center is on the grounds of the old Viola Resort, a tony getaway through the 1950s and early ‘60s until it went bankrupt. At the Viola Resort, guests took dinner in the Lodge’s elegant but rustic dining hall, with knotty pine paneling and a floor-to-ceiling fireplace of volcanic rock. A few steps away was the dance hall, with another mammoth fireplace and a stage for the band. A postcard from the resort’s glory days shows red and aqua sedans pulled up to the hewn-timber fence in front of the lodge.

The lodge and dance hall still stand at the Retreat Center, but they have been covered with cheap siding and painted an institutional blue. The halls now buzz with fluorescent lights. The volcanic rock fireplace remains impressive in the dining hall, but now it is ringed by tables with oilcloth covers and vinyl chairs. In the dance hall, Enterprise High School’s band, The Enterprise Starship, is finishing a week of music camp with a concert. The dance hall is full of parents who have driven in from Redding to see the kids perform.

Deep on the Center’s grounds, past the empty cabins, past the teepees with their worn foam mattresses stacked inside, past the defunct petting zoo, is a Paul Bunyan statue. This Paul stands 20 feet tall and surveys the abandoned canoes tied up at the pond nearby. He holds a double-sided axe across his chest. His red shirt and denim-painted pants are spotted with mold, and kids have punched holes in the crotch of his pants. Fungus sprouts from his face like acne.

The Lassen Pines Retreat Center’s statue was made by International Fiberglass in California from the mid-1960s until 1974. Statues of this sort are commonly called “muffler men” because many of the statues were outfitted with mufflers rather than axes and were stationed outside muffler shops, just as giant bears advertised root beer and the Big Boy advertised Bob’s. Paul Bunyan was one of several styles of muffler man. Customers could also order a cowboy, an Indian chief, a bikini-clad surfer girl, or a style called the “half-wit” that looked like Alfred E. Newman.

The Retreat Center’s Paul Bunyan originally stood outside the Paul Bunyan Restaurant on Market Street in Redding, California. Market Street was once called the “Miracle Mile” by locals. When Interstate Highway 5 was built through the eastern part of town, the Miracle Mile foundered, and the Paul Bunyan statue was donated to the Retreat Center in 1971. Members of the North Valley Baptist Church hoisted the statue onto a flatbed truck for its ride up the mountain.

Klamath, California
“Who’s that sitting on my toe?” the Paul Bunyan statue bellows as a Danish tourist leans on his boot. Having pictures taken on Paul’s toe is the second-most popular tourist pastime here at the Trees of Mystery. The first is, of course, fondling Babe the Ox’s wooden testicles, which are the size of watermelons.

The Paul Bunyan statue at the Trees of Mystery can talk, wave his right hand, turn his head, and wink an eye. As he says, “I’m the biggest flirt on the West Coast,” and at 49 feet and two inches tall, he probably is. He’s a brunette with a full beard and a Friar Tuck hairstyle. His eyes are closer than usual to the top of his head, and one eye looks unflinchingly forward while the other eye — the one that winks — has a drooping lid. His shirt is rakishly unbuttoned, revealing a thick mat of chest hair. He holds a double-bladed axe as a walking stick.

The Trees of Mystery was founded in 1931 as a natural history theme park where visitors could tour twisted ancient sequoias with names like the Tree of Brotherhood and the Cathedral Tree. A path winds through the park, dotted with interpretive signs, chainsaw sculptures, and press-and-play narratives, some of which were recorded in the 1930s. A speaker embedded near the Cathedral Tree plays Nelson Eddy.

The current Paul Bunyan statue is the third and longest-lived of a series of Pauls at the Trees of Mystery. The first began life in a victory garden in Southern California but was moved to Klamath after the war. He was made of papier māche and was better suited to a drier climate; his head melted off within a year.

The second statue lasted longer, from 1947 to 1962. Trees of Mystery owner Ray Thompson designed and built it himself of wood framing and cement. This one was 24 feet tall with a tiny head and broad chest, in which Thompson planted a speaker which could be operated remotely from a microphone in the office.

In 1952, the enterprising Thompson family ordered a giant ox kit from Long Beach, California, and built a tenton Babe to accompany Paul. “An ox,” notes current co-owner John Thompson, Ray’s son, “is a castrated bull, but my parents didn’t know that, so …” The ox was a hit, even earning mention in the Prophetic News Herald’s “Ode to Babe at the Trees of Mystery,” which declared Babe to be a sign from God testifying to “an apostate and unbelieving generation.”

Statue-mania then seized the Thompsons altogether. The World’s Fair was coming up in Seattle, and Highway 101, which runs in front of the Trees of Mystery, would surely be a major route to the Fair. The Thompsons decided to build yet another Paul Bunyan, this one twice as big as the old one, ready to unveil on Easter Sunday 1962. Not only would this statue talk, wave, and wink, it would dwarf the talking, waving, winking Paul Bunyan statue in Brainerd, Washington, previously the largest animated statue in the world.

The Thompsons hired Ann Cooper, who had remodeled the gift shop, to design the new statue. Ward Berg, a retired Hollywood set designer who now worked at the outboard motor shop in Klamath, would oversee construction of the statue. The statue was constructed in pieces of steel, wire, hardware cloth, fiberglass, resin, and concrete and then assembled in place. Except when the welders caught the statue’s head on fire, construction was smooth and on schedule.

The new Paul has a control room built inside to allow its occupant to operate the statue’s hand, head, eye, and voice. In 1981 a journalist from The San Jose Mercury made a rare visit to the control room. She reported that the Thompsons had posted a sign inside the statue forbidding the operators from asking women for their phone numbers and noting that “the purpose of this job is not to fill your little black books.”

Today, John Thompson points up at the statue and says, “Go ahead, ask a question.”

“Hey Paul,” calls up a teenager. “What size is your underwear?”

“I don’t know,” says Paul. “But it’s 15 feet, 4 inches at the waist.”

Grants Pass, Oregon
Beyond the lean and shaggy Grants Pass caveman statue, beyond the IT’S THE CLIMATE arch stretching across Grants Pass’s main street, beyond the gravel yard on the west side of town, are two Paul Bunyan statues. One statue is tied to a light pole and beckons travelers on the Evergreen Highway to the Cedarwood Saloon. The other statue, on the Rogue River Highway, surveys the parking lot at BJ’s Tools.

The Cedarwood Saloon Paul wasn’t always a logger. When Bruce and Tammy Mesman bought the saloon in 1991, the muffler man-style statue was a miner, and blond, to boot. He held a pickaxe, and at his feet was a rusted metal cart full of rocks painted gold. Mesman took him down from his perch (“He isn’t heavy, he probably only weighs a hundred pounds”), hauled him to the beer garden in the back of the Saloon, and gave him a makeover, painting his hair and beard brown and his shirt green.

The Cedarwood Paul has had his share of misfortune. “He’s been hit by the UPS truck, hit by the Forest Service truck, dragged across the driveway, a gal with a camper ran into him, his axe’s spray-foam filling melted onto a car parked below it, he’s been shot by a pellet gun, and his head blew off in a windstorm, landing right in his own arms. That one made the news. I had calls from Chicago, Miami, and New York about it, and my brother tending bar in Bend,” says Bruce.

Today the Cedarwood Paul is mounted on a cement platform and belted securely to a pole that it shares with an Oregon Lottery sign. Not far away is the Wapiti Archery shop, whose owner says that he and the Mesmans have talked about Paul holding a bow and arrow.

Ten minutes from the Cedarwood Saloon is the BJ’s Tools Paul, also a muffler man type, but customized with a chic, low-slung belt and a hard hat. His eyes are painted to look shiftily to the right, perhaps because he has twice been stolen by students from Rogue River High. He is surrounded by ladders and shovels and stands next to a forty-foot saw that appear to be sawing at the roof of the store.

The original B.J. is long gone, and the current staff doesn’t know much about the statue.

“I’ll tell you this,” though, “ says the cashier. “Nine out of ten dogs bark at it.”

Shelton, Washington
Lloyd Prouty’s Paul Bunyan statue rises crisp and handsome from a weedy field of rusted car bodies. Only a few years ago the statue lay in thirteen pieces behind the stadium at Shelton High School. With an estimated $50,000 in donated labor and materials, Prouty restored the statue. “I believe you need to give back to a community, and this Paul Bunyan statue is how I give to Shelton,” Prouty says.

The Shelton Bunyan is a 20-foot high statue of the muffler man type. His shirt is solid red with suspenders painted over it. His newly restored fingers are long and slender, like those of pianist. In fact, one of his fingers on his left hand is slightly longer than it should be (“I did it for my kids,” admitted fiberglass craftsman Jim Pinkston, who added half an inch or so to the bird finger).

Shelton, located in Washington’s Olympic Penninsula, has deep roots in the timber industry. Every year Shelton holds a Forest Festival and Paul Bunyan Parade, lately featuring Prouty’s Bunyan statue. Prouty’s brother-in-law welded a trailer and hydraulic lift for the statue so that he can tow the statue through the parade. For transport to the parade route, the statue lies face up, its head cradled in a carpeted sling. With the flip of a switch, the statue rises, Lazurus-like, to a standing position. This ability to raise and lower the statue comes in handy during the parade when the statue must be lowered to go under power lines. As the Paul Bunyan statue approaches power lines, the crowd cheers and yells “Limbo Paul! Limbo Paul!”

Shelton nominates one man each year to play Paul Bunyan for the festival. Not surprisingly, these men tend to be tall and on the husky side. Shelton’s Historical Society has photos of the play-acting Paul Bunyans through the years, some wearing felt beards, and all holding a jumbo axe. The Historical Society also features a wall of Forest Festival Princesses dating back to 1945. Each princess is back-lit and wears a crown, except for 1968’s princess, Jan Gwinett, who holds her crown to the side so as not to trouble her bouffant hairdo.

The Forest Festival also features a Paul Bunyan story-writing contest open to Mason County’s high school students. This year’s winning story is about Lucy, Paul’s ill-natured purple cow, who produces strawberry ice cream during the winter. Many of the students opt to write their stories using “tall tale” jargon, much like in the Yosemite Sam cartoons. Other stories reflect teen angst, as shown in the story about Paul Bunyan’s ill-fated romance with “Anita Pinita, the smallest woman in Mexico”. Still other stories focus on Babe, including a story featuring Babe’s parents, Bobby and Babette.

With the myth of Paul Bunyan so firmly rooted in Shelton’s culture, the Paul Bunyan statue has been an important part of the town’s landscape. The statue came to Shelton in the mid- 1960s, when brothers Ed and Bob Binger bought it for $1,600 to promote their chain of gas stations. Originally they hauled the statue from station to station, until it was kidnapped by college students in Tacoma. Thinking the statue would be safer in Shelton, the Binger brothers installed him permanently at their gas station downtown. Despite their vigilance, it was beheaded during a rash of vandalism that also resulted in the plywood cut-out of the Santa next to the Burger Pit being sawn off at the knees.

The Binger Brothers sold their station to Gull, and in 1991, Gull closed the gas station altogether. A custody battle over the statue quickly erupted between the City of Shelton and the Mason County Tourism Council. The Tourism Council’s plan was to put the statue at the tourist center in Taylor Towne. “We’d fix it up and paint it real nice,” The Shelton Journal reported a member of the Council’s board as saying. “Absolutely not,” a member of the local Chamber of Commerce replied. A city employee spearheading Shelton’s fight to keep the statue added that she intended to “get him into our hot little hands before something happened to him.”

In the end, the City of Shelton won the battle and promptly hauled the statue to the city’s wastewater treatment plant where it lay ignored for a year, its axe on the ground beside it. In 1992, the City agreed to give the statue to Shelton High School to use as a mascot for its football team, the Shelton Highclimbers.

The statue was repainted in the school’s colors and acquired the painted suspenders it still wears. However, the statue was too tempting a target for vandals. Its axe was stolen on the eve of a football game with a rival high school in Tumwater. The statue suffered another beheading, this time having rope strung through holes in its head and being suspended between two trees. Officials at the high school locked up the statue’s head and left the body lying behind the high school’s stadium. At one point a homeless boy slept in the roomy cavity of the statue’s chest.

In 1996, Lloyd Prouty convinced the high school to give him the statue so that he could restore it and return it to a protected, but regular, presence in Shelton’s community. Prouty is an antique car enthusiast, and he fashioned a five-foot long muffler for the statue so that he can replace Paul’s axe when he takes the statue to car shows. Prouty is also looking for a fiberglass ox to mount on a pickup truck to accompany the Paul Bunyan statue to parades and car shows.

Puyallup, Washington
The Paul Bunyan statue at the Paul Bunyan Gun and Rifle Club in Puyallup, Washington has a new paint job. His pants are crisp black and his shirt is blue, but his skin is the pink of scar tissue. “I’m not crazy about the skin color,” Doug Shellen-berger, the gun club’s caretaker, says. “Too light. Next time we’ll mix it darker.”

Although Shellenberger wasn’t responsible for the statue’s pallor, he has added to the statue’s details over the years. “When you get up on the forklift, you can really see the details. See, I painted the buttons on his shirt and pants. You can see the hat has a tassel, so I painted that yellow.” The rest of the hat is green. The statue’s nostrils are freshly black, and the buttons running down his shirt are buff with a faint black outline.

“The eyes were tough,” Shellen-berger says. “I didn’t know if I should outline the irises or leave them be.”

Shellenberger, a retired timber cruiser, lives in a mobile home surrounded by dahlias and Douglas fir near the club’s entrance. Besides keeping tabs on who comes in and out of the club, he teaches junior marksmanship and has coached high school students to college scholarships in across the United States. “I do pretty well teaching the girls. They focus. The boys, though … it all goes in one ear and out the other.”As well as being the largest civilian shooting range in the Pacific Northwest, the gun club is a tree farm. The club has been named the Paul Bunyan Gun and Rifle Club since its inception, but it has only had a Paul Bunyan statue for about fifteen years. The statue originally stood outside a Dairy Queen across the street from the Hi Ho Shopping Center downtown. The Dairy Queen closed and a motel and restaurant opened in its place, still keeping the statue to greet motorists as they crossed the river from Fife.

In the mid-1980s, a windstorm snapped the statue off at the ankles, and members of the gun club persuaded the owners of the restaurant to retire Paul to the country. By then the statue had lost its axe. A few of the members loaded the statue on a flatbed truck, drove it to the club, and spent a year repairing it. They cut holes in its boots and filled them with cement so that the statue wouldn’t blow over in the winds that cut through the valley. They also fastened a guidewire to his back and tied him to a nearby tree.

After another year or so, a member of the club made the statue an axe out of PVC pipe and a few pieces of sheet metal. Eventually a family of swallows moved into the axe’s handle. Shellen-berger mounted another piece of PVC pipe on a tree next to the statue, but the swallows prefer nesting in Paul’s axe.

Portland, Oregon
“Dig out your plaid shirts,” the invitation reads, “you are invited to a tree planting.” In the Kenton neighborhood of Portland, at the intersection of North Interstate Avenue and Willis Boulevard, a crowd has gathered around Paul Bunyan. Tri-Met has organized a ceremony to celebrate the planting of the first tree along the new Interstate MAX line, a 20-foot tall sequoia it will place directly behind the statue.

Portland’s Paul Bunyan statue is 37 feet tall and weighs six tons. He wears the traditional plaid shirt (this one red and white) and he holds his axe directly in front of him, its head resting near his boots. He has a full, black beard, and his lips are parted to reveal a solid block of white teeth. His nose is long and would constitute an expert-level ski slope. The goofy expression in his eyes might be explained by their unflinching gaze at the Dancin’ Bare strip club across the street.

The statue was erected in 1959 at the intersection of Interstate and Denver avenues by the Kenton Businessmen’s Association to celebrate Oregon’s centennial. The Centennial Fair was held in the livestock yards nearby. In the days before Interstate 5, travelers from Washington entered Portland through Interstate Avenue. As they crossed the Columbia River, they were almost immediately confronted with the statue’s friendly visage. Rumor has it that more than one drunk driver, surprised in the middle of the night to see a vast giant with an axe, crashed into the statue’s base.

Kenton was founded in the early part of the 20th century as a company town for the Swift Meatpacking Company. By 1910, the livestock exchange also moved to Kenton, ensuring that three out of every four of Kenton’s residents were either trading livestock or butchering them.

The Paul Bunyan statue was designed by the owner of the Kenton Machine Works and was constructed by neighborhood welders and iron workers, then plastered by the union’s apprentice plasterers. An itinerant welder called Frenchy sculpted Bunyan’s face. The Portland Tribune reported that Frenchy used to telephone the owner of the Kenton Machine Works from taverns across the western states to confirm to other barflies his responsibility for the statue’s facial features.

When the Centennial Fair ended, Kenton’s permit for the statue expired, and the Businessmen’s Association planned to demolish the statue. However, state officials decided to allow the neighborhood to keep the statue indefinitely as long as the tourism office could put an information booth at the statue’s feet. But with the arrival of I-5 in 1964, the information booth moved to Jantzen Beach, and traffic through Kenton dropped to a trickle. The Kenton neighborhood slid into decline, the Paul Bunyan statue with it. By the early 1990s, as Kenton regularly posted some of the highest crime rates in Portland, the statue had become a kitschy monument that most Portlanders had heard of but never seen.

Recently, however, urban renewal has arrived in Kenton, and as the neighborhood becomes more prosperous, the statue is seeing better days. To make room for the new light rail line along Interstate Avenue through Kenton, Tri-Met moved Paul Bunyan fifty feet, to a plaza in front of a bank. Besides planting sequoias behind the statue, Tri-Met commissioned a sculptor to make bench-sized replicas of Babe’s footprints. Next they plan to repaint the statue’s pants, taking them from a worn, stonewashed blue to a hipper, dark-rinse hue.

Angela Sanders is a relentlessly curious writer in Portland; Michael Brophy is a terrific painter in Portland; and Michael's late dad Michael, we note with a prayer in our mouths, was both a Columbia Prep grad (1948) and University of Portland grad (1952).

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