The Paul Bunyans
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Portland, OR

“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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