The Farm Chronicles: Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox

Our family’s Great Western Tour of 1963 took us to every state West of the Mississippi. There were really no super highways as we have today, so the trip often took us through small towns, what would now be called the “business route.” Back then, especially in rural areas, there was a lot of competition for the tourist and those who were just passing through. Great effort was taken to place signs and billboards even a hundred miles out to attract people to a town. I remember rolling across the New Mexico dessert and seeing signs “Last Chance for Gas” or “Last Gas for 100 Miles at Rattle Snake Bill’s.” There was always a warning for the tourist trap ahead with some sort of added feature like snakes or Indian relics.

Old Route 2 out of North Dakota into Minnesota was pretty “Northwoodsy” and as an eight-year old boy, my thoughts and imaginations kind of turned with the road signs from images of cowboys crossing the Badlands to the adventures of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox. Paul Bunyan was a huge lumberjack that cleared many forests in the Dakotas and the Northwoods of Minnesota and Wisconsin. Legend has it that he was so large that his footprints are what formed the 10,000 lakes of Minnesota. Truth is, the legend of Paul Bunyan is pretty embellished. Some have traced the folklore back to a French-Canadian lumberjack named Fabian “Saginaw Joe” Fournier. Fournier lived from 1845 to 1875 and was killed when he was hit on the head with a mallet swung by stone mason Blinky Robertson in Bay City, Michigan.

No one has ever documented exactly whether Paul Bunyan was an actual person or a myth. In books written about him, some older lumberjacks claimed to know Bunyan and the supposed location of his grave was actually thought to be in northern Minnesota. I had seen the Disney short film about Paul Bunyan’s escapades where he competes with his axe in a contest against a steam-powered mechanical saw. He was fantastic. And up ahead, I was going to see Paul Bunyan and Babe in person, well maybe. My parents cautioned me not to get my hopes up because I should have learned by then (a month into our trip) that the road signs and billboards exaggerate.

True, they were often a disappointment. But I was excited anyway. The two lane road seemed to weave in and out of the heavily wooded forests forever. I was thinking that Bunyan must not have done all that great of a job clearing out the timber in this area. Finally, in the distance I could see Bunyan’s head peaking up over the trees. He and Babe looked like a paper Mache project from the kids at school, only bigger. We got out and walked around, took a couple of pictures and, well, that was about it. All that built up excitement and then “poof,” kind of like the dinosaur at Dinosaur Park in South Dakota a few days earlier. In Jeremiah 33:3, the Lord says “Call to Me, and I will answer you, and show you great and mighty things, which you do not know.” Certainly, I saw a lot of great things during that trip. Some greater than others, but all wonderful.

Posted in

Bill Wilson