Paul Bunyan turns 50, but what does his future hold?

Posted Jan. 23, 2009, at 9:06 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 13, 2011, at 11:07 a.m.

BANGOR, Maine — He looms 37 feet over Main Street, inanimate yet full of life: a smiling, bearded, flannel shirt-wearing behemoth with a peavey in his left hand and an ax slung over his right shoulder.

Part city guardian, part tourist trap, the statue of Paul Bunyan is as indelible an image as Bangor has, a constant reminder of the Queen City’s history as the one-time lumber capital of the world.

“Some people say he’s schmaltzy and he doesn’t belong,” Bangor Mayor Gerry Palmer said recently. “But he’s still the most photographed site in the entire city. And you know what? He’s ours.”

For Bunyan, though, who has been immortalized in painted fiberglass for 50 years, times are changing.

Not long ago, the famous lumberjack boasted unobstructed views of the Penobscot River, where timber logs once floated in bunches to their final destination.

Now, directly in his line of sight, sits Hollywood Slots Hotel and Raceway, a modern symbol of consumerism and perhaps the antithesis of Bunyan’s frontier heritage.

The view behind him is soon to change as well. City leaders have long sought to replace the aging Bangor Auditorium with a new civic center and arena that would attract more commerce and visitors to the city. Those plans are inching closer to reality.

As Bunyan approaches his 50th birthday next month (the statue, not the legend), the inevitable question emerges: Is it time for Bangor’s most famous citizen (sorry, Mr. King) to find a new home?

“They talked about [moving him] when the casino came in. It seems like they’re always talking about it,” said J. Normand Martin, the local artist who designed Bangor’s famous statue a half-century ago. “But he’s lasted all these years. This is his home.”

True birthplace

The myth of Paul Bunyan, a lumberjack of unprecedented size and strength who put the “tall” in tall tales, reportedly has been around since the late-1800s.

He first lived in folklore told by woodsmen around campfires, but authors later took up the torch to spread his stories. To this day, Bunyan and his bestial companion, Babe the Blue Ox, are featured in many books and compilations that detail their heroic feats.

While the legend’s exact origins remain mysterious, dozens of communities across the country have laid claim as his birthplace, including Bangor.

In 2005, a Michigan state representative passed a resolution that recognizes the city of Oscada as “the true birthplace of the legend of Paul Bunyan as first set in ink by James MacGillivray based on the life of logger Fabian Fournier.”

MacGillivray published the first known tale of Bunyan in the Oscada Press in 1906, according to a 2005 story in that same paper. The Oscada Press still features a likeness of Bunyan on its masthead. (Alas, the Bangor Daily News does not.)

Another Midwest city, Bemidji, Minn., claims Bunyan was born there and has a statue of both Bunyan and Babe to mark the birthplace. The city’s Web site devotes an extended page to the legend’s exploits.

Many more cities across the country boast statues of Bunyan, Babe and sometimes both. Brainerd, Minn., has a Paul Bunyan-themed amusement park. Large woodcarvings of Bunyan and Babe are on display along Highway 101 in Klamath, Calif. Muncie, Ind.; Eau Claire, Wis.; and Portland, Ore., are just a few of the many more communities that pay some tribute to Bunyan.

The western Maine town of Rumford has a Bunyan statue too, though it’s much smaller than the one in Bangor.

Dick Shaw, a local historian, said Bangor certainly is the most logical origin for Bunyan simply because American loggers traditionally started in the East and moved west.

Palmer, Bangor’s mayor and an avid historian in his own right, insists there is no debate over Bunyan’s true home.

“We have his birth certificate,” he said. “It’s hanging up in the clerk’s office.”

Of course, Palmer is right. And, like Bunyan himself, the certificate is considerably larger than average.

Cementing his roots

Bangorians — and Midwesterners, too — will concede that it’s likely Bunyan roamed the U.S. during his lifetime. Many believe that Bunyan’s footprints formed the 10,000 lakes of Minnesota and that Bunyan created the Great Lakes to have an adequate drinking supply for his ox. Some even claim that the Grand Canyon was created when Bunyan mistakenly dragged his peavey for a stretch.

But in the Northeast, Bangor will always be his home, and Bunyan’s statue, which soon will turn 50, only helped to cement those roots.

Rick Bronson, a longtime resident and current city councilor, has a personal attachment to the creation he calls “tall Paul.” Both of Bronson’s parents served on the committee that planned the city’s 125th birthday in the late 1950s, and a handful of those meetings were held in the family’s living room.

“They were looking for something that would stay behind after the celebration was over,” he said.

After much discussion, Bronson’s mother, Connie Bronson said, “What about Paul Bunyan?”

“The rest is history,” her son said. “So she gets the credit or blame.”

Martin, who at the time was a budding artist working for a local advertising agency in Bangor, told his boss at the time that he would “take a crack” at designing a model for a statue. It took him a week to sculpt a 22-inch statue out of clay. He was paid $137.

“They were looking for something realistic, something handsome,” Martin said.

The city enlisted a New York-based company, Messmoor & Damon, to construct the statue from Martin’s model. The designer recalls flying to the Big Apple with the Bunyan statue on his lap because he feared it might break otherwise.

When it was delivered to Bangor in early 1959, the statue came in massive pieces that were assembled before the 125th birthday celebration.

Palmer said it was deliberately set back from the road to allow tourists and others to take photographs without wading into the Main Street traffic.

And there Bunyan has stood for 50 years, a historic landmark or a kitschy eyesore, depending on the viewer.

“I’ve seen a lot of the other statues,” Bronson said. “The Bangor one is by far the best.”

What does his future hold?

In recent weeks, Palmer and other city leaders have been busy making plans for Bangor’s 175th birthday party on Feb. 12, which also coincides with Bunyan’s 50th.

The mayor said the statue will be featured prominently in any festivities, but his long-term status on Main Street remains a mystery, much like the man himself.

“He needs a little TLC,” Palmer said. “But he’s still smiling.”

Martin said the statue probably can’t last forever, although he’s amazed it has held up this long.

“It was strictly a gimmick,” he said. “It was never intended to be a work of art.”

The artist said he’s even a little embarrassed that Bunyan is what he’s known for. “It’s certainly not the work I’m most proud of,” Martin said.

And yet it’s as much a part of Bangor’s cultural fabric as any other landmark. Several years ago, when a large Shriners convention was held in Bangor, someone put a fez atop the statue. When country musician Willie Nelson staged a concert at the nearby auditorium, Bunyan briefly donned a bandana.

“I think every city has a love-hate relationship with its public art,” Shaw said. “This is certainly something that people love to poke fun at. But if the statue was too artistic, people probably wouldn’t have liked that, either.”

For now, all indications are that Bunyan will remain overlooking Main Street, but city leaders seem open to possibilities.

“Without a good reason it will stay where it is, but if a compelling reason emerges, I could see him being moved,” Bronson said.

“To me, it would be a bitch to move,” Martin said, laughing.

Shaw said the riverfront would be the most logical place for Bunyan to relocate because of its connection to the city’s historic logging past.

He agreed with Martin, though, that moving the man would be a logistical nightmare.

“If it did ever move, I’m sure it would be some kind of parade.”

erussell@bangordailynews.net

990-8167

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