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Paul Bunyan and His Loggers   By:

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Paul Bunyan and His Loggers


Paul Bunyan and His Loggers


Paul Bunyan was the logging industry; not, to be sure, as it is found in Forest Service Reports or in profit and loss statements, but rather as it burned in the bones of the true North Woods lumberjack. To understand the significance of the Bunyan stories one must know something of the men who first told them.

While the lumber industry has found a place in every section of the country except the treeless plains, it was the pineries of the Lake States which furnished most of its romance. Logging had begun on the Atlantic Coast even before the first permanent English settlement, but it never reached a size sufficient to challenge the imagination until it came to the Lake States. While the industry had begun on Lake Erie about 1800, its development in the West was slow until after the Civil War. By that time saw mill machinery was ready to make lumber rapidly and cheaply, and the fast growing population of the Mississippi Valley brought the market within reach of the forests. After 1865 the lumbermen swept across Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota like a whirlwind, laying waste with ax and saw that mighty pine forest, until by 1900 all that remained were small fragments of the original forest and hundreds of miles of stumps. Then they passed on to the Gulf States or the Pacific Coast.

"Down East" logging had been largely a side line to agriculture or other occupations, although there were some men who were full time loggers, but with the opening up of the Lake States, logging became a distinct profession, with a professional pride in work and a devotion to it which kept the logger from straying off into other industries. The logger went into the woods early in the fall, spent the entire winter snow bound in a lonely camp with other men like minded with himself, a dozen to a hundred or more of them. With the spring thaw they brought the logs down the river in a great drive, and then spent their winter stake in a blaze of glory among the bright lights of a sawdust town. Then they went into the saw mills till it was time to return to the woods in the fall. It was during the long winter evenings in the bunk houses, with the loggers gathered about the red hot stove and the air full of the smell of drying clothes and tobacco smoke, that the Paul Bunyan tales were born and grew.

These stories find their original in a French Canadian, Paul Bunyon, who first came into prominence during the Papineau rebellion in 1837, when, by remarkable feats of strength and daring, he won the admiration of his countrymen. Then for many years he was the outstanding logging boss in all the St. Lawrence River country. When the loggers from this region went into the Michigan woods about 1850 they took with them the stories of their great hero, which stories, naturally, lost nothing in the telling, particularly as they served admirably as a form of compensation device for their feelings of inferiority. Nor is it remarkable that the Yankee loggers should parody these stories to ridicule the French Canadians.

Another element which entered into the making of the Bunyan myth was the tendency to exaggeration which is common to all of us and which finds expression on so many occasions. The lumber camps had long been filled with extreme stories of many sorts, but these were usually only isolated tales. Many of them had been told to impress the tenderfoot, while many others had been wish projections, a sort of day dreaming in which one was able to do that which he never could accomplish when he had to work with stern reality. After the French Canadians brought Paul Bunyon to the camps and the practice had begun of improving on these stories, it became easy to invent a new Bunyon tale or connect up one of the other stories with the Bunyon cycle wherever the need arose for over awing a tenderfoot or of securing a refuge from the sense of frustration, or just for simple amusement... Continue reading book >>

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