A few years back, Michael Edmonds was toiling away at his job with the Wisconsin Historical Society when he happened upon a newspaper clipping from 1916 about Bernice Stewart. She was a UW college student who'd gone 'round to northern Wisconsin logging camps, asking lumberjacks to share what yarns they could spin about a feller name of Paul Bunyan.
Bunyan, of course, was a fabled woodsman possessed of boundless strength and appetites. He and his blue ox, who in later tellings acquired the name "Babe," lived large and on the land. Paul's pipe held a bushel of tobacco. He cooked on a griddle so large it was greased by assistants with hams strapped to their feet. He logged one section despite 40 feet of snow, then came back in spring for the 40-foot stumps.
"I could remember hearing many of the stories as a kid," relates Edmonds, whose discovery got him hungry to learn more. "I began to wonder where it all started. What made it intriguing is that no one else seemed to know."
Stewart had, as a lowly undergrad, compiled one of the earliest archives of lore about the legendary ax-wielder. Some of these stories were made famous by others, after the lumberjack way of life was logged into extinction.
In time, more trees than Bunyan ever logged were felled to print all of the books and articles written about him. Michael Edmonds realized that if you took all these words and stacked them up, you'd need a week of lookin' just to see the top. Still he set out to add some more.
His book, Out of the Northwoods: The Many Lives of Paul Bunyan, from the Wisconsin Historical Society Press, ponders a simple question about America's most original and enduring folk hero: Where did Paul Bunyan come from?
Over the years, many folks have wondered about Bunyan's time and place of origin. Some say he was imported from Canada, perhaps originally as the folk hero Bon Jean (no relation to Bon Jovi). Others say he followed loggers to the Midwest from Maine. Still others say he sprang from the north woods of Wisconsin, Minnesota or Michigan.
Besides Stewart, there are many other Wisconsin ties to Bunyan. Charles E. Brown, head of the Wisconsin Historical Museum, was one of the nation's preeminent collector of Bunyan tales.
And Gene Shepard, a raconteur from Rhinelander, claimed to have invented Bunyan. Problem was, Shepard also claimed to have captured a live hodag, a mythical north woods creature. (It was actually a fur-covered log, which he charged folks for the privilege of being fooled by.)
In those early days, notes Edmonds, there wasn't any set "canon" of Bunyan tales. "Instead, nearly all evidence indicates that loggers' spoken references to Bunyan were fragmentary, impromptu and created on the fly in a collaboration between the speaker and his audience."
Bunyan was a fetchin' subject for weary lumberjacks after a day of tasks one official commission deemed "more deadly than war." As Edmonds puts it, "He expressed the fears and aspirations of uneducated loggers as they risked their lives in a brutal occupation in the frozen wilderness." Back then, logging drove the state's economy, in the 1890s accounting for a quarter of its jobs.
Though lackin' in book-learnin', these loggers were a clever lot. Bunyan shot geese flying so high they rotted 'fore they hit the ground. It was so cold the flame on his lantern froze. He adopted a pet fish who learnt to live on land, until it one day fell into a river and drowned.
Fittingly enough, Edmonds' book wraps up with more than 100 Bunyan tales collected by the likes of Bernice Stewart. These tales are as true as tall tales can be, told, writes Edmonds, in Wisconsin logging camps "around bunkhouse camp stoves on long winter evenings."
Oral stories, 'tis said, ain't worth the paper they're printed on; but putting them in print has drawbacks too.
Edmonds laments the loss of many a yarn as early collectors dared not relate "scatological and salacious Bunyan tales," like those dealing with Bunyan's "sexual prowess and private parts" - which, he avers, were presumably "in proportion to the rest of his physique."
And soon the legend of Paul Bunyan fell into the hands of folks who'd never even laid eyes on a real lumberjack. He became an advertising gimmick for a lumber company, a darling of mainstream publishing houses, a twinkle in Walt Disney's eye.
This turn of events mightily troubles Edmonds, who clucks about how poor Paul was made into a "jovial, working-class buffoon." But here's another way of seein' it: Paul Bunyan proved himself large enough to, as Whitman said, "contain multitudes." His legacy is as vast as the nation that gave him birth. He's been reinvented more often than Bob Dylan. You get the point.
As for the question about the big man's roots, Edmonds - after a mighty round of research in Wisconsin and Minnesota - reckons the earliest reliable account of Bunyan tale-tellin' took place in the mid-1880s at a logging camp near Tomahawk, Wis. Of course, just his sayin' so won't likely put the matter to rest.
Michael Edmonds, author of Out of the Northwoods, will discuss the origin and legend of Paul Bunyan at the Wisconsin Historical Society, 30 N. Carroll St., on Feb. 6, 11 am1 pm. The event begins with a hearty lumberjack brunch and ends with a book signing. The cost is $15 for adults and $11 for children. Register and pay by Jan. 31 at http://shop.wisconsinhistory.org.