Folklore and Fakelore: Paul Bunyan and the American Past

When I was a kid, we would often go for dinner at Paul Bunyan's Cook Shanty in Minocqua, Wisconsin. I marveled over the large slices of white bread with butter, the tin cups filled to the brim with milk and water, and the manufactured ambience of the old lumber industry that covered the walls. I loved that place and still do; there was something about it that dredged up old memories, remembrances of a past that never existed merging with a real past.

The lumber industry was a major part of American history as the demand for timber rose in parts of the country that had little access to giant timber. At its peak, in 1900, annual production of lumber reached around 35 million board feet and the Midwest was depleted of much of its virgin timber. Major industries, such as railroad and coal mining, depleted resources as the nation entered a period of expansion and technological development after the Civil War.

Lumberjacks maintained a sense of identity and traditional pride even as their trade became big business, showing great skill with handsaws and axes and developing a folklore rich in terminology and regional and ethnic slang. Storytelling has long been part of camp work in which men work in large groups. Like the cowboys, the lumberjacks entertained themselves with song and story. In popular culture, the lumberjack has a distinctive style and diet, as well as a certain reputation for great deeds. Anyone who has looked at the few old growth forests that still exist can appreciate how skilled these men were with basic tools. Now the lumber industry has machinery that can clear land quickly. No longer do men have to ferry logs down rivers but can load them on trucks. The old skills are still showcased in professional lumberjack competitions, where men compete to show their mastery in categories like block chops, speed climbs, and log rolling.

The style (suspenders, flannel shirts, beards, and penchant for pancakes) and legendary deeds (clearing forests in no time at all and building up a heavy appetite while doing it) of the lumberjack, has never been better encapsulated than in the legend of Paul Bunyan. His deeds have long been known by every school child. They mix the real-life trials of the lumberjack and the daily folklore with the mythic and embellished rhetoric of the newspaperman. Bunyan is not just a snapshot of the powerful and accomplished lumberjack. He is a larger-than-life figure, metaphorically and literally, who is based on other real legendary figures, such as Joseph Montferrand, the basis for Big Joe Mufferaw, who fought for the rights of oppressed French Canadian timber men and had a natural genesis in Ottawa Valley. Montferrand stood 6 foot 4 inches and was known for his street fighting ability.

Paul Bunyan began life as snippets in Michigan and other logging camps that borrowed from older traditional tales, and grew to epic proportions at the hands of newspapermen.William B. Laughead embellished and built on the legend for the Red River Lumber Company in California, growing Bunyan to impossible heights and adding his giant ox mascot, Babe the Blue Ox. From this point, the folklore of Bunyan becomes what Richard M. Dorson termed, fakelore. Because many of these fabricated tales, even as they build on memory and real tales of the logging camps, have been handed down as traditional. They tell of a past that never really existed, merging memory and enjoyable fiction. Bunyan becomes a figure like Pecos Bill whose exploits were also created to emphasize the deeds of cowboys.

The term fakelore is seldom used in folklore studies today because it places undue attention on the origins of folklore to determine it's authenticity. Current practices focus on the ongoing development of tales, and Bunyan stories have entered back into folklore, where they have been reinterpreted and retold. Dorson argued that journalistic chroniclers of folklore made it sentimental and tacky and removed much of the feel of the logging camps by cutting terminology and making Bunyan too much of a hero.

For all that, Bunyan is the epitome of a lumberjack to many who will never experience the logging industry in the 19th century. His exploits stand tall somewhere between memory and imagination. He is an amalgamation of the true ethics of a social group and rampant industrialization, the thoughts of an ad man distilled through the lens of 19th century working class ethics. As I think back on my time at Paul Bunyan's Cook Shanty, I remember that mix of the modern and the past -- a mashup of the down home and the commercial, the historical and the fantastic; the crossroads of how the average American deals with the past. Our folklore and our history is intermingled. We are dreamers and figures like Paul Bunyan continue to represent that dream. He is larger than life like the tales and passions that make up the American landscape.


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