What’s the Story Behind Paul Bunyan?

Ever wondered who Paul Bunyan really is and why we named a part of Turtle Bay Exploration Park after him? Our latest exhibition in the Mill Building in Paul Bunyan’s Forest Camp explores the legendary logger and his connections to our region.  

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Today, most people know Paul as a giant character capable of incredible feats. Stories, cartoons, and statues all over the U.S. celebrate this larger-than-life representation of the timber industry. What people don’t know is that he worked for decades advertising the Red River Lumber Company and later his own Paul Bunyan Lumber Company. Paul, his big blue ox Babe, and many of the other characters in his stories are primarily the creation of William Laughead. Bill began marketing the Red River Lumber Company for T. B. Walker and his family in the early 20th-century. In the process, he adapted a little-known logger’s tale and turned Paul into an icon.

As far as anyone can tell, the illustrious lumberman first appeared in print in the Detroit News-Tribune in 1910. Bill Laughead claimed that he’d heard of Paul well before that when he was working in lumber camps in Minnesota where Red River got its start. Laughead first introduced Paul Bunyan in a humorous advertising campaign about the company’s expansion into Northern California in the early 20th-century. 

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In an era long before social media, Red River relied on Bill Laughead’s clever advertising campaigns to stay in front of their competitors. In addition to newspaper and trade journal ads, the company produced several booklets of tall tales about Paul and his pals to catch and keep the attention of their clients. Soon, other writers, illustrators, and even a playwright adopted Paul Bunyan as their own, and the legendary logger reached genuinely mythic proportions. 

When Paul Bunyan Lumber closed in 1986, Paul retired to become “the guardian of the forests.” In the 1990s, Ken Walker’s family granted Turtle Bay permission to use the Bill Laughead versions of Paul, Babe, and the rest of their pals to create the identity for the first phase of Turtle Bay Exploration Park. Paul Bunyan’s Forest Camp opened in April of 1997. 

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