You haven’t lived until you’ve stood in the shadow of the colossus statues of lumberjack Paul Bunyan and his sidekick Babe the Blue Ox along the shores of beautiful Lake Bemidji in northern Minnesota. And, judging by the number of photos and selfies on the web, plenty of us have, (Kodak themselves mention that they may be the second most photographed statues in the U.S.).
The statues, built by locals Cyril Dickinson and Jim Payton, initially served as mascots for a lumberjack-themed winter carnival at the lakeside town in 1937. Bemidji’s New Deal-era Paul and Babe are not to be confused with Portland, Oregon’s mid-century Paul Bunyan, or the ones in Bangor, Maine, Klamath, California, or even down the road in Brainerd, Minnesota (to name a few). The original, and the many others were inspired by the legend of folk hero lumberjack Paul Bunyan, who was the subject of oral and written tales among North American loggers and of early 20th century lumber company promotions.
Bemidji has drawn visitors since the late 1800s, particularly outdoorsy types. The growing popularity of the automobile in the 1920s and 1930s secured the town’s fate as a retreat destination. Early day motor courts, cottages, and lakeside cabins still dot the local landscape as evidence of this trend.
Town boosters, wanting to expand the tourist season beyond the few beautiful weeks in the summer, thought it a good idea to host a carnival in January 1937 showcasing the area’s wintertime offerings. January, by the way, is the coldest month in these parts, with average highs climbing to around 12 degrees. Festivity organizers installed enormous statues of Paul and Babe to serve as carnival mascots, and they were so popular, particularly after their feature in Life magazine, that they were installed as permanent fixtures alongside Lake Bemidji for all to visit.
The well-maintained statues reside in a small park adjacent to the local tourist information center. Both statues are made of “concrete over a steel frame with a plaster finish and painted features.” Paul is about 18 feet tall and has a wood mustache and pipe. Babe is about 10 feet tall.
Quirky roadside architecture is not particularly unusual. These two Bemidji statues, however, are among the earliest examples still standing. To recognize their significance, they were added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1988.