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Paul Bunyan: Big year for a big legend

BEMIDJI - It was only fitting that Bemidji Mayor Dave Larson used Paul Bunyan's giant pencil to sign a proclamation making 2012 "The Year of the Legend" in honor of the famed Bemidji statue's 75th birthday.

Paul Bunyon
Bemidji Mayor Dave Larson uses a giant pencil Friday to sign a proclamation stating 2012 as the "Year of the Legend" in honor of Paul Bunyan's 75th birthday.

BEMIDJI - It was only fitting that Bemidji Mayor Dave Larson used Paul Bunyan's giant pencil to sign a proclamation making 2012 "The Year of the Legend" in honor of the famed Bemidji statue's 75th birthday.

Larson, who also read a brief history of the statue and some tall tales about Paul Bunyan, made the proclamation at a kick-off event Friday afternoon at the Tourist Information Center, where colorful Paul Bunyan-sized birthday cards from school classrooms were hard to miss.

"Let the events begin and the Year of the Legend begin," Larson said as he cut a red and black ribbon with, of course, a giant scissors.

'Legend lives on'

Holding the ribbon were sisters Suzanne Thomas and Liz Letson, their mother, Mariann, and their cousin Mark Dickinson, all clad in red and black plaid attire. All have close ties to Bemidji and its legendary logger.


Cyril Dickinson of Dickinson Construction Company was delegated to build Bemidji's famous Paul Bunyan statue in 1937. Cyril was the great-uncle of Suzanne, Liz and Mark. Suzanne and Liz are the daughters of Earle, who was the son of Cyril's brother Leonard; Mark is the son of Leonard's son Dick.

"The legend lives on in terms of our family," Letson said.

"We're excited," said Thomas, who is director of operations at Buena Vista Ski Area, where she said Paul Bunyan will be featured all season. The celebration there will kick off Feb. 4 with Buena Vista Logging Days, an event originating with Leonard and Earle Dickinson along with Ben Rajala.

"The Dickinsons have a great, rich and deep history in molding and shaping our great community of Bemidji," Larson said. "The Dickinsons are tied to the logging industry that Bemidji and Paul Bunyan are connected with. Rep. Leonard Dickinson was instrumental in the construction of state Highway 34 many, many years ago."

"We're going to have a great time - a lot of good things happening," Larson said.

Happy birthday, Paul

Friday's ribbon-cutting event was preceded by a birthday party for Paul Bunyan at the Beltrami County History Center, where the Historical Society unveiled more than 400 pieces of Paul Bunyan memorabilia in an exhibit that will be added to throughout the year.

"It's really exciting," said Nicole Foss, director of the Beltrami County Historical Society. "I think this topic really resonates with people. It's fun to work in so many local ties."


Foss said the Historical Society is looking for photos of people with Paul and his blue ox, Babe. The photos will be put together in a giant mosaic that, when viewed from a distance, will form an image of the larger than life duo. Mitch Blessing of Design Angler will design the mosaic, which Foss said will hopefully be unveiled in June.

Fact or fiction?

Wayne Chamberlain, dressed as the man of the hour, made an appearance to share historical information about the origins of the legend in a presentation titled "Paul Bunyan the Legend: Fact or Fiction?"

While 200 Paul Bunyan statues exist in the United States, Paul has received the greatest attention in northern and central Minnesota, he said. "It is here that Paul has become larger than life."

Chamberlain wore a red-and-black plaid shirt and cap and big black boots. After his presentation, Chamberlain took on the persona of Paul, chatting with those who lingered and joking that rumors of his death were greatly exaggerated.

Chamberlain and Carol Olson, administrative assistant for the Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce and manager of the Tourist Information Center, each loaned about 200 items for the exhibit.

Mountains of memorabilia

Many books, photos and figurines are part of the exhibit, as well as apparel, records, VHS tapes and DVDs, pins, buttons, collector plates, mugs, posters, banners, playing cards and many other items. A sculpture of Paul and Babe, sculpted by Sharon Forberg and Joann Heinen, is under glass and a giant Bemidji Woolen Mills red-and-black plaid jacket hangs on the wall. Some unusual items include a Paul Bunyan jack-in-the-box, a Paul Bunyan Log Builders Construction Set (similar to Lincoln Logs) and a General Electric Show 'N' Tell Phono Viewer, a combination turntable and filmstrip viewer, with a Show 'N' tell Picturesound program featuring Paul Bunyan.


While Olson has been collecting Paul and Babe memorabilia for decades, Chamberlain started in 2001, shortly after he portrayed Paul Bunyan for the first time as a mascot for the Paul Bunyan Scenic Byway.

When Chamberlain portrayed Paul for a second time, at Beanhole Days in Pequot Lakes, Minn., he encountered a 4-year-old boy and his father at the local post office. The boy, entranced by Chamberlain's costume, told his father, "Dad, I know that man. ... Dad, that's Paul Bunyan!"

"I was hooked," Chamberlain said. "That's all it took."

He has gone on to play Paul in about 200 parades and community events. Friday's portrayal was his first as Paul Bunyan in Bemidji, but he told the Historical Society that he would be willing to do more appearances in the 75th birthday year.

Sense of pride

Present at the birthday party were the granddaughter, great-granddaughter and great-great granddaughter of Simon Lee, a mason who worked on the Paul Bunyan statue. Marty Watts of Bemidji was joined by her daughter, Kim Nagle of Guthrie, and granddaughter, Mandy Gazelka of Bemidji, who herself has two young children.

Watts was only 6 years old when her father worked on the statue, but she remembers watching the process.

"I liked to watch Grandpa work, because it was so precise," she said.

Watts said she thinks of her grandfather every time she sees the statue or thinks about it.

"It's like the best thing to be able to say, 'My great-great- grandpa built that," Gazelka said.

Lee was a hard worker who never missed a day of work, Watts said.

"He was a miniature Paul Bunyan," Nagle said. "He wasn't a big man at all. He wore plaid shirts from the Woolen Mills" and a lumberjack hat with ear flaps.

When people once suggested moving the Paul and Babe statues, Watts said her mother, Helen Lee Walters, said, "I'd like to see them try."

Watts has seven children and 39 grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Most of them make it to Bemidji every year for a family "tourist day," Watts said.

"People come from all over the country to see what we already have," Gazelka said.

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