Facial Hair Friday: Paul Bunyan

In a city park overlooking Lake Bemidji in northern Minnesota sit two larger-than-life statues depicting fictional lumberjack Paul Bunyan and his reliable companion, Babe the Blue Ox. The roadside attraction, created in 1937, is still very popular with tourists to this day. 

The statues were constructed of a steel frame covered with concrete with a plaster finish, then painted. Bunyan, who is about 18 feet tall, 5 feet wide at the base, and 3 feet from toe to heel, sports a wooden mustache and pipe. He wears a gray cap, red plaid shirt, blue pants, red socks, and black shoes. His eyes were made of lights that illuminated, and he was equipped with a public address system to talk. Not creepy at all. 

Babe the Blue Ox is painted blue, obviously. He is 10 feet tall, 8 feet across the front hoofs, and about 23 feet from nose to tail. Exhaust pipes were installed to give him the allusion of blowing steam out of his nostrils. 

The statues were the creation of local residents Cyril M. Dickinson and Jim Payton for a lumberjack-themed winter carnival in January 1937. To stimulate tourism in the midst of the Great Depression, Bemidji residents held a winter carnival to highlight the city’s cold weather offerings. Thanks to support from the Works Progress Administration, the city had a brand-new winter sports arena with indoor ice skating, hockey, and curling, and organizers hoped to make Lake Bemidji a winter travel destination.  

The statues were so popular that they became permanent fixtures. They have been repainted several times over the years, most recently in 2016. Bunyan’s pipe is also smaller than the original, and sadly the PA system and exhaust pipes have been long disabled. 

In 1988 the duo was added to the National Register of Historic Places, as Minnesota’s first and best-known example of “the roadside colossus” and in recognition of their historically significant role in promoting tourism in northern Minnesota.

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