One of my favorite folk legends is about Paul Bunyan. He is known from coast to coast as a gigantic woodsman who could chop down a forest in a short time. Paul never existed in real life and his appearance is the figment of imagination of a Greene County native.
William B. Laughead was born in Xenia in 1883. He enjoyed drawing and some success as an artist when he provided sketches for the Xenia High School annual. He became tired of the formal education he and decided to try another career. The Xenia Daily Gazette published this notice on April 23, 1900: “Mr. William B. Laughead, who expects to earn the lumber business in the great lumber region of the Northwest, took his departure this morning for Minnesota.”
Bill was 16 when he left Xenia hoping to make his fortune as an employee of his uncle Thomas Barlow Walker at the Red River Lumber Company in Minnesota.
Working for his uncle, he received no preferential treatment. He began working as a camp chore-boy. Over the years he proved himself and so progressed to assistant bull cook, cook, timekeeper, timber cruiser, surveyor and then construction engineer. He was a good listener, and was fascinated with some of the stories he heard around the glowing camp fires. The tales told were most often amazing feats accomplished by lumberjacks or stories, some of which were greatly embellished.
Lumber in Minnesota was beginning to be somewhat scarce in 1914. Thomas Walker decided about that time to retire and leave The Red River Lumber Company business to his son Archie to manage. When Archie took over the company, he decided it would be in his best interest to move the business to California where lumber was plentiful. He needed some sort of advertising to let the valued customers know about the move. He wanted to have an interesting way to inform the customers and so he asked his cousin Bill if he could provide some sketches and perhaps some stories about the legendary Paul Bunyan. By this time, Bill was also earning a reputation as a free-lance artist. He agreed to help.
He remembered the stories he had heard when he was a young man just starting in the lumber business and so he produced a small booklet entitled “Meet Mr. Paul Bunyan from Westwood, Calif.” Archie was pleased with the publication and had it sent to his customers. The booklet assured the reader that the stories of Paul Bunyan were fiction, but that the stories about the lumber products were absolutely true.
Many customers had never heard the name of Paul Bunyan and the logging camp personalities however, more people wanted to read the stories and the demand for Paul Bunyan tales increased.
Bill modeled the characters he drew from his recollection of several men he had known in the logging industry. Paul Bunyan was a composite of two men, the face as he remembered it of one, the mustache of the other whom he described as a “loudmouthed French cook in the camps.” Paul was depicted wearing a plaid lumbering jacket and cap. He has a large mustache which stands straight out.
A second edition was printed in 1916 and a third in 1922. In all a total of 13 editions were published with a distribution of over 125,000 copies. Mr. Laughead became the head of the advertising department in 1932.
Bill had heard stories about loggers, but no names were given. He chose names for the characters he drew such as Johnny Inkslinger, Same Sourdough, Big Ole and Chris Crosshaul. As the stories grew, so did the feats Paul was able to accomplish. He was so big; he could straddle the Panama Canal and carry 500 pounds at the same time. He could cut down an entire forest with one swing of his axe.
And in case you didn’t know, he found Babe the blue ox the year of the blue snow storm when she was just a calf. When she was grown it was said that the distance between her horns was 42 axe handles and one plug of tobacco wide. Paul and Babe together straightened the Red River.
At Paul’s lumber camp food was plentiful. Appetites were so large that cooks skated around the skillet with hams on their feet to grease it for pancakes. Boys rode bicycles up and down the tables, dropping off the cakes when called for. Paul fed his men pea soup which came from a giant pipeline.
Stories of Paul Bunyan and his logging crew grow a bit with each telling and the characters seem to grow in size as well.
At one time there was some controversy about whether the stories were actual folklore, or if they were the figment of William Laughead’s active imagination. The Forest History Foundation of Saint Paul, Minn. put the matter to rest in 1957 when Bill was interviewed. It was determined that the stories were authentic folklore, being stories which had been passed down from one generation to the next from and about the men who worked in the lumber camps.
Thanks to Xenia native Bill Laughead, those stories have taken on a personality. He was the first to give Paul a face and form. Today, when someone mentions Paul Bunyan, we immediately see a very large man with a plaid shirt stretched over his muscular arms with a the large mustache.
Joan Baxter is a local resident and weekly historical columnist.