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Paul Bunyan has been very good to Bemidji, Minn. When Cyril and Leonard Dickinson and their Rotary Club cronies built their 18-foot lumberjack for Bemidji's first Winter Carnival in 1937, they had no idea they were creating a national icon.
Their blocky Bunyan landed on the pages of Life magazine and the New York Times, and the 1938 Winter Carnival drew 100,000 people to the town of 7,200. It was a bonanza for Bemidji, mired in the Depression and down to its last sawmill.
Neighboring Blackduck was quick to jump on the bandwagon; civic leaders there built a 16-foot duck and Paul's rifle, which blasted away at the bird when they rode in parades. Bemidji's Babe the Blue Ox also was a parade staple, snorting clouds of exhaust from the jalopy on which she rode.
The next entry in the Bunyan wars came in 1949, when Brainerd bought a giant talking Bunyan. In 1952, a Hackensack, Minn., grocer created "Paul Bunyan's sweetheart," the 17-foot Lucette Diana Kensack. Akeley, Minn.'s 33-foot kneeling Bunyan arrived in 1984; by then, Minnesota had lost its Bunyan franchise and plaid-shirted behemoths had popped up all over the country.
But a new one appeared in 1992, a waving Paul Jr. who stood beside a beaming, newly buxom Lucette in Hackensack. She replaced the old Lucette, whose head was blown off and hands and back damaged by storms; however, she still was only a sweetheart.
That is, until last year, when little Paul became legitimate with the "discovery" of a marriage license; the Associated Press covered the story, calls poured in from around the nation, and the town sent out 500 parchment copies at $2 apiece.
"I bet, within a year of two, I'll find his birth certificate - what d'you think?" asked Glenn Tuma, the Chamber of Commerce volunteer who uncovered the marriage license and organized a Lucette & Paul Wedding Anniversary Weekend, June 8-9.
After all these years, people are just as gaga about the big, goofy galoots.
At the end of Alexandria, Minn.'s Broadway Street, 28-foot Big Ole rarely is seen in summer without a family posing for the camera around his mukluk-clad shins. In Akeley, they clamber onto the outstretched hand of Minnesota's largest Bunyan, outside the town's Paul Bunyan History Museum. Near Lake Kabetogama, they pose for photos atop a bucking walleye, and in Hayward, Wis., they climb into the mouth of a 143-foot muskie.
Everywhere they appear, these giant mascots draw admiring crowds. They're colorful, they're kitschy and they're really, really big.
They say a lot about their hometowns - sometimes literally, as in the case of Chatty Belle, the world's largest talking cow, which lives in Neillsville, Wis.
There's a giant strawberry above Strawberry Point, Iowa, and a moose in Moose Lake, Minn. There's a pelican in Pelican Rapids, Minn., an otter in the Otter Tail County seat of Fergus Falls, Minn., and a crow near the Crow River in Belgrade, Minn., which is just as close to the Skunk River.
I don't know of any giant skunks. But there sure are a lot of fish (Garrison, Orr, Preston, Nevis, Baudette and Madison, among the many in Minnesota alone), cows (Neillsville and Plymouth, Wis.; Harvard, Ill.; Audubon, Iowa; and New Salem, N.D., which claims a 38-footer) and loons (Mercer, Wis., and Vergas and Virginia, Minn., which each have 20-foot loons they claim is the world's biggest; the one in Virginia, however, floats).
Behind other town symbols is a story.
White River, Ontario, would be a nondescript town on Lake Superior if it weren't for Winnie the Pooh. A soldier bought the bear cub there in 1914 en route from his hometown of Winnipeg to England, where the cub ended up in the London Zoo and inspired the stories of A.A. Milne. Today, a fiberglass Winnie sits in a tree with his pot of honey.
In Woodruff, Wis., a giant 1953 penny commemorates a Million Penny Parade by local schoolchildren, who raised the money for a hospital championed by a country doctor known as "the Angel on Snowshoes." In L'Anse, on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, a 60-foot sculpture pays tribute to Father Frederic Baraga, the Snowshoe Priest who traversed
In Starbuck, Minn., an 8-foot hobo is a reminder of the hundreds of out-of-work men who rode the rails into town during the Depression, gathered along the shores of Lake Minnewaska and were befriended by townspeople.
Other mascots demonstrate gratitude. In Sparta, Wis., the World's Largest Bicycle pays tribute to the bicyclists who poured into town after the Elroy-Sparta State Trail opened on an abandoned rail line in 1967 and, to the surprise of locals, became hugely popular.
La Crosse, Wis., has not one, but two monuments to beer: King Gambrinus, a 13th century Flemish warrior said to be acclaimed for his beer recipes; and the World's Largest Six-Pack.
Blue Earth, Minn., has the 55-foot Jolly Green Giant, whose peas and corn have provided jobs for generations. There's a 25-foot corncob in Olivia, Minn., and a 22-foot turkey in Frazee, Minn. A 26-foot Smokey the Bear stands in International Falls, Minn., which adjoins Smokey Bear State Forest as well as Minnesota's only national park, Voyageurs.
Speaking of voyageurs, the pack horses of the fur trade are all over the place - Pine City, Crane Lake, Ranier, Two Harbors, Cloquet, Bigfork, Minn. And there are many Indians - in Battle Lake; St. Germain, Wis.; Wakefield in the Upper Peninsula; Thief River Falls and Bemidji, whose Shaynowishkung is said to have fed the first Europeans who settled there.
Some towns looked across the ocean for inspiration. Mora, Minn., put up a 22-foot, bright-orange version of the Dala horse, hand-carved since the mid-1800s in the Swedish province of Dalarna, whose principal city also is named Mora.
Other towns make do with what they have. In Crosby, Minn., townsfolk put up a 25-foot, Disneyesque serpent on the shores of Serpent Lake. Effie doesn't have a lake, so it put up the local wildlife - a mosquito.
These mascots all say the same thing: "Come and look!"
It works. It's still working in Bemidji, whose endearingly homemade Paul and Babe continue to draw streams of camera-toting tourists after having weathered a time when they seemed outdated and, says Earle Dickinson, "everybody seemed to forget them."
It was Dickinson's uncle who built Paul, helped by his father, who in his youth drove horse-drawn sprinkler tanks to create the logging-camp ice roads and later owned a sawmill himself.
"It's hard for me to let go of that tradition," he says. "This was Paul Bunyan country. For a folk hero, how could we find a better one?"