by Joe Bowen
Julia Dancker sold her souvenir store several years ago, but kept an extensive — and expanding — collection and has turned into a guru of sorts for one of Bemidji’s most recognizable duos.
Throughout her house and sometimes stuffed into the back seat of her car are figurines, posters, books and other antique accouterments depicting Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox, the mythical pair that have come to symbolize the Bemidji area and could be one of its most successful marketing campaigns.
Dancker’s collection includes original Red River Lumber Co. posters depicting the lumberjack and ox, and a piece of Paul’s original cement mustache, which looks vaguely like a calcified tree limb. She said Paul and Babe are the second-most photographed statues in the United States — behind Mount Rushmore.
“It took five presidents to surpass Paul Bunyan,” Dancker said wryly. She’s also published a storybook of her own: “Paul Bunyan and Babe in Minnesota.”
Dancker was surprised at the lack of literature about Paul and Babe after her son asked a simple question: “Why is he there?”
A trip to the library then didn’t yield much, so they ordered a booklet and Dancker’s collection began.
The Red River Lumber Co. used Paul and Babe’s images in an early 1900s advertising campaign and the Bemidji’s Junior Chamber of Commerce asked to use their likeness after the company moved west to California. Minnesota — particularly northern Minnesota — hoped to lure tourists who might have otherwise thought the region was uninhabitable during the winter, and thus hosted St. Paul’s now-longstanding winter carnival and a similarly styled event in Bemidji in January 1937 with the now-iconic statues at the center.
But Brainerd, Dancker said, was originally going to have the statues.
“They hired somebody to build the statue, had fundraisers — he took off with the money. No statue,” Dancker said. “So that’s why Bemidji was like, ‘hey we’re even further north, we’ll build it.’”
Dancker used to own The Lumberjack Shack, a souvenir store that sits across the street from the longstanding statues. She said some customers, drawn home during Bemidji High School’s all-school reunion in the early 2000s, would swap tall-seeming tales of their own.
“All these people were coming in and they were saying, ‘oh! My dad or my uncle or my grandpa, somebody helped build the statues’ and I was like, it can’t be that everybody did,” Dancker said with a chuckle. “So I thought well it’d be kinda interesting to know who built them because they thought it was going to be for a four day winter ice carnival, not that they would become these icons.”
Most of the legends were passed around by word of mouth, embellished as necessary by long-ago lumberjacks, or written in early 1900s booklets. Bunyon’s mythos can be traced back to Quebecois lumberjacks, one of whom might have been referred to as “Good John,” which looks similar to “Bunyon” in French.
“So many people come and…they know to stop and take their picture with Paul Bunyan,” Dancker said. “That’s their thing about Bemidji. And not even that this is their destination.”
But Dancker wrinkled her nose, however, at the notion she’s an historian.
“Collector,” she said matter-of-factly.