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PAUL BUNYAN: Four Big Ten Teams Play for Trophies Named for Bay City Legend

Coveted Gridiron Prize Back in Ann Arbor After Four Long Years

November 4, 2012       1 Comments
By: Dave Rogers

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Michigan and Michigan State spar annually for the Paul Bunyan Trophy.
Wisconsin's Benny the Badger hoists Paul Bunyan's Axe is the symbolic rivalry icon for Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Not many sports fans know it, but two of the most coveted prizes in college football are named for a legend conceived in Bay City 137 years ago.

Yes, that's right, folks, Michigan and Michigan State vie for the Paul Bunyan Trophy and Minnesota and Wisconsin face off for the Paul Bunyan Axe.

Almost everyone thinks Paul Bunyan is a "mythical" figure, but we here in mid-Michigan know better. He prowled these woods in the flesh after arriving from Quebec, Canada just after the Civil War.

The legend of Paul Bunyan began with the murder Nov. 7, 1875 of lumberjack brawler Fabian "Saginaw Joe" Fournier right here on Hell's Half Mile.

Steve Nesbitt, sports editor for the Michigan Daily at the University of Michigan, wrote "it's time for Paul Bunyan to come home" in anticipation of a Wolverine gridiron victory against Michigan State.

He also noted: "Barely visible at the base of one of the display cases in Schembechler Hall is a sentence etched in small black lettering on the white backdrop:

"'The Paul Bunyan Trophy is temporarily located in East Lansing but will return next year.'"

Well, Nesbitt was right, but only after a last second field goal for a 12-10 nail-biter.

The trophy was first presented in 1953 (Michigan State's first year as a full Big Ten member) by Governor G. Mennen Williams. It is a four-foot-high wooden statue on a five-foot-high base.

The overall series record for the rivalry is 68-32-5 for Michigan which also leads the series record for the Paul Bunyan Trophy 35-23-2.

The U-M-MSU trophy is not to be confused with the Paul Bunyan Axe Trophy that goes to the winner of the Minnesota-Wisconsin football game each year.

Wisconsin and Minnesota originally played for the Slab of Bacon, a piece of wood with an M or a W, depending from which angle one would look on it. Minnesota led that series 11-3 until the trophy was "lost" in 1943. It would not resurface until 1994.

The Paul Bunyan Axe was created by the Wisconsin letter-winners' organization (the National W Club) and would be instituted as the trophy in the series in 1948. The scores of each game are recorded on the axe's 6 foot long handle.

The original axe was retired after the 2003 game and a new axe was created for the 2004 game. If the team holding the trophy wins players carry the axe around the field. If the team not holding the trophy wins, players are allowed "steal" the axe away. It is customary for the winning team to "chop" down a goalpost with the axe.

Wisconsin v. Minnesota is one of the most storied rivalries in college football with 120 games dating back to 1890. The Golden Gophers lead the all-time series 58-56-8, while the Badgers lead the Axe series 38-24-3.

The Badgers took the axe home Oct. 20 with a 38-13 victory over the Golden Gophers.

Both Wisconsin and Minnesota claim Paul Bunyan, but ...

How many of you good folks know that P.B. was born right here in Bay City? At least this is where his story began, right here on Hell's Half Mile, the infamous strip of sin dens that still stirs the blood.

The tale is told in book that came out 20 years ago from Historical Press L.L.C. of Bay City.

The book, "Paul Bunyan: How A Terrible Timber Feller Became a Legend," relates how he became a folk hero after lumberjack Fabian "Saginaw Joe" Fournier's murder on the Water Street Dock on Nov. 7, 1875.

The murder was covered most thoroughly by the Saginaw Daily Courier that in its Nov. 8 edition headlined: "A CRUSHING BLOW: Dealt with a Ship Carpenter's Mallet; Caves in the Skull of a Notorious Bay City Rough; And Fells Him to the Earth a Lifeless Corpse."

Writers caught the flavor of a "big black Frenchman," a powerful figure, and imaginations took over to spawn Paul Bunyan out of Joe Fournier stories. The first poem appeared in the Oscoda Press in 1906 written by James T. McGillivray. He took a job at the Detroit News and in 1910 enhanced the story. Artist W.B. Laughead put a face, a huge body and Babe the Blue Ox into advertising for the Red River Lumber Company of Minnesota in the 1920s.

That started an incredible string of books, poems, an opera, a Disney film -- all making Bunyan so much larger than life that he was often unbelievable. There is no more publicized folklore legend in America -- but he is not mythical -- far from it.

The evidence of a real lumberjack who "was" Paul Bunyan was gathered in Bay City in 1930 by Seattle lumberjack author James Stevens. His article in The American Mercury Magazine "The Iron Man of the Saginaw" and his 1932 book "The Saginaw Paul Bunyan" are definitive: Joe Fournier was the main model for Paul Bunyan.


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jman Says:       On December 13, 2017 at 09:21 PM

I am curious about this "Benny the" Badger you're refering to. His name is actually Bucky Badger. Otherwise thanks for posting this article about the Paul Bunyan's Axe game.
Agree? or Disagree?

Dave Rogers

Dave Rogers is a former editorial writer for the Bay City Times and a widely read,
respected journalist/writer in and around Bay City.
(Contact Dave Via Email at

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