www.mybaycity.com July 21, 2004
Arts/Theater Article 497

Bay City's Roots in the Paul Bunyan Tales To Be Subject of Documentary Film

Lumberjack Competition on the Saginaw River to Bring Back Lumbering Days

July 21, 2004
By: Dave Rogers

The main model for the Paul Bunyan legend was this unassuming French-Canadian lumberjack Fabian "Joe" Fournier, pictured at about age 18 in 1865 just after emigrating here from Quebec.

      The lumberjack competition of Saturday, July 31 in Veterans Memorial Park will reprise the heady days of the late 1800s when Bay City was the lumber capital of the world and 100 lumber mills stretched along the river from here to Saginaw.

The image of the legendary lumberjack Paul Bunyan will overshadow the furious activities. That's because a Bay City man, Fabian "Joe" Fournier was the main model for the legendary hero Paul Bunyan.

In a story familiar to many local people, Fournier was murdered on the Third Street ferry boat dock on the night of Nov. 7, 1875. The subsequent trial of his killer and stories about Fournier's exploits in the woods grew in the retelling and became the basis for the Paul Bunyan tales.

      Around 1875-76 was prime time for development of American legends, with Western bandit Jesse James and lawmen Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson riding hell-bent into the literature and Gen. George Custer about to win undying fame by, well, dying in a massacre by Sitting Bull and his Sioux warriors. Here in the Midwest our hero's name was changed from Joe Fournier to Paul Bunyan and his exploits exaggerated so much that most people consider him a myth.

This reporter admits a certain special knowledge about the folklore basis of the tales since he wrote a book on the topic published 11 years ago. The 1993 book "Paul Bunyan: How A Terrible Timber Feller Became a Legend" is now in its second printing, in paperback.

The book is a history of folklore, tracing how campfire yarns and newspaper stories grew into an internationally-recognized legend, Paul Bunyan. Although public interest in the legend has faded considerably since the 1950s, hardly a day goes by that the name of Paul Bunyan doesn't pop up in the media somewhere.

A chapter in the book is part of a "Literature and the Language Arts" text published in 2001 by EMC Paradigm Publishing, of St. Paul, Minnesota, and used by middle school students around the nation. The textbook's folklore section contains Carl Sandburg's "Paul Bunyan of the North Woods" story and three pages from Bay City's Historical Press publication by D. Laurence Rogers entitled "The Ole' Feller Recollects How Joe Fournier Became Paul Bunyan."

Paul Bunyan grew up, wrote Sandburg in his fanciful story, "around the hot stoves of winter, among socks and mittens drying, in the smell of tobacco smoke and the roar of laughter mocking the outside weather." Lumberjack campfire tales about Bunyan were first published by reporter James MacGillivray, uncle of former Bay City planner/engineer Ronald K. McGillivray, in the story "The Round River Drive," in the Oscoda (MI) Press in 1906 and in The Detroit News, July 24, 1910. Minneapolis advertising man William B. Laughead created the Bunyan persona in drawings for a series of pamphlets, beginning in 1914, to promote the Red River Lumber Co. of Minnesota, later California. But the Bay City connection of Fournier to Bunyan is clear, one early article in American Mercury magazine even interchanging the names.

      Writers have regularly visited Bay City since the lumbering days, penning their various versions of fiction and fact about the exploits of the lumberjacks. John Fitsmaurice wrote "The Shanty Boy" in 1895; Stewart Edward White included tales from Bay City in his "Riverman" and "Blazed Trail" novels around 1900. Stewart Holbrook came to town in 1940 and ginned up fantastic tales that, amazingly produced a blockbuster best seller, "Holy Old Mackinaw." Supposedly hundreds of thousands of copies of the cooked up literary stew made their way to World War II foxholes for imaginative reading by the soldiers.

      But it was Seattle lumberjack author James Stevens who really shaped the Paul Bunyan legend and cemented Bay City's connection after his year-long visit in 1930. Stevens stayed in the old Kimbark Hotel at Fifth and Water while he palavered with newspaper types and took side trips to Grayling and Detroit to gather information. Attorney John Mitchell recalls his sister, who achieved notice as newspaper columnist Kitte Turmell, as one of the group that gathered with Stevens in the Wenonah Hotel's Dry Dock lounge and other local watering holes.

Hollywood film producers have shown preliminary interest in the Paul Bunyan tales by contacting the author about a year ago and an independent filmmaker from Minnesota will be here in mid-August to document the story.

For referencesee website www.paulbunyanbook.com.###

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