By Michael Edmonds
Every American has heard of the lumberjack hero Paul Bunyan and his big blue ox. For 100 years his exploits filled cartoons, magazines, short stories, and children’s books, and his name advertised everything from pancake breakfasts to construction supplies. By 1950 Bunyan was a ubiquitous icon of America’s strength and ingenuity. Until now, no one knew where he came from—and the extent to which this mythical hero is rooted in Wisconsin.
Out of the Northwoods presents the culture of nineteenth-century lumberjacks in their own words. It includes eyewitness accounts of how the first Bunyan stories were shared on frigid winter nights, around logging camp stoves, in the Wisconsin pinery. It describes where the tales began, how they moved out of the forest and into print, and why publication changed them forever.
By sifting through the unpublished manuscripts of early editors of the tales, Michael Edmonds unearths dozens of authentic Bunyan stories told aloud by lumberjacks between 1885 and 1915. Edmonds recounts a saga of lies, hoaxes, thefts, and greed that transformed the private jokes of working-class loggers into mass-market picture books for toddlers. The central characters include a genial northern Wisconsin con-man who claimed he invented the lumberjack hero, a spunky University of Wisconsin co-ed who collected the tales in logging camps in 1915, and a mild-mannered curator of the Wisconsin Historical Museum who lived federal documents to keep the truth alive. Part bibliographic mystery and part social history, Out of the Northwoods explains for the first time why we all know and love Paul Bunyan. An appendix includes more than 100 original tales about Bunyan, his camps, his crew, and his adventures taken directly from loggers early in the last century.