June 28th is Paul Bunyan Day. It may sometimes seem as though a great majority of the most popular folklore characters are evil predators who spend their lives hunting for their next victim. Paul Bunyan, on the other hand, is the embodiment of the all-American lumberjack—tall, strong, capable, and good-natured.
The character of Paul Bunyan originated in the oral tradition of North American loggers dating back to the mid-1800s. For at least 30 years, Paul Bunyan stories, some of which included motifs from older folktales such as absurdly severe weather and fearsome critters, we’re often told in the lumber camp bunkhouses. Even the etymology of the name Paul Bunyan is unknown, but many think it could have been related to the Québécois expression “bon yenne!” that expresses surprise or astonishment.
Paul Bunyan was later popularized by freelance writer and adman William B. Laughead (1882–1958) in a 1916 promotional pamphlet for the Red River Lumber Company who was looking for a face for the advertising campaign. Laughead embellished greatly on the character’s older exploits and added some of his own, such as Paul Bunyan’s pet blue ox, “Babe”.
The writer also increased Paul Bunyan’s body to impossible proportions. Despite this, however, the character quickly became a hit, and the Red River ad campaign made Paul Bunyan a nationally recognized figure. The character’s name and image continued to be utilized in promoting various products, cities, and services over the following decades, and giant statues of Paul Bunyan were even erected in several cities.
Paul Bunyan Day was created to celebrate this influential bit of folklore and all it did to promote local business and tourism in numerous communities in the northern states.