Paul Bunyan – Hero Lumberjack

Paul Bunyan in Klamath, California

Statues of the legendary lumberjack Paul Bunyan and his faithful blue ox, Babe.

His logging crew on the Big Onion River, “the winter of the blue snow”, in about 1862 or 1865, was so large that the men were divided into three gangs. Of these, one was always going to work, one was always at work, and the third was always coming home from work. The cooking arrangements for so many men were naturally on an immense scale. Seven men with seven wheel-barrows were kept busy wheeling the prune-stones away from camp. The chipmunks ate these and grew as big as tigers. The cook-stove was so extensive that three forties had to be cleared bare each week to keep up a fire, and an entire cord of wood was needed to start a blaze. One day, as soon as the cook had put a loaf of bread into the oven he started to walk around the stove in order to remove the loaf from the other side, but, long before he reached his destination the bread had burned to a crisp. Such loaves were, of course, gigantic, —so big, in fact, that after the crew had eaten the insides out of them, the hollow crusts were used for bunk-houses, or, according to a less imaginative account, for bunks. One legend reported that the loaves were not baked in a stove at all, but, in a ravine or dried riverbed with heat provided by blazing slashings along the sides. Paul had much trouble with his cooks. He was always having to hire new ones. One got lost between the potato bin and the flour bin and nearly starved to death before he was found. The horn which Paul or the cook used to call the men to dinner was so big that it once blew down ten acres.

The next time the cook blew it straight up and that caused a cyclone. The dining room was so large that when a man told a yarn at one end it grew so big by the time it reached the other that it had to be shoveled out. Doughnuts were carried from the kitchen by two men on poles which they carried on their shoulders. Sometimes they were rolled down the length of the tables, the men catching them as they went by. Big Ole, the blacksmith, cut the holes in them with a punch and sledge. Big Ole was Paul’s blacksmith at the Big Onion camp. He was a very powerful man and when he struck his anvil the ring of the metal, it could be heard in the next county. He alone could shoe Babe, the ox, single handed. Once he carried two of his shoe’s for a mile and sunk knee deep in the solid rock at every step. Every time the ox was shod a new iron mine had to be opened up.

Cook blowing dinner horn for lumberjacks in Michigan.

Cook blowing dinner horn for lumberjacks in Michigan.

Such a stove as Bunyan’s demanded, of course, a pancake griddle of monstrous size. As a matter of fact, Bunyan’s cook, Joe Mufferon, used the entire top of the stove for a griddle and greased it every morning by strapping hams to the feet of his assistant cooks and obliging them to skate about on it for an hour or so. Of this famous tale there were several versions. According to one, the cook mixed his batter in a sort of concrete-mixer on the roof of the cook-shanty and spread it upon the stove by means of a connecting hose. A version from Oregon shows the influence of local conditions upon the Bunyan tales; from this version we learn that 200 Japanese cooks with bacon-rinds or bear-steak strapped to their feet skated upon the stove before the cook spread his batter. In a Minnesota version, Bunyan employs his 24 daughters for the same menial task. By mistake one day the nearsighted cook put into the batter several fingers of blasting-powder instead of baking-powder, and when the mixture was spread upon the griddle, the cooks made a very rapid ascent through the cook-shanty roof and never returned to camp.

Paul Bunyan’s ingenuity in keeping his men supplied with food and drink appears best in the pea-soup lake story, of which, there were several versions, and in the wondrous tale of the camp distillery. Near the Round River camp was a hot spring, into which the tote-teamster, returning one day from town with a load of peas, dumped the whole load by accident. Most men would have regarded the peas as a dead loss, but not so Paul. He promptly added the proper amount of pepper and salt to the mixture and had enough hot pea-soup to last the crew all winter. When his men were working too far away from camp to return to dinner, he got the soup to them by freezing it upon the ends of sticks and sending it in that shape. According to another version, Paul deliberately made the pea-soup; he dumped the peas into a small lake and heated the mess by firing the slashings around the shore. In a Wisconsin-ized version of the Michigan tale, the peas have become, for some reason, beans. A much exaggerated version of this story comes from northern Wisconsin.  According to this account, the tote-teamster was driving across a frozen lake when a sudden thaw overtook him. The teamster saved himself, but the ox was drowned. Bunyan dammed up the lake, fired the slashings around the shore, and then, opening the dam, sluiced down the river to his laboring crew an abundance of excellent hot pea-soup with ox-tail flavor.

The legend of the establishment of the camp distillery was one of the most entertaining of the Bunyan tales. Paul had trouble in keeping any liquor in camp because the men sent to town for it drank it all up on the way back. The following is Mr. Douglas Malloch’s versified account of how he solved the difficulty:

“One day the bull-cook parin’ spuds
He hears a sizzlin’ in the suds
And finds the peelin’s, strange to say,
Are all fermentin’ where they lay.
Now Sour-face Murphy in the door
Was standin’. And the face he wore
Convinced the first assistant cook
That Murphy soured ’em with his look.
And when he had the peelin’s drained
A quart of Irish booze remained.
The bull-cook tells the tale to Paul
And Paul takes Murphy off the haul
And gives him, very willingly,
A job as camp distillery.”

Lumberjacks in California

Lumberjacks in California

Some of the tales of the camp exploits concern members of Paul Bunyan’s crew rather than the hero himself. One of the men, for example, had two sets of teeth, and, walking in his sleep one night, he encountered the grind-stone and chewed it to bits before he was fully aroused to what he was doing. In the adventure of another member of the crew, is the familiar tale of the man who jumped across the river in three jumps. The crew sometimes showed ingenuity on their own account as when they rolled boulders down the steep sides of the pyramid forty, and running after them ground their axes to a razor edge against the revolving stones. Big Joe Mufferon, the boss cook was a very talented man. With his caulked boots he could kick his initials into a ceiling eight feet high with one foot and wipe them out as fast as he kicked them in with the other. Next to Paul himself Shot Gunderson was the best log spinner in the camp. Taking a 75 foot log he could spin it so fast with his feet that the log slid out of the bark and he walked ashore on the bubbles. Paul’s camp clerk was Johnny Inkslinger, a very efficient man. He kept the time of the crews, paid the men, purchased supplies, tended the camp stove, and performed many other duties that fall to the lot of a camp clerk. The first winter that he was so employed he hit on the plan of leaving off the dots from the i’s and the crosses from the t’s, and thus saved Paul nine barrels of ink on the payroll alone. In his spare moments Johnny surveyed the whole United States. It was he who invented the fountain pen by attaching a hose to a barrel of ink.

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