When the Red River Lumber Company installed electrically operated mills in California, logs could be devoured “faster than a small boy devours a cookie.” At the prospect of keeping the mills supplied with enough lumber to match the incredible processing speed, logging contractors shook their heads and said, “Send for Paul Bunyan.” Or so claimed William B. Laughead, former lumberjack, artist, and freelance advertising man.
In 1914, Archie D. Walker, Secretary of the Red River Lumber Company, employed Laughead, his cousin, to develop an advertising campaign for the company’s new Westwood, California mill. As Laughead recalled in a FHS-sponsored oral history interview, Archie
… said that an idea he wanted to get over was that “we’re operating in a big way out here so we have a big production, and it will be a reliable source of supply for wholesalers and buyers to hook up with. That’s the idea that we’ve got to sell – not only to our old customers in the Mississippi Valley but the new territory we’ve got to break into, east on the Atlantic seaboard, that we’ve never had contact with before. We want them to know it’s the same kind of pine that they’ve been using, and that we can handle business in a big way with a big manufacturing capacity out there.” So I said to him, “That’s kind of a big message to get over in a short time. Maybe we could get ahold of some kind of a slogan that would tie us up with the old traditions of the eastern white pine and carry them right over into the West. They’re getting the same thing.”
The two men tossed around ideas. Finally, Walker suggested the folk hero Paul Bunyan, stories of whom circulated forestry camps, especially in the Great Lakes region.
Paul Bunyan first appeared in print in 1906 but languished in relative obscurity until Laughead’s efforts for the Red River advertising campaign. Reporter James MacGillivray had gathered stories from lumber camps and added his own touches, which eventually culminated in an unsigned story, entitled “The Round River Drive,” that appeared in the June 24, 1910 Detroit News Tribune. Four years later an unknown poet set MacGillivray’s “The Round River Drive” to verse in the April 25, 1914 issue of American Lumberman magazine. (More detailed coverage is available in “The First Paul Bunyan Story in Print” from the October 1986 issue of the Journal of Forest History.) Appearing only in local newspapers and lumber trade journals, the prose and verse forms of “The Round River Drive” recorded the Paul Bunyan legend for its traditional audience.
Laughead, however, has been credited with catapulting the little-known folk hero to American national idol.
FHS holds a copy of the rare first edition pamphlet, "Introducing Mr. Paul Bunyan of Westwood, California," in the William B. Laughead Papers. Laughead created the characters on the second row (left to right): Brimstone Bill, Big Joe, and Johnny Inkslinger.
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