Paul Bunyan and John Henry

Week 14: American Folklore - Assignments - Reading - Resources - Images


Feeding the Crews

Reading time: 5 minutes. Word count: 1000 words.

Many of Paul Bunyan's exploits have to do with feats of labor - but also with feats of eating, and the incredible machinery required to keep these larger-than-life characters, including Babe, well-fed. These stories of food and eating are turned into aetiological stories, answering questions like: why are there earthquakes in California?
The custodian and chaperon of Babe, the Big Blue Ox, was Brimstone Bill. He knew all the tricks of that frisky giant before they happened.

"I know oxen," the old bullwhacker used to say, "I've worked 'em and fed 'em and doctored 'em ever since the ox was invented. And Babe, I know that pernicious old reptyle same as if I'd a'been through him with a lantern."

Bill compiled "The Skinner's Dictionary," a hand book for teamsters, and most of the terms used in directing draft animals (except mules) originated with him. His early religious training accounts for the fact that the technical language of the teamster contains so many names of places and people spoken of in the Bible.

The buckskin harness used on Babe and Benny when the weather was rainy was made by Brimstone Bill. When this harness got wet it would stretch so much that the oxen could travel clear to the landing and the load would not move from the skidway in the woods.
orig. a downtown area frequented by loggers; now gen. = SKID ROW ; also, an inclined way formed of skids

Brimstone would fasten the harness with an anchor Big Ole made for him and when the sun came out and the harness shrunk the load would be pulled to the landing while Bill and the oxen were busy at some other job.

The winter of the Blue Snow, the Pacific Ocean froze over and Bill kept the oxen busy hauling regular white snow over from China. M. H. Keenan can testify to the truth of this as he worked for Paul on the Big Onion that winter. It must have been about this time that Bill made the first ox yokes out of cranberry wood.

Feeding Paul Bunyan's crews was a complicated job. At no two camps were conditions the same. The winter he logged off North Dakota he had 300 cooks making pancakes for the Seven Axemen and the little Chore-boy. At headquarters on the Big Onion he had one cook and 462 cookees feeding a crew so big that Paul himself never knew within several hundred either way how many men he had.

At Big Onion camp there was a lot of mechanical equipment and the trouble was a man who could handle the machinery cooked just like a machinist too. One cook got lost between the flour bin and the root cellar and nearly starved to death before he was found.

Cooks came and went. Some were good and others just able to get by. Paul never kept a poor one very long. There was one jigger who seemed to have learned to do nothing but boil. He made soup out of everything and did most of his work with a dipper. When the big tote-sled broke through the ice on Bull Frog Lake with a load of split peas, he served warmed up lake water till the crew struck. His idea of a lunch box was a jug or a rope to freeze soup onto like a candle.

Some cooks used too much grease. It was said of one of these that he had to wear calked shoes to keep from sliding out of the cook-shanty and rub sand on his hands when he picked anything up.

There are two kinds of camp cooks, the Baking Powder Bums and the Sourdough Stiffs. Sourdough Sam belonged to the latter school. He made everything but coffee out of Sourdough. He had only one arm and one leg, the other members having been lost when his sourdough barrel blew up. Sam officiated at Tadpole River headquarters, the winter Shot Gunderson took charge.

After all others had failed at Big Onion camp, Paul hired his cousin Big Joe who came from three weeks below Quebec. This boy sure put a mean scald on the chuck. He was the only man who could make pancakes fast enough to feed the crew. He had Big Ole, the blacksmith, make him a griddle that was so big you couldn't see across it when the steam was thick. The batter, stirred in drums like concrete mixers was poured on with cranes and spouts. The griddle was greased by colored boys who skated over the surface with hams tied to their feet. They had to have colored boys to stand the heat. At this camp the flunkeys wore roller skates and an idea of the size of the tables is gained from the fact that they distributed the pepper with four-horse teams.

Sending out lunch and timing the meals was rendered difficult by the size of the works which required three crews - one going to work, one on the job and one coming back. Joe had to start the bull-cook out with the lunch sled two weeks ahead of dinner time. To call the men who came in at noon was another problem. Big Ole made a dinner horn so big that no one could blow it but Big Joe or Paul himself. The first time Joe blew it he blew down ten acres of pine. The Red River people wouldn't stand for that so the next time he blew straight up but this caused severe cyclones and storms at sea so Paul had to junk the horn and ship it East where later it was made into a tin roof for a big Union Depot.

When Big Joe came to Westwood with Paul, he started something. About that time you may have read in the papers about a volcanic eruption at Mt. Lassen, heretofore extinct for many years. That was where Big Joe dug his bean-hole and when the steam worked out of the bean kettle and up through the ground, everyone thought the old hill had turned volcano. Every time Joe drops a biscuit they talk of earthquakes.


Questions. Make sure you can answer these questions about what you just read:

  • how did Sourdough Sam lose an arm and a leg?
  • what happened when Joe would blow the dinner horn?
  • why did people think that a volcano had come back to life after being extinct?

Source: The Marvelous Exploits of Paul Bunyan as Told in the Camps of the White Pine Lumbermen for Generations During Which Time the Loggers Have Pioneered the Way Through the North Woods From Maine to California Collected from Various Sources and Embellished for Publication. Text and Illustrations By W. B. Laughead. Published for the Amusement of our Friends by The Red River Lumber Company Minneapolis, Westwood, Cal., Chicago, Los Angeles - San Francisco. 1922. Weblink.


Modern Languages / Anthropology 3043: Folklore & Mythology. Laura Gibbs, Ph.D. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. You must give the original author credit. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one.
Page last updated: October 9, 2004 12:52 PM