Business

The man who could out-lumber Paul Bunyan

Michigan loggers made Paul Bunyan the star of their tall tales around the campfire. “Babe the monster blue ox” measured 42 ax handles and a plug of chewing tobacco between his horns. The Paul Bunyan Museum near Blaney, Mich., honored the legendary hero of lumbermen.

David Whitney proved he could strip the lumber from a hillside without leaving his richly appointed paneled office.

“Paul Bunyan woke up one morning with a bad toothache. He fastened the tooth to a couple of steel cables around Babe, the Blue Ox, and gave Babe a good whack. Babe was so startled she made a jump that pulled the tooth and sent it sailing through the sky 300 miles south.

“Paul dropped the cables in the Straits of Mackinac, and there they lay until they were dredged up for the Mackinac Bridge. That tooth was full of holes but it still had plenty of vim. It landed upright along side Grand Circus Park in Detroit, and the next day l00 dentists moved in and set up offices in it.

“They named it the David Whitney Building after Paul’s boss, and there it stands today.”

This story, told by Don Lochbiler in his book on the history of Detroit, is not an accepted part of the Paul Bunyan legend. Not yet, anyway. But it would be fitting.

David Whitney bought Michigan and Wisconsin pine lands by the hundreds of thousands of acres for $3 to $50 an acre — and made profits that sometimes equaled100 times the original cost.

When he died in 1900 Whitney was the wealthiest man in Detroit with a fortune estimated at $15 million.

His first job in his native Massachusetts, operating a paper box factory for a lumber company, gave him some lumber background. He came to Detroit in 1859 at age 29 and started a lumber business with his brother, Charles. He foresaw the great future of lumbering in the Midwest and, when the profitable partnership was dissolved in 1877, he put everything he had into buying pine lands.

Whitney’s fortunes expanded in the north woods as swiftly as Paul Bunyan’s prowess in the loggers’ legends, and he soon became a millionaire. His instincts concerning land values in Detroit were equally keen, and he became known as “Mr. Woodward Avenue.”

Upper Woodward had long been a magnet for Detroit’s finest families. Whitney himself lived at the corner of Woodward and Sproat. Around him clustered the homes of many leading families of the day — the Pridgeons, the Heavenriches, the Farrands, the Heinemans. Fine homes also surrounded Grand Circus Park, but Whitney could see changes coming. He began buying up properties and in 1890 he built the Grand Circus Park Building, five stories high, at Woodward and Park.

The same year he had plans drawn for a more stately mansion at Woodward and Canfield. He built it of jasper from South Dakota, a stone that is one of the hardest of all to cut. It took four years to finish the house.

The David Whitney mansion on Woodward and Canfield was built in 1894. The family lived there for 17 years. It served several different purposes until 1979 when Richard Kughn bought it and in 1986, partnered with his wife, son and John McCarthy and Ron Fox converted it into a gracious restaurant.The three story Romanesque 21,000-square-foot home originally had 52 rooms, 10 bathrooms, 218 windows, 20 fireplaces, a secret vault, and hydraulic elevator. It took 4 years and $400,000 to build.

      For years it was one of Detroit’s showplaces, with streams of carriages driving up to its porte cochere for receptions, teas and musicales. Summer and winter, the Whitneys kept the circular conservatory at the south side of the house blooming with plants and flowers. The main hall had a huge fireplace, cheery on the coldest days.

Today the mansion serves as the home of the Whitney, one of Detroit’s finest restaurants.

But Paul Bunyan outlived his boss. The name of David Whitney does not appear in the Encyclopedia Britannica, but that of a Detroit News reporter who grew up in the country surrounding Whitney’s logging camps does.

That’s because the reporter, James MacGillivray, minted gold of his own from the lumberjacks, storing up their stories in his mind. The Britannica lists a feature by MacGillivray which appeared in The News July 24, 1910, called “The Round River Drive,” as the first appearance of the legendary Paul Bunyan in print.

Scholars and writers were attracted to the robust humor of the loggers and in a short time the story of Paul Bunyan became a national saga.

MacGillivray started out as a lumber broker for Great Lakes cargo shipments and later prospected in the Northwest and Alaska. He managed sawmills in Chance, Idaho, and in Reno, Nevada.

The Paul Bunyan legends stayed with MacGillivray long after Michigan’s big trees were depleted and the lumberjacks had gone. MacGillivray discovered he had a flair for writing and picked up jobs with the Sacramento Star, the Spokane Review, the Alaska News and the Marquette Mining Journal. He joined The Detroit News in 1907 and picturesque feature stories became his forte.

This drawing appeared with James MacGillivray’s article in The Detroit News in 1910. The story, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, was the first appearance in print of the Paul Bunyan legend.

      “The Round River Drive” appeared in The Sunday News illustrated section, with a drawing by staff artist, Joseph L. Kraemer, showing loggers gathered around a campfire as one told a tale of Paul Bunyan. MacGillivray cast his story in the form of a monolog delivered on such an occasion. His narrator told of starting out with another of Paul Bunyan’s men, Dutch Jake, to compete for a prize offered by Bunyan for cutting the biggest tree:

“Dutch Jake and me had picked out the biggest tree we could find on the forty, and we’d put three days on the cut with our big saw, what was three crosscuts brazed together, making 30 feet of teeth. We was getting along fine on the fourth day when lunchtime comes, and we thought we’d best get to the sunny side to eat. So we grabs our grub and starts around that tree.

“We hadn’t gone far when we heard a noise. Blamed if there wasn’t Bill Carter and Sailor Jack sawin’ at the same tree. It looked like a fight at first, but we compromised, meetin’ each other at the heart on the seventh day. They’d hacked her to fall to the north, and we’d hacked her to fall to the south, and there that blamed tree stood for a month or more, clean sawed through, but not knowin’ which way to drop ’til a windstorm came along and throwed her over.”

MacGillivray’s story was widely read and admired. As other writers worked the vein of golden fun from logging days, many sequels were added to the story about Paul Bunyan scooping out the Great Lakes as a watering trough for Babe, the Blue Ox. Babe’s footprints around the trough made the area’s many little lakes, of course. Puget Sound and even Grand Canyon were soon attributed to Paul’s gargantuan activities.

The Lumberman’s monument overlooking the Au Sable River near East Tawas, Mich., was erected to perpetuate the memory of pioneer lumberman.

      Inevitably, promoters of tourist attractions found a bonanza in Paul Bunyan. The citizens of Bangor, Me., built a 30-foot statue of Paul in 1959 as a centerpiece for the city’s 125th anniversary program. Bangor soon became embroiled in a long controversy over Bunyan’s legacy with Bemidji, Minn., which also built a statue of Paul. Portland, Ore., built a statue of Bunyan a bit later— and, naturally, a bit higher.

Brainerd, Minn., entered the fray after obtaining a giant likeness of Bunyan made for a railroad fair in Chicago. In Bayfield, Wis., the “Mystic Knights of the Blue Ox” appeared. Babe the Blue Ox has her own 30-foot statue in a California tourist park on US-101. Bunyan is depicted on the world’s largest wood carving near the entrance to California’s Sequoia National Park.

MacGillivray left newspaper work in 1911 for conservation work at the behest of Michigan Gov. Chase S. Osborn after a forest fire almost wiped out Oscoda, MacGillivray’s boyhood home.

Osborn appointed him educational director of the Michigan Conservation Department, and for 17 years MacGillivray lectured on conservation and forest fire prevention throughout the state, illustrating his talks with his own motion pictures of birds and animals in the wild.

When he retired he returned to Oscoda with his wife, Amanda, who had been an Oscoda school teacher. He died at 79 in 1952— still marveling at all that had followed after “The Round River Drive.”

Another legend about Paul Bunyon tells of a particularly difficult water run of some harvested logs. Paul roared to his fellows:

” ‘Seventeen peavy men to each rollway there! All others take to the whales! One jack to a buck! Mount whales, men! For the first time in history we’re driving logs down a mud river! For the first time in botany we’re driving logs with whales! Boots and saddles and charge, by the four hossback riders of the old Apocalipsy!’

“Certainly there was nothing bigger for the jacks to get a grip on than whales. And how they were taking hold! At first they were smitten blank with amazement at seeing a huge herd of whales tethered along the river bank, each one humped under a pack-saddle, champing a bit, and staring out from bridle blinders. But all the jacks quickly recovered. Their hearts thumped and the hair on their chests stiffened valiantly as the Big Feller roared them on : ‘Mount whales, men! Ride ’em handsome and high!'”

Of course, we all know the Great Lakes have no whales, (except the Wyland whale mural which recently took up residence in Detroit on the David Broderick Tower Building).


The Hawkwood Saw Mill at Wolverine, Mich., on the Sturgeon River prior to the turn of the century. The mill burned down in 1910.

By Kay Houston / The Detroit News