Occasionally during the summers my mother and I would go and visit my Great Aunt Louise at her cabin in Brainerd, Minnesota but from about the ages of 10 to 12 I got to go alone, put on a bus with a note pinned to my chest and Greyhounded off to the north, land of a 1000 lakes and, just as importantly, Paul Bunyan! More on that later.
In those days the world was a little less threatening and mothers could usually trust other adults to ‘watch out’ for children traveling alone. Today that concept is so foreign as to be foolhardy and almost criminal but back towards the end of the ’50’s/early ’60’s threats did not take the same form and adults actually did watch out for me during those trips. The Mackinaw Bridge was an engineering marvel that finally afforded travelers a straight shot into the Upper Peninsula and on to Minnesota so the only real peril was making sure I made any bus transfer that might arise along the way.
I always enjoyed visiting my Aunt Louise, not only because I thought she was a wonderful person but probably for many of the reasons that most kids today would find boring. Aunt Louise’s cabin had virtually no modern creature comforts. No plumbing or running water and electricity was about the highlight of the property. If you wanted water for anything you had to go out and prime the old handle pump in the back yard, which consisted of pouring a bit of stored water in the top of the pump and working that handle until you got a payoff. If you wanted to go to the bathroom, you again traipsed out in the backyard to the outhouse that stood near the embankment leading down to the lake to do your business.
That outhouse was especially funky at night when all you had was a flashlight and not enough hands to cover the flashlight and the act. Sitting there in total darkness on a piece of weathered wood was definitely roughing it but the thought that spiders and other insects might be roaming the area always sped things along considerably.
I loved my Aunt Louise and whatever she floated past me including fried liver and onions I just knew had to be good so I was more than happy to put up with the arachnids in the outhouse. But one thing that made the visit highlight reel was the trip to Paul Bunyan Center, home of the big guy and his blue ox Babe.
If you know nothing of the legend of Paul Bunyan and Babe, here’s the quick skinny: Paul Bunyan was a giant product of folklore, a baby as big as house who grew up to become a giant lumberjack, walked west to find more forest and eventually lumbered around Minnesota accidentally creating the 1000 lakes with his footprints! Oh ya, and he found Babe, a giant blue ox, along the way, or so they say. I tend to think that story has more legs in the present environment where toxic water supplies might actually cause something like that but whatever; it’s still a good yarn for its day.
I’ll never forget the first time that Aunt Louise took us there. Once you walked through the doors of the old log fort, there he was in all of his 26 foot glory, a massive animated 3D replica of Paul…and then he spoke. I’m sure the parents had a hand in this but Paul knew my name and welcomed me to his Center. I thought that was pretty cool but what really got my attention was the chicken who played the bass drum.
There were a few of these ‘educated’ chickens that did different things but, of course, I went for the musician and he didn’t disappoint. Basically, you dropped a nickel into a coin slot that rang a bell which gave the chicken the high sign to walk over and bang on a bass drum pedal with his foot. The chicken knew that after his brief performance a food pellet would drop down and deal done. Forget Pavlov’s dog, I loved that chicken thing because he did way more than just salivate, he played the frigging bass drum!
The penny arcade was exactly that, an antiquated penny arcade filled with these old cast iron viewers that flipped cards quickly to produce a little film. There was a stuffed horse staged in a bucking position that you could mount and get your picture taken. There was a small steam locomotive that traveled around the outskirts of the park, several animated lumberjack scenes and just outside the park there was an actual Mitchell B-25 Bomber that you could climb into.
Paul Bunyun Center folded in 2003 after a 53 year run. The state was in an uproar, the governor intervened but nothing could stop the auctioning off of the park that was costing ma and pop a little too much to operate. Fortunately, a local farm bought most everything including the giant statues that now partially reside a few miles away but it’s not the same and never will be.
All things must pass, but in our heads there needs to be a reasonably constant order.
Then it follows that Doris Day can’t be 84, my high school was never torn down to make way for a supermarket and that frigging chicken is still beating the hell out of a bass drum in Brainerd, Minnesota and I don’t care what anyone says to the contrary.