By Eric Wilson-Edge
Paul Bunyan has been beheaded and dismembered, neglected and vandalized. His hollowed out body has been used as a hiding spot for at least one student who didn’t want to go to school. Someone even stole his ax.
“A guy calls and says I know where the ax is.” I meet Lloyd Prouty at Roosters in Shelton. Lloyd is a regular here. He knows all of the staff and they know him. Prouty has rosy cheeks and a white beard but don’t let the grandfatherly image fool you.
The story of the ax and of Paul Bunyan is one of lore. There’s a mystery which seems appropriate considering the source material. Paul Bunyan is either a byproduct of 19th century Canada or 20th century Maine. The fabled logger created the Grand Canyon, Great Lakes and the Columbia River Gorge.
The origin of Paul Bunyan in Shelton has a similar mythology. The Binger brothers owned gas stations in Aberdeen, Hoquiam, Shelton and other places in the area. The brothers used Paul as an advertising gimmick. Legend has it they decided to give Paul a permanent home after a rash of attempted kidnappings left the icon badly damaged. They chose Shelton because of the town’s relationship with logging.
The exact year of Paul’s arrival is either 1957 or 1964 depending on the source. Prouty can remember walking by the massive lumberman as a child. Bunyan eventually became the property of Gull. He towered there on his perch by the train trestle until the company folded. From there Paul bounced from place to place until eventually landing at Shelton High School.
Lloyd Prouty admits to a severe case of wanderlust. He served in Vietnam before moving to Alaska then Costa Rica and Guatemala. During this period he worked on the Alaska Pipeline, turned hippie and became a beach bum. He’s hitchhiked across “The Last Frontier” and built a home the old fashioned way – with hand tools.
Lloyd eventually settled back in Shelton where he opened his own business making wooden attic vents. Upon his return he felt a need to do something positive for the community. “He [Paul] was in 13 pieces,” says Prouty. “I told my brother-in-law ‘this can’t happen.’”
Prouty took custody of Paul in 1995. He took the broken body to Belfair Truck and Painting who did the repair work for free. Prouty’s brother-in-law built a hydraulic trailer. With a push of a button the myth comes to life, rising 22 feet in the air.
And the ax? Lloyd placed an announcement in the Shelton-Mason County Journal. The ax was stolen a few years prior, apparently by a group of Tumwater High School students. The call Lloyd received proved fruitful. He found the ax behind a house in Tumwater. “The guy opens his door and I tell him ‘I’ve got Paul Bunyan and I’m looking for his ax.’ The guy says ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about.’” Prouty then mentions pictures and the Sheriff. The rest is history.
Prouty began taking Paul around to different events like the Mason County Forest Festival. Still, something wasn’t quite right. Paul didn’t have Babe, the famed blue ox. Once again Prouty took to the papers asking for help. An anonymous donor gave Lloyd $11,000 to bring Babe to life. The blue beast is 17 feet long, eight feet wide and his head oscillates from side-to-side. Prouty has plans to add steam and sound effects.
Prouty has a love affair with the past. He owns several antique gas pumps, refrigerators and Coke machines. Lloyd’s commitment to Paul is more than just nostalgia. “People around here recognize Paul as being an heirloom,” says Prouty. “I want people to have memories of Paul Bunyan and what he represents to the community.”
At the height of Super Bowl fever hundreds of people stopped by Roosters. Some came for the comfort food but most came to see Paul and Babe.
Lindsay Blain works two jobs. She spends her week at Support Enforcement and her weekends at Roosters. Her family has owned the restaurant for over 30 years. Lindsay’s brother heard about a competition on the “Mason County 12” Facebook page. One thing lead to another and Blain was commissioned to make a life-sized jersey for Paul.
“The jersey is nine-and-a-half-feet wide and about six-and-a-half-feet long,” says Blain. The single mother worked through the night to get the outfit ready. It paid off. Pictures of Paul went viral and even made it on a local news television broadcast. “I think it’s great, it’s a great for Shelton to get positive recognition,” says Blain.
Myth can be a powerful force but Paul Bunyan isn’t fiction. He’s tangible, something you can see and touch. He’s been beaten down but he’s also been loved and in these ways he is a lot like you and me.