Cartoon images of a camp site
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Column: A brief Bemidji investigation into Babe's signature blue hue

Tony mixes a quart of "Babe the Blue Ox" at the Bemidji Sherwin Williams on Tuesday, July 2, 2024.
Larissa Donovan
/
KAXE
Tony mixes a quart of "Babe the Blue Ox" at the Bemidji Sherwin Williams on Tuesday, July 2, 2024.

Bemidji Area Reporter Larissa Donovan shares her surprising find about Babe's blue shade while wearing multiple hats as a Bemidji Jaycee, local journalist and amateur historian.

BEMIDJI — In downtown Bemidji, a statue of a giant blue ox has stood alongside an even taller lumberjack for more than 80 years.

By tall tale reckoning, Paul Bunyan found the ox calf in a snowbank, and under Paul’s care, he grew to be an ox of gigantic proportion, never losing his blue coloring.

And what is that hue of blue? Turns out, there’s a very specific one that I learned is unique to Bemidji. And it takes quite a lot to keep Babe looking fresh, no doubt on account of his size.

In the stories, there is some dispute about how large Babe was. Paul Bunyan tales all use the axe handle measuring system, with the man himself standing 63 axe handles high. Some say Babe stood seven axe handles and a plug of tobacco high. Others say 143 axe handles, 17 cans of tomatoes and one tobacco box across the horn tips.

Carol Olson retired from Bemidji's Tourist Information Center four years ago, but she is known as something of an authority of the figures, given the statues were outside her workplace for 34 years. She says Babe isn’t quite as old as Paul Bunyan but the project for Babe was also started in 1937.

Carol Olson, left, is handed the key to the city by then-Bemidji mayor Rita Albrecht during Olson's retirement party on Feb. 28, 2020.
Larissa Donovan
Carol Olson, left, is handed the key to the city by then-Bemidji mayor Rita Albrecht during Olson's retirement party on Feb. 28, 2020.

The statue version was originally made of wood, wire and fiber wool, and of course, painted blue. An exhaust pipe was once built into the nostrils of the ox statue to give the impression of snorting steam in the cold air. Automobile taillights connected to a battery once lit up the eyes, with these features later adapted when it was mounted with a concrete finish.

“He was mounted on a 1.5-ton truck and he traveled around the country, thousands of miles to various shows... after traveling to many shows, it was decided to place him permanently next to Paul and he remains there today,” Olson said.

Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox during the 23rd Annual Bemidji Jaycees Water Carnival in 1967.
Contributed
/
Bemidji Jaycees
Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox during the 23rd Annual Bemidji Jaycees Water Carnival in 1967.

I’m a member of the Bemidji Jaycees, and we were tasked with repainting our replica Paul & Babe statues mounted on the parade float ahead of the Water Carnival Grand Parade at 1 p.m. on Sunday, July 7.

As I repainted Babe’s undercarriage, I noticed a darker shade of blue underneath the peeling paint. My fellow Jaycees told me that while this float gets repainted regularly, the replica was once a darker shade.

Bemidji Jaycees pose for a photograph for the 79th Annual Water Carnival Grand Parade in July 2023. KAXE's Larissa Donovan is in heart-shaped sunglasses beside Babe's snout.
Contributed
/
Bemidji Jaycees
Bemidji Jaycees pose for a photograph for the 79th Annual Water Carnival Grand Parade in July 2023. KAXE's Larissa Donovan is in heart-shaped sunglasses beside Babe's snout.

The local Sherwin Williams store, however, now mixes a signature shade known as, you guessed it — “Babe the Blue Ox.” That exact color has been used for the last several paint touchups, for both the Jaycee parade float replica and the main attraction.

Tony at Bemidji’s Sherwin Williams confirmed that Babe the Blue Ox is a custom color unique to this specific store, and it’s usually only ordered when the statues are being repainted.

"They do go and do touch up work every year, OK, but for a full repaint, it's probably every six or seven years, something like that,” he said.

Lorie Shaull
/
Special to KAXE

The official "Babe the Blue Ox" shade found only in Bemidji isn't universal in Babe statues in the region. In the Brainerd lakes area, for instance, a set of smaller Babe statues spread at various locations take some artistic license, including an Elvis-themed one and Babe the Waabigwan Ox in downtown Brainerd, inspired by Ojibwe beadwork.

Whatever tall-tale metric Babe the Blue Ox was, the statue in downtown Bemidji generally requires 3 gallons of fresh paint. To put that into perspective, 3 gallons of paint is enough to provide almost 11-hundred square feet of coverage.

Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox on the Bemidji Jaycee float receive a fresh coat of paint on June 16, 2024.
Contributed
/
Bemidji Jaycees
Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox on the Bemidji Jaycee float receive a fresh coat of paint on June 16, 2024.

As I delivered Water Carnival buttons to the myBemidji store downtown, I discussed Babe’s blue hue with owner Kevin Johnson. As he works a lot in graphic design, he said it’s reasonable to assume that Bemidji’s Babe has had various blues over the decades.

"I mean, it is the official shade now. Feel like now that we have the technology to read the color values, that will always stay the same," Johnson said. "So it's probably not going to ever get brighter again.

" ... Things back then were just kind of freestyle. They would mix up a color and say, 'That looked good.'”

I’ll be down at the Waterfront visiting Paul and Babe daily throughout the Water Carnival, which is running now through Sunday. Find a full list of events at the Bemidji Jaycees website.

Come check out the iconic duo and help yourself to my Paul and Babe photo pro tip: Stand a few paces in front of the statues instead of right at their feet. They won’t get any smaller and your photos will actually show your faces!

Larissa Donovan in Bemidji on Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2024.
Lorie Shaull
Larissa Donovan in Bemidji on Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2024.

Larissa Donovan has been in the Bemidji area's local news scene since 2016, joining the KAXE newsroom in 2023 after several years as the News Director for the stations of Paul Bunyan Broadcasting.