Lake Bemidji's charms include Paul Bunyan

August 04, 1996|By Beth Gauper | Beth Gauper,KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

The tourists pulled up in front of the 18-foot Paul Bunyan, his red shirt glistening against the blue backdrop of Minnesota's Lake Bemidji, and stuck a video camera out the window.

Whirrr! It's a record of a piece of Americana that has proven irresistible to generations of tourists.

Paul and Babe have been a sensation ever since they were built for Bemidji's first Winter Carnival in 1937. Coverage in newspapers and national magazines brought crowds of tourists to Bemidji, which still makes a living logging, and other towns began to build their own symbols. Brainerd, the busy resort area an hour and a half to the south, got its Paul in 1949 and began a rivalry.

"My brother thinks this is Hicksville and won't set a foot beyond Brainerd," says Carol Ann Petersen, executive assistant at Bemidji's Community Art Center. "But we're a little less crowded. There are more red and white pines, and the air is different."

I've always wondered about that crisp, woodsy tang found only in the northernmost part of the state. John Fylpaa, naturalist at Lake Bemidji State Park on the northern shore, attributes it to the mix of trees, especially the balsam fir and other pines.

fTC The air's bracing quality is not lost on wind-swept North Dakotans, for generations Bemidji's most stalwart tourists, or heat-fleeing Southerners.

Says Petersen, "It's hard to find any Minnesota plates in this town sometimes. I had one gal from Florida say, 'This is like heaven today.' "

When I visited in June, the weather was indeed divine. So was the chicken mostaccioli I had with a glass of wine on the shady brick patio of Tutto Bene. I listened to strains of opera and wished the year-old restaurant were in my neighborhood.

Three doors away, the marquee lights were blinking at the renovated Chief Theatre, home of the 45-year-old Paul Bunyan Playhouse, Minnesota's oldest professional summer theater. Inside, four Perry Como-wannabes were about to begin the evening performance of "Forever Plaid."

After the show, I walked to the lakefront, where children were still squealing atop the Ferris wheel, then drove to my art-filled room at the Meadowgrove B&B, set in a grove of white pines outside town.

The next day, I picked up my daughter just north of town at Concordia Language Villages, whose immersion camps draw students from across the nation. Then we drove downtown to explore some more: Cosmic Java, a hangout for the 5,000 students of nearby Bemidji State University. Anntiques, with an unusually good collection of cool stuff. Morell's Chippewa Trading Post.

Bemidji was one of the last places in Minnesota to be settled, says Susanna Frenkel, president of the board of the Beltrami County Historical Society. Even today, she says, Bemidji still has a vaguely frontier feel.

"One of the producers of 'Northern Exposure' grew up in Bemidji," she says. "I always felt while watching it that it was more Bemidji than Alaska."

Pub Date: 8/04/96

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