Gib Morgan’s tall tales lead to Paul Bunyan (2 of 2)

Posted by | December 14, 2015

(continued from yesterday…)

Gib Morgan never wrote down his tall tales before he died. But in the hands of two early 20th century men, working independently of each other, and with different motives, the real life of Gilbert Morgan of Callensburg, PA, created Gib Morgan, the myth.

Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio oil field workers picked up Morgan’s stories and retold them after 1900 in the Texas, Oklahoma, California and Illinois oil fields. Subsequently they came to the attention of Mody Boatright, a University of Texas professor active in the Texas Folklore Society from 1943 to 1964.

Gib Morgan, Minstrel of the Oil Fields book cover
Boatright compiled 51 tales reputed to have been told by Morgan into the folklore study Gib Morgan, Minstrel of the Oil Fields. The 1945 publication was the first of its kind to study the impact of the oil industry upon the folklore and the folkways of the American people. It won Boatright national recognition as a folklorist.

Meantime, back at the turn-of-the-century, traveling salesmen for the Red River Lumber Company of Bemidji, MN (which probably supplied rig timbers to California and Illinois oil fields) had also heard Morgan’s tall tales. Many oil field workers, who knew the Morgan stories, simultaneously went to work for the Red River Lumber Company’s logging camps and sawmills (in California and Minnesota).

In 1914, Archie D. Walker, secretary of the Red River Lumber Company, employed his cousin William B. Laughead, a former lumberjack turned free-lance advertising man, to develop an advertising campaign for the sale of lumber produced in his company’s new Westwood, CA mill. Most of his buyers at that time purchased soft white pine, traditionally harvested on the east coast, and were apprehensive about the quality of the wood grown in the west.

Walker wanted an imaginative advertising campaign which would catch the interest of prospective buyers, while reassuring them that west coast timber was indeed of good quality. Walker urged Laughead to incorporate the Paul Bunyan folk myths into the advertising campaign, hoping that the use of such an unusual gimmick would spur the company’s sales.

sketch of Paul Bunyan by William LaugheadFrontispiece illustration of Paul Bunyan, by William Laughead, from “Paul Bunyan and His Big Blue Ox” pamphlet.

Laughead developed a series of postcard-size pamphlets in which Paul Bunyan tales and cartoons of the character he’d drawn accompanied the Red River Lumber Company’s ad for its goods and services. Some of these tales were based on Laughead’s recollections of stories he had heard –Gib Morgan’s stories–ten years earlier in a Minnesota lumber camp.

A total of three advertising pamphlets for the company were sent to prospective buyers within the industry during the 1910s and 1920s. Introducing Mr. Paul Bunyan of Westwood Cal. was published in 1914. Tales About Paul Bunyan, Vol. II rolled off the press two years later.

Few buyers, apparently, appreciated Walker and Laughead’s efforts, and most threw away the Red River Lumber Company advertisements. And thus, first editions are scarce. Those that do remain are rare collectors’ items due to the immense popularity of Laughead’s third pamphlet, published in 1922.

The Marvelous Exploits of Paul Bunyan was really a revamped version of Laughead’s first work. Although intended for the same specialized audience of lumbermen, this booklet unexpectedly had a much more far-reaching impact on society at large. The popularity of a lengthy review of the pamphlet appearing in the Kansas City Star served to introduce the legendary folk hero to the general public.

The instant success of the work necessitated the reproduction of new editions for years to follow, culminating in 1944 with the Thirtieth Anniversary Edition. It was occasionally given other titles in subsequent reproductions, one of the most common being Paul Bunyan and His Big Blue Ox.

WV Oil & Gas Festival ticketWilliam B. Laughead, through his Red River Lumber ad pamphlets, created much of the Paul Bunyan canon we’re familiar with today. Gib Morgan’s tall tales are an integral part of that culture.

And Sistersville? Make a point to visit it in September to attend the WV Oil and Gas Festival. The Gib Morgan Wrench Throwing Contest is a highlight.

Gib Morgan, Minstrel of the Oil Fields, Mody C. Boatright, ed., Dallas: Texas Folklore Society, 1966
Handbook of American Folklore, by Richard Mercer Dorson, Indiana University Press, 1986
Folksongs and Their Makers, by Henry Glassie, Edward D. Ives, Popular Press, 1971

Gib+Morgan Sistersville+WV appalachia +history+of+appalachia appalachian+history

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