Roadside Kitsch: Paul Bunyan in Brooklyn, Michigan
Travelurgy 1: In the first installment of this historical travelogue series, Leah Angstman visits an original 1960s muffler man.
Howdy. I’m your travel host, Leah Angstman, here at the site of an original Paul Bunyan muffler man located outside of Knutson’s Sporting Goods in Brooklyn, Michigan. I’m particularly obsessed with the folklore of Paul Bunyan, whose myth and legend says that the obscenely tall lumberjack carved our rivers and felled forests all across the northern frontier of America, including the Soo Locks of Sault Sainte Marie in my home state of Michigan. While there is no evidence that anyone named Paul Bunyan ever actually existed, his folklore is likely an amalgamation of several popular and perhaps real lumberjack figures from the days when tree-feller industries wanted to attract themselves some working jacks.
In modern parlance, these giants from the 1960s and 70s are collectively monikered “muffler men” because original versions were advertisements for auto parts, mufflers, tire shops, and car dealerships, holding anything from mufflers to tailpipes to tires to tools to golf clubs. Nowadays, they have been restored and repainted into all sorts of colors and styles, bearing insignias of local football teams, holding hotdogs in front of diners, and welcoming home troops in military camouflage. They came in various shapes, styles, and sizes, held a range of accessories, and wore different hats. Many of them are now feetless, as cement stabilization required sawing off the feet for the statues to be moved. Earlier versions had complete bodies all in one piece with intricate detail; later versions had hats stuck on with glue, feet lodged in cement, arms bolted at the sleeves, and body parts in four attachable sections — but all of them are retro kitsch left over from the early migratory days of Route 66 Americana, and it’s estimated that only about 180 of them still exist today. In Connecticut, muffler men have skirted zoning laws by holding flags and being considered flagpoles instead of signage. The Bunyan statue that featured at the 1964 New York World’s Fair is still hanging out at a New York mini golf. At least four of them can still be spotted from the original overgrown path of Route 66.
Relatively little was known about the statues until the late 1990s, when the team from the popular website and book series Roadside America coined the phrase “muffler men” and began cataloging the few remaining statues and linking together how similar they all looked. Even though the original statues actually held axes, the name muffler men has stuck.
It all started with designers named Bill Swan and Bob Prewitt, whose Prewitt Fiberglass Animals produced the 20-foot-tall mold for the original Paul Bunyan statue around 1961, in Lawndale, California. That original statue is still standing in Flagstaff, Arizona, where it first accompanied a place called Lumberjack Café (another source has called it the Paul Bunyan Café) in the early 1960s, after Prewitt sold it to the restaurant owner when the original Sacramento customer who’d commissioned the piece failed to pay for it. The statue believed to be the first Bunyan statue now stands outside the Northern Arizona University Skydome. Though it is unknown how many of these statues Prewitt produced, he favored animals, and several early Bunyan statues were coupled with orders for cows, roosters, and horses, and were likely created by Prewitt himself. Boatbuilder Steve Dashew and his father purchased the molds around 1964 and founded International Fiberglass in Venice, California; the “Giant Men” the company created grew into legend, and International Fiberglass ended up at its peak creating thousands of statues of people, animals, and objects — including hundreds of Bunyan statues and those famous Sinclair dinosaurs, Phillips 66 cowboys, and Enco tigers — before the fiberglass company closed in 1974, following the 1973 gas crisis, which hiked production costs, and the completion of new highways that made Route 66 a road of ghost towns and dying kitsch. The last statues were made by 1976 (other sources say 1972), and the last of the original molds were broken (or at the very least are now lost). Standard Bunyan statues were originally accompanied by an ax, but the company had various accessories, styles, and colors so that businesses could customize for specific needs, and Bunyan’s hands could be in various positions, though the standard was right palm up, left palm down, to hold a muffler or an ax. The statues were effective, costing between $1,000 and $2,800 at the time, and advertising for car shops and restaurants that weary and broken travelers needed and could spy easily from bustling two-lane highways.
This particular Paul Bunyan in Brooklyn, Michigan, was most likely originally located at the Paul Bunyan Restaurant west of Ann Arbor, Michigan, near I-94 and Zeeb Road. It is estimated that it moved from that location to its new home at the Stagecoach Stop USA roadside attraction amusement park in Irish Hills, down the road a few miles from here, on US-12 in southern Michigan. The park was campy retro fun that operated from 1964 to 2008, complete with a Wild West theme, antique tools, single-cylinder gasoline engines, live demonstrations of an early 1900s sawmill, a recreated 1950s gas station with vintage Chevrolet police cruiser full of bullet holes through the trunk, and a suped-up tractor that looked like a train and featured an engineer who got into a daily scuffle with a train robber. Mr. Bunyan was repainted around 2006, but the park closed in 2008, and the statue went up for sale on eBay for $6,500 in 2010, but didn’t land a single bid. He was then acquired by Knutson’s Sporting Goods in 2011, receiving a new coat of paint before being installed. Throughout holidays and special events, he holds decorative items from flags to trees, but he’s most famous for brandishing the only double-sided ax I’ve ever seen with a curved handle.
During my visit on June 22, 2019, sandwiched between Memorial Day and Independence Day, Bunyan held an American flag. The weather was ridiculously hot and humid, even at 7:30 in the morning, and the sun was already too high to get good clear images without sun streaks and heavy shadows, but the statue is completely accessible outside Knutson’s (pronounced kuh-NOOT-sens) Sporting Goods, 151 Wamplers Lake Road, Brooklyn, Michigan 49230. There is a small, free parking lot in front of the building, and the store’s operating hours run from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day, though the statue is accessible without any barrier even when the store is closed. I called ahead for permission to photograph, but it was not needed. Coordinates: 42.098970, -84.246004. I’m standing against Bunyan’s leg in the last photo, for scale, hugging his big historical shin.