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Kentons Bunyan statue will move Ñ but not far

• The beloved neighborhood icon makes way for MAX

The Paul Bunyan statue in North Portland gets a new home next month. But, no, he's not leaving the Kenton neighborhood where he was born.

The 37-foot-tall statue, a fixture on North Interstate Avenue since 1959, will move about 50 feet south on Feb. 5 as part of the Interstate MAX project.

He's getting a better home, say members of the committee who advised Tri-Met on Paul Bunyan issues. He's moving to what will become a small, landscaped plaza in the middle of North Willis Boulevard between Interstate and Denver avenues.

It will be a more pedestrian-friendly environment than the isolated traffic triangle that's been his home.

Paul is moving to make away for traffic safety improvements where Interstate meets Denver Avenue. When the plans first surfaced, neighbors worried that the improvements might mean losing the big guy altogether.

'We said, 'Stop right there,'' said longtime Kenton resident Joni Hoffmann, whose family owns the Tavern on Denver. 'The more they talked, the more it was clear that we'd better look out for him. If you're going to move him, fine. But don't take him out of the area.'

An added attraction

The statue sprang from the imagination of the Kenton Businessmen's Association, which was in search of a way to commemorate Oregon's 1959 statehood centennial.

The centennial celebration was based only a mile north, at what's now known as the Expo Center, and the association hoped to draw the attention of the traffic passing by on Interstate Avenue.

Meatpacking companies helped build Kenton, but the businessmen figured that Paul Bunyan was the perfect choice because he reflected Oregon's reliance on the timber industry.

It wasn't an original idea. The legendary logger is a popular roadside attraction elsewhere, especially in his mythical stomping grounds in Minnesota, Wisconsin and northern Michigan. The Web site www.roadsideamerica.com lists more than 50 roadside Paul Bunyans in 20 states.

Kenton's statue was built in Kenton Machine Works, a shop owned by Victor A. Nelson that's still across Denver Avenue from where Paul stands. The shop is now called Converting Machines.

Nelson's son, Vic Nelson, remembers how the shop's crew used steel I-beams, plaster and a chicken wire-like material for framing and stucco for the exterior. Paul may have been created in tribute to timber, but no wood was used.

The man who crafted the arms and face was an itinerant welder with an artistic bent; employees don't remember his real name, only that he went by 'Frenchy.'

He was so proud of his work, Nelson said, that he often boasted about it. Every few years, Nelson would get a call from a bar in Texas or maybe California, and he'd have to tell some of Frenchy's new drinking buddies that, yes, the welder had helped build a big Paul Bunyan statue.

Everyone knows Paul

When the statue was finished, workers hauled it out of the shop and stood it up for a dedication ceremony on June 6, 1959. He faced north to welcome visitors from Washington because Interstate Avenue, at that time, was the main highway between Portland and Seattle. The big guy with an ax loomed over a busy road and a lively neighborhood.

'It's been the focal point,' said Alta Mitchoff, Kenton's unofficial historian and author of 'The History of the Kenton Neighborhood.'

'People may not know where Kenton is,' she said, 'but everybody knows where the Paul Bunyan statue is.'

But times changed.

When Interstate 5 opened a few hundred feet east in the 1960s, it took virtually all of the commuter traffic away. The meatpacking business isn't what it used to be, the timber industry is no longer Oregon's economic glory and Paul now greets patrons of the nearby strip club about as often as visitors from Washington.

At one point, there was a tourist kiosk at his feet, with a machine that dispensed postcards bearing his picture, but it's gone along with the water fountain that once stood next to him.

The affection that neighbors have for him, however, remains undiminished. A decade ago, he got a fresh coat of paint; a few years after that, neighbors planted trees and shrubs and installed historic Belgian blocks around his base.

His new home should be a further improvement. The design of the plaza, approved recently by the Portland Historic Landmarks Commission, calls for a low wall with built-in seating that curves around the back of the statue. It will also include new landscaping.

The statue itself, by the way, will still face north. Across Denver Avenue, a sculptor will install small statues in the shape of hooves representing Paul's pal, Babe the Blue Ox. They will serve as seats.

Paul's makeover, Mitchoff said, won't deter the community's affection for him.

'He's ugly,' she said. 'But everybody loves him.'

Contact Don Hamilton at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..