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Eriksmoen: Journalist who introduced Paul Bunyan to the country became Fargo Forum's editor

Curtis Eriksmoen, Did You Know? columnist1 / 2
Paul Bunyan and Babe stand proudly in Bemidji, Minn. Bemidji Area Chamber / Special to Forum News Service2 / 2

During the 20th century, the most famous mythological folklore hero in America was Paul Bunyan.

Although it has been reported that stories about him began in logging camps in the north-central U.S. and south-central Canada at the time of the Civil War, stories about Bunyan did not appear in print until the early 1900s. In 1910, The Washington Post ran an article with three stories about Bunyan that stimulated the interest of citizens across the country, making them want to learn more about this mythological giant. The author of the article who introduced Bunyan to Americans was James Rockwell, a young newspaper reporter from Duluth, Minn. Seven years later, Rockwell would become part owner and editor of the Fargo Forum.

James Evan Rockwell was born on Aug. 2, 1883, in Kingston, Ontario, to John and Huldah (McMullen) Rockwell. John owned and operated a dry goods business in Kingston, and Huldah was one of Canada’s most active participants in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, leading rallies to give women the right to vote and to prohibit the sale of intoxicants.

In the fall of 1893, the Rockwells moved to Toronto, where John became a manufacturing agent, and Huldah edited the weekly Canada Citizen and Temperance Journal. In 1899, James finished his public school education and, along with his sister, Alice, enrolled at the University of Toronto.

In 1902, the Rockwells moved to Duluth, and James and Alice left the University of Toronto, having completed three years there. Alice transferred to the University of Minnesota and, because she inherited her mother’s passion for political activism, became active in Minnesota politics. James inherited his mother’s love of journalism and became a “cub reporter” for the Duluth News Tribune.

On Aug. 4, 1904, the Tribune ran a short article, from an anonymous contributor, about one of Paul Bunyan’s feats in North Dakota, which was titled, “Caught on the Run.” It is the first known time that the lumberjack, Paul Bunyan, was mentioned by name in print. The article resonated with local readers since Duluth was a logging community where tall tales about the mythical lumberjack abounded.

James Rockwell became fascinated with some of the stories from the logging community, especially those that centered on the character. He wrote three stories in an article that he titled, “Some Lumberjack Myths,” and sent it to the editor of Outer’s Book, a monthly outdoor magazine headquartered in Milwaukee, Wis.

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In February 1910, Rockwell’s article was published in the magazine and then reprinted in a number of other publications, most notably The Washington Post. Because of the article’s popularity, Rockwell wrote 16 more stories about Paul Bunyan, which included the first description of the lumberjack’s large size and his companion, Babe, the big blue ox. The ox was blue because he was with Bunyan in North Dakota during “the winter of the blue snow.”

Since Rockwell’s article first appeared, hundreds of stories about Paul Bunyan have been written. Bunyan was also the subject of numerous poems, including those by Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg and W. H. Auden, and there are also a number of statues of Bunyan in the U.S. In Michael Edmonds’ 2009 book "Out of the Northwoods: The Many Lives of Paul Bunyan," he wrote, “James Rockwell never received credit for bringing Paul Bunyan into mainstream American culture.”

Despite the success of Rockwell’s stories about the mythical lumberjack, he kept his focus on being a good newspaperman with the Tribune. In a short period of time, Rockwell was promoted to city editor and then to managing editor. He hoped to also get in on the ownership of the paper, but Millie Bunnell, the owner and publisher of the paper, was not willing to part with any of his shares.

In the spring of 1917, Rockwell became friends with another newspaperman, Norman B. Black, who was also born and raised in Canada. Black had served as publisher of the Grand Forks Herald from 1911 to 1916, but the ownership of the paper belonged to Jerry Bacon. Black "long had his eye on Fargo as the ideal place to own a newspaper, and he was specifically interested in the Forum." In 1916, he resigned from the Herald and moved to Fargo in pursuit of purchasing the newspaper of his dreams.

On May 1, 1917, Black brought in his son, Norman D. Black, along with Rockwell, and Holger “Happy” Paulson, the city editor of the Forum, and purchased The Forum. The U.S. had entered World War I three weeks earlier, and since Rockwell was not married, he was high on the list to be drafted into the Army because of the enactment of the Selective Draft Act on May 18. He was able to stay on as editor until Nov. 1, 1918, when he was inducted into the Army. Rockwell was sent to Camp Zachary Taylor in Kentucky, but because the war had ended, he was discharged one month later on Dec. 3.

In 1922, Bunnell announced that, on Nov. 30, he would be resigning as publisher of the Duluth News Tribune, and Rockwell made it known that he was still interested in becoming part owner of the paper. Rockwell then resigned as editor of The Forum, sold his shares in the paper and returned to Duluth to become part owner, vice president, secretary and editorial manager of the paper.

In 1926, Rockwell purchased the Charleston News & Courier, the oldest newspaper in South Carolina. I do not know if he knew that the newspaper had a racist history, but within two years, he sold the paper and entered into a partnership with Aubrey Harwell, a leading newspaper broker in New York City. Harwell and Rockwell purchased, sold, consolidated and appraised newspaper properties.

While in New York, Rockwell “owned extensive interest of several newspapers.” On October 1, 1929, Rockwell purchased the Murphysboro Independent in southwestern Illinois. Murphysboro was a community where he wanted to put down roots, and for the next 17 years he served as the editor and publisher of the paper.

Rockwell retired from the newspaper business in 1946 and moved to the Chicago suburb of Aurora, Ill., where he owned and operated an appliance store. James Evan Rockwell died on Dec. 9, 1953.