The mighty Paul Bunyan is faltering.
His ax-wielding arm is ready to bend under the weight of a child posing for a picture, his colors are stripping and his wooden frame is deteriorating.
In addition, the 30-year-old-plus statue’s legs are too short, and his wardrobe needs an update — like a pair of suspenders popularly worn by lumberjacks, at least as they appear in old pictures, thought Kim Nessel of Altoona.
Nessel, who retired from Eau Claire Fire & Rescue three years ago, is harnessing his skills — many gleaned from past hobbies such as finishing model airplanes and fixing fiberglass-built helmets he roughed up — to build a new Paul Bunyan statue that will replace the 10-foot homage to the city’s lumbering heritage perched outside the Paul Bunyan Logging Camp Museum in Carson Park.
The 13½-foot polystyrene lumberjack that sits in two pieces in a garage is still “crude” in some places — absent of the contours in Bunyan’s hands and the wrinkles in his shirt and without the finishing touches. Still, Nessel hopes the statue will be done and in place by the end of October.
“The date depends on how much time I keep at it,” said Nessel, who started the project in March.
Nessel has kept a watchful eye on the current fiberglass statue he repaired in 2002 with fresh paint and concrete for added stability after it was vandalized. A then 18-year-old Altoona man was charged with criminal damage to property after breaking the statue off at the ankles.
The statue won’t withstand much more weathering, Nessel told Diana Peterson, Paul Bunyan Logging Camp Museum executive director.
“Kim has been checking the statue for us on and off, and when he repaired it (in 2002), he knew eventually it would lead to more work,” Peterson said.
Nessel began his project by snapping photographs of the current Bunyan statue at two angles. He then enlarged those pictures to the new statue’s current height. He projected those images onto a screen and then traced and cut cardboard pieces used to build the frame.
“It’s all marine-grade plywood, which is all solid wood,” he said. “It’s a more expensive wood, but it’s much stronger. It’s what they make boats out of.”
Two plywood cutouts from the front and side silhouettes were glued together perpendicularly to form a frame that Nessel then filled with blocks of polystyrene. He carved out the features with a rasp tool used for shaping materials.
The statue gets its strength from the rigid, high-density polystyrene and two layers of fiberglass hardened by an epoxy resin and hardener, which requires just the right amount of each and is usable for about 15 minutes before it firms up. Another coat of white-colored epoxy resin will protect the fiberglass from deteriorating and inform its caretakers when another paint job is needed.
“There’s absolutely nothing Kim overlooked when planning the statue,” Peterson said. “We could not order this statue and have it made as well as he’s making it. We couldn’t even begin to get this kind of product.”
Once complete, Nessel said the statue will weigh about 800 pounds and will last for at least 40 years. Peterson said volunteers likely will keep up with repainting both Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox every other year, though replacement of Babe is not on the museum’s radar.
“It’s in good shape,” Peterson said of Babe. “It doesn’t seem to have the holes that Paul had.”
Paying for Paul
Peterson said with the manpower volunteered by Nessel, and his attention to cost, the new statue will cost about $2,000. Peterson estimated that a third-party purchase of a similar statue would cost about $25,000.
“With Kim donating all of his time, he is saving us thousands and thousands of dollars in labor,” Peterson said.
The statue will be funded through a $1,000 grant from the AnnMarie Foundation and a $500 destination grant from Visit Eau Claire. The soon-to-be former statue likely will be auctioned off.
Nessel isn’t asking for any recognition, but museum officials likely will install a plaque thanking Nessel and the other donors.
Nessel also likely will give a presentation during the statue’s dedication where he’ll show pictures and explain the process he took to build the new Bunyan. A date hasn’t been set for the dedication, but Peterson said it likely will be discussed at the next board meeting Sept. 21.
“We can’t say how much we appreciate the thought and time that Kim has put into everything,” Peterson said.
Nessel said he’s happy to help.
“It’s the right thing to do,” he said. “The city was always good to me. This is my way of giving back.”
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