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Bunyan’s Last Stand

August 12, 2010

[Editor’s Note: This post was submitted by the immensely good-natured aspiring astronaut and supposéd author Jeremy Pokela. It is my sincere hope to solicit further brief essays from a range of Minnesotans with regards to their reflections on everybody’s favorite North Star. I’ve also included pictures that were taken as part of an ethnographic research study of Akeley, Minnesota. Please enjoy!]

Every summer I vacation with my extended family at a small resort in Northern Minnesota. Around 40 of us gather every year, to reacquaint ourselves, to fish and swim, to relax, to be ourselves. We’ve been going to the same lake for over 30 years, the same week in July. Every year seems like a reflection of every other year. My memories fade together, indistinct in terms of what happened in any particular year, painting a picture in my brain of just one perfect summer vacation. Mainly this is because every year I do pretty much the same things I do every other year. I read a book or two, I go rollerblading on the trails that used to be railroad tracks, and I sit around campfires listening to my family sing and tell stories.

But part of it has to do with the consistency of the surroundings, most of the cabins seem to be unchanged from my memories of them as a child, the raft floating out on the lake is identical to the one I remember jumping off of as a 9 year old (from which my nieces and nephews have taken my place).  And sitting on the last corner before the lake comes into view, right as you’re leaving Akeley is Bunyan’s Gas Station:


Bunyan’s is a strange place, on the one hand it is a testimonial to the idea that Akeley is the birthplace of the Legend of Paul Bunyan. With pictures depicting the characters found in the legends, along with descriptions of the events that led to their creation, painted along the walls of the gas station. And a museum devoted to the world’s most famous lumberjack. On the other hand Bunyan’s is the nexus of a nonexistent town, Hooch Lake.

Built of false fronts, the town of Hooch Lake is a single street, running parallel to the highway extending from the gas station on one end to Hooch Lake itself on the other. The town of Hooch Lake is approximately 200 yards long. There are 20 distinct buildings, each decorated in its own style. Some seem to exist merely to extend the distance covered by the town, others attain a frightening level of detail, covered with signs proclaiming (with long, painfully unfunny, descriptions) what they have to offer the hypothetical residents.


The lake after which this fake town is named is small, manmade, weed infested, horror show. In the middle of the lake, floating on a decaying pool lounge chair, is a female mannequin. Her hair is a frizzy, gray mass, but her makeup is perfectly applied. She is clutching an empty beer bottle in her left hand, despite the fact that her left arm has been severed at the shoulder. Her left leg is a shattered ruin, but she still appears quite calm. She is enjoying her day on the lake, nothing is going to bring her down. The whole tableau has a disquieting effect, which is not, I think, what was intended.


This year Bunyan’s was closed down. Someone told me that it had gone out of business in June. Looking through the windows you could still see products on the shelf, even a carton of cigarettes tucked behind the counter. But the lot was empty, the pump handles bagged up. The weeds in the field by the museum tall and unmanaged.

It was strange, and it was campy, but it was unique. And in a world where everything seems to strive to become exactly like everything else, and suburbs spring up out of nowhere replacing real communities with McDonalds and Wal-Marts, we seem to be in a never ending race to destroy anything that isn’t easily replicable. Maybe it was inevitable that Bunyan’s closed. Or maybe it was just a gas station on the edge of a dying town. Either way I already miss Bunyan’s. My vacation memories are forever changed.

[The full selection of photos, including each individual storefront of ‘Hooch Lake’ can be inconveniently viewed here]

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. October 4, 2011 4:19 pm

    My daughter and I were coming back from Bemidiji yesterday and were trying to find a restroom. We stumbled upon this place. It really freaked us out. Particularly the hairless mannequin lounging in the water and because there was a slight breeze and her chair was moving, she seemed to follow us. It was all very “dueling banjos”, if know what I mean?

    We really couldn’t get out of there fast enough once we saw her. Good for a some pics and a laugh but sort of sad for what looked to be a lot of hard work at a small tourist attraction.

    • jayackley permalink*
      October 4, 2011 4:34 pm

      Glad to hear she’s still floating, this was written more than a year ago!

      How did you track down this blog entry if you don’t mind my asking? Just a Google search for “Creepy mannequin, Akeley Minnesota”?

      And just for a bit of follow-up research we did, a local resort owner told us the following about Bunyan’s Gas Station:

      “Just FYI, the Bunyan’s Gas Station actually closed because of health reasons (… they let the station go back to the bank, unfortunately). Nils was quite the character as you can imagine. His father’s nickname was “Hooch” which is why he named his little pond in remembrance of his father — I have no idea what the story is on the freakin’ weird-ass mannequin.”

  2. Christine DM permalink
    June 24, 2012 2:57 pm

    I am sad about the closure of this place with its humorous / kitschy personality, and I treasure my can cozy that reads, “Bunyan’s Hooch Lake, Starvation Army Headquarters.” I was trying to describe the place to a friend and that’s how I stumbled on your post so thanks for the update. (Just a note: your photo link seems to be broken.)

    • jayackley permalink*
      June 25, 2012 8:00 pm

      Thanks so much Christine for pointing out the broken photo-links, it should all be fixed now! It makes me so glad to know there are folks out there who treasure the memories of that lovely little town as much as my family does!

      best,
      Jay

  3. Maureen permalink
    July 23, 2012 2:52 am

    Great article. I will miss Bunyans. Once when my three kids and I were camping on Crow Wing Lake a storm came up and our tent was leaking badly. I went into Bunyans and asked if they knew where I could get a tarp. The owner was there and he didn’t have one to sell us but he took one off from a stand that was set up outside and gave it to us and told us to return it when we were done using it. I will never forget his kindness to our family.

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