Bunyan sign gets legacy status

Almost everything you need to know about Paul Bunyan's Cook Shanty can be read on this gigantic and historic sign above the longtime Wisconsin Dells restaurant.

ED LEGGE/Dells Events

Paul Bunyan and his long-time pal Babe apparently are staying put in the Lower Dells — at least, their likenesses are.

The billboard-sized sign adorned by the two giant, mythological American characters near the intersection of Wisconsin Dells Parkway and Wisconsin Highway 15 recently was recommended for legacy status by the city’s Design Review Committee.

That means, pending approval by the Dells Common Council at its December meeting, the legendary lumberjack and his big blue ox and the big, two-sided sign they occupy as an advertisement for Paul Bunyan’s Cook Shanty can remain at their present location in relative perpetuity, as long as the restaurant remains in business at that location as well.

The DRC voted for the Bunyan sign’s legacy designation during its Nov. 1 meeting, following discussion regarding an application for the designation by the restaurant’s owners, Mary and Trevor Hickey.

The sign is the second approved in the Dells for preservation status, with the signage for Old Time Portraits on Broadway receiving the legacy designation in early 2017.

City officials expect at least a couple more such designation applications from Dells businesses sporting vintage signage they believe is worth preserving between now and a Dec. 31 deadline, according to City Clerk Nancy Holzem.

The deadline, after which the legacy designations will be set for now and forever, with all other signs subject to current and future sign and design standard requirements, was determined two years ago when the DRC-developed standards were codified into city statute .

The big Bunyan sign provides a classic example of the kind of sign the DRC and city officials had in mind when they developed the legacy designation, said DRC Chairman and Dells Alderman Dar Mor.

“When we came up with the legacy concept, this was one of the signs I thought really goes back” in Wisconsin Dells history, Mor said.

A version of the sign reportedly has occupied either the present location or a spot nearby since around the time the restaurant opened in the late 1950s, according to Trevor Hickey.

“This is actually our 60th year in business, so that sign has been out there since 1958,” Hickey said.

That means Bunyan and his oxen friend have beckoned travelers to and through the Dells to enjoy an “All You Can Eat Lumberjack Meal” since Dwight Eisenhower was President, current Gov. Scott Walker had not been born and the only water park in the Dells-Delton area was the Wisconsin River and swimming pools connected to local hotels.

Much has changed since then, of course, but Paul and Babe have remained up on that big sign, in that approximate location, year after year as hundreds of thousands of meals were served and consumed in the ever-growing log cabin-style building beneath their feet.

Apparently the city of Wisconsin Dells had no sign ordinances when the big sign originally was erected, according to City Planner Chris Tollaksen.

“Every record indicates it’s always been there,” Tollaksen said, in a perhaps unintended overstatement worthy of a great American myth like the axe-wielding giant lumberjack and his friendly giant blue ox.

Paul and Babe have endured over the years due in no small part to rigorous upkeep of the sign by the restaurant’s owners and their forbearers, who also have kept the sign updated in style and appearance over the years while adding other signs, three-dimensional likeness of Paul and Babe and even a Lumberjack Show stadium across the parking lot nearby.

That upkeep also has kept the sign’s existence protected by “grandfather” status, in spite of numerous city sign codes developed since.

Apparently, the venerable sign’s primary code violation is its size — easily in excess of the current downtown-area limit of 300 square feet — Tollaksen said.

“I don’t know if there’s much else wrong with it,” he said. “It’s just very big. But it was built before the list of sign ordinances developed since, so it’s grandfathered in.”

With the advent of the city’s latest downtown sign and façade design standards, however, that grandfathering alone would not be enough to allow the Hickeys to rebuild it if a storm, accident or some other cataclysmic event felled it.

“We’ve always struggled with the fact that if the sign blew over, we’re done,” Hickey said. “We’ve always tried to preserve it, and we’ve taken every different approach to make it work. But there’s just no way around any of (the city’s sign ordinances), if Mother Nature took it down.”

“That’s one of the reasons to have the legacy status, in case a storm took it down,” Mor said after his committee voted to protect the big old sign.

Follow Ed Legge on Twitter @DellsEd. Contact him at 608-432-6591.