Maybe it was the flannel shirt, the red handkerchief and the logging boots that gave him away, but it didn’t take her long to figure out that this was Paul Bunyan lumbering into her school yard last week.

“I told her, ‘Maybe you do. I was here in the spring,’ ” said Richard Mark, who for years has been impersonating the famous North woodsman for children, seniors and anyone else in between willing to listen to his “tall-tale true” stories.

“Everybody enjoys a good story,” said Mark, who does the Paul Bunyan impersonation only on a part-time basis.

That’s because his other job is serving as pastor to two churches in the far reaches of western Carver County: St. John’s United Church of Christ in Norwood Young America and Zoar United Church of Christ in Dahlgren Township.

He told church elders about his side job prior to being hired almost two years ago. He said his small congregations have been very supportive.

“They are very excited about it here,” he said. “They are appreciative of the fact that we want people to enjoy life, to enjoy the stories.”

Paul Bunyan country

Mark spent many years in Paul Bunyan country in north-central Minnesota, working as a school administrator and as a newspaper columnist in Pequot Lakes, whose claim to fame is having Paul Bunyan’s bobber as its water tower.

While he was in Pequot Lakes his newspaper sponsored a Paul Bunyan look-alike contest for an annual town celebration.

“I kindly say that I was blackmailed into it,” said Mark, who won the contest and soon became the symbol of the northwoods in Minnesota. “It launched me,” he said of winning the contest. “It got me started on a new career.”

He soon became the center of attention at parades, ribbon cuttings and talks to schools and senior citizens. He eventually became the face of the North Woods Paul Bunyan tourism industry.

“I won the contest,” he said, “and right away people started telling me, ‘Tell me a story, tell me a story.’ ”

So Mark proceeded to compile a whole repertoire of them — everything from how he found his blue ox Babe frozen in blue snow one winter to how he uses trees for toothpicks.

He now uses his collection of stories, along with a lumberjack outfit and large prop axes, to put on a Paul Bunyan show for groups ranging from school-age children to senior citizens.

“The kids don’t know the stories, but they ask plenty of questions,” said Mark, who stands about 6-foot-2 and sports a dark black beard and mustache. “The seniors know the stories, but they don’t ask any questions.”

Mark has plenty of magazines, newspaper articles and books which feature him in his Paul Bunyan outfit, including one depicting him straddling state Hwy. 371, also known as the Paul Bunyan Expressway.

In the tourism book, Mark is looking down as the highway runs under him. The trees on the other side of the roadway barely come up to his ankles.

“Those trees are 60 feet tall,” he told an enthralled group of fifth-graders at Central Elementary recently.

For almost an hour, Mark, who is nearly 70, walked energetically among the kids telling tall tales — such as the one about the year the mosquitoes got so big they flew off with his cat and one of his cows.

“I can cut down 40 acres with one swipe,” he told the kids, swinging his 6 1/2-foot ax for emphasis. “I always cut them downhill. You know why?” So they roll into the Mississippi River.

“But you know what? I don’t get rid of all of them. I always keep my eye out for a couple of good logs. One for a comb and one for a toothpick.”

A renaissance?

Mark likes to say that there is a Paul Bunyan renaissance going on, inspired in part by the character’s legendary kindness, strength and honor.

As with most legends, there is no clearcut answer as to where the Paul Bunyan story originated or which tales are true.

With Paul Bunyan, states as distant as Maine and Washington (along with Michigan and Minnesota) lay claim to the famous lumberjack, either as his birthplace, his home or his final resting place.

After his performance for the students, Mark took questions from them. Many centered on his pet ox, who he said is so big that nearly 50 ax handles can fit between his eyes.

“And that’s the tall-tale truth,” Mark told the students.

This startling fact, of course, got the kids wondering when Paul Bunyan was born and how tall he might be.

“Well,” Mark said thoughtfully, “Paul Bunyan was born in the legend of people’s minds. … And Paul Bunyan is as tall as you want to imagine.”

Heron Marquez Estrada • 612-673-4280