The Myth of Paul Bunyan’s Axe -  A Short Story of a Tall Tale.

Post date: Dec 12, 2020 2:44:13 AM

If there’s one thing I’ve learned since starting this project, its that you should never assume the "interwebs" are correct.  Especially with older sporting events.  As a matter of fact, the farther back you go, the more likely it is that the internet is wrong. 

For example.  The internet claims the first University of Minnesota Football game took place on September 29, 1882, a 4-0 victory over Hamline. [1] [2]

Upon further review, the Minneapolis Tribune states that a game between Minnesota and Hamline was scheduled to take place on September 30, 1882 (not the 29th).  The game was to be a part of a celebration of athletics being held at the state fairgrounds with The University of Minnesota, Hamline and Carleton all participating. [3]

However, in the next day's Minneapolis Tribune, it says that game was postponed. [4]

That doesn’t mean it never happened.  It just means it probably happened on a different date.  Point is, the internet isn’t always correct.       

That brings us to the reason I’m writing this blog. 

I often have fellow WHENESOTAN’s that submit events for the Calamity Calendar.  A few months back, a frequent contributor, Keith Grinde, sent me something about the Minnesota/Wisconsin football “Slab of Bacon” trophy getting lost.  I had never heard of it.  Down the rabbit hole I went.   

The first football game between the University of Minnesota and Wisconsin took place on November 15, 1890.  This was Wisconsin’s second year of football.  According to most sources, Wisconsin played 2 games in 1889 which is considered their first official season.  Minnesota had a bit more experience, having played since, well, 1882 apparently.  On that day, November 15, 1890, the University of Minnesota beat Wisconsin 63-0. [5][6]

Thus, the Minnesota/Wisconsin football rivalry was born.  Following that first game, the two teams played 128 more times in consecutive years, with the exception of 1906.  According to Wikipedia, and the Gopher sports archive page, the 1906 game was cancelled by Teddy Roosevelt as a response to an increase in college football related deaths in 1905. [7] [8]

Wait, what? 

Roosevelt’s son played college football at Harvard during that time.  There were quite a few football related deaths the previous season, but Roosevelt only wanted to reform the rules.  A concerned group of Universities (that would eventually become the NCAA) proposed new rules and equipment changes in the early part of 1906.  Some Colleges and Universities decided to abandon football, but Minnesota decided to play on and accept the new rules. [9]

According to the Wisconsin State Journal and the Minneapolis Tribune, the Wisconsin faculty (not Roosevelt) voted to suspend football for one year, thus cancelling the 1906 game with Minnesota. [10] [11]

University of Wisconsin President Charles Van Hise even sent a request to Minnesota’s President Cyrus Northrup asking to be “relieved from liability” on their contractual obligations for the season. [12]

Wisconsin was allowed to play some games that season.  Those games were considered second class games and Wisconsin was not allowed to play any “big” teams like Minnesota, Chicago or Michigan. [13] [14] [15]

In February 1907, Wisconsin faculty allowed the return to a full conference schedule with the approval of the “Big Four” pact.  It was an agreement between Chicago, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin that outlined a 4-year schedule. It also detailed finances, game rules, and called for the home team to provide a banquet for alumni and undergrads of both teams the night before a game. [16] [17]

On November 23 of that year, the border rivalry began anew when Wisconsin battled heavily favored Minnesota to a 17-17 tie.  It was the first of 8 ties in the history of the rivalry. [18]  

The Slab of Bacon

In 1930, Minnesota and Wisconsin started playing for a rivalry trophy.  It was called the “Slab of Bacon”.  It was created by a local Minnesota alumnus, Dr. R.R. Fouch and was publicly introduced on November 12, 1930.  The Gophers publicly challenged Wisconsin to take it from them in their upcoming game on November 22 of that same year. [19]

Photo of Trophy [19]

It's important to note here that news of the trophy was IN PRINT... in BOTH states…  BEFORE the first  bacon trophy game.  This crucial detail will come into play later in the story.  [20] [21] [22]

The first “Slab of Bacon” game went off with a bang.  Literally.  With less than a minute left and Wisconsin leading 14-0, someone in the Madison crowd fired a pistol causing the stands to empty and fans to rush on to the field.  The referees, unable to control the crowd, ended the game early and Wisconsin “brought home the bacon” for the first time. [23] [24]

The official Gopher Sports history page states that the “Slab of Bacon” trophy got lost in the early 1940’s following a game where Gopher fans rushed the field after a win and this was the reason for creating a new trophy called Paul Bunyan’s Axe. [8]

But according to the Minneapolis Tribune, the last game played for the “Slab of Bacon” was November 20, 1943.  On that day, the Gophers beat the Badgers 25-13 at Memorial Stadium.  After the game, a Wisconsin emissary brought the trophy to the Gopher locker room but was turned away by Minnesota coach George Hauser.  Hauser felt it was improper to take the “Slab of Bacon” trophy out of respect for war rationing and felt teams shouldn’t be playing for trophies during that time. [25]  The "Slab of Bacon" returned home with Wisconsin and was never played for again.  Its possible the trophy got lost after that game, but it wasn't the reason the two teams stopped playing for it. 

That same article from the Gopher Sports website (as well as Wikipedia, and every other website on the internet) claims that Paul Bunyan’s Axe was then created in 1948 to replace the lost “Slab of Bacon” as the new trophy for the winner of the Minnesota/Wisconsin game.  Minnesota won the first game 16-0 on November 20, 1948.  That score and the year, “1948”, were written on the Axe to commemorate the first game ever played for the trophy.  Right?

To quote College Gameday’s Lee Corso, “Not so fast my friend.” 


Paul Bunyan’s Axe

The Axe wasn’t introduced as the trophy until January 1949 - almost 2 months after the supposed first game took place.  It's first public appearance? (wait for it)…A basketball game.   On January 10, 1949, the Wisconsin “W” club’s Chuck Fenske presented the new trophy to Cliff Sommer, president of the University “M” club at halftime of the Gopher/Badger basketball game at Williams Arena. [26]

Photo of Axe presentation [26]

The score of the 1948 football game was written on the Axe RETROACTIVELY.  Meaning, when they played that game in November 1948, they weren’t playing for the Axe, because it didn't exist yet. There is no mention of the Axe or any trophy in any Minnesota or Wisconsin newspaper in November 1948.  The first mention of Paul Bunyan’s Axe is in January 1949 when it was announced the trophy would be presented a few days later at the previously mentioned basketball game.   [27]

That article states the Axe, “was to have been presented prior to the Gopher-Badger football game last fall, but plans for the ceremony were interrupted by unavoidable circumstances.”

That doesn't sound vague at all, does it?  It sounds like something someone says when they’re hiding something.  Unavoidable circumstances?  You mean, circumstances like the Axe didn’t exist yet? 

If the trophy had existed in November 1948, wouldn’t you think there would've been some publicity about this new trophy leading up to the game?  Or on the day of the game?  Or even the day after?  Just like there was pregame publicity for the “Slab of Bacon” 18 years earlier?  But there isn’t any mention of the Axe prior to January 1949. 

Maybe they had plans for a new trophy and didn’t get it finished in time?  But even if something like that happened, how can you play for something that didn’t exist?

I'm not sure why this happened.  I don't believe there was any malicious intent.  Im definitely not accusing anyone of any wrong doing.  I think the 1948 Axe myth is just one of those stories that has gotten passed along generation after generation and eventually got accepted as truth.  People probably said, “Hey look!  It even says the date of the first game right on it… 1948!”  

The fact is, that 1948 game was NOT played for the Axe.  The first game actually played “for” the Axe was on November 19, 1949.   Minnesota won that game 14-6. [28] [29]

Also, In 1994, the "lost"  Slab of Bacon trophy turned up in a storage room at the University of Wisconsin.  It had scores from the games up until 1970.  Weird for something that was "lost". It now resides at Camp Randall in a trophy case. [30]

Paul Bunyan’s Axe eventually began to fall apart due to age and was replaced in 2000 with a new Axe.   The original Axe was donated to the College Football Hall of fame in 2003. [31]

Minnesota/Wisconsin Rivalry Stats (As of end of 2022 season )

Years played: 132 (Minnesota wins: 62, Wisconsin wins: 62, Ties: 8)

Years played for the “Slab of Bacon”:  14 (Minnesota wins: 11, Wisconsin wins: 3)

Years played for Paul Bunyan’s Axe: 74 - NOT 75!  (Minnesota wins: 26, Wisconsin wins: 45, Ties: 3)




3. Minneapolis Tribune 9-30-1882

4.  Minneapolis Tribune 10-1-1882

5.  Minneapolis Tribune 11-16-1890

6.  Wisconsin State Journal 11-18-1890



9.  Minneapolis Tribune 2-11-06

10.  Minneapolis Tribune 4-7-06

11.  Wisconsin State Journal 4-6-06

12.  Minneapolis Tribune 5-29-06

13. Wisconsin State Journal 4-21-06

14.  Wisconsin State Journal 9-11-06

15.  Minneapolis Tribune 10-11-06

16.  Minneapolis Tribune 2-5-07

17. Minneapolis Tribune 1-27-07

18.  Minneapolis Tribune 11-24-07

19.   Minneapolis Tribune 11-14-30

20.  The Capital Times (Madison) 11- 13-30

21.  Eau Claire Leader- Telegram 11-13-30

22.  Minneapolis Tribune 11-13-30

23.  Minneapolis Tribune 11-23-30

24.  Nashville Banner 11-23-30

25.  Minneapolis Tribune 11-21-43

26. Minneapolis Tribune 1-11-49

27. Wisconsin State Journal 1-7-49

28.  Janesville Daily Gazette 11-18-49

29. Minneapolis Tribune 11-20-49

30.  Wisconsin State Journal 7-7-94

31. The Capital Times 11-18-03