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National Review
National Review
8 Apr 2023
Luther Ray Abel


NextImg:The Corner: Weekend Short: Paul Bunyan, John Henry, and Don Abel

Author’s note: “Weekend Short” is a weekly profile of a short story. Additional analysis by the readership is encouraged in the comments section.

Welcome to the weekend.

My grandpa, Don Abel, died this week. If you’ll allow it, this weekend’s column will remember him within the mythos of American titans: men like Paul Bunyan and John Henry. Grandpa was himself a giant, physically and spiritually — a patriarch and standard for conduct — upon whose shoulders I perched as a kid and now stand as a man.

While writing, researching, and editing the obituary for Grandpa, it became apparent to me when looking over the span of Grandpa’s life that the fantastical accounts of the Brobdingnagian men that formed the face of America are accurate manifestations of the efforts of millions of men like Don Abel — men born into nothing who took the opportunities this land offered and applied themselves to rise from the literal dirt. Amidst their toil in the valleys and forests, they found here familial and material success — achieved while observing the expectations of their faith.

I wrote:

Donald Herman Abel, age 96, went home to his Lord among the thunder and lightning of early Wednesday, April 5, 2023. Considering that he was a man of tremendous industry, it seems no accident that the percussion of the heavens outside his window at the end so closely resembled the sounds of crashing brake presses and ringing hammer strikes during a life lived to build—and build so very well.

Don Abel was born in Lisbon, Wisconsin, in Waukesha County, on November 2, 1926. Three months before Don’s birth, his mother, Alma, fell from a ladder. Fearing for the life of her unborn child, Alma cried out to God to preserve the life growing within her—dedicating her son to the Lord. With little money but a great deal of grit, the Abels operated an 80-acre farm where the young Don learned to apply himself, overcoming the challenges of limited means through willpower and ingenuity—attributes necessary to surmount the troubled span of the Great Depression.

His family would eventually leave the farm, moving around every few years as opportunities arose; they would ultimately reside in Waukesha. Working in the Waukesha Motor Company’s carpentry shop during his high school years, Don grew into the tall, kempt, broad-shouldered man he would remain for the next eight decades. Before his high school graduation, Don was drafted into the U.S. Army during the waning days of World War II and assigned to Camp Kilmer in New Jersey.

You can read the rest here.

In the story of John Henry — a boy born with a hammer in his hand, who threw down mountains so that the railroad could break through the Rockies — the very same electric imagery bursts from the page. We understand from the tale that a child born in America, no matter his race or creed, has above his cradle thunderous expectation and opportunity found nowhere else.

Mary Pope Osborne tells of Henry:

The night John Henry was born the sky was as black
as coal, thunder rolled through the heavens, and the
earth trembled.

“This boy is special,” the preacher said as folks
gathered in the cabin by the river to see the new baby.
In the dim lantern light, John Henry was the
most powerful-looking baby folks had ever seen. His
arms were as thick as stovepipes. He had great broad
shoulders and strong muscles. And as folks stared at
him, he opened his eyes and smiled a smile that lit up
the southern night.

When John Henry raised his arm, folks gasped and
brought their hands to their faces, for they saw that the
mighty baby had been born with a hammer in his hand.
Then they all began to laugh and felt happier than they
had in a long, long time.

John Henry grew up fast in a world that didn’t let
children stay children for long. Before he was six, he was
carrying stones for the railroad gangs that were building
tracks through the land of West Virginia.

By the time he was ten, he was hammering steel from
dawn till dark. No train whistle in America sang as loud
as John Henry’s mighty hammer. It rang like silver and
shone like gold. It flashed up through the air, making a
wide arc more than nineteen feet, then crashed down,
driving a steel spike six inches into solid rock.

By the time he was a young man, John Henry was
the best steel driver in the whole country. He could
hammer for hours without missing a beat, so fast that
his hammer moved like lightning. He had to keep a
pail of water nearby to cool it down, and he wore out
two handles a day. All the railroad bosses wanted John
Henry to work for them. When the Chesapeake and Ohio
started making a tunnel in the Allegheny Mountains,
they asked him to lead their force of steel-driving men.

You can read the rest here.

As Henry illustrates the mettle and industry of the American people, Paul Bunyan describes their might and ingenuity.

W.B. Laughead writes of Bunyan:

When Paul invented logging he had to invent all the tools and figure out all his own methods. There were no precedents. At the start his outfit consisted of Babe and his big axe.

No two logging jobs can be handled exactly the same way so Paul adapted his operations to local conditions. In the mountains he used Babe to pull the kinks out of the crooked logging roads; on the Big Onion he began the system of hauling a section of land at a time to the landings and in North Dakota he used the Seven Axemen.

At that time marking logs was not thought of, Paul had no need for identification when there were no logs but his own. About the time he started the Atlantic Ocean drive others had come into the industry and although their combined cut was insignificant compared to Paul’s, there was danger of confusion, and Paul had most to lose.

At first Paul marked his logs by pinching a piece out of each log. When his cut grew so large that the marking had to be detailed to the crews, the “scalp” on each log was put on with an axe, for even in those days not every man could nip out the chunk with his fingers.

The Grindstone was invented by Paul the winter he logged off North Dakota. Before that Paul’s axemen had to sharpen their axes by rolling rocks down hill and running along side of them. When they got to “Big Dick,” as the lumberjacks called Dakota, hills and rocks were so hard to find that Paul rigged up the revolving rock.

This was much appreciated by the Seven Axemen as it enabled them to grind an axe in a week, but the grindstone was not much of a hit with the Little Chore Boy whose job it was to turn it. The first stone was so big that working at full speed, every time it turned around once it was payday.

. . .

It was a long time before they solved the problem of turning logging sleds around in the road. When a sled returned from the landing and put on a load they had to wait until Paul came along to pick up the four horses and the load and head them the other way. Judson M. Goss says he worked for Paul the winter he invented the round turn.

All of Paul’s inventions were successful except when he decided to run three ten-hour shifts a day and installed the Aurora Borealis. After a number of trials the plan was abandoned because the lights were not dependable.

You can read the rest here.

Don Abel’s life confirmed these attributes in the American character — our will and capacity to build and improve for the sake of those who will follow us, as well as provide for the stranger in need of material or immaterial sustenance.

I wrote:

Don’s earthly achievements were manifold. He was a successful entrepreneur—a self-taught engineer and businessman. In 1963 he launched Abel Manufacturing, the company he’d head until the age of 84. Abel Mfg.’s towering steel bins and dispensing systems, operating on every farming continent, will stand silent witness for years to come of Don Abel’s insistence on exacting standards of quality. Generations of men and women found life-sustaining employment on the shop floor and in the offices of Abel Mfg. When markets turned and bankruptcy was the only option, Don Abel took note of each lender he owed and repaid the debts that the courts had cleared him of as soon as the business was back on its feet. While he was in no way obligated to do so, Don found it morally necessary to repay those who had trusted him—trusted the Abel name—with their investments.

Just as he constructed a company, so too did Don Abel look to foster institutions that would declare God’s goodness and steadfastness. Don was instrumental in the creation and continued witness of WRVM, a Christian radio station that serves the far-flung homes of the Northwoods. From Rawhide Boys Ministries to the Bible camps of Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula, Don Abel was the man to whom others turned when a patch of Creation needed vision, steel, and will.

May there be generations more of men like Don Abel, for we shall forever need them.

Here’s Mahalia Jackson singing “In the Garden” — a simple hymn, an awesome voice, and an eternal truth:

Author’s note: If there’s a short story you’d like to see discussed in the coming weeks, please send your suggestion to .