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Twenty-five years ago, for amusement, I invented a small town where thewomen are strong and the men good-looking and the children all above average,and started telling stories about it on the radio in Minnesota, and ever sincethen, people have asked me if it's a real town, and if it is, then where is it?
I used to tell them that it's fiction. "Oh," they said."Sure." But they were disappointed. People want storiesto be true. The greater your gifts of invention or your earfor dialogue, the more they want your little lies to bebased on real folks. They say, "That story of yours remindedme of people I knew when I was growing up in Iowa."They want you to tell them, "The character of Darlene isbased about 95 percent on my cousin Charlotte. I onlychanged the hair from auburn to blond and made hermore chesty." So I started telling people that the town isin central Minnesota, near Stearns County, up aroundHoldingford, not far from St. Rosa and Albany andFreeport, northwest of St. Cloud, which is sort of thetruth, I guess.
Thirty years ago, I lived in Stearns County withmy wife and little boy in a rented farmhouse south ofFreeport, an area of nose-to-the-grindstone GermanCatholics proud of their redneck reputation. We movedthere so we could live cheaplyI was supporting us bywriting fiction for The New Yorkerand we found a bigbrick house on the Hoppe farm in Oak Township thatrented for eighty dollars a month. With the house came ahalf acre we could plant in vegetables. It was a fine snughouse, four rooms down, four rooms up, a mansion byourstandards. A room for Mary's piano and a room for myUnderwood typewriter and a small back room for thebaby and two guest rooms for our writer friends from thecity who liked to come and soak up the quiet and drinkbeer at night on the porch and lie on the lawn and lookup at the stars. To the north of the house was a densegrove of spruce and oak where we got our firewood, andbeyond this windbreak were a couple hundred acresof corn. Cows stood in a nearby meadow and studiedus. The Sauk River was nearby, to canoe on, and LakeWatab to swim in. It was a land of well-tended hog anddairy farms on rolling land punctuated by tidy littletowns, each one with a ballpark, two or three taverns,and an imposing Catholic church, and a cemetery behindit where people named Schrupps, Wendelschafer,Frauendienst, Schoppenhorst, and Stuedemann layshoulder to shoulder. There were no Keillors for miles.
For three years, I sat in my room and wrote shortfiction and shipped it to New York. After a shipment,after a week or so, I'd watch for the mailman every daywith more and more interest. He came around 1:30.I'd walk out the driveway to the mailbox and look foran envelope from The NewYorkera large gray envelopemeant rejection, a small creamyone meant acceptance. Acceptancemeant another threemonths' grace. Eventually Iran out of grace and we movedto the Cities and I went backto my radio job and a coupleyears later started A PrairieHome Companion and the LakeWobegon saga.
When I invented LakeWobegon, I stuck it in centralMinnesota for the simple reasonthat I knew a little bit about it and also because mypublic radio listeners tended to be genteel folk who knewthe scenic parts of Minnesotathe North Shore, theBoundary Waters, the Mississippi Valleyand knewnothing at all about Stearns County. This gave me a freehand to make things up.
I put Lake Wobegon (pop. 942) on the westernshore of the lake, for the beautiful sunrises. I said it tookits name from an Ojibway word that means "the placewhere we waited all day for you in the rain," and its sloganwas "Sumus quod sumus" (We are who we are), andto the German Catholics I added, for dramatic interest,an equal number of Norwegian Lutherans. These don'texist in Stearns County but I bussed them in. The Norwegians,ever status conscious, vote Republican and theGermans vote Democratic to set themselves apart fromthe Norwegians. The Catholics worship at Our Lady ofPerpetual Responsibility and the Lutherans at LakeWobegon Lutheran Church(David Ingqvist, pastor),home of the 1978 NationalLutheran Ushering Champions,the Herdsmen. On Sundaymorning, everyone is inchurch, contemplating theirsinful unworthiness, theCatholics contemplating theunworthiness of the Lutherans,the Lutherans the unworthinessof the Catholics, andthen everyone goes home to aheavy dinner.
IF anyone asked why the town appeared on no maps,I explained that, when the state map was drawn after theCivil War, teams of surveyors worked their way in from thefour outer corners and, arriving at the center, found theyhad surveyed more of Minnesota than there was room forbetween Wisconsin and the Dakotas, and so the cornershad to be overlapped in the middle, and Lake Wobegonwound up on the bottom flap. (In fact, the geographic centerof the state is north of there, in Crow Wing County, butnever mind.)
Anyway, "Gateway to Central Minnesota" is thetown slogan. And through the gateway over the yearscame a procession of characters. The three boys who driveto Iowa one February morning when they hear of BuddyHolly's plane crash and discover his blue guitar in thesnowy field. The stolid Father Emil who said, in regard toabortion, "If you didn't want to go to Minneapolis, why didyou get on the train?" and the town handyman Carl Krebsbachwho repairs the repairs of the amateurs, and Brunothe fishing dog, and the irascible Art of Art's Baits andNight O'Rest motel, its premises studded with warningsigns (Don't clean fish here. Use your brains. Thismeans you!!!), and Dorothy of the Chatterbox Café andher softball-size caramel rolls (Coffee 25¢, All Morning85¢, All Day $1.25, Ask about our weekly rates),and Wally of the Sidetrack Tap, where old men sit andgradually come to love their fellow men through gradualself-medication. It was Wally's pontoon boat, the AgnesD., on which the twenty-two Lutheran pastors crowdedfor a twilight cruise and weenie roast. When the grill capsizedand hot coals swept the deck and the crowd shrankback and the Agnes D. pitched to starboard, they wereplunged into five feet of water and stood quietly, headsuplifted, and waited for help to arrive. It's a town wherethe Lutherans all drive Fords bought from Clarence atBunsen Motors and the Catholics all drive Chevies fromFlorian at Krebsbach Chevrolet. Florian is the guy whoonce forgot his wife at a truckstop. Her name is Myrtle.
The stories always start with the line "It's been aquiet week in Lake Wobegon" and then a glimpse of theweather. It's a fall day, geese flying south across a highblue sky, the air sweet and smoky, the woods in gorgeouscolors not seen in Crayola boxes, or it's winter, snowflakesfalling like little jewels from heaven, and you awake to aworld of radiant grandeur, trees glittering, the beauty ofgrays, the bare limbs of trees penciled in against the sky,or it's spring, the tomatoes are sprouting in little trays ofdirt on the kitchen counter, the tulips and crocuses, theyellow goldfinches arriving from Mexico, or it's summer,the gardens are booming along, the corn knee high, anda mountain range of black thunderclouds is piling up inthe western sky. And then you go on to talk about Norwegianbachelor farmers sitting on the bench in front ofRalph's Pretty Good Grocery or the Chatterbox, wherelarge phlegmatic people sit at the counter talking in theirsingsong accent. So how you been then? Oh, you know, notso bad, how's yourself, you keeping busy then? Oh yeah,no rest for the wicked. You been fishing at all? I was meaningto but I got too busy. How about yourself? Nope. The wife'sgot me busy around the house, you know. Yeah, I know howthat goes.And so forth. And you slip into your story,and take it around the turns and bring it to a point of rest,and say, "And that's the news from Lake Wobegon," andthat's all there is to it.
Minnesota is a state of decent hardworking people,half of whom live on the expanding island that is the TwinCities, Minneapolis and St. Paul, an island of lifestyle in anocean of cornfields and soybeans, where there is goodespresso and Thai food and The New York Times and a coupleorchestras and a dozen theaters and movie houses thatshow foreign and indie flicks and Ruminator Books hasabout three hundred shelf-feet of poetry and you can getalmost anything people in New York or Los Angeles haveand yet live on a quiet tree-lined street with a backyard andsend your kids to public school.
Many folks live in the Cities who don't care forthem much, regarding them as a sinkhole of crime and ahotbed of brainlessness. These are people who maybeused to say, "You couldn't pay me enough to live in Minneapolis"but they were wrong, money is persuasive.Nonetheless, they prefer the outskirts of the city andhave found themselves a place of two or three or five orten acres, what real estate agents call a ranchette orhobby farm, with room for a garden, a big yard, a dog kennel,a shed, a snowmobile, a satellite dish. So the cities ofMinneapolis and St. Paul sprawl far out into farm country,the outer citizens commuting an hour or more eachway so as to enjoy the illusion of rural life. There are traceelements of ranchettes all the way to St. Cloud, theStearns County seat.
The eastern approach to Lake Wobegon is DivisionStreet, St. Cloud, a five-mile strip of commerce in full riot,the fast-food discount multiplex warehouse cosmos adriftin its asphalt sea, the no-man's-land of twenty-four-hourgas stations that sell groceries and have copiers and thebright plastic restaurants where, if you ate lunch there forthe rest of your life, you would never meet anybody youknow or get to know anybody you meet, a tumult of architectureso cheap and gaudy and chaotic you wonder howmany motorists in search of a drugstore and a bottle ofaspirin wound up piling into a light pole, disoriented byflashing lights and signage and sheer free enterprise, andthen the cosmos peters out and you emerge from hell andcome into paradise, rural Minnesota.
The county appears to be prospering: populationup 35 percent since 1970, new prefab industrial buildingscropping up along the main routes, trucks at the loadingdocks, forests of billboards as you approach Freeport andAvon and Albany. Avon (pop. 1033) even has what looksto be a suburb on the east side of town, the streets withsuburbanite names like Angelfish Avenue, Barracuda,Char. The dairy farms seem to be getting along: new silosin evidence, the big hip-roofed barns look well kept,the cows themselves look professional, courteous, goal-oriented.Corn prices are low but farmers here raise cornonly to feed cows and milk prices are still good enough tolive on.
(One farmer told me that barns start falling apartif the cattle are evacuated; cows keep the temperatureand humidity up and if they are sold off, the barn goes topieces fairly quickly. A symbiotic relationship.)
You drive through the rolling fields, the valleys oflittle rivers, and every farmstead is different, some moreformal, with white painted fences and all the buildings atright angles, others seem to have grown without muchsupervision and are strewn with old vehicles and historicalartifacts of an appliance nature. Some are exposed,nearly treeless, and others you can barely see from theroad, ensconced in a woodlot. Some have a dog that willtake a run at you if you slow down.
There are major poultry operations in the county,vast prison camps of chickens, and a big mail-order outfit,and some big granite quarries around Cold Spring andRockville, blasting out millions of cubic feet of rock everyyear. (West of Waite Park is a sign, BUY DIRECT/MONUMENTS,and an outdoor display of gravestones, dozens ofthem arranged as if in a cemetery but the faces are blank.)At the Rockville quarry, twenty-five-ton blocks of granitewith striated grooves down the sides are stacked, includingRockville Beige and Diamond Pink, two local granites,and also Mesabi Black, and Lake Superior Green,and black granite from Africa. There never was a MinnesotaGranite Rush back when the rock was first discovered,it's too much work getting the stuff out of theground. And I never mentioned quarrying in the Wobegonsaga, because I don't know the first thing about it. Ionly talked about abandoned quarries where teenagerswent to swim and drink beerand neck.
A county brochure claimseleven theater companies andmusic groups, but it doesn'tmention the dozens of tavernsand cafés which are the actualcenters of culture here. LikeFisher's, an old supper club inAvon, where I once had menrolling around in the gravelparking lot, fighting over thefabulous Swenson sisters. Placeswith names like The CornerBar, Sportsman's Bar, Tip Top,or the Buckhorn, where gentlemen congregate for thepurpose of enjoying a cold one and solving the problemsof the world. They plant themselves in a booth, or leanagainst the bar, and they enact a classic four-characterplay: there's the Reader, who has come across an interestingitem in the paper ("I read that, within five years,they'll have figured out how to throw a bunch of geneticallyengineered enzymes into a tank full of wet silage andturn it into milk"); and there's the Grouch, who maintainsa dark view of human nature ("... the big corporationsare behind it because they want to clear out the little guysand put in ten-thousand acre farms"); the Worrier, alwaysa little nervous about something ("Genetic engineering ornot, I just can't see things getting better anytime in theforeseeable future, I'll tell you that"); and the Big Fella,the guy who holds back until the topic is exhausted andthen gives the final word ("People are not going to buyartificial milk. That's been proven. You can bet on it.").They sit and hold forth on politics(corrupt, on both sides,always has been), global warming(hogwash), education (notwhat it used to be), women(can't live with 'em, can't livewithout 'em), exercise (whenit's your time to go, you go, andyou can run two miles a day andeat bran flakes and no animalfats and all you do is make aslimmer corpse) and take turnsbuying rounds, and if you happento believe that mankind ison the verge of a new age ofenlightenment and progress, these gentlemen will have afine time pulling your chain.
Holdingford (pop. 635) is the town that looks mostWobegonic to me. It has a fine little downtown of elderlybrick buildings and a big thriving grocery with a realbutcher shop in the back and a classic four-legged cone-toppedwater tower, a graveyard full of big stones, anddown by the river the Holdingford Mill, a jewellike assemblyof galvanized-metal cylinders and boxes and slopes,and a faded old red boxcar on an abandoned siding.
I dropped into Mary's Family Restaurant, formerlythe Rainbow Café, for coffee and oatmeal raisin cookiesand listened to a fellow reminisce about the greatArmistice Day blizzard of 1940. He was fourteen at thetime and it made a big impression on him. They walkedout of a second-story window onto the snow and dug atunnel to the barn. He talked about logging up north andpicking potatoes in North Dakota and earning a bucktwenty-five a day. "Today everybody wants to make twentybucks an hour and not do any work," he said. There werefour of us at the counter and none of us disagreed withhim: I myself would prefer to not do any work for muchmore than twenty bucks an hour.
New Munich was the town closest to the farm myfamily and I lived on. You drive in, past the sign (Welcometo New Munich, Home of Munichfest, whichshows a dancing couple smiling, holding beers in theirfree hands), past Spinners Bar and Grill, the video store,the Munich Hofbrau, and come to the church, a big dramaticbrick church trimmed in carved sandstone, with abell tower, clock faces on all four sides, and magnificentheavy doors with big black hinges, a veritable cathedralin a town of only 314. Nothing about this modest villageprepares you for the grandeur withinthe inlaid tile floorand the high columns with figured capitals, the rosewindows in the transepts, the lovely statues with thecompassionate faces. I thought I had based Our Lady ofPerpetual Responsibility on this church, but I could seethat I didn't get the Baroque feel at all. Such a huge sanctuary,leaping arches, big organ and choir loft in the back,organ pipes, all illuminated by tall stained-glass windows:if I'd put it in Lake Wobegon, nobody would've believed it.
It's a county of many grand churches. There's St.Benedict's in Avon with its red roof and bell tower andSt. Rose of Lima at the end of two rows of tall cedars in St.Rosa, and The Seven Dolors in Albany, an orange-brickbeauty that glows in the setting sun, and Sacred Heart inFreeport, a fine tall yellow-brick edifice with a high steeproof, but the church in New Munich stands out as amighty architectural shout, a brick burst of exuberance,meant to astonish farmers and shopkeepers for all time.
Big churches, ballrooms, ballparks. From a hilltopin Millwood Township, you can see 6 steeples (and 110silos). Long after the last ballroom in Minneapolis wasdemolished, Stearns countians trotted off to polka andschottische on Saturday nights, and then on Sundayafternoons in summer, they turned out at the ballpark towatch town team baseball. Even a tiny town like MeireGrove (pop. 139) fields a team.
Freeport calls itself the Dairy Center of the World,and in Charlie's Cafe, the cook does not stint on dairyproducts: the meringue pies are big enough to be bowlingtrophies. I had a grilled cheese sandwich, a bowl of chili,and a slab of banana meringue pie, and felt my belt andcollar tightening. I got up and walked along the maindrag. I saw an old man walk out of the post office whoreminded me of Senator K. Thorvaldson, a man in abrown porkpie hat and pale blue polyester suit and greenplaid shirt with a string tie with an agate on the clasp andwearing white shoes.
Freeport was a railroad town and the tracks ranalong the south side of Main Street, and now the tracksare gone, and the one-sided Main Street remains, likean architect's rendering. Across the tracks is the SwanyWhite Flour Rolling Mill, a yellow-brick structure on aheavy stone base, humming with machinery, V-belts movingon a pulley shaft, moaning, in a marvelous dimRembrandt light, everything covered with cream-coloreddust. They grind oats, rye, barley, soybeans, or rice hereon five beautiful old enameled maroon rolling machines.It feels like the engine room of an old wooden ship or agiant wooden music box. It's been there for a hundredyears. Amazing to think that I'd lived near Freeport andnever thought to go reside.
Down the street is the Pioneer Inn. The SidetrackTap was modeled after it, a gloomy smoke-filled sour-smellingtavern, cluttered with neon beer signs and deerheads and funny mottoes, but the Pioneer Inn has beencleaned up, remodeled, the smells expunged. A few guysat the bar were talking about fishing and the lottery, neitherof which was paying off very well lately. One of themsaid that Watab Lake, east of there, is 180 feet deep andhome to some mighty pugnacious fish, none of which hehad caught lately.
Being there, drinking a beer, looking down the bartoward the others, fifteen feet away, brought back a suddenclear memory of sitting in the very same spot, at thesame distance, overhearing men talk, in 1970, and wishingI knew how to join that conversation.
Nobody ever welcomed us to town when we camein 1970. No minister visited to encourage us to worship onSunday, no neighbor dropped in with a plate of brownies.Several times, I stopped at neighboring farms to say helloand announce our presence, and was met by the farmer,and we spent an uncomfortable few minutes standingbeside my car, making small talk about the weather, studyingthe ground, me waiting to be invited into the house,him waiting for me to go away, until finally I went away. Intown, the shopkeepers and the man at the garage werecordial, of course, but if I said hello to someone on thestreet, he looked at the sidewalk and passed in silence. Ilived south of Freeport for three years and never managedto have a conversation with anyone in the town. I didn'thave long hair or a beard, didn't dress oddly or do wildthings, and it troubled me. I felt like a criminal.
This fear of outsiders was explained to me yearslater by a Stearns exile who said that the German populationwas so traumatized, first by the anti-Teutonic feversof World War I that forbade the teaching of their languagein schools, then by Prohibition that made outlawsof decent upstanding beer drinkers, that they never couldtrust auslanders again. A strange face is, to them, a cruelface. My German neighbors were a closed communityand I wasn't in it. Proximity does not equal membership.
I accepted that, because I come from similar people.Mine were Protestant fundamentalists, who lived by theWord and not by the opinion of others, and were wary ofstrangers, and didn't go for small talk. We were taciturnpeople who could sit in silence for long stretches and notfeel uncomfortable. If strangers came to the door, they weredealt with and sent on their way. They were not people ofthe Word, and their friendship meant nothing to us.
Excerpted from In Search of Lake Wobegon by Garrison Keillor. Copyright © 2001 by Garrison Keillor. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.