Lake Wobegon is a fictional town in the U.S. state of Minnesota, said to have been the boyhood home of Garrison Keillor, who reports the News from Lake Wobegon on the radio show A Prairie Home Companion.
On the show Keillor says the town's name comes from a fictional old Indian word meaning "the place where we waited all day in the rain [for you]." Keillor explains, "Wobegon" sounded Indian to me and Minnesota is full of Indian names. They mask the ethnic heritage of the town, which I wanted to do, since it was half Norwegian, half German." The English word "woebegone" is defined as "affected with woe" and can also mean "shabby, derelict or run down." The term could also be a compound word: composed of "woe" "be" and "gone", as in "woe, be gone".
Standard monologue items
In Keillor's weekly monologue about Lake Wobegon, there are recurring monologue descriptions of the town:
- The opening words of the monologue usually are: "Well, it's been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon, Minnesota, my hometown, out there on the edge of the prairie."
- Lake Wobegon is characterized as "the little town that time forgot, and the decades cannot improve."
- The closing words of the monologue are "Well, that's the news from Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average."
Although Keillor has revealed that his original model for Lake Wobegon was actually Marine on St. Croix, Minnesota, it also resembles many small farm towns in the upper Midwest, especially western Minnesota, North Dakota, and to some extent, northern Iowa, Wisconsin, eastern South Dakota and northeastern Montana. These are rural, sparsely populated areas that were settled only in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, largely by homesteading immigrants from Germany and Scandinavia, especially Norway. One of these, Holdingford, Minnesota, which Keillor said is "most Wobegonic" and like Freeport is on Stearns County's Lake Wobegon Regional Trail, advertises itself as the "Gateway to Lake Wobegon" and even hosts a "Lake Wobegon Cafe."
Keillor formed most of his ideas for Lake Wobegon while working for MPR at KSJR on the campus of St. John's University in Collegeville, Avon where he lived, and local towns such as Albany, Freeport, Cold Spring, Richmond, Rockville, St. Joseph, St. Stephen, St. Wendell and Holdingford. Stearns County was predominantly German and Catholic in the 1970s, and the second most Catholic county in the USA (second only to New Orleans). In order to balance the religious and ethnic demographics of the physical location in Stearns County with the rest of Minnesota, Keillor 'imported' the Lutheran and Scandinavian elements into the mythical town, making it more identifiable and therefore more interesting to the rest of the state.
According to Keillor, Lake Wobegon is the seat of Mist County, Minnesota, a tiny county near the geographic center of Minnesota that supposedly does not appear on maps because of the "incompetence of surveyors who mapped out the state in the 19th century". The town's slogan is Gateway to Central Minnesota.
Lake Wobegon is occasionally said to be near St. Olaf, Minnesota, another fictional town referenced in The Golden Girls television series. (There is actually a St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota.) The town's school and amateur sports teams compete against the Uff-das of Upsala, a real town in southwest Morrison County, which is close to Holdingford. The town residents drink Wendy's Beer, brewed in St. Wendel, a real town in northeast Stearns County. The nearest good-sized town referenced in Keillor's monologues is St. Cloud.
Microsoft Virtual Earth now returns a location when Lake Wobegon, MN is entered into their search engine. The place is a little north and somewhat east of St. Cloud. The programs distributed at live performances of A Prairie Home Companion in 2005 have a map showing Lake Wobegon about two miles north of Holdingford, north and west of St. Cloud.
Keillor often references a cafe in downtown Lake Wobegon called the "Chatterbox Cafe". There is a real cafe and gas station in Olivia, Minnesota by the same name. Olivia is located in north-central Renville County.
History and character
Keillor identifies the original founders of what became Lake Wobegon as New England Unitarian missionaries, at least one of whom came to convert the Native American Ojibwe Indians through interpretive dance. A college was founded at what was then called New Albion, but the project was abandoned after a severe winter and numerous attacks by bears. The project had only one survivor, a very practical woman who married a French Canadian fur-trapper who fed her in exchange for her help with the chores. This pragmatic couple were the founders of the current settlement.
The founders of New Albion decided to settle at Lake Woebegone because they had gotten very lost and did not know how to get back to where they had last been. To celebrate this, the colony's motto was Ubi Quid Ubi (Latin > "We're Here!...Where are we?"). Later the motto in the Lake Woebegone incorporated town seal is described as Sumus Quod Sumus (Latin > "We Are What We Are").
Most of the current population is made up descendants of German immigrants, who are mostly members of the Catholic parish of Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility, and descendants of Norwegian and Swedish immigrants, who comprise the Lake Wobegon Lutheran Church. Keillor describes his family as members of the Sanctified Brethren.
The 800 residents (1950 Census: 728) are proud of the Statue of the Unknown Norwegian (so called because the model left before the sculptor could get his name). Lake Wobegon is in competition with its rival, St. Olaf, for having the most descendants of the same common ancestor. Lake Wobegon became a secret dumping ground of nuclear waste during the 1950s.
The town is the home of the Whippets baseball team, tuna hotdish, snow, Norwegian bachelor farmers, ice fishing, tongues frozen to cold metal objects, and lutefisk - fish treated with lye which, after being reconstituted, is reminiscent of "the afterbirth of a dog or the world's largest chunk of phlegm." But it is also the home of the Mist County Fair, old-fashioned show yards with flowers "like Las Vegas showgirls", sweet corn, a magnificent grain elevator, and the pleasant lake itself.
In popular culture
Despite its fictional status, fans have made trips "to" the town. A book of photos, co-authored by Keillor, documents images which could have come from Lake Wobegon.
The Simpsons parodied Keillor in an episode in which the family is shown watching a Keillor-like monologist on television telling of event in Badger Falls, "where the women are robust, the men are pink-cheeked, and the children are pink-cheeked and robust"; they are all perplexed at why the studio audience is laughing so much, prompting Bart to suggest "Maybe it's the TV." Homer then hits the set, exclaiming: "Stupid TV! Be more funny!" Harry Shearer, who portrayed the Keillor sound-alike, has also parodied Keillor on Shearer's own public radio series, Le Show.
In the episode "Don't Make Me Over" of Family Guy, in an attempt to calm a crowd of angry rioting prisoners, Peter begins to tell a "funny about Lake Wobegon". The story starts "It was the day of the tuna hotdish jamboree..." when he is hit by a chair and stopped.
In the animated PBS adult television series Click and Clack's As the Wrench Turns, the "News from Lake Wobegon" segment is jokingly revealed to be an outsourced radio show from India. Garrison Keillor provides his own voice.
In the 30 Rock episode "Dealbreakers Talk Show #0001," Jack (Alec Baldwin) says that "Kenneth's been out there for an hour telling cleaned-up Garrison Keillor stories," referencing the wholesome style of Lake Wobegon stories.
In Garfield in the Rough, Jon Arbuckle, Garfield, and Odie, go on a camping trip in a park near Lake Woebegone, before being attacked by a black panther.
In the April 2010 premier of the HBO series Treme John Goodman's character, after becoming irate during a phone interview with NPR regarding the rebuilding of New Orleans, slams down the phone and exclaims "Lake Wobegon. God-dammit."
The name of the cryptographic computer program Pretty Good Privacy was inspired by Ralph's Pretty Good Grocery, one of the businesses in Lake Wobegon, reportedly modelled after (Ralph) Malmbergs General Store in Marine on St. Croix, MN.
The song "Whatever It Was" by folk artist Greg Brown (himself a frequent guest on A Prairie Home Companion) on his 1997 album Slant 6 mind has one verse going: "The little towns are lying on their faces/All that's left are fading parking spaces/It's been quite a week, There was a drive-by shooting in Lake Wobegon/I was looking for what I love, whatever it was, it's gone"
The closing scene of The Office episode "Christening" (Season 7, Episode 7) has Erin driving Michael, Andy and a young man home. Erin excitedly turns on Lake Wobegon, which she calls "Lake Wobblegone," and Keillor says "Well, the Lutherans brought their banana bread, but Fred Nordquist had no appetite. He was thinking about his pair of new boots. It'd been ten years after all. As he told Mrs. Nordquist, it would take two years to get comfortable with the new boots."
41st best comedian Stewart Lee, in his retelling of Lear's 'The Owl and the Pussycat' assumes the style of the Lake Wobegon monologue for the last act, in which "It's been a quiet week in the land where the Bong Tree grows .."
The Lake Wobegon effect
The Lake Wobegon effect, a natural human tendency to overestimate one's capabilities, is named after the town. The characterization of the fictional location, where "all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average," has been used to describe a real and pervasive human tendency to overestimate one’s achievements and capabilities in relation to others. The Lake Wobegon effect, where all or nearly all of a group claim to be above average, has been observed among drivers, CEOs, hedge fund managers, presidents, coaches, radio show hosts, late night comedians, stock market analysts, college students, parents, and state education officials, among others.
Businesses, organizations and landmarks
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- Jack's Auto Repair, including Jack's School of Thought (correspondence), Warm Car Service, Dry Goods Emporium, Jack's Fountain Lounge, and Jack's Home, "a rest spa for people of all ages"
- Ralph's Pretty Good Grocery; "If you can't find it at Ralph's, you can probably get along (pretty good) without it."
- Bertha's Kitty Boutique ("for persons who care about cats")
- The Sidetrack Tap, run by Wally and Evelyn; "The dim little place in the dark where the pinball machine never tilts, the clock is a half-hour slow, and where love never dies."
- The Chatterbox Café, "The place to go that's just like home."
- Café Boeuf, "Where the elite meet to greet and eat," with maitre d' Maurice.
- Art's Baits & Night o' Rest Motel (Art got sick of people being around, so you can't rent rooms there these days.)
- Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility Catholic Church; Father Emil (retired), Father Wilmer (current)
- Lake Wobegon Lutheran Church; Pastor Ingqvist (transferred), Pastor Barbara Ham (Interim Pastor), Pastor Liz (current)
- Bunsen Motors (Ford dealer), run by Clint and Clarence Bunsen, local Lutherans
- Moonlight Bay Supper Club
- Buck's Rent-a-Tux
- Krebsbach Chevrolet, run by Florian Krebsbach, local Catholic, and his son Carl.
- The Herald Star, town newspaper run by Harold Star
- Skoeglin's 5 and Dime
- LuAnne Magendanz's Bon Marché Beauty Parlor and Salon
- Co-op Hardware (formerly Bigger Hammer Hardware, from the joke: "If at first you don't succeed, try using a bigger hammer.")
- Clifford's (also known as "The Mercantile," which many residents still call it)
- The Sons of Knute Temple, Norwegian fraternal organization
- The Whippets, [Town Team Baseball, "We'll Whip ya, whip ya good!"]
- The Herdsmen, champion church ushering team
- The Curl Up and Dye, another local salon
- Tentative Point, (better known as Lover's Lane)
- Sons of Pitches, a men's chorus made up of the Original Main Street's finest in the Home of Sinclair Lewis
- Lake Wobegon Piles ("twin 18-foot-high islands in the center of Lake Wobegon" created in 1956)
- Mist County Historical Society Museum
- Wally "Old Hard Hands" Bunsen Memorial Field, (where The Whippets whip 'em all)
- Lake Wobegon Leeches (baseball)
- Lake Wobegon Loons (five-man football)
- Powdermilk Biscuit Plant (on the road to Worthington)
- Lake Wobegon High School
- Municipal Sanitary Landfill
- Statue of the Unknown Norwegian
- Farmer's Union Grain Elevator
- Bob's Bank, in the green mobile home
- World's Largest Pile of Burlap Bags (created by Earl Dickmeyer to fund his and his wife's move to Fort Myers, Florida, and the centerpiece for a mysterious cure to ailments, such as kidney stones)
Keillor has written several semi-autobiographical books about life in Lake Wobegon, including:
- Lake Wobegon Days (1985)
- Leaving Home (1987)
- Wobegon Boy (1997)
- Lake Wobegon Summer 1956 (2001)
- Pontoon: A Novel of Lake Wobegon (2007)
- Liberty (September 2008)
- Pilgrims (2009)
- Life Among the Lutherans (September 2009)
- Post to the Host, A Prairie Home Companion website, October 23, 2008
- A Prairie Home Companion Podcasts
- Garrison Keillor. In Search of Lake Wobegon. National Geographic Magazine, December 2000
- Official City of Holdingford web site
- KSJR 90.1, Minnesota Public Radio
- Garrison Keillor, Lake Wobegon Days. p. 8
- Keillor, Garrison (2007-09-11). Pontoon. Viking Adult. p. 185. ISBN 978-0-670-06356-7.
- Garrison Keillor, In Search of Lake Wobegon, by Garrison Keillor and Richard Olsenius, 2001.
- Two Dozen More Bodies Found In Lake Wobegon (The Onion)
- Holtsnider, Bill; Jaffe, Brian D. (2006). IT manager's handbook: getting your new job done (2nd ed.). Morgan Kaufmann. p. 373.
- Aronson, Wilson, Akert 2010, "Most of us have moderate to high self-esteem. Like the mythical residents of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon, we need to believe that we are above average. For example, in a survey of a million high school students, only 2 percent stated that they were below average in their leadership ability (Gilovich 1991)", Social Psychology, 150: 9780138144579
- Svenson, Ole 1981, "We are all less risky and more skillful than our fellow drivers", Acta Psychologia, 47: 143-8
- Lake Wobegon Trail in Stearns County, Minnesota
- In Search of Lake Wobegon from National Geographic, part of an article plus links to related sites
- Hiring: The Lake Wobegon Strategy, Peter Norvig, Google Research Blog
- News From Lake Wobegon podcast, National Public Radio
- A Prairie Home Companion
- Lake Wobegon Monologues, American Public Media's Pretty Good Goods
- The Source of Lake Wobegon