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Lake Wobegon is a fictional town created by Garrison Keillor to provide the setting for the long-running radio broadcast, Prairie Home Companion. Lake Wobegon is also the setting for many of Keillor's stories and novels. It is described as a small rural town in central Minnesota, and it is peopled with fictional characters and places, many that have become familiar to listeners of the broadcast. The events and adventures of the imaginary townspeople provide the prolific Keillor with a wealth of stories, that are humorous and at times touching and thoughtful.
Keillor relates that people would often ask him if it were a real town, and his answer that it was fiction seemed to disappoint them, because “people want stories to be true.” So he began to say that it was located in “central Minnesota, near Stearns County, up around Holdingford, not far from St. Rosa and Albany and Freeport, northwest of St. Cloud,” Which he says is “sort of the truth, I guess.”
|The Origins of Lake Wobegon, Garrison Keillor, 8:22, May 14, 2014|
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." The term is a portmanteau of "woe", "be" and "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."
Lake Wobegon 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" 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 at public radio station 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 demography 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, the fictional 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. The real town of Holdingford now bears the same slogan.
Lake Wobegon is occasionally said to be near St. Olaf, Minnesota, another fictional town referred to 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 referred to in Keillor's monologues is St. Cloud. Lake Wobegon is sometimes compared favorably to a rival fictional town called Millet; a real town called Rice lies 20 miles north of St. Cloud.
Microsoft Virtual Earth now returns a location when Lake Wobegon, Minnesota 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 refers to a cafe in downtown Lake Wobegon called the "Chatterbox Cafe". There is a real cafe and gas station in Olivia 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.
According to Keillor, the founders of New Albion decided to settle at Lake Wobegon 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 Wobegon incorporated town seal is described as Sumus Quod Sumus (Latin: "We Are What We Are").
Most of the current fictional population are 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 fictional 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 fictional 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 fictional 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.
The Lake Wobegon effect
The Lake Wobegon effect, a natural human tendency to overestimate one's capabilities, was coined by Professor David G Myers in honour of the fictional 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. To support the view that people in general need to believe that they are above average (the Lake Wobegon effect) one author points out that in a survey of high school students, only 2 percent of the students reported that they were below average in leadership ability. The authors of a study suggest that what they consider the “Lake Wobegon effect” can in some cases negatively affect the doctor’s treatment advice when, in planning treatment, doctors portray the patients as “above average”.
Businesses, organizations and landmarks
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Here are some of the fictional businesses, organizations and landmarks in the fictional town of Lake Wobegon:
- 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
- Krebsbach Chevrolet, run by Florian Krebsbach, local Catholic, and his son Carl.
- Moonlight Bay Supper Club
- Buck's Rent-a-Tux
- 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 Loons (five-man football)
- Powdermilk Biscuit Plant (on the road to Worthington)
- Lake Wobegon High School
- Lake Wobegon Leonards high school sports teams
- 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 the fictional Lake Wobegon, including:
- Lake Wobegon Days (1985), ISBN 0-14-013161-2; a recorded version of this won a Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word or Non-musical Album in 1988
- Leaving Home (1987; collection of Lake Wobegon stories), ISBN 0-670-81976-X
- We Are Still Married (1989; collection including some Lake Wobegon stories), ISBN 0-670-82647-2
- Wobegon Boy (1997), ISBN 0-670-87807-3
- Lake Wobegon Summer 1956 (2001), ISBN 0-571-21014-7
- In Search of Lake Wobegon (Photographs by Richard Olsenius, 2001), ISBN 978-0-670-03037-8
- Pontoon: A Novel of Lake Wobegon (2007), ISBN 0-670-06356-8
- Liberty: A Novel of Lake Wobegon (2008), ISBN 0-670-01991-7
- Life among the Lutherans (2009), ISBN 978-0-8066-7061-4
- Pilgrims: A Wobegon Romance (2009), ISBN 978-0-670-02109-3
In Pop Culture
- Forensic Files - The t-shirt worn by the killer John Famalaro that was entered into evidence in the murder of Denise Hueber was a Lake Wobegon t-shirt.
- Lake Wobegon Trails, two paved recreational rail trails in central Minnesota named after the fictional Lake Wobegon in Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion
- Lake Wobegon Marathon, marathon that is run along the Wobegon trail from Holdingford to St. Joseph
- Lake Ore-be-gone
- Wolf, Mark. Building Imaginary Worlds: The Theory and History of Subcreation. Routledge, 2014. ISBN 9781136220814. page 259.
- Dregni, Eric. Moran, Mark. Sceurman, Mark. Weird Minnesota: Your Travel Guide to Minnesota's Local Legends and Best Kept Secrets. Sterling; Reprint edition (May 1, 2012). ISBN 978-1402788260. page 44, 60 & 226
- Keillor, Garrison. “In Search of Lake Wobegon”. National Geographic Magazine. December 2000.
- Post to the Host, A Prairie Home Companion website, October 23, 2008
- A Prairie Home Companion Podcasts
- Official City of Holdingford web site
- KSJR 90.1, Minnesota Public Radio
- Garrison Keillor, Lake Wobegon Days. p. 8
- Garrison Keillor. In Search of Lake Wobegon. National Geographic Magazine, December 2000
- Keillor, Garrison (2007-09-11). Pontoon. Viking Adult. p. 185. ISBN 978-0-670-06356-7.
- Salvatore, Jessica. "Are ALL Minnesotans Above Average?". Science Friday. Retrieved 19 December 2015.
- Aronson, Wilson, Akert (2010). Social Psychology. p. 150. ISBN 9780138144579.
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)
- Wolf, J. H.; Wolf, K. S. (2013). "The Lake Wobegon effect: Are all cancer patients above average?". Milbank Quarterly. 91 (4): 690–728. doi:10.1111/1468-0009.12030. PMC . PMID 24320166.