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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 portmanteau of woe, be, and gone, as in "woe, be gone".
In Keillor's weekly monologue about Lake Wobegon, there are recurring monologue descriptions of the town:
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 NPR 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.
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 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 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.
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 in high school students' appraisal of their leadership, drivers' assessments of their driving skill, and cancer patients' expectations of survival.
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Keillor has written several semi-autobiographical books about life in Lake Wobegon, including:
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)