“Lake Wobegon Days” was published in 1985 and written by Garrison Keillor. He based it on stories from his radio show, “A Prairie Home Companion.” Lake Wobegon is a fictitious town set in Minnesota with eccentric characters.
The first half of the book is a history of the town. From the accidental discovery while looking for the opening of the Mississippi River, to the native tribe that tried to sell the land before they were forced off of it. And on to the founder of the town, who lied about his education so he could open a college and on to the Norwegians who populated it after a deserter from the Civil War settled there.
The second half of the book is a series of stories about the life in the small town while Johnny is growing up. The stories revolve around the cast of characters in the town and their uniquely Minnesotan viewpoint. They are hard workers and sturdy people who survive the cold winters with few words but a good nature.
The town is not a tourist destination. Most of the visitors lived there before and are visiting their family. Lake Wobegon has a volunteer fire department and a few small shops. Everyone shops locally for practical reasons. After all, the owners of the mall aren’t going to be on the Rescue Squad if they are needed, the owners of the local store will be. So it’s best to stay on their good side. This is a humorous book with entertaining stories about small-town life in the heartland of the United States.
The year is 1986. The town of Lake Wobegon in Minnesota. It’s a small town where life has stood still since the 1960’s or before. The town holds no place in history. Although it sits near the Mississippi River, it is not the beginning. “In 1836 an Italian count waded up the creek, towing his canoe, and camped on the lake shore.” He thought he had made history by discovering the true headwaters of the Mississippi River. But he quickly decided he was wrong. “What made so many others look at us and think, It doesn’t start here!?”
Lake Wobegon is a quiet town. It is the kind of town where you can stand in the middle of Main Street and not be in anyone’s way. But the town has its share of eccentrics. There is Myrtle Krebsbach. At seventy-two she looks more like a woman of thirty-four who has had a hard life. Every Friday night she has two pink daiquiris and hums “Tiptoe through the Tulips” between each daiquiri. Her husband Florian is a bit of a hypochondriac. He visits the doctor often and drives a 1966 Chevrolet that is spotless. He bought it with forty-two thousand miles and it still has forty-two thousand miles. He cleans the motor with gasoline before he goes inside the doctor’s office.
The Thanatopsis Society was founded by the late Mrs. Bjornson as a literary society. But it has since become a social society. Once a year they hire a lecturer to speak on some obscure topic of national importance. The only question any of the residents of Lake Wobegon would have for him during the question and answer segment would be how much he was being paid.
As a young boy, the narrator lived with his parents, brother, Rudy, and sister, Phyllis in a white house. Life was simple and lived by a comfortable schedule. Prayers before meals, father worked while the mother took care of the kids and home. He rode a bike to school where he saw the same friends throughout his life. After high school, he moved to Minneapolis where he moved into the basement of an old Air Force buddy of his dad’s. He decided at the last minute to take his old dog along. While not in class or at work as a dishwasher, the narrator stayed home with his old dog. Meanwhile, the old Air Force buddy lectured him on the waste of a college education when he could go into a trade or join the service.
The narrator often impersonated accents so he would seem more sophisticated to girls. He told lies about the profession of his father to impress them. One day his old dog died. After burying him, the narrator went back to his basement room and cried. The man’s wife admonished him to grow up. He said “Okay, I will.” and moved into an apartment with five other young men.
In 1835 Father Pierre Plaisir guided his group to the Lake Wobegon area. He was soon forced to leave by the mosquitoes. While madly running away from an especially large horde of mosquitoes he was taken by the local tribe, the Objibway. They thought they were rescuing him, and he thought the “savages” had captured him. He left the area vowing never to return. “He forgot that he had never been invited.”
In 1850 Prudence Alcott led a group of scholars to the area. Her idea was to bring the word of God to the natives through interpretive dance. With her was her cousin, Elizabeth Sewell, George Moore, a seminary student and Henry Francis Watt, a poet. He planned to study the speech patterns of the local tribe. The group was rescued by a French trapper, and Prudence married him. She sent the rest of the group home to Boston. Henry Francis Watt wrote epic poems about his travels and began to see the place as his destiny instead of the place he couldn’t wait to get away from before.
Watt began to dream about returning to Minnesota and opening a college. Especially after he was rejected by Yale and Harvard. One day he met a man named Bayfield. Although he was rich, he was also uncouth. Watt cultivated their relationship and convinced him to invest. He also discovered Bayfield already owned the land he wanted to build the college on. So, in 1852 Watt, his new wife, Elizabeth, and Bayfield led a train with heavy wagons to Minnesota.
Bayfield convinced Watt to add a few honorifics to his name so he would entice more students to his college. He made him a Ph.D., Litt D., D. D., and President of the Albion College. As the years past, Watt added the title of Reverend to his titles. New Albion continued to grow into a town with the addition of houses, a flour mill, general store, newspaper, and a hotel. Since the promotional ad that lured all the New Englanders there asked for people of refinement, they brought a lot of books with them. The first permanent structure was the college and then the opera house.
When the first hard snow hit, things began to fall apart. After being trapped by snow and a bear for three days without food, some of the students left. Also, Watt’s devoted wife decided to go with her continuing threat and go back to Boston. She complained that the furor and devotion he showed to others stopped at their door.
After that winter came a year with deflation in the economy, dysentery and grasshoppers. All this led to the ending of the college. Dr. Watt died in Boston while trying to find backers to restart the college. More than half of the population of the town left. The town carried on and was renamed Lake Wobegone in 1880. The Norwegians in the town outvoted the New Englanders, who thought the name was dismal. Then in 1882, the New Englanders prevailed and the name New Albion prevailed. Two years later it went back to Lake Wobegone. Since a town can only change its name four times in Minnesota, when it was renamed Lake Wobegon, it stuck.
Most of the residents of Lake Wobegon were Norwegian. And a good many of them could trace their heritage back to one man, Magnus Oleson. Magnus was hired to serve in the military during the American Civil War in the place of a draftee. After a couple of weeks he decided the military life was not for him. He stole a horse and rode to Minnesota to get as far away from the war as possible. He settled in Wobegon, or New Albion as it was then. Since there were no women of marriageable age left after the diphtheria epidemic, Magnus wrote an ad in a St. Paul paper for a bride. Katherine Shroeder answered the ad. Although her brother had her tell him she was Norwegian, she was actually German. Even with the communication barrier at first, they married and had three children. By the time he had buried two more wives, he had eight children.
Lake Wobegon is a small town, but loyal. Most people shop locally because if your house catches on fire, the shopping malls won’t be sending the fire department. The volunteer fire department and the Rescue Squad are made of local merchants. The people of the town value hard work and ministers who can read a clock. Sermon’s need to end so everyone can get home to eat Sunday dinner.
With Summer comes lazier days. Visits with neighbors on the front porch. In Lake Wobegon, no one lies in the sun. They work in the sun; they lay in the shade. There were very few air conditioners so the hot days would be unbearable. 90 degrees in Minnesota is like 115 degrees in the southern states. This is the time to bring in the garden produce. The children would work in the gardens early before the heat of the day was too strong. Although they complained of weariness when work was to be done, they found the energy to torment each other and play practical jokes. Especially as Independence Day neared and fireworks became more available.
At noon and six p.m. Every day the fire siren would go off. Most people rarely looked at their watches and planned their activities around the sirens. The noon siren heralded lunch and then a change in activities while the six o’clock siren was for supper.
The end of summer brought school days. The weather was still nice, so the children felt it was a punishment and became very difficult for the teachers to handle. Baseball became the most important part of the day of the little boys. With school books tossed haphazardly while the rushed to the baseball diamond after school.
Winters started early in Minnesota. The first hard frost could hit as early as Labor Day in September. Baseball led into football and hunting season. On the opening day of duck hunting season, the men would leave their houses well before dawn. Although the winter came early every year, it still took most people by surprise. Family members would try to arrange travel back from the rest of the country to Lake Wobegon for Thanksgiving and seem genuinely surprised to have their flights grounded because of snow.
After Thanksgiving came the Christmas decorations. These would bring feelings of nostalgia, especially since most of them were the same ones used every year. In 1956 the wood shop class of the high school made a six-foot plywood star with one hundred Christmas bulbs. This was included in the decorations hung every year on Main Street. There is also the uncomfortably realistic manger and figures that stand in front of the Catholic Church. And, of course, the municipal Christmas tree in town square.
As soon as enough snow falls to rate being called a ton, the sleds come out on Adams Hill. And at the swimming beach the fireman make an ice rink. They pull the shed that used to belong to the Jensens’ chickens down to the edge of the rink so it can be used as a warming shack. Generations of sweethearts have inscribed notes into the walls.
Most of the homes don’t decorated their trees until Christmas Eve. But every small token given in the season carries a special warmth with it. The German club, Boy Scouts, Lutheran Church Choir and many other groups arrange caroling nights. They are always invited in for a cookie or cake and a warm drink. Every person who comes to the door must be asked in for a treat so the Christmas spirit doesn’t leave. The other half of this custom involves visiting neighbors houses, too. “Every house must get at least one unexpected visitor.”
Households start the baking weeks in advance. Cookies enough to feed a few armies. Ralph tucks buckets of lutefisk behind his counter to give away to the Norwegians. He doesn’t offer it to the carolers because it might kill them. “You have to be ready for lutefisk.”
After the pageantry of Christmas New Years was much more quiet. Some families would try to stay up late enough to hear the ball drop in New York Times Square on the radio. But after a toast of grape juice, it was off to bed.
With January came the ice. The icicles grow so long and thick that they are a hazard. Parents are always admonishing their children to look out for falling icicles. Meanwhile, older children warned younger ones of all the dangers lurking about. Tongues frozen to the pump handle, frozen lungs from breathing the cold air while talking, and wild dogs waiting to attack while walking home from school.
One year a new principal at the school developed a deep fear that children on the bus would freeze to death if the bus broke down during a blizzard. So he developed the Storm House plan. Houses near the school would open their doors to children for the night if a blizzard struck while they were in school. Each child was assigned a particular house to go to.
The local newspaper is the Herald – Star. Harold, the editor and reporter, only prints the good news. He is also kind in his reporting since he has to live among the residents. He is aware that he holds a lot of power to sway opinions and therefore he doesn’t gossip and isn’t malicious. For gossip you have to go to the Chatterbox Cafe in town.
The telephones were connected in 1921. After suffering a chimney fire that destroyed his house, the author’s grandfather came to the conclusion that if he had been able to call for help he could have saved his house. So he signed up investors and dug holes for the posts. He walked the lines to inspect them often and he set up the switchboard. Elizabeth is the operator and if someone doesn’t answer by the fifth ring she will pick up. She can tell you where the person is and relay any health issues about the person you’re calling.
Every year the Sons of Knute have an Ice Melt Contest. One icy day Mr. Berge accidentally drove his car onto a melting lake. The car fell through to the wheels and he was was rescued before it went further. Afterwards the car fell through the ice and was pulled out in April. Mr. Berge donated the car to the Sons of Knute. Now every year they haul the car out onto the lake and for a dollar everyone can enter a raffle to guess what day the ice will melt enough for the car to go through the ice. The winner gets a boat and the contributions go towards a scholarship fund to send kids to college.
As Spring progresses the birds begin to sing and the mud gets deep. Soon the flowers begin to break through starting with the tulips. The gardeners start to till and prepare the land for seeds. And the dreaded spring cleaning begins. Suddenly every surface must be polished to within an inch of its life.
Windows are opened letting out the noises of day to day life. And the senior class moves closer to graduation. Also with the warmer weather comes the Revival season. Traveling ministers set up tents to bring others to their religions. Although none of the residents would change their religions, the revivals offer some nice breaks and lots of music.
“Anything that has ever happened to me is happening to other people.” says Clarence. “Somewhere in the world right now, a kid is looking at something and thinking, ‘I’m going to remember this for the rest of my life.’ and it’s the same thing that I looked at forty years ago, whatever it is.” Every story that is being told has already been told and will be told again. Life is a circle.
“The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.” -Ecclesiastes 1:9, King James Bible.
Henry Francis Watt – one of the founders of New Albion, later Lake Wobegon. A poet of little notoriety, he visited the area during a long winter. When he returned to Boston the privations of the winter were forgotten and he wrote a very long poem (six hundred and forty eight lines) about his experiences. Every time he related the poem he became more homesick for Minnesota. Finally, after being turned down for a teaching position at Yale and Harvard, due to lack of education and training, he decided to open a college in Minnesota.
With the help of Mr. Bayfield, a coffee broker who already owned land in the area, Henry was able to raise enough backers to pursue his dream. In 1852 they arrived in the area that would be known as New Albion and began the New Albion College. Henry added some honorifics to his name so he would sound more distinguished and to fake a background that would lure students and Bayfield advertised to bring in residents.
As time passed Henry Watts added the title of Reverend to the rest of his titles and took over the church. He became overweight and enjoyed a place of distinction until the town fell apart after a diphtheria epidemic. After he left the town he died in obscurity in Boston while once again trying to raise backers to renew his college.
Magnus Oleson – one of the first Norwegian settlers. Magnus came from Norway to the United States during the Civil War. He was paid to enlist under the name of someone else. But, when he realized how bad the conditions were and that he was constantly being shot at, Magnus stole a horse and headed north as far away from the war as he could go.
When he reached New Albion he thought he had traveled far enough. Although he spoke very little English, he settled in to farming. During a diphtheria epidemic he made money burying the dead. Magnus was immune because he had it during the war. After the epidemic ran its course, he bought a large house and land that belonged to a victim very cheaply.
After fumigating it, he set in to wait for the wife he advertised for in the St. Paul newspaper. When she arrived, she spoke on German, but they managed to begin their lives together. She was the first of three wives that he outlived. He had eight children and most of the Norwegians in Lake Wobegon can trace their lineage back to him.
The narrator, Johnny – parts of the book are written in the first person point of view, and others are written in the third person point of view. While in the third person, the story is about Johnny. Johnny is a young man on his way to college. He wants to be a writer. He dramatizes everyday happenings in his life so he can make it into a more interesting story. He wishes he was a character from a book with a more interesting life, such as espionage. And he wishes her were from a wealthy family. He often speaks with an accent when talking to girls and makes up a false background for his father.
While in the first person point of view, the narrator tells the history of Lake Wobegon and relates nostalgic stories of the people from the town. He also tells stories from his own childhood of his years as a little scamp and the many times he and his best friend pulled mischievous pranks.
Garrison Keillor Biography
Born Gary Edward Keillor in Anoka, Minnesota in 1942 to Grace and John Keillor, a carpenter and postal worker, Garrison Keillor had a quiet upbringing in a small town. He adopted the pen name, Garrison at age thirteen. His father’s parents came from Canada and his mother’s parents immigrated from Scotland. As a child he was raised to be a Plymouth Brethren, part of the Evangelical Christian movement, but as an adult he became a Lutheran.
When Garrison was in college at the University of Minnesota in the 1960’s, he began broadcasting on a student radio station that has since become known as Radio K. He was the host of A Prairie Home Entertainment. Meanwhile he submitted fiction to The New Yorker. They published his humorous story “Local Family Keeps Son Happy” in 1970 and his career in writing was off.
In 1971 he resigned from the broadcasting network because he felt they were trying to interfere with his music choices. When he returned later that year, his show was called The Prairie Home Companion. He hosted live musicians and comic skits. Today the show also features spoof commercial breaks and humorous greetings from members of the theater audience to their families. He also delivers news from Lake Wobegon, a fictional town based on his hometown in Minnesota. At the end of each broadcast, Garrison does not mention his own name in the credits, although he sometimes says something was written by Sarah Bellum which is a reference to his brain.
The Prairie Home Companion troupe has traveled the world for performances, including Scotland, Australia and Ireland. Garrison hosted his last performance in 2016 with a show before eighteen thousand fans at the Hollywood Bowl in California. President Obama called to congratulate him. The show has since been hosted by Chris Thile.
Garrison’s distinctive accent has made him sought after for voice overs. He has been the voice of Disney character, Odin in the animated movie, Hercules, the the voice of Walt Whitman and other figures of historical significance in the documentaries by Ken Burns, The Civil War and Baseball.
Although he has not been diagnosed, Garrison believes he is on the highly functioning end of the autism spectrum because he has trouble making eye contact with anyone. In 2014 he was the keynote speaker at the 19th Annual Minnesota Autism Conference.
In 1965 Garrison married Mary Guntzel. They had one son, Jason in 1969, and then divorced in 1976. Then in 1985 he married Ulla Skaerved. She was a exchange student from Denmark when they were both in high school together. The two met again at a high school reunion. That marriage lasted until 1990, when it ended in divorce. Five years later in 1995, Garrison married Jenny Lind Nilsson. She is fifteen years his junior but they are both from the same hometown in Minnesota. She is a violinist. They have a daughter, Maia Grace Keillor who was born in 1997.
Garrison has been compared to Mark Twain for his witticism and wisdom. He rarely repeats himself even after thirty years of shows. His style involves storytelling about the fictional town of Lake Wobegon and other subjects. He is an observational comedian. He finds the humor in every day activities.