Thirty years ago, I lived in Stearns County with my wife and little boy in a rented farmhouse south of Freeport, an area of nose-to-the-grindstone German Catholics proud of their redneck reputation. We moved there so we could live cheaply— I was supporting us by writing fiction for The New Yorker— and we found a big brick house on the Hoppe farm in Oak Township that rented for eighty dollars a month.
— Garrison Keillor, In Search of Lake Wobegon
Hard working German, my dad, stacks wood as his regular workout.

Hard working German, my dad, stacks wood as his regular workout.

The author and humorist continues to explain the house, his wife’s piano, and his ability to host his friends from the city. He also shares details of cows, the Sauk River, and the cultural characteristics of the German people and their “imposing Catholic church.” 

I used to listen to Garrison Keillor begrudgingly as a young pre-teen girl, because I thought it was dull, and he breathed weird while he talked. When I went off to college in Missouri, and my eccentric art professor heard I was from Minnesota, he laughed and said, “Prairie Home Companion… where the women are strong, the men are good looking and the children (insert pause) are above average.” He waited for my response to be something other than annoyance and disgust. It was, maybe, just because I am Minnesota Nice, a smile and a “yes, that’s the one."

"For three years, I sat in my room and wrote short fiction and shipped it to New York. After a shipment, after a week or so, I’d watch for the mailman every day with more and more interest. He came around 1:30pm. I’d walk out the driveway to the mailbox and look for an envelope from The New Yorker— a large gray envelope meant rejection, a small creamy one meant acceptance. Acceptance meant another three months’ grace. Eventually I ran out of grace and we moved to the Cities and I went back to my radio job and a couple years later started A Prairie Home Companion and the Lake Wobegon saga." -Keillor

If I had known, as a rural Minnesota artist, that Keillor had only spent 3 years in a small town in my county, and benefited more than four decades characterizing my region, I would have likely not spent time listening to his show, quoting his politics, or feeling bad he had a “face made for radio.” While there is, admittedly some accuracy in the fictitious people in his stories, it still set an interesting stereotype in a public radio stone, that is hard to shake. He was given a medium that could be spread throughout the nation, through storytelling and song. I do not know if I feel thankful or annoyed.

"The eastern approach to Lake Wobegon is Division Street, St. Cloud, a five-mile strip of commerce in full riot, the fast-food discount multiplex warehouse cosmos adrift in its asphalt sea, the no-man’s-land of twenty-four-hour gas stations that sell groceries and have copiers and the bright plastic restaurants where, if you ate lunch there for the rest of your life, you would never meet anybody you know or get to know anybody you meet, a tumult of architecture so cheap and gaudy and chaotic you wander how many motorists in search of a drugstore and a bottle of aspirin wound up pilling into a light pole, disoriented by flashing lights and signage and sheer free enterprise, and then the cosmos peters out and you energy from hell and come into paradise, rural Minnesota.” -Keillor

Hey, that’s my town, Mr. Keillor. I cruised that unfortunately named Division Street on Friday nights and boycotted those awful plastic restaurants, and instead supported my downtown culture all my life. But thanks for the shout out, I guess… Because it sure is pretty on the other side of Division, as you head into the region that another MPR station is located (Collegeville.) 

I give myself some permission to let my blood boil at some of these passages, as I reflect on some modern issues we have in my communities. I say “Communities” because I too, am an artist who has to wander the Minnesota landscape for paid gigs and cheap housing. I live in Morrison county, play in Cloud town (St. Cloud), teach art in many communities in greater Minnesota, and develop relationships in both the Cities (Minneapolis & St. Paul) and other metropolitan areas. Cloud Town has been through a lot of crap in 2016, 15 years after Keillor’s coffee table book, In Search of Lake Wobegon. Division Street, named after the division between Catholics and Lutherans, is no longer called that, but is simply addressed as Highway 23. The community has become more diverse since 2010 than ever expected. Good things that have happened because of that hard work Keillor points out in his storytelling, yet an ISIS attack at the local mall, or a human rights protest at a local high school, just brings us back to this norm, that is stated in a book by a man who lived here for only a fraction of his adult life. 

The response from the community was better than expected. The good outweighed the bad, in my opinion.

The response from the community was better than expected. The good outweighed the bad, in my opinion.

The director of the Downtown Council, sharing the big stuff happening downtown, invited me to talk about the new music organization, Independent Music Collaborative of Central Minnesota.

The director of the Downtown Council, sharing the big stuff happening downtown, invited me to talk about the new music organization, Independent Music Collaborative of Central Minnesota.

The tiles of Crossroads Mall after the stabbing.

The tiles of Crossroads Mall after the stabbing.

This place is far from perfect, but there are people working really hard to make things change, because they are here to stay. Human rights organizations are popping up and doing work every single day. People who fundamentally disagree are sitting at the same table to make compromises and victories. Leadership is diversifying, slowly but surely. Change is happening, and maybe... just maybe... Division Street can become a nice super cheesy "Unity Street."

Or not. But you get the point.


In that same book, though, the photographer gets a page to reflect on the project. Richard Olsenius allows his car and camera to do the work, as he uses a hotel room bathroom as his dark room. He keeps his statement to observe the following:

“What attracts me is the land west of the upper Mississippi cleared by immigrant farmers in the 1850s, sectioned off into farms, and sprinted with small towns with neat, spare main streets. So it is here where the sky reached out to the prairies, I chased the weather and light with my cameras, and the bond began to form.” (127).

That makes me wonder, if I should read Olsenius more from this point on. 

 

*I should mention that I do love Garrison Keillor. It's in my blood to love him. This is just a glimpse into his writing, and a glimpse into my research... and in a way, my defensiveness. So, Mr. Keillor, I would love to talk about this a bit more, any time. Just meet me at Charlie's for a pot of cheap coffee. Your treat.

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