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Well Above Average

One man’s immodest, chest-pounding, vainglorious quest to find the ultimate Minnesota status symbol

Well Above Average
Photo by Darrell Eager (Photo-illustration)

(page 1 of 3)

I DON’T THINK THIS IS GOING TO WORK. I’m about to crash the Twin Cities’ most exclusive country clubs—blowing past the “Private” and “Members Only” signs, the gate houses, and possibly the hounds—and apply for membership. Only, I’m driving a red Honda Civic made during the Clinton administration—the first one. Worse, I forgot to take off the note stuck on all the cars in my neighborhood advertising “Earn an extra $800–$1,000 a month—CASH!” This car has been through a flood, and the muffler has more gaping holes than my investment portfolio. It sounds like poverty. 

But how else am I going to investigate status in Minnesota—a place where modesty is supposedly the state religion? Where conspicuous consumption is spoken of like a disease? Where the state’s wealthiest citizen—Carl “Penny Pincher” Pohlad, whose net worth is estimated at twice the gross domestic product of Belize—is reputed to sleep not in a penthouse, or a Lake Minnetonka mansion, but a humble rambler? So screw it—I’m breaking the secrecy, and possibly a few laws. It’s WWTD (What Would Trump Do?) time. Time to find out what passes for status in the state where everyone is above average. 

Status symbols, by definition, are elusive creatures. In the past year alone, the media has declared the following as the latest status symbols: big broods, small carbon footprints, cocaine (in India—they’re a little behind). And I suspect that whatever our state’s quintessential status symbol is, it has evolved far beyond the classic “Minnesota good life” of a cabin, a fishing boat, and a mess of walleye. We’re officially a rich state now, and the relationship between Minnesotans and their money is changing faster than you can say trophy wife.

Until recently, we perennially ranked around 20th among the states in per capita income—about average—and then suddenly we ascended, peaking at seventh place in 2004. By the time the only Maserati dealership in the Upper Midwest opened here, in 2006, we’d left our neighboring states in the dust; we are now a solid top-10 state, keeping company with the blue-blooded likes of Connecticut and Massachusetts. The question is no longer how did we get here but how will it change us?

BACK IN 1985, the definition of high society in the Twin Cities was scientifically determined by researchers studying how companies choose their boards of directors. Country-club membership, particularly at Woodhill in Wayzata or Somerset in Mendota Heights, was considered essential. To gauge if this is still the case, I head to Wayzata, arguably the region’s ground zero for status. There are four country clubs here within five square miles—you could practically tee off at one and land your ball in another.

At the Lafayette Club, founded by railroad baron James J. Hill as a Lake Minnetonka resort, I’m welcomed like a Rockefeller, despite the noisy Honda. “Are you a swimmer?” asks the receptionist. “A golfer? Tennis?” It’s old-school—chairs sporting the Lafayette crest, a jar of Vitalis hair tonic and a gallon of Listerine in the locker room—but in a good way.

But as I’m handed a membership application, I’m reminded of the old Groucho Marx line: “I wouldn’t want to join any club that would have me as a member.” Could it really be this easy? At club after club, I have the same feeling: The real status-seekers have moved on.

At the last club I visit, I sense the direction they’re headed. Spring Hill Golf Club opened fairly recently, in 1999, and was No. 1 on a former golf pro’s ranking of the most exclusive local country clubs. The only background I could find was in a magazine called the Chief Executive, in which the CEO of SuperValu discusses his favorite Spring Hill hole. The club’s website offers little more than “rules for guests.”

“We’re a petite little club for our members,” a rep tells me, refusing to elaborate. But everything about it, from the McMansion-like clubhouse to the fact that it formed at the height of the stock craze, shouts nouveau riche—or at least the desire to draw a more definitive line between those with status and those without. Chief Executive reported just 185 members for Spring Hill, or .0000358 percent of Minnesota’s population.

The richest Americans, as we know, are pulling away from the rest of us—financially and socially—at the speed of day trading. Is Minnesota headed that way? I need some perspective, so I call a guy who should know—Dave Keiski, a.k.a. Dave the Lake Guy, the editor of a clubby lake-area newspaper called the Lake Minnetonka Navigator. “The breakdown,” he assures me—meaning between the rich and everyone else here—“isn’t a black-and-white, cut-and-dried thing. I know multimillionaires whose circle of friends include the waiters and waitresses who serve them.”

Status means nothing? “Well, there’s a bravado among the young and successful—they’re cocky sons of bitches. But I love ’em. Everybody who really lives out here, they might wear different hats, but everybody loves each other.”

How is this possible? It’s not love a status-seeker is supposed to want, it’s envy. Perhaps wealthy Minnesotans truly are different from the rich in, say, Richistan, a new nonfiction book that portrays the moneyed class as living in a world apart. Those people are forever talking about “liquidity events” (corporate buyouts) and “non-correlated assets” (like paintings)—and what would a waitress know about that?

On my way out of Wayzata, I drop in on the state’s most exclusive residence—a 12.9-acre Lake Minnetonka estate built for a Pillsbury in 1918 and currently on the market for $53.5 million, or about “f– you” in real people terms. This place has 16 bathrooms, multiple outbuildings. President Bush reportedly stayed here last summer. And yet: no gate. In fact, I stand close enough to ring the doorbell—classic Minnesota, as if even the super-rich here can’t quite bring themselves to seem too distant, too unapproachable. But will the new owners feel the same way, or put up a fence as soon as they move in?

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