Everything You Know About Minnesota is Wrong

SUMMER IS THE BEST TIME to enjoy our great state—so you should probably know something about it. Like the truth. It ain’t always pretty (see: loon sex) or inspiring (see: more loon sex). And it’s often completely loony (no, not loon sex; there’s nothing funny about that). But it’s time you let go of your most cherished misconceptions. Move into the light. Or to Wisconsin.

Minnesota was settled primarily by Oles and Lenas

Sorry, Sven—the Germans win this time.

Our grandparents’ winters could beat up today’s winters

There’s no doubt our ancestors put up with hardships: What was there to do here in 1890 but tell Ole and Lena jokes, herd moose, and read Sid Hartman? But enduring larger snowfalls? It just isn’t true. The annual snowfall total for most of Minnesota has been steadily rising for as long as such records have been kept, from an average of fewer than 40 inches in the 1890s to more than 55 inches most recently, according to University of Minnesota data. So why does it feel like we’re drying up? “It’s the winter recreational expectation,” says U of M climatologist and meteorologist Mark Seeley, who compiled 200 years of weather history for his Minnesota Weather Almanac. “In the old days, we got a swath of snow late in November and December that persisted on the landscape. The reality is, we haven’t been getting that in recent winters. Our snowfall totals disguise it by showing large numbers, but [the flakes] come late in winter and mostly in two or three storms, rather than being spread out. People who love Minnesota for its winter recreation opportunities are pretty unhappy.”

Paul Wellstone was assassinated

Articles, papers, at least one book, and hundreds of blog entries have made the claim that the plane crash that killed Paul Wellstone and seven others shortly before the 2002 elections was no accident. The conspiracy theorists—ranging from college professors to congressmen—have implicated everyone from the CIA to Republicans to moderate Democrats who felt Wellstone was a liability. But the official investigation, as well as several others, placed full blame on pilot error—a fact that won the Wellstone family and other survivors of the crash victims a $25 million settlement from the air-charter company. “The timing of the crash, among other things, probably caused folks who are disposed to believe in larger theories to jump to other conclusions,” says Jeff Blodgett, spokesman for the family and head of the Wellstone Action civic leadership group. As far as the surviving Wellstone family is concerned, says Blodgett, the investigations settled the matter. Time to park the bus on this one, folks.

Garrison Keillor is who he says he is

It would be hard to argue that anyone has done more to put Minnesota on the map than Garrison Keillor. Only, you should really be thanking Gary Keillor. That’s his real name. In junior high school, he adopted his pen name for the school’s literary magazine. This was “at a time when boys didn’t write poetry,” he’s said. In his mind, Garrison was “a name that means strength and ‘don’t give me a hard time about this.’” So, we won’t. Anymore.

G.B. Leighton, that summer festival mainstay, is an amazingly talented band.

No.

You’re hooked on Minnesota walleye.

If you want to eat a walleye from Minnesota you’ll have to catch it yourself—almost all walleye served in our restaurants are shipped in from outside the state. “The only commercially caught walleye from Minnesota is Native American—harvested,” says Tim Lauer, manager of Coastal Seafoods in Minneapolis. And since only a fraction of Indian-caught fish makes it onto the open market, those sold in Minnesota come almost exclusively from Canadian waters. Commercial walleye fishing has been banned for decades in Minnesota to ensure a healthy walleye population for sport fishing. Not that the imports taste particularly, well, foreign. “It’s such a mild fish, we could cook walleye from five different lakes and not tell the difference,” says Lauer. Who knew walleye was an imported delicacy, like Labatt?

Keith Ellison wants you in a burkha, stat

It began as soon as he declared his candidacy, heated up with cries of “Allahu Akbar!” during his acceptance speech, and exploded into crusade-like fervor when he posed with a Koran for his swearing-in photo. “Ellison believes in the sharia [Islamic] legal and justice system,” one blogger wrote. “Ellison Sends Muslims Veiled Message: Fight for Sharia Law,” wrote another. The assumption, promoted by everyone from conservative columnists to reactionary congressmen, is that Ellison wants to overturn American values and impose Islamic law, a notion that Ellison now refuses to even comment on. So let’s consider the facts: Ellison has spent his entire professional life embracing, not dismantling, the U.S. legal system. As a Minnesota legislator, he worked on extending, not withholding, civil rights. As a lawyer and a congressman, he has twice sworn to uphold, not destroy, the U.S. Constitution. How many jihadis can say that?

 

Edina: Monte Carlo of Minnesota

Don’t be mistaken, there are still a lot of mink coats and Cadillacs in Edina. In the Minneapolis-St. Paul Business Journal’s 2004 ranking of the area’s wealthiest Zip Codes, Edina neighborhoods occupied the top two spots. But another study of the richest Zip Codes found Edina well below such suburbs as Afton, Woodbury, Plymouth, and Eden Prairie. So where is the state’s greatest concentration of wealth? Try Dellwood, the town of 1,073 on the shores of White Bear Lake, which made BusinessWeek’s list of the country’s most expensive suburbs. Median home price: $772,000. Median household income: $140,909, almost certainly the highest in the state. (The U.S. Census gives Edina a relatively modest median household income of $66,019.) F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald once lived in Dellwood, for God’s sake. (Meet the new aristocracy, same as the old.) Still, Edina denizens shouldn’t feel too bad. “There’s a certain segment of people who want Edina,” says real-estate agent Patricia Yorks. “Edina’s Country Club neighborhood is a hot area, though I would say the real hot spot is Lake Minnetonka.”

Hubert H. Humphrey: model Minnesotan

He’s our ideal—a progressive everyman with lofty goals and a pragmatic approach. He was our mayor, our senator, and our presidential candidate. But he was never our native son: Hubert H. Humphrey was born in Wallace, South Dakota.

High business taxes are turning Minnesota into Mississippi

Even as our governor has suggested that Minnesota is hemorrhaging businesses to supposedly tax-friendlier states like Wisconsin and the Dakotas, our Department of Employment and Economic Development is touting the state’s competitive business taxes. Who’s right? “I’m on both sides of the fence on this one,” says Federal Reserve economist Art Rolnick. “Business taxes should be low. It tends to be pretty regressive.” That said, he continues, “This is not the key to whether this economy succeeds. The key is making sure we invest [tax money] wisely.” Whatever we’re doing, it seems to be working. A 2005 Forbes study ranked the Twin Cities 18th among the 150 best places to do business. Minnesota also has been creating jobs faster than the national average and has a below-average unemployment rate. What matters most, though, is what’s in the wallet: Rolnick calls personal income “the measure of how successful our economy is.” By that standard, we’re doing better than all of our neighbors and the United States as a whole. We really are above average.

Once Minneapolis, always Minneapolis

The site of Minneapolis was probably once called many things: “that swamp near St. Anthony Falls,” “The Real West St. Paul”—who knows. But the town’s first official name was Minnehapolis, after Minnehaha Falls. Perhaps the moniker sounded too much like “hapless,” as the “h” was soon dropped. This was after the first proposed name, Albion, proved unpopular, as did the other suggested names the city came dangerously close to living with: All Saints, Brooklyn, Addiseville, and Winona. No offense to Winona.

Our lakes are mosquito fantasuites

“Lakes don’t produce mosquitoes anything like marshes and grassy depressions do,” says Roger Moon, a professor of entomology at the University of Minnesota. Lakes are too deep (mosquitoes can’t survive in deep water) and are full of fish that prey on the bugs. But Minnesota does have plenty of wetlands that serve as mosquito breeding grounds, and our frequent summer thundershowers create the kind of shallow, still beds of water that get skeeters in the mood. Looking to avoid the buggers? Consider not breathing: Carbon dioxide stimulates mosquitoes to search for hosts.

Goldy is a gopher

The University of Minnesota football players aren’t the only imposters on the field on Saturday afternoons. Mascot Goldy, with his buck teeth and stout body, is anything but a gopher, anatomically speaking. “Goldy is actually a 13-lined ground squirrel,” asserts Sharon Jansa, the curator of mammals at the Bell Museum of Natural History. A few years back, the Bell Museum created a mock criminal line-up comparing five rodents with Goldy; viewers concluded that the mascot resembled a chipmunk. The identity crisis stems from the fact that the original illustrator, an Iowa artist, didn’t know what a real gopher looked like. Instead, the story goes, he sketched some rodents he saw at rest stops while driving to Minnesota. Whatever they were, they weren’t gophers.

Loons are monogamous

It was long believed that our state bird was a winged paragon of virtue, returning to its mate year after year—until death or lakeshore development intervened. But our red-eyed rep, it seems, is a player on the level of peacocks, prairie chickens, and Colin Farrell. According to researcher Walter Piper, the birds switch mates from year to year, sometimes even within the same mating season if the first partnership isn’t productive. The bird isn’t especially romantic, either. As described on the educational website Journey North, loon mating “is a quick process. … It only takes a few moments and then [the male] drops into the water. They sometimes call after copulation.” Such animals.

The gopher state = many gophers

We don’t have more gophers than other places, we just had a whole lot of rascally railroad barons, who, in 1858, were taking Minnesotans for a ride. They had received $5 million in state money but never actually built a single railroad. In a cartoon about the scandal, the barons are depicted as gophers (which consume and destroy everything) pulling the Legislature down a train track. The “Gopher Train” cartoon proved so popular that people began calling Minnesota the Gopher State. By the time the University of Minnesota had adopted the rodent as its mascot, most people had forgotten the nickname’s origin. So apparently we’re gullible and forgetful.

 

Garrison Keillor grew up Lutheran

He speaks of lutefisk suppers and the Reformation as though he spent every Sunday of his life in a Lutheran pew. But Keillor was actually born into the Plymouth Brethren, a Christian sect that makes Lutherans look festive. Brethren families often restrict drinking, dancing, literature, movies, and television; storytelling and radio were among the few entertainments available to Keillor. These days, having joined the Lutheran church but married an Episcopalian, he and his family worship at St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church in St. Paul. “We don’t make a big deal about it,” says the Reverend Frank Wilson, St. John’s rector. “We try to give him his space.” So despite his sonorous voice, Keillor hasn’t been asked to read the day’s lesson. Once or twice, humorous happenings at the church have found their way into Keillor’s writings. But Wilson understands why Keillor doesn’t talk more about Episcopalians: “We’re not the largest group in Minnesota. We’re used to taking a back seat in religious life here.”

Minnesota, king of lakes

We’ve long known that Minnesota has more lakes than its license plates claim—11,842, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, which considers a lake to be 10 acres or larger. But a controversial 2005 study quashed the idea that we’re the nation’s lakes leader. Counting a lake as any body of water—natural or man-made—that can be seen by a satellite (measuring about 100 feet across), the researchers ranked Minnesota seventh, even though we were deemed to have 10 times our advertised 10,000 lakes. The leader? Texas, with 269,976 lakes. In any case, the study only surveyed the Lower 48; Alaska, using a 20-acre standard, boasts the most lakes in the country: 3.5 million. Or about five lakes for every Alaskan resident.

Minnesotans speak the clearest English, doncha know

Fargo aside, we believe everyone else sounds funny. Minnesotans speak General American English, right? Isn’t that why news anchors everywhere—trained to speak with maximum clarity—all sound like us? Listen again. According to renowned linguist William Labov and the researchers behind the Telsur Project, a 1990s study of regional accents, the area of the country that is most linguistically neutral is actually south of here: eastern Nebraska, southern and central Iowa, and northern Illinois (but not Chicago). How to Talk Minnesotan author Howard Mohr agrees that many Minnesotans are oblivious to their peculiar diction, though he says our unique speech is really more about attitude —using the passive third person, for example—than accent. Says Mohr: “I had a friend who smoked cigars, and he opens up a 5-gallon can of gas—looking in with his cigar going—and another friend tells him, ‘You know, a lot of guys wouldn’t smoke a cigar and look in a gas can like that.’ It’s all about being calm, without pushing.”

Cow tipping: right of passage

Like sex in middle school, everyone just assumes everyone else is doing it—but has anyone actually pushed over a sleeping Bessie? Almost certainly not, according to researchers at the University of British Columbia. Calculating the amount of force required to topple an average cow—given the point of push, the angles between hooves, and a certain amount of bovine resistance—they concluded that the purported prank was a near-impossibility. Two people could maybe do it if the cow didn’t react at all; a successful tipping would likely require at least five people. Or one really small cow.

No. 34 is No. 1

Kirby Puckett was our most popular athlete, but was he our most accomplished? It’s hard to top the resumé of Bronko Nagurski, who grew up in International Falls and is said to have honed his strength running four miles to school each day. The U of M football player was the only one in U.S. history to be named All-American at two positions. He went on to lead the Chicago Bears to three championships and also found time to win world titles in professional wrestling. He became a charter member of both the pro and college football halls of fame, and in 1999 he was named one of the Associated Press’s top 100 athletes of the century. “Kirby was an ideal combination of skill, enthusiasm, and clutch performance,” says Star Tribune sports columnist Jim Souhan. “But in terms of historical importance, Bronko was a more dominant figure. Kirby was wonderful, but it is interesting to see how much weight we give to his performance in game 6 of the ’91 World Series. How would we think of him without that game?” Not that Nagurski ever sought the spotlight: He lived out his last years as the so-called Rainy Lake Recluse, running a gas station in International Falls.

St. Paul is secretly hipper than Minneapolıs

If it’s a secret, it’s a well-kept one. Where’s the party? The Red Savoy parking lot? There’s no arguing that St. Paul today is a livelier place than it was even a few years ago. But venturing downtown at midnight, you’re still more likely to encounter a tumbleweed than a pedestrian.

You’re always welcome back

Our prodigal sons inevitably return: Al Franken, Garrison Keillor, Prince (okay, so we’ve lost track of Prince). Or do they? Dylan never looked back. Jesse Ventura is now living la vida loca south of the border. F. Scott Fitzgerald moved East for good in 1922. Part of the problem might be that we’re choosy about whom we embrace. “As long as you don’t leave St. Paul, people are okay with you,” says Fitzgerald devotee David Page, who teaches journalism at Inver Hills Community College. Also, Fitzgerald’s lifestyle—all that boozing and bragging—didn’t sit well with St. Paulites. “He and Zelda took advantage of celebrity just like rock stars do today,” Page explains. “St. Paul at that time—and maybe still—finds that immodest.” It took a push from Keillor and Page to accord Fitzgerald even minimal civic recognition—even as Charles Schulz, who also never returned, was honored with hundreds of statues. Moral: If you think you want to come back, hang with Snoopy rather than Snoop Dogg.

We’re a Democratic state and always have been

“If you look at it from the total historical perspective, the state has been Republican,” Hy Berman, a labor historian and professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota, once told Minnesota Public Radio. A common mistake, he says, is to assume that the DFL’s terrific run at the state Legislature in the last quarter of the 20th century—not to mention the proliferation of high-profile Minnesota Democrats, from Hubert Humphrey to Eugene McCarthy to Walter Mondale—constitutes the norm. In fact, Berman says, it’s the exception. The state Senate was Republican-controlled from 1860 to 1973; the governor’s office has been evenly divided. Even the much-touted success of Democratic presidential candidates in the state—winning 11 of the last 12 contests since 1960—looks different in context: Five of those races featured presidential or vice-presidential candidates from Minnesota. Of course, to say the state has been Republican also requires some context—Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann is, after all, no Elmer Anderson. It’s safer to say that Minnesota loves balance (simultaneously electing Senators Rod Grams and Paul Wellstone) and independents (Governor Jesse Ventura). Even our mainstream parties are unusual: From 1975 to 1995, our state Republican Party called itself the Independent-Republican Party (to distance itself from the national organization following Watergate), and our Dems have long been known as the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. We like to be different—but not extreme.

 

Bud Grant: coaching genius

Sure, Bud Grant took us to the Super Bowl (four times), something no other Vikings coach has managed. But true fans know that the late Jim Finks had as much, if not more, to do with the team’s glory days. As the Vikings’ general manager, Finks hand-picked the talent, and after Finks moved on to Chicago (where he assembled the team that won the 1985 Super Bowl), Grant’s winning percentage was merely average. In fact, over nine seasons, the much-maligned Denny Green had a better winning percentage than Grant. Better to leave Grant in the stands and start the séances to resurrect Finks.

A rogue legislator kept our capitol in St. Paul

In 1857, St. Paul nearly lost the one thing keeping it from being known simply as a good place to be a Vulcan: its capital status. The new town of St. Peter was seen as more accessible to far-flung legislators, or at least was promoted as such by unscrupulous politicians, including the territorial governor, who were invested in the company that hoped to build the new capitol. Enter “Jolly Joe” Rolette, a legislator who makes off with the bill that would move the capital, holing up in a hotel until time expires for the bill to be signed into law. Rolette, in other words, saves St. Paul. But the story is a little too good to be true. “He did steal the bill, but it was a ruling by a territorial judge that kept the capitol in St. Paul,” says Wendy Jones of the Minnesota Historical Society. Even the word “steal” is misleading: Because Rolette chaired the Committee on Enrolled Bills, it was his to take. When he didn’t show, the governor simply signed a duplicate bill. Only several months later, when the judge ruled on whether the legislature could move the capital, was St. Paul preserved as the seat of government, ensuring maximum irony when gangsters later overran the place.


Five Truths About Minnesota

Minnesota is nice

We know the stories: Your coworkers smile at you in the break room, say please and thank you and oh fer cute, but they won’t invite you to dinner parties because they’re still hanging out with their high school friends. Well, boo-hoo. By the numbers, Minnesotans really are altruistic. We have the nation’s lowest percentage of people without health insurance, due to generous government coverage. We’ve historically had one of the lowest, if not the lowest, income-tax burdens on poor families, as determined by the national Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. It’s even been found that we have the greatest distribution of power—based on voter participation, educational attainment, Medicaid access, and tax fairness—and are among the top five least-stressful cities in the country. We’re not worried; why should you be?

Paul Bunyan is a Minnesotan

It is still debatable where the king of deforestation was born: In the logging camps of the 19th century or in the imagination of commercial writers. But according to the Minnesota History Society, there is no doubt that the national popularization of Bunyan began with a Minnesota copywriter named W. B. Laughead, a veteran of the logging camps around Bemidji. In 1914, Laughead wrote the first of many Bunyan stories to promote the Minnesota-based Red River Lumber Company, inventing Babe the Blue Ox and other parts of the legend. It’s worth noting, too, that little Kelliher, Minnesota, is the only town claiming Bunyan’s burial site. The epitaph: “Here lies Paul, and that’s all.”

Minnesota dating is not-so-nice

Still don’t have a date for that dinner party? You’re not alone (well, only literally): In 2004, the Twin Cities made the list of 10 worst cities to hook up in, as determined by Sperling’s BestPlaces. Recently, the online dating service OkCupid.com determined that Minnesota has the nation’s loneliest women and shyest men. The knock has always been low turnover: Fewer people (in search of companionship) move into and out of here than such larger cities as Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. But there’s hope: The latest census revealed that when you peg net migration to population size, the Twin Cities now ranks eighth out of 20 metropolises; we’re attracting young, single college graduates at a faster pace than anywhere outside the West and South. We’ve even surpassed Milwaukee in Forbes magazine’s 2006 Best Cities for Singles rankings (number 14 out of 40). Woo-hoo! But don’t cancel your Netflix subscription just yet.

We are #!$@& cold

Statistics—and frostbitten fingers—don’t lie. We may not hold the record for lowest recorded temperature: the mountain states of Alaska, Colorado, Montana, Utah, and Wyoming have all suffered through chillier moments. But on an annual basis, International Falls is the coldest major National Weather Service station outside Alaska and the Twin Cities is the coldest major population center in the United States, with an average annual temperature of just 45 degrees. Which may help explain that dating thing.

We do have a lot of Norwegian bachelor farmers

Minnesota has always been the HQ of Norwegian bachelor farmers, according to the Minnesota Population Center. In the mid-20th century, about one-third of Norwegian farmers in Minnesota were bachelors, compared to only one-fifth of farmers overall. Interestingly, in 1940, all American men of Norwegian ancestry, whether farmers or not, were much more likely than others to have never married. See: dating.


You Decide

In his recent biography, Chronicles: Volume One, Bob Dylan recalls advising U2 frontman Bono “that if he wants to see the birthplace of America, he should go to Alexandria, Minn.,” where “the Vikings came and settled in the 1300s.” Alexandria, of course, houses the Kensington Runestone—the supposedly ancient marker inscribed with Scandinavian runic writing and reputedly found by farmer Olaf Ohman in 1898. Many scholars say the stone is evidence not of Vikings in Minnesota but of a savvy prankster. Yet the debate continues. Prone as we are to believing aging rockers with fake names, this one’s too close to call.

Tim Gihring is senior writer at Minnesota Monthly.

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