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The Complete History of St. Olaf, Minnesota (according to Rose Nylund)

by Stephen Stevie Cole 4 months ago in celebrities · updated 4 months ago

With thanks to Betty White - and apologies to the actual residents of St. Olaf, Minnesota

St. Olaf Township, Minnesota, USA, is a real and, I'm sure, lovely place - but it's most famous for being the fictional hometown of Golden Girls' Rose Nylund, played by the incomparable Betty White - whose nonsensical tales of her backwards Norwegian-American homestead provided at least some explanation for how she grew up so adorably dim.

"Rolling hills; Charming homes; full of idiots. Not... that everyone there was an idiot - it just seemed that, per capita, they had more than their share!"

As far as I've been able to glean (after binging the whole series on Disney+, and having a brain that retains far more trivia than is healthy), these are Rose's complete recollections of her life "back home", as delivered with laughter and tears (both hers and mine) by the legendary Betty White, collected here in celebration of what would have been her 100th birthday this week.

"Y'know, back in that town whose name you're tired of hearing..."

When Rose thought of her father, she always pictured him pulling a giant tuna up Main Street. It wasn't a real tuna; it was made of chrysanthemums - it was the float in the Founders' Day parade. You may not know this, but Rose's beloved home town was founded by Heinrich von Anderdonnen, the first man to ever can tuna in its own natural juices.

(This was in the aftermath of the Great Herring War between the Lindstroms and the Johannsens. The two families controlled the most fertile herring waters off the coast of Norway, so naturally it seemed in their best interests to band together; but they couldn't agree on what to do with the herring. The Johannsens wanted to pickle the herring, and the Lindstroms wanted to train them for the circus. Rose's grandfather told her the story; but, he also used to call her by her sister's name, and sometimes wore his underwear on his head outdoors, so maybe he wasn't a very reliable source).

Anyway, it was the 50th anniversary celebration of the founding of the town, and Rose's father was chosen to pull the float (he thought it was because he had the newest tractor; actually it was because he was the only one small enough to fit into the mayonnaise jar costume). Who can forget the moment he came into sight, turning off of Sycamore onto Elm? Something must have happened to the tractor, because there he was, this lone little mayonnaise jar, dragging this giant tuna up the hill and past the reviewing stand - little Rose had never been prouder in her whole life.

Herder Schornborscht was St. Olaf's most famous shepherd. He used to say, you can have a hundred sheep, and if one goes astray, that's the one you go looking for. Especially if it's the best looking one.

In the early days of St. Olaf, there was also a shepherd boy who tended his flock on the hill above the town. A wolf kept coming down and stealing his sheep, but the boy never caught him doing it. Because he never saw it happening, he became known around St. Olaf as the boy who didn't cry wolf. One day the townspeople heard the boy on the hill yelling, "Wolf! Wolf!" Well everyone figured, if he never cried "wolf" when the wolf was there, then if he cried wolf now it stood to reason that the wolf wasn't there. They were right, it was a bear. A huge, ferocious grizzly bear. So the he became known as the boy who cried continuously.

Olga Fetchik was the town beautician. And one of God's most unattractive creations since the aardvark. Anyway, over the years Olga had been secretly squirreling away money for plastic surgery. One day she left without telling anyone, had the surgery, and didn't return for months. Well, nobody could believe their eyes - Olga Fetchik had turned into a stunning beauty. Every man in town wanted her, and she ended up marrying St. Olaf's most handsome and eligible bachelor, dance instructor Adolph Step. The two of them moved back to Norway, decided to get into show business, and they became the internationally renowned Scandinavian dance team of Step & Fetchik. It almost ruined St. Olaf! After she left, the town didn't have a professional beautician for years. Women started giving each other home perms, pretty soon everybody looked like Art Garfunkel. Husbands stopped sleeping with their wives; the population started to go down; the town would have gone under, if Oslo's most famous hairstylist, Vidal Sassbogadotter, hadn't relocated in shop into St. Olaf because of their more favourable tax laws.

Fritz Vanderhoeven owned the St. Olaf Motor Coach Company, who built the Vanderhoeven Rocket. Fritz really had vision. Actually he had double vision, which is why it had eight tires.

The St. Olaf Courier-Dispatch is renowned for its investigative reporting: The series they ran on oat fungus was an uncompromising piece of journalism.

As was the story of Gustav Lundqvist. He got sick from something mysterious; at the cemetery Beatrice Lundqvist his wife kept screaming, "he's alive, he's alive, I can hear him from the grave!" Everyone thought it was the hallucinations of a grieving widow, so they sedated her; but when she woke up from her sedation she told them that he said from the grave, "we never paid our 78-86 income taxes." His partner said only Gustav would know that, he must be alive; so they all raced to the cemetery and the entire town started digging like crazy, kneeling by the grave, using their hands even, dirt flying and Beatrice standing crying. When they opened that coffin, there he was, dead as a door nail. But Gustav didn't die from his mysterious disease at all; he lived and recovered; trouble was, he recovered while he was buried, so by the time they got to him he died of suffocation. The other tragic aspect was, the IRS was waiting at the cemetery to arrest Gustav's partner Bergstrom; so Bergstrom killed himself right then and there, by grabbing the gun from Sheriff Tuqvist and shooting himself. Since the grave was still open and everybody was there, and Gustav and Bergstrom had been partners, they put Bergstrom in with Gustav and had a double burial (unfortunately they later found out Bergstrom had wanted to be cremated).

When Rose was a little girl, there was an old lady who lived up the street, who never smiled; she always looked angry; the kids said she'd kill anyone who even stepped on her property. They used to call her Mean Old Lady Hickenlooper (because that was her name - she had it changed legally, since everyone called her that anyway). One day, little Rose got up the courage to go up to Mean Old Lady Hickenlooper and ask her why she always frowned. She had been born with no smiling muscles. Rose pointed out that a frown is just a smile turned upside down - so from then on, whenever Rose went by, she'd stand on her head and wave.

Thor, Rose's family's pet lamb, from the time he was first separated from his mother, wouldn't eat, wouldn't sleep, wouldn't frolic with the other sheep... then Rose's dad got the idea of wrapping an old inner tube in wool and putting it next to Thor's bed at night - they named it Brunhilde, and it did the trick. Thor thought he was back with his mother and he began eating and sleeping and frolicking - but then one day Thor got a bit playful and accidentally bit Brunhilde; the poor little fellow just stood there watching his mother deflate before his very eyes, and he was never the same after that. Once in a while he'd "baa!" at the back tires of a parked car, but mostly he just kept to himself.

There was a fable in St. Olaf that really helped Rose when she was a little girl. Once upon a time, in the magical land of Fafleuvenhaven, lived Toonder the mediocre tiger. He was called mediocre because there was nothing special about him - he wasn't talented, he wasn't smart, he wasn't rich, he wasn't handsome, he wasn't good at anything. It made Toonder's wife miserable that her husband was best known for being mediocre; so she asked her fairy godmother to grant Toonder the ability to perform incredible feats of magic, and her wish was granted. Toonder the Mediocre became Toonder the Magnificent. Toonder the tiger spent so much time performing, that he didn't have enough time to spend with his wife. She told him she missed the time they had together when he was just mediocre; so Toonder used his magic only once more, and that was to make his powers disappear. But she got bored and ran off with Wiseblat the weasel - that was Toonder's old business manager - and they lived happily ever after.

Young Rose always wanted to be Butter Queen. Butter Queen was the town's highest honour. From the time she was born, Rose's folks groomed her for it - singing lessons; dancing lessons; junior butter pageants; for 16 years, her entire life revolved around butter. When the time came for the pageant, she was incredible. Showing poise in the evening gown competition; brilliant in the oral butter quiz; the couldn't even trip her up with a trick margarine question. That evening, butter was spelt R O S E. As the pageant drew to its frenzied finale, there she was alongside the other two finalists churning her guts out when, all of a sudden for no apparent reason, her churn jammed! It was all over. It was small consolation to find out, years later, there had been churn tampering involved!

Worse, Rose never got to go to the Junior Prom. It was just for people named Junior.

Undaunted, Rose went on to write the fight song for her High School, "Onward St. Olaf"; they still sing it: "Onward St. Olaf, onward we go; Onward and onward St. Olaf's go; go go go; go go go; go!" (Lyrics aren't even her strong point, she just got lucky this one time).

St. Olaf was always very patriotic. In 1942 they printed and sold their own war bonds, to fund the development of a top secret weapon they were sure would end the war: Attack Cows.

Rose loved charities, too. In fact, she helped establish the Henry Fjord Foundation. Henry Fjord was a saint. He dedicated his whole life to eliminating pond scum from Lake St. Olaf. His son, however, was a big disappointment - Henry Fjord Jr. - he didn't want to follow in his father's footsteps. He thought scum was beneath him.

And, Rose used to run the town's welcome wagon. Whenever a new family would move into St. Olaf, they'd all hop onto the tractor and ride out to the new neighbours' farm, 30 or 40 carrying vats of smoked fish and big pitchers of freshly squeezed potato juice, while Cousin Dack played "Getting To Know You" through the hole in his windpipe.

But it wasn't easy for the first Inuit family to move to St. Olaf - especially after the sawed a hole and went salmon fishing in the middle of the local ice skating rink. Then there was the Halloween they gave all the kids whale blubber. And then there was the time they borrowed every ice tray in town to build an extension over their garage (they needed more room after the baby came). Gradually they were able to make friends and they ended up the most popular family in town - because in the drought of '49 their house melted and kept the town from dehydrating.

It was hard too for the Vigbotters. Gretchen had a thing for Buddy, but Mr. Vigbotter didn't approve. He did his best to keep them apart, but one day he came home early and found Gretchen and Buddy in a most indelicate situation. He yelled at them to stop, but they wouldn't, so he turned the hose on them. Gretchen was a Dalmatian and Buddy was a Schnauzer - and Mr. Vigbotter wasn't too happy when he ended up with a litter of Schnau-matians!

During a tornado, Rose's mother left the storm cellar to find Toto - her constant companion, and favourite cow. When she went out in the storm she got quite a bump on her head; for the rest of her days she kept trying to get that cow into the little basket on the front of her bicycle.

Rose herself was once injured during a spirited game of Gowhackanoggin (it's a lot like baseball, except instead of hitting a ball you whack yourself on the head - after ten whacks, if you're still standing, you take first base. It's usually a very low scoring game).

And once, it was time to plant the crops, but after 17 years of pulling the plough, poor old Bessie was worn out (she was a big fat lady who pulled farm ploughs for a living). They all had to till the soil, so Rose volunteered to pull the plough and hurt her back. What about tractors, you might ask? Well if it was that hard to pull a plough, she could never have pulled a tractor!

Young Nils worked at Lars Erikson's drugstore and tackle shop, he was a soda jerk; actually, he was the town jerk. Every Saturday afternoon Rose would go in and have a sundae; and Nils would arrange the ice cream scoops in an obscene way - but Rose could never prove it because by the time she went home to show her father, the evidence had melted. To this day, every time Rose passes an ice cream parlour or a tackle shop she blushes.

In Rose's own rebellious phase, she snuck out and borrowed her father's truck to go and meet Clel Leitner, the cutest boy at the high school and only sophomore old enough to get into a bar. When Rose got there, she sat in her father's truck for hours, paralysed with fear thinking to herself, "what is a simple Protestant farm girl doing in the parking lot of a gin mill in a flashy, fast-paced city like Tyler's Landing?" She marched up to the door and ran right into Reverend McKenzie coming out of the bar on the arm of Millie Beasley, wife of Emmett Beasley, the town's most decorated war hero. Emmett received three purple hearts (all for head wounds); he ran the feed store in town, though truth be told it was Millie who had to count change for the customers. Rev. McKenzie made a deal with Rose not to tell on each other. Rose went home, and he kept her secret til the day he died - which was two days later, when Emmett found him and Millie skinny dipping in the church fountain, and shot them both. A week later, Rose's family became Lutherans.

Bad behaviour in Rose's family back then was made up for by becoming one another's widenfrugen (personal servant); it was done that way for years, ever since Rose's uncle Ben lost Lars Olsen's artificial leg. It was the day of the big four-county toboggan race, and without his leg Lars came in dead last. Every St. Olafian remembers where they were the day Lars lost that toboggan race.

The 1951 St. Olaf's Beauty Pageant, was the first time they let humans enter too. Rose was way ahead after the evening gown and log rolling competition - people don't realise how hard it is to roll a log when you're wearing an evening gown - but she shockingly lost out on the intelligence quiz.

in 1952, St. Olaf's most active volcano threatened to erupt. Luckily there were some Druid priests who were in town for the opening of StonehengeLand; they said they could stop it if they sacrificed the town's dumbest virgin. From that day, Rose never knew why she raised her hand - it must have just been the excitement of the moment - but they said the only way to prevent the eruption was for her to crawl through their legs, up the volcano, while they gave her her birthday wax. Well, it turned out they weren't Druid priests at all - just a bunch of Shriners looking for a good time!

Rose was raised to hate Communists. In the early 1950's when McCarthy came to speak in the town square, she had never been so moved by a public speaker - although some people thought he was a puppet for the right wing; though that turned out to be Charlie McCarthy. From then on the town motto was Better Ned Than Red (Ned was the town idiot).

The time came when Rose wanted to leave St. Olaf - she had her eye on the Great White Way. So she went to St. Gustaf, "The City That Never Naps". That first night Rose walked around in amazement - they had their own FotoMat! Suddenly she realised she was a frightened young girl, alone in the big city. It started to rain, and Rose stood there in the middle of the town square and cried. There she was, drenched, and someone yelled out, "Hey, don't you have enough sense to come in out of the rain?!" Then it hit her; and when she went home to St. Olaf, Rose passed on this bit of street smart savvy. The next thing you know, in St. Olaf the in thing was coming in out of the rain. Rose was the town celebrity. Until the phrase "watch out for that tractor!" caught on.

With her newfound courage, Rose once confronted Luke van Olfnooner, St. Olaf's moodiest plastic surgeon. Dr. Olfnooner did some work on Rose's mother, and she came out looking like Raymond Massey. Rose accused him of malpractice and ruined his business - unfortunately, little did she know, that was the look her mother was going for.

They had a gigantic black hole in St. Olaf - on Main Street, right in front of the courthouse where Rose and her then-fiancee Charlie got their marriage license (and their permit to have kids). It was a lovely hole, everyone in town would stand around and look in it; and not just looking, sometimes they'd point, too!

The first time Rose ever saw the ocean, was on her honeymoon. She and her new husband Charlie drove from Minnesota to New York. Well, actually they were driving to California. They were young and in love, and Rose was blowing in Charlie's ear; he lost his sense of direction on the Turnpike.

Back in 1955, they moved into their first house, right next to Pigpen Johannson. Pigpen had just turned 80, and the town bye-laws made him leave his job teaching drivers' training at the high school (nothing to do with his age - there was an old law on the books about driving with your shirt off).

All of Rose and Charlie's children were conceived on special St. Olaf holidays: Their son Adam, on the day of the Princess Pig, when they had the pig crowning; first daughter Jenella, on Hay Day (that's the day St. Olafians celebrate hay). Then there was the Day of the Wheat, when everybody came into town dressed as sandwiches - Charlie and Rose forgot to put cheese between them, and before they knew it, there was second daughter Kirsten!

They were all born at Cedars of St. Olaf Hospital; also there, was Nurse Gunilla Olfstatter, St. Olaf's very own Angel of Death. One night she was taking care of Sven Bjornsen, and he asked her if she would get him some more mouth moisteners, and then kill him. Gunilla brought the mouth moisteners right away, but the killing thing seemed to go against everything she'd been taught. He begged and he begged and by her coffee break she couldn't stand it anymore; so she pulled the plug, and he died. She was wracked with guilt that night. Not only had she parked her car in a doctor's spot; but she was never sure whether Sven's pleading was the pain talking, or the medication talking, or the guy in the next bed talking. The guy in the next bed was Ingmar von Bergen - St. Olaf's meanest ventriloquist... Sven came back to haunt Gunilla since then, every Tuesday night at 10 (9 Central).

Youngest daughter Bridget was delivered by The Amazing Shapiro, St. Olaf's most famous OB-MAG (Obstetrician-Magician). "It's a girl!" "Now it's a dove!" "Now it's a glass of milk!" Rose and Charlie never knew how he got her in that deck of cards, but there she was - right after the King of Hearts. "Is this your baby?"

A cautionary tale that helped Rose in parenthood, was that of farmer Nils Nibelung. He had a pig named Brunhilde, and she won all the blue ribbons at all the county fairs; Nils also had a daughter named Fricka, and she won red ribbons (usually as runner-up to the pig). One April, Nils decided to breed Brunhilde. He chose April because that's when pigs are at their most beautiful and desirable. Unfortunately, so was Fricka. So while Brunhilde and the pig were doing their thing, Fricka and the local pig breeder were doing theirs. When Nils heard about it, he banished Fricka from his house and his life forever.After a while he lost interest in the pig's company, and he ate her; and he died St. Olaf's loneliest man.

Later in life, Rose was nominated for St. Olaf's Woman of the Year - the highest honour there is. The year before, Gretchen Lillehammer had won for running into the burning library and saving all the books - she took two books in one hand, one in the other, and ran like the dickens!

And after Rose retired to Miami, a series of her artworks was hung in a local museum - a proud day, since none of her relatives ever hung in a museum (Her uncle Gustav hung in the barn, when he discovered his horse had defeated him for Water Commissioner).

Sadly, though, Rose missed her High School Reunion that year. The precision drill team just wasn't the same without her - they could only spell out "St. Oaf".

And, just like them, we'll miss you, Rose.

(The preceding rabbelbabbel was written for the late great Betty White to say, by Kathy Speer, Terry Grossman, Mort Nathan, Barry Fanaro, Marc Sotkin, Richard Vaczy, Tracy Gamble, Marc Cherry, Mitchell Hurwitz and Christopher Lloyd).


About the author

Stephen Stevie Cole




Tarot reader

Attracted to magic both practical & impractical

Writer of short stories and philosophical musings

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