Saturday, June 18, 2011

Manufactured Nostalgia: "The Town That Never Was" and "The Tiny Town that Time Forgot"

A recent article by Heather Cox Richardson in The Historical Society centered on a model maker named Michael Paul Smith, who has used sophisticated modeling and photographic techniques to create an entirely fictitious town called Elgin Park.

Fig. 1: A downtown scene of Elgin Park (photo courtesy of
 In a detailed explanation of his fine craftsmanship, Mr. Smith commented on his influence for Elgin Park:

"My fictional scale-model town of Elgin Park is based on my hometown of Sewickley, Pennsylvania. I have no idea where the name Elgin Park came from, but it feels right. For me, it conjures up the essence of  “Small Town.” It also says stability; a bit isolated but not desolate. Family. Unlocked doors. Home. Sewickley itself is only one square mile and touches the Ohio River. Granted, every town has its secrets and skeletons, but when you walk down those tree-lined streets and hear the train whistles echoing off the hills along the river, everything seems OK. It's that Ok-ness I try to capture in my models and photographs."

Mr. Smith believes that by taking a "less is more" approach, he can allow the viewer to project themselves into the image without bombarding them with too much detail or any people. The photography of his landscape creates a "snapshot" feel to everything, allowing the viewer to walk themselves down Main Street to the corner drugstore.

Fig. 2: Smith adjusting a Studebaker to the curb outside this ideal home (photo courtesy of
This brilliant use of art to create a three-dimensional and fictional small town U.S.A. reminded me of another person who does practically the same thing...except with his voice.

Garrison Keillor, the host of A Prairie Home Companion has a weekly monologue where in a voice similar to an elder neighbor, he informs you of the recent goings-on in a fictional town called Lake Wobegon, Minnesota. A place often called "The Tiny Town that Time Forgot."
Mr. Keillor combines nostalgic prose and light-hearted humor to bring the listener on an audio journey to Lake Wobegon where they soon feel as though they are right at home. Mr. Keillor, like Mr. Smith uses a "less is more" approach when it comes to some of the buildings, churches and vehicles in Lake Wobegon, but fully develops his human characters with a skill that rarely requires different voice inflections when switching between them in conversation. Rather than carefully arranging 1951 Studebakers and Dad's shiny red Datsun on a sun-kissed Main Street, Mr. Keillor talks about certain hotspots in Lake Wobegon like the Chatterbox Cafe, the Lake Wobegon Lutheran Church and the Sidetrack Tap to bring more "reality" to his stories.
Fig. 3: Keillor delivering a monologue
Part of the popularity of Mr. Keillor's monologues stems from the fact that he delivers them live to an audience without the use of a script or teleprompting device. 
Each monologue famously ends with, "Well that's the news from Lake Wobegon where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking and all the children are above average." In that one sign-off, Keillor evokes the pristine of a small-town that is not at all extravagant, nor comprised of larger-than-life characters but more importantly that everyone seems to be taking care of themselves and each other.

Mr. Smith's models and Mr. Keillor's narratives have the ability to transport their audience into a place they've never been, nor will ever visit and thus is the beauty of art and storytelling. Their creative efforts are important for historians to consider. All humans have a way of understanding the experiences of a large community, through storytelling and shared experiences, we are able to learn how we can relate to each other in the past and present.

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