In search of St. Olaf, a real Minnesota township and fictitious hometown of Betty White on 'Golden Girls'
Is the town made famous by Betty White's character on "The Golden Girls" in Otter Tail County?
ST. OLAF, Minn. — Any fan of "The Golden Girls" will tell you some of the funniest moments from the very funny sitcom came when Betty White, as Rose Nylund, launched into one of her many St. Olaf stories.
"Back in St. Olaf ..." the stories would begin, and not end until Dorothy, Sophia or Blanche were in full eye roll over Rose's nutty, Norsk anecdotes of life in the Northland.
We all know there's a St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, but does the town of St. Olaf, Minnesota, really exist?
"St. Olaf Township is a real place, definitely," Deanna Mounts says.
And she should know. She’s lived here for 47 years, and her husband Tim is the township president. She’s Swedish "on both sides," so by law she has to scoff at the mere prideful suggestion that she’s St. Olaf’s first lady.
But is this township really the origin of all of those “back in St. Olaf” stories Rose would share over cheesecake in the kitchen with the other girls — the capital of Scandinavian silliness where you’d grab a bite to eat at Big Sven and Little Sven’s Smoked Herring Hoagie House after a spirited game of Whack-a-Noggin?
We’ll get to that in a minute, but first, here’s what we do know.
St. Olaf Township was founded in 1869 as Oxford Township, but the following year, its name was changed to St. Olaf after King Olaf II of Norway. With a population of 476, it’s located in Otter Tail County in west-central Minnesota.The towns of Ashby and Dalton are the closest towns of any size. It’s in the heart of Lakes Country, adding at least six major lakes to Minnesota’s tally of more than 10,000.
On a recent warm January day — it’s 34 degrees — the calm and quiet beauty is undeniable. From the frosty branches on the oak trees to the snow-covered rolling hills dotted with dairy farms, it looks like we stumbled onto the set of a Hallmark Christmas movie.
"It's a great place to live. It's beautiful. Lots of good fishing, hunting. And I'd like to emphasize the good, good people that live in this community," Deanna says.
The kind of people who’d give you the shirt off their backs right after a good, long visit over coffee and caramel rolls. And it is beautiful here. But we must know — is this really the St. Olaf talked about on "The Golden Girls?"
“I'm not 100% certain that this is the place that Betty White was making reference to, but it might have been. Yeah, it's very likely," she says.
To figure it out for sure, it might help to go to YouTube and listen to the dozens of St. Olaf stories Rose shared over the run of the show from 1985 to 1992.
Here are just a few of the stories Rose told about her hometown over the years:
- Every Easter, they’d drink eggnog while wearing cast iron brassieres.
- The "St. Olaf Milk Diving Tournament" was started when her cousin Enid fell into a vat at the dairy.
- There’s a giant black hole in front of the town courthouse and a big mountain at the edge of town.
- The Lindstroms and the Johansons came to blows over "The Great Herring War" because the Lindstroms wanted to pickle the herring and the Johansons wanted to train them for the circus.
- Rose’s lifelong dream of being named St. Olaf Butter Queen was squashed when someone tampered with her butter churn.
"No, St. Olaf township does not have a big black hole," Deanna says. "And we don't have a mountain that I know of. I'm not sure that there was a herring war. I do know people love herring in this township. But you know, we do have a dairy princess contest."
She would know all about that, too. Both of her daughters, Christa and Lisa, were titleholders.
Lisa Mounts DeKrey was the 1997 West Otter Tail County Dairy Princess who went on to compete for Princess Kay of the Milky Way at the Minnesota State Fair.
She's all grown up now and working in banking in Alexandria, but she met us at the Dalton Corner Store where, believe it or not, the butter sculpture made of her head 25 years ago is still stored. (It helps that her brother-in-law owns the place. He also stores Christa's butter head.)
Lisa was nice enough to pose beside her head that is just a little worse for wear these days.
"As you can see, the nose is now removable. My sister dropped a steak on the nose, and so now it pops off. But after all these years, it's still in pretty good shape," she says.
Lisa, a self-proclaimed huge "Golden Girls" fan, says she completely understands why Rose dreamed of being a butter or dairy princess. Lisa was named Miss Congeniality and first runner-up at the state fair.
"Honestly, it was such an honor to make it and to have your bust carved in butter. It sounds crazy now and it's become a joke at work, but it's still something I'm very proud of," she says.
As to Rose’s claim that churn tampering cost her the crown?
"There was no churn tampering," Lisa says with a big laugh.
Mostly because they didn’t have to churn anything. Still, Lisa says Rose would have been the perfect titleholder.
"Rose would have been a great dairy princess. And I know they had a lot of fun with her on the show, but I think she highlighted a lot of the goodness and the heart of the people of St. Olaf Township, and it's OK to be innocent and it's OK to be silly. It's OK to be lighthearted, and fun-loving. Those are all great attributes," Lisa says.
I think most of us have learned to kind of take the jokes, you know, with a grain of salt. But yet we also laugh along with her because they're funny.
So, it’s pretty clear St. Olaf’s 1997 dairy princess is a fan of Rose, the would-be dairy princess of 1939. But does she ever take offense at the way "The Golden Girls" portrayed her hometown?
"I don't get offended at the lightheartedness and the way they poke fun at St. Olaf Township, because I think it was just as much about Betty White's personality or her character on the show as it was about the area," Lisa says. "But let's be honest, we've all chased pigs. We've all had Jell-O with fruit and vegetables in it at the same time with a dollop of sour cream on top. And we've all eaten every hotdish under the sun. So, some of it's true."
"I think most of us have learned to kind of take the jokes, you know, with a grain of salt. But yet we also laugh along with her because they're funny," she says.
And that’s just what White would have wanted. She visited Minnesota’s St. Olaf College in Northfield in 1992.
She later said this to St. Olaf Magazine:
“I remember my visit to St. Olaf very well. I was a little apprehensive, as I was afraid they would resent the fact that Rose wasn’t the brightest bulb in the chandelier, but they couldn’t have been warmer and more welcoming. To this day I have my Uff Da cup and shirt.”
I remember my visit to St. Olaf very well. I was a little apprehensive, as I was afraid they would resent the fact that Rose wasn’t the brightest bulb in the chandelier, but they couldn’t have been warmer and more welcoming. To this day I have my Uff Da cup and shirt
And if you’re not convinced that St. Olafians are truly flattered and not offended by any possible negative portrayal of St. Olaf, consider this: Deanna chose to bake a cake for Betty’s 100th birthday, a birthday she missed by just 17 days. The cake is one Rose herself loved to bake.
Something called a Genurken-flürken or Genurkenflürgen, but who the heck knows how Rose would spell it since, by all accounts, it's a fictional cake?
The recipe can be found online at Is Butter a Carb? The recipe is also printed below, with a few changes.
Deanna and husband Tim recently sat down in the dining room of their nearly 100-year-old farmhouse in St. Olaf with longtime friends John and Michelle Lindquist to sing "Happy Birthday," visit and enjoy the rich and dense Scandinavian almond cake.
The question of whether St. Olaf Township is the St. Olaf of "Golden Girls" fame doesn’t really matter, does it? Betty White or Rose Nylund — they’re kind of one and the same around here — will always be considered an honorary citizen of St. Olaf Township in Otter Tail County.
And as Rose herself might say, that’s worthy of blowing her own vertügen-flügen.
Try Genurken-flürken cake
Rose Nylund (Betty White) claims her Genurken-flürken cake is based on an ancient recipe, but she modernized it for the ‘80s. The name of the cake featured on "The Golden Girls" is most likely fictional, but an enterprising "Golden Girls" fan created a recipe for it at Is Butter a Carb ?
The cake is very similar to other dense almond Scandinavian pound cakes. Super yummy, it's a great dessert with ice cream, at a coffee break or even for breakfast.
The Forum made a couple of changes to the blog recipe, based upon feedback of those who tried it the first time around. On the second attempt, we added a little more almond extract, cream and sliced almonds on top. We also decreased the baking time from one hour to 40 to 50 minutes to prevent the cake from drying out.
Whichever version you try, as Rose might say, "Uff-da, it's good!"
Rose Nylund's Genurken-flürken Cake
Makes: 24 servings
2 sticks of butter, room temperature
1 1/3 cups sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon almond extract
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup almond or coconut flour (if you don’t have these flours, increase total amount of all-purpose flour to 2 1/2 cups)
6 large eggs, room temperature
For the glaze:
2 cups powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ teaspoon almond extract
½ cup heavy cream (use more for a runnier glaze)
Sliced almonds (optional)
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Spray a Bundt pan or angel food cake pan with cooking spray, or butter and flour it.
Mix butter until it's slightly fluffy. Add sugar, salt, baking powder and extracts. Mix until combined.
Add flours, and mix until it reaches a crumbly consistency. Add in eggs, 1 at a time, until the batter is smooth. If the batter looks too thick, add a teaspoon of milk or cream.
Pour cake batter into pan and put on middle rack of the oven. Check after 40 minutes if a toothpick comes out cleanly. If not, give the cake another 5 to 15 minutes. I baked my cake for 50 minutes and wished I had taken it out a bit earlier.
Once the cake is done, let it cool for at least an hour on a cooling rack. While cooling, make the glaze by mixing all ingredients except the almonds. Once the glaze is at the consistency you like, pipe or drizzle it over the cake. Add almonds for decoration.
— Recipe altered by Forum reporter Tracy Briggs from Is Butter a Carb.