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By David BeersPhotographs by Nina Berman

Fargo, the 1996 movie, was filled with quirky characters and lots of snow. The film got the snow right, but North Dakota's largest city has a personality all its own.

Read or print the full article.

If you saw the movie Fargo, you remember the impossibly flat whiteness. But what you don't remember is Fargo itself, for not a frame was shot here. And so you may not know that Fargo is a city of 91,000 people with another 33,000 just across the Red River in Moorhead, Minnesota. Or that freight trains rumble and moan through the low-slung downtown day and night. Or that within one zip code, 58102, there is a medical center that broadcasts robotic surgeries, a historic Broadway being restored to former glory, and a library where young refugees from Bosnia, Sudan, and Somalia crowd around computer screens, catching up on news from home.

What Fargo did get right is the friendly tenacity of Fargoans, says Kristin Rudrüd, an actress who played the kidnapped wife in the film and who lives here with her ten-year-old daughter. "That spirit of pressing on, one foot in front of the other, with a good heart," is how Fargoans get through their winters, she says. "People seem to obey the Scandinavian concept of janteloven. It means, basically, 'Don't show off.' "

When Fargo captivated moviegoers with its "Ya! You betcha!" heartland stereotypes in 1996, Fargo responded with an ironic wink. Residents wore their goofiest ear-flapped caps for an Academy Awards gala held downtown at the Fargo Theatre. The national news media arrived to get in on the joke. But Margie Bailly, who runs the 1926 art deco theater, had the last laugh. Drawing all that attention to her faded gem of a movie palace attracted more funding to restore it.

Weeks later, as a particularly nasty winter melted into a flood, the news media was back. With friendly tenacity and no showing off, Fargoans filled and set 3.5 million sandbags to defy the swollen Red River. Dennis Walaker, the bear-size director of Fargo Public Works, emerged as a local hero.

Fargoans do not coddle their heroes. When 80-year-old Ruth Urang catches sight of Walaker on the street, she lets him have it: "Tell your road crews to stop tossing these economy-size hunks of ice on my walk." Only after Walaker promises, and is out of earshot, does Urang say, "He saved the city. If it weren't for him, we'd all be nine feet (three meters) under." 

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In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
The term janteloven (pronounced yanta-loavin) was coined in 1933 by the Danish-Norwegian author Aksel Sandemose. That was the year his novel En flyktning krysser sitt spor  (A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks) was published. The story takes place in an imaginary Danish town called Jante, based on Sandemose's hometown of Nykøbing Mors, where a series of ten laws—janteloven, meaning "Jante law"—dictate social modesty. Sandemose did not create the roots of janteloven, but simply gave a name to a long-standing feature of Scandinavian society: an unspoken code of behavior based on the idea that "Thou shalt not believe thou art special."

The Scandinavian mentality that is now referred to as janteloven (jantelagen in Swedish) has been criticized by some as promoting mediocrity. Others have praised its egalitarian philosophy. Despite the controversy, this phenomenon has been thoroughly ingrained in Scandinavian society for centuries. Emphasis on social modesty can even be traced back to the Viking era. A passage from the great Norse code of morality attributed to Odin, called Hávamál (The Speech of the High One), can be translated as "Let no man glory in the greatness of his mind, but rather keep watch o'er his wits."

—Tiffany Dean
Did You Know?

Related Links
The Law of Jante in Swedish Society
An American's perspective on the Swedish mentality.
Historic Fargo Theatre
Learn about the 77-year-old theater's rich architectural and film history, take a photo tour, and browse the schedule of festivals, workshops, live performances, and classic films.
The Fargo Flood Home Page
Why is the Red River so vulnerable to flooding? View flood hydrographs, floodplain maps, and a photographic archive of Red River floods dating from 1897.
The Brainerd Daily Dispatch
"Here's where we tell ya about 'Fargo da movie,' " with links to movie reviews, plus editorials and commentaries revolving around the city of Brainerd, Minnesota, and its role in the film Fargo.
Visiting Fargo
Explore Fargo at a glance with links to the visitor's bureau, weather, transportation, media, sports, shopping, entertainment, and more. Check out the Moving to Fargo page for info on schools, jobs, and quality of life.
City Guide for Fargo, North Dakota
Find lodging, dining, maps, and a plethora of attractions including historic sites, museums, parks, and vineyards.


Olsen, W. Scott. Meeting the Neighbors: Sketches of Life on the Northern Prairie. North Star Press of St. Cloud, Inc., 1993.

Rojas, Mauricio. The Historical Roots of the Swedish Socialist Experiment. Stockholm Network, 1996.

Snortland, J. Signe, ed. A Traveler's Companion to North Dakota State Historic Sites, 2nd ed. State Historical Society of North Dakota, North Dakota Heritage Center, 2002.

Strom, Claire, and David Danbom. Fargo, North Dakota: 1870-1940 (Images of America). Arcadia, 2002.


NGS Resources
O'Gara, Geoffrey, "Grandma's Attic," National Geographic Traveler (November/December 1996), 112.

O'Gara, Geoffrey, "Tribute to Talent," National Geographic Traveler (March/April 1989), 114-16.

Hodgson, Bryan, "Tough Times on the Prairie—North Dakota," National Geographic (March 1987), 320-47.

Borah, Leo A. "North Dakota Comes Into Its Own," National Geographic (September 1951), 283-322.


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