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In Lake Wobegon country, mixed feelings at Keillor news

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Former cafe owner Bud Heidgerken, center, chats with other patrons.
Former Charlie's Cafe owner Bud Heidgerken, center, chats with two other patrons Thursday morning.
Kirsti Marohn | MPR News

You can't miss Charlie's Cafe in Freeport, with its yellow-and-red sign declaring itself right there in the middle of Main Street.

It's a comfortable spot where you can sit at the counter and eat a fresh caramel roll. The waitress greets regulars by name. The walls are decorated with framed photos and mementos from "A Prairie Home Companion." The coffee is hot and unlimited.

The name on the sign is Charlie's, but for fans of Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion" radio show, this is the Chatterbox Cafe.

On Wednesday, Minnesota Public Radio's parent company cut its ties with Keillor and his show — and the feeling around Freeport the next morning was mixed. People said they were surprised, incredulous — and most didn't know exactly what to think, when high-profile misconduct cases in the headlines come home.

Bud Heidgerken used to own Charlie's — he sold it to the current owners a few years ago. Keillor, he said, was a regular at the cafe during the early years of his career. He'd come in and head for a booth in the back.

"He would sit there and take notes," Heidgerken said. "And you knew doggone well he was spinning stories in his mind off of what these guys were talking about."

Charlie's is believed to be the inspiration for Keillor's Chatterbox Cafe, the heartbeat of his fictional Lake Wobegon. And Freeport is one of at least three Minnesota towns that claims to be the inspiration for Lake Wobegon, whose name has become shorthand for an innocent and nostalgic small-town life.

"He picked up those stories and he kind of invented that small-town America, which is really no place," Heidgerken said. "But it was someplace around here, because this is where he grew up ... in writing."

Charlie's Cafe in Freeport was the inspiration for the Chatterbox Cafe.
Charlie's Cafe in Freeport is said to be the inspiration for the Chatterbox Cafe in Garrison Keillor's fictional Lake Wobegon.
Kirsti Marohn | MPR News

The Minnesota Public Radio announcement Wednesday came after allegations of what the company calls "inappropriate behavior" surfaced. Its parent company, American Public Media, will end rebroadcasts of old "Prairie Home Companion" episodes and will no longer distribute Keillor's "Writer's Almanac." Company leaders did not detail the nature of the claims against Keillor.

The news came as a surprise to Heidgerken, a former state representative who has appeared on stage with the radio host.

"I'm hoping for the best because I know Garrison. I never saw anything like that in him," he said. "He treated everybody respectfully."

Over a plate of fried eggs and bacon, Bob Mueller said he's a big fan of a "Prairie Home Companion," and has a lot of respect for Keillor. But he acknowledged it's a complicated situation given the little information available.

"I feel a little bit of sadness both for the person bringing the [claims] and for him too, because he's had a long career and you don't know exactly what the truth is," Mueller said.

It's that not-knowing that has made some people in Freeport uneasy. It's complicated. While company leaders at MPR have declined to go into detail, in an email to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Keillor wrote: "I put my hand on a woman's bare back. I meant to pat her back after she told me about her unhappiness and her shirt was open and my hand went up it about six inches. 

"She recoiled. I apologized. I sent her an email of apology later and she replied that she had forgiven me and not to think about it. We were friends. We continued to be friendly right up until her lawyer called." 

The Lake Wobegon Trail runs through Freeport.
The Lake Wobegon Trail runs through Freeport and several other Stearns County cities, on Nov. 30, 2017.
Kirsti Marohn | MPR News

Later, in a message to MPR News, he indicated that two employees had raised questions about his behavior. However, late Thursday, MPR spokesperson Angie Andresen told the Associated Press that there is "a formal complaint from an individual that includes multiple allegations related to Garrison's behavior."

"I just think it's a shame that somebody cannot comfort a friend without making it look like it's bad," Freeport postmaster Elaine Beuning said. 

Beuning's post office sits right next to Charlie's Cafe. And she said there's a lot of respect for Keillor in Freeport. Unless more allegations against him come out, she said, she doesn't think that will change.

Just across the street, the Lake Wobegon Trail cuts through the yard of the Swany White Flour Mill. 

Gary Thelen, the mill's third-generation owner, agreed with Beuning's take.

"There's so many people who ride on that trail — bikes, you know whatever — every day in the summertime," he said. "There's people just flying by. I don't think it's going to stop them from doing that."