Friday, September 24, 2010

The Geography of Fiction

Recently, my fiancee Jenny purchased two seasons of Roseanne, the sassy 90s TV program. I'll admit that I watched once-upon-a-time but didn't really recall much about it. I'm sure you've all seen it, but if you havn't, go back and watch it again. It accurately portrays life in the barren, semi-rural Illinois town of Lanford1.

And, being the nerd I am, this is where I run into questions of fictitious geography. Now, I understand creative interpretation, and I also understand that Lanford is an amalgam of similar, real-life Midwestern communities. But the nerd in me won't let the concept go that Lanford is supposed to be a pseudonym for a real place. Being that I'm possibly from the area where the Connors reside(d), I thought I'd take a crack at it.

What we know about Lanford2:

A) Dan Connor played football, which typically is only played at larger high schools. As such, it should be safe to assume that the city in question has at least 5000 residents3.

B) Dan Connor is seen to read [fictional] newspapers with titles referring to DeKalb County and Sycamore.

C) The town is approximately 90 minutes from Rockford.

D) The town is approximately 1 hour from Elgin

E) The town is approximately 5 hours to Iowa, although this is never clarified which part of IA, so this is kind of a moot point. If they mean the Quad Cities, then none of their travel times makes sense (which is pretty apparent anyway).

F) The town is approximately 2 hours from Chicago4.

Here are my list of possible cities; the reasons for and against each will be displayed below:

1) Canton, IL
2) Ottawa, IL
3) Sandwich, IL
4) Woodstock, IL or Huntley, IL
5) Elburn, IL
6) Sycamore, IL

1) This is drawn from a direct reference when the area is given as "Fulton County," where Canton is the biggest city5. However, a quick Google maps search will tell you that Rockford and Chicago are each 3+ hours from anywhere in Fulton County.

2) Ottawa fits pretty nicely into some parts of the travel time. It is roughly 90 minutes to both Rockford and Chicago, although it's nearly 2 hours to Elgin from there.

3) Sandwich again fits nicely into the travel times picture, like Ottawa. It's 70 minutes to Elgin and 90 minutes to Rockford, although only about 80-90 minutes to Chicago. Most of Sandwich is in DeKalb County.

4) Woodstock/Huntley are about 90 minutes to Chicago, an hour to Rockford and 45 minutes to Elgin. The times are a little short, so Woodstock may be a little too far north?

5) Elburn may be a little close to the suburbs, as it's only 40 minutes to Elgin and 70 minutes to Chicago. It's also 75 minutes to Rockford. Elburn is near but not in DeKalb County. Also, it is a small city, but several nearby towns form Kaneland High School, which sports a football team.

6) Sycamore runs a little on the short side, too, with 90 minutes to Chicago, 45 to Elgin, and an hour to Rockford. It is, however, related to the aforementioned newspaper and is the county seat of DeKalb County.

So there you have it. Keep in mind that the travel times don't really seem to balance anywhere that makes sense. Any place that's 2 hours from Chicago, 1 hour from Elgin, and 90 minutes from Rockford is most certainly not in DeKalb County and probably doesn't really exist at all.

Dear readers, I ask for your input. What city is Lanford, Illinois, supposed to be? (Comment below with your answer)

1 Lanford is commonly referred to as "the suburbs" in Web-related materials, which is pretty odd. I guess it depends on your definition of suburb.

2 While I'm familiar with some tenants of Roseanne, I got some help from this forum topic, which I consider inconclusive, on a Blues Brothers message board, of all places.

3 There are exceptions to this of course. Kirkland High School is very small yet has a football team. Also, Earlville High School in rural Illinois once had a football program.

4 Another episode claims that Lanford is halfway between Rockford and Chicago, which is actually pretty close to Elgin. So that doesn't make a damn bit of sense.

5 This comes from a radio report claiming a tornado is ravaging the county or something.


  1. I still say this is supposed to be Sandwich because in the episode with Loretta Lynn, they have that huge fair. Also, that episode where Dan is selling hot tubs at a fair.

  2. It's been couple years, but I do remember that early episodes of Roseanne were pretty good, due mostly to John Goodman and, as you said, the portrayal of the lower middle class of the Midwest. It was like looking into a mirror from our living room...

    Other factors include: Lanford had a mall and a factory that made plasticware(Roseanne's place of employment in the first season)

    I think Lanford is a mythical place. It's a hick version of Valhallah(sp?). Probably a slice of all the places you've listed into a stereotypical town.

  3. The plastics factory is interesting and could be a nod to Plano Molding.

    I agree that it's a fictional mash-up of every town from Rt. 47 and on west to the Mississippi. I mostly just want to know where it is, but TV writers aren't really concerned about geographic consistency.

    Oh, well.

  4. All I remember about the show is the cooler-than-thou middle daughter and the nerdy boyfriend who is now on The Big Bang Theory.

    Also, I was just in Utica, and I drove right down that street in the picture you linked. They have a bar called Skoogs.

  5. I vote for Sandwich because of the fair references and the Plano molding factory but it probably is a slice of each of those places. Did you know that John Goodman actually went fishing at Shabbona Lake State Park once?

  6. I don't know what town Lanford is supposed to be, but I do recall an episode where Darlene wanted to see a concert at the MetroCentre, but her parents thought it was in a bad part of town (?). I could be wrong about that last part, but I do recall something about Rockford and how it's gross. Hooray!

  7. WOW! YOu have done some serious research! I knew it was supposed to be set in the northern IL area but I didn't know that you were narrowing it down so far.

  8. Despite all the smoke and mirrors, Lanford is definitely Rockford.
    Rockford is one of the most totally screwed up places ever....
    it was once known as "The Screw Capital of the World" because
    when, long ago, there were actual JOBS to be had, they made
    tons of metal fasteners (as Rockford's wisemen deemed them).

    Roseanne would've known what a hell hole Rockford was...
    Newsweek labeled it "the most racist city in the U.S. because
    of the demonic school system... oh yeah, Lanford is RKFD IL.