The Springfield that exists in the mind of Matt Groening is a kind of American everything — hick pit stop, rosy-cheeked Rockwellian font of family values, cesspool of corruption, ethnic melting pot, boomtown gone to rust.
It’s what the creator of “The Simpsons,” the nation’s longest-running sitcom, used as a backdrop for 22-minute allegories about the American experience, beginning as earnest tales about a lower-middle class nuclear family and expanding to encompass spoofs of presidential elections, the obesity epidemic and “Citizen Kane.”
It’s also, according to an interview posted online Tuesday, a real place. “Springfield was named after Springfield, Ore.,” Groening told Smithsonian magazine.
The inspiration, Groening explained, came when he was a child watching the TV show “Father Knows Best,” set in a town called Springfield. Groening said he was thrilled to imagine the show was based in Springfield, Ore., 100 miles south of his hometown of Portland.
“When I grew up, I realized it was just a fictitious name,” Groening said. “I also figured out that Springfield was one of the most common names for a city in the U.S.
“In anticipation of the success of the show, I thought, ‘This will be cool; everyone will think it’s their Springfield,'” he said. “And they do.”
The acknowledgement ends one of the longest-running mysteries in popular culture. But people in town on Tuesday weren’t quite sure what to do with the information.
“He did?” asked convenience store manager Denise Pohrman. “I think that’s a good thing. I think.”
But how should the town react? On the surface, it’s not a flattering portrait. Groening’s Springfield is polluted and sad, run by corrupt officials and beset by the simpleminded populace that keeps voting for them.
Embrace it, Pohrman said.
“There’s the stuffy part of history, and then there’s the trivia,” Pohrman said. “Everybody needs some fun.”
The series has been on the air for 22 years, becoming the longest-running American sitcom, the longest-running American animated program and a cultural phenomenon with colleges devoting courses to studying it.
The real Springfield is a western Oregon town of about 60,000 people. Its’ quiet Main Street is struggling in the face of a recession while the highway-based chain stores and restaurants survive or thrive. Its median income is just under $40,000 and nearly 20 percent of people of all ages live under the poverty line.
“It took a lot of tenacious people to found Springfield,” Springfield Museum executive director Debra Gruell said. “When the railroad went away, they persevered. The town wouldn’t be here without that.”
Some comparisons do hold true. Just as the fictional Springfield endures the hate hoots of rival Shelbyville, the real Springfield, Ore., must contend with larger — and wealthier — Eugene, Ore., home to the University of Oregon and the recipient of much of Nike founder Phil Knight’s largesse.
Maybe we should have known all along, said Wayne Jones, a 28-year-old clerk at the Bright Oak Meats in downtown Springfield. Jones has long argued that Oregon’s Springfield is the true inspiration for Groening’s invention.
For one, there’s the statue of an unnamed man astride a horse in downtown, just as the fictional Springfield features a memorial to founder Jebediah Springfield (nee Hans Sprungfeld) in its town square.
And people living near the now-shuttered Trojan Nuclear Power Plant near Prescott, Ore., have always considered the site to be the real counterpart to the fictional Springfield power plant.
The fictional town’s true location has been a secret so long, even the jokes about its secrecy are old. In one, the show runners had a narrator give one location in a voiceover for the live broadcast, then change it in reruns. In “The Simpsons Movie,” one character says the fictional state borders Ohio, Nevada, Maine and Kentucky.
Groening said he has long given fake answers when asked about the Simpsons’ hometown, leaving open the possibility that his latest one is itself another fake.
Until Tuesday, Portland, Ore., provided the most likely inspiration for the Simpsons’ hometown. Many of the names of characters on the show — Flanders, Quimby, Kearney — are streets in Portland.
Groening visited during a tour before the 2007 film “The Simpsons Movie.” Back then, tiny Springfield, Vt., beat out 13 other like-named cities, including the one in Oregon, to host the movie premiere. The cities submitted videos meant to connect themselves to the fictional Springfield.
Maybe the town can use this — real leverage — to its advantage, said frozen-yogurt store co-owner Jack Kohler.
“A few years ago, the downtown had a reputation as a scary place,” Kohler said. “Now, the strip joints are gone, the place is coming back. If they’re smart, they’ll have a Simpsons month, they’ll build statues to them kids can sit in, they’ll have characters during the Art Walk.
“This is an opportunity to really make this place explode. If they don’t do that, they blew it.”
With time, Springfield, Ore., will return to its place as Oregon’s ninth-largest city, a place of relative anonymity in the Willamette Valley sandwiched between the state’s largest university and its biggest city.
But for a day, the creator of one of the most enduring fictional examples of Anyplace, U.S.A., let this real one stand out.
Credit: The Associated Press