Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

More from Decorah, Iowa, my “new” favorite historic town July 26, 2013

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The Blue Heron Knittery is housed in this historic building.

The Blue Heron Knittery is housed in this historic building.

FOR SOMEONE LIKE ME who delights in historic buildings, the northeastern Iowa river town of Decorah offers an ideal destination for viewing an abundance of aged architecture.

If you're of Norwegian ancestry, which I'm not, you'll especially enjoy Decorah. Be ware the trolls and gnomes.

If you’re of Norwegian ancestry, which I’m not, you’ll especially enjoy Decorah. Be ware the trolls and gnomes.

But downtown Decorah is about so much more. It’s about Norwegians and shopping and a river town with a distinct personality. This weekend, July 25 – 27, Decorah celebrates its annual Nordic Fest. Click here to learn more.

That said, here’s Part III in my photo tour of downtown Decorah:

Numerous buildings feature sweet little balconies.

Numerous buildings feature sweet little balconies.

A side street off the main route through downtown.

A side street off the main route through downtown.

Lovely signage...

Lovely signage…

So much variation in building design and height.

So much variation in building design and height.

Love this original signage on the old screen door that bangs behind you at

Love this original signage on the old screen door that bangs behind you at La Rana, a charming restaurant.

Vanberia, where you can shop for all things Norwegian.

Vanberia, where you can shop for all things Norwegian.

Norwegian art in the entry to

This art, in the entry of the Westby-Torgerson Education Center, celebrates the Norwegian heritage.

I noticed Santa in this second story window.

I noticed Santa in this second story window.

Shopping for antiques in the basement of Eckheart Gallery.

Shopping for antiques and collectibles in the basement of Eckheart Gallery.

Windowboxes abound.

Windowboxes abound.

Look close for remnants of the past.

Look close for remnants of the past.

Sweet architecture.

Sweet architecture.

FYI: Click here to view a previous downtown post. Click here to view a post on Storypeople. And click here to see a local favorite ice cream spot, The Whippy Dip, which is near downtown.

Watch for more posts from Decorah.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Appreciating the beautiful craftsmanship of a Minnesota church December 23, 2012

A snippet of the pews and beautiful stained glass window.

A snippet of the pews and beautiful stained glass windows.

THE PEWS ARC in graceful curves in this holy house where the muted grey gloom of a December afternoon filters through the western wall of stained glass windows.

Just another interior view, looking toward the balcony.

Just another interior view, looking toward the balcony.

Dark wood fills this place. If not for the glorious side windows and the stained glass dome, darkness would prevail.

Focusing on the altar area and the eastern stained glass window.

Focusing on the altar area and the eastern stained glass windows.

Like so many churches in my southeastern Minnesota community, Fourth Avenue United Methodist Church in Faribault is steeped in history, bathed in beauty. One need only stand within this sanctuary, dedicated in December 1915, to feel the overpowering influence of the past in fine craftsmanship.

The obvious Greek influence in the church architecture.

The obvious Greek influence in the church architecture.

It is humbling to consider the hours devoted with hands-on manual labor to create such a reverent place resembling a Greek temple, particularly noticeable in the exterior stately Tuscan style columns.

I don’t pretend to know much about architecture.

But I do recognize beauty.

Looking up at a Christmas star suspended from the center stained glass dome.

Looking up at a Christmas star suspended from the center stained glass dome.

Three sets of heavy wooden doors lead into the sanctuary. To read about the Community Christmas Dinner, check my December 17 post.

Three sets of heavy wooden doors lead into the sanctuary. To read about the Fourth Avenue United Methodist Church annual Community Christmas Dinner, check my December 17 post.

Another view of the sanctuary.

Another view of the sanctuary.

Editing tools were applied to this photo of Mary and Joseph, lending a dreamy quality to the image.

Editing tools were applied to this photo of Mary and Joseph, lending a dreamy quality to the image.

I noticed this message posted in a church hallway.

I noticed this message posted in a church hallway.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


The little brick house in Waterville September 14, 2012

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YOUR HOUSE NEEDN’T BE a mansion to impress me.

Just look at this sweet little brick house along Main Street in downtown Waterville.

I’ve never seen a house sandwiched like this, wall-to-wall, between two buildings and tucked into a totally unexpected place.

The owner ducked out of the scene just before I shot this single photo. She loves her home, she said, and that was about it. I didn’t want to overstay my “Can I take a picture of your house?” welcome since she clearly was entertaining guests.

But I really wanted to walk around the fence, right up the brick path and through the front door, just so I could see if the little brick house is as quaint inside as it is outside. And how dark, or light, is it inside that house anyway?

I counted at least four benches where I could sit a spell and chat. Maybe ask about that horse by the fence, the bear bench by the brick wall, how this house came to be, if patrons from the neighboring Corner Bar and Main Street Lounge ever cause problems. You know, stuff like that.


FYI: This ends, for now, my stories from Waterville. To read my first post about this southern Minnesota lakeside community, click here.

To read my second post about a quaint coffee shop, which also serves as a place for local artisans to sell their creations, click here.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Discovering a beachfront style building in Fargo, of all places August 30, 2012

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AMID ALL THE BUILDINGS—most of them mammoth brick structures—that I observed in a one-block walk-around in downtown Fargo, I never expected this one:

The 8th Street Lofts in downtown Fargo house apartments ranging in size from 465 to 1,445 square feet and renting for $560 – $1,800 a month, according to the Loft website.


The rectangles of tangerine orange bursting in brilliant shades next to monotone gray walls set against the complementary soft blue of a summer afternoon sky caused me to pause, mouth agape.

Would you expect this in Fargo? Maybe along an ocean beachfront in Florida or California. But North Dakota?

That just goes to show that any preconceived notions of what buildings belong where can be proven wrong when you happen upon an architectural anomaly like this structure housing 8th Street Lofts.

Honestly, in the bone-chilling cold of a sub-zero, wind-flogging January morning, wouldn’t this cheery color cause you to smile? It would me.

You’ll find brightly-colored buildings in the La Boca neighborhood of Buenos Aires, Argentina. Although primarily a tourist destination today, the area is surrounded by houses with painted sheet walls of different colors. Photo by Miranda Helbling.

The jolting orange shades remind me of the multi-colored buildings photographed by my second daughter in the La Boca barrio of Buenos Aires, Argentina. That rough, working class neighborhood along the banks of the Riachuelo River draws tourists to view the colorful houses built by the early Italian immigrants from cast-off ship building materials—planks, sheet metal and such—and then, as legend goes, painted with left-over paint.

I expect when my daughter saw those jolts-of-color buildings, she, too, stopped, mouth agape.

She failed to tell me, though, that the La Boca neighborhood is a rather dangerous place, especially at night. That figures given street criminals are drawn to tourists.

I wouldn’t expect the same in Fargo.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Pull off Highway 14 & view the historic buildings of Lamberton June 7, 2012

A portion of Lamberton’s Main Street shows this to be a strong agricultural community.

LAMBERTON. Just another small town on the southwestern Minnesota prairie, so you would think if you’re driving on U.S. Highway 14, The Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Highway.

But this community some dozen miles east of Walnut Grove, destination for fans of “The Little House” books and television series, is worth at least a drive-through if not a stop.

I’ll admit that up until my middle brother moved onto acreage north of Lamberton several years ago, I hadn’t spent much time in this town of 822 except to visit an uncle and aunt who once lived and ran a furniture store here.

I still haven’t explored this agricultural community like I should. But I’ve seen enough to know that I need to look more in depth. Let me show you why, via photos I took, mostly along Main Street, during a brief stop two months ago.

The once-popular corner gas station still stands in downtown Lamberton.

Most small towns once had creameries like this one.

Hanzlik Blacksmith Shop, dating to 1895, was gifted to the city and preserved by the local historical society. With the original wood floor and tools, it’s been called “a warehouse of a long ago lost art” by locals. The community celebrates this piece of history with an annual Hot Iron Days, this year set for September 7 – 8.

It’s the old buildings—from the cute corner gas station to the stout brick creamery to the old wood-frame blacksmith shop—that appeal to me. Some 30 miles to the northwest in my hometown of Vesta, which like Lamberton sits in Redwood County, the old buildings are mostly gone. But not in Lamberton. Here you’ll find plenty of historic buildings to please your artist’s eye and your historian’s heart.

Now all I need is someone with keys so I can take you inside these old buildings.

Vintage signs hold a certain historic charm.

The Music Mart supplies most major brands of band and orchestral instruments. Sales staff reach out to 100-plus schools in southern Minnesota, according to online information. Who would expect to find this type of business in a small town of less than 1,000 residents? Not me.

The Lamberton Antique Peddler is a must-see for anyone who is into antiques. This place is packed with merchandise in the former furniture store once operated by my uncle and aunt, Merlin and Iylene.

The Sewing Shoppe next to the creamery. Love the architecture.

An old Farmall is parked next to a building just off Main Street.

“The locker.”

A low-slung brick building, perhaps a former garage, caught my eye.

TO VIEW ANOTHER particularly beautiful building in Lamberton, a former bakery, click here to read a previous post on Minnesota Prairie Roots.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Connecting to God at country churches August 28, 2011

Vista Evangelical Lutheran Church, located at the intersection of Waseca County Roads 20 and 56 northeast of New Richland was built in 1908 and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

DURING THE PAST FEW YEARS, whenever I spot an old country church and have the time to stop and photograph it, I do.

I possess a sincere appreciation for the history, architecture, beauty and art found in these rural houses of worship.

There’s also something about a church in the country that exudes a deep sense of peace not found in a church built in a town and surrounded by homes or businesses, confined by concrete or pavement.

In the country, a church feels more closely connected to God by the sky, the land, the stirring of the wind through the trees, the background buzz of bugs on an end-of-summer day.

Serene. Peaceful. Calm. A certain sense of comfort comes from walking through a country churchyard, through the adjoining cemetery that links to farm fields where congregational forefathers worked the land and, on Sunday mornings, paused to thank God for the blessings bestowed upon them.

A plaque at Vista details the congregation's Swedish roots and history. Early settlers met on a hill north of the current church on August 8, 1858, and signed a constitution.

Most times on these brief visits to country churches, I find the doors locked. It wasn’t always this way. Perhaps even a decade ago, I could have walked inside. But times are different. Worry about theft requires locked doors.

So I can only imagine the sun streaming through stained glass windows, the worn pews, the ornate altar, the frayed rope of the bell pull.

Nearly every old country church features irreplaceable stained glass windows.

As I circle the church exterior, I consider the families that have come together here to celebrate baptisms and marriages and to mourn the loss of loved ones. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

Cornfields snuggle up to Vista's church yard. It's the most beautiful of settings.

Here, standing with my feet planted next to the church next to a corn or soybean field overlooking the picturesque countryside, I can feel the almighty presence of God the Creator as I contemplate words from “Beautiful Savior,” my favorite hymn:

Beautiful Savior, King of creation, Son of God and Son of Man!

Truly I’d love thee, Truly I’d serve thee,

Light of my soul, my joy, my crown.


Fair are the meadows, Fair are the woodlands, Robed in flow’rs of blooming spring;

Jesus is fairer, Jesus is purer,

He makes our sorr’wing spirit sing.

Vista's steeple rises above the countryside as a local landmark.

A lovely grassy area of shade trees lies to the north and west of the Vista church.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Verses one and two of “Beautiful Savior” are from The Lutheran Worship hymnal.


Follow the rainbow to a charming antique store in Belview August 9, 2011

Driving north into Belview, you can't miss Rainbow Antiques, Crafts & Junque.

IF YOU’RE INTO ANTIQUING or architecture or small towns, you’ll want to visit Belview, population 375, four miles off State Highway 19 in southwestern Minnesota.

My husband, Mom and I drove to Belview on a recent Saturday morning to see my Uncle Merlin and Aunt Iylene’s “new” old home along the main drag. We also toured the town, checking out the damage from a July 1 EF-1 tornado. And, lucky us, we happened to be in this Redwood County community on the one day a week that Rainbow Antiques, Crafts & Junque is open.

And let me tell you, Don Gunelson runs one heckuva an antique store with the flair of an artist.

You’ll notice the building right away when you drive or walk Main Street. It’s built of beautiful rainbow brick which, in itself, is worth a stop. I know of at least two other rainbow brick buildings in Redwood County—one in Walnut Grove and the other on a corner in nearby downtown Redwood Falls.

Colorful rainbow bricks comprise the antique shop.

Don directs customers to his store with nicely-done folksy signage. I didn’t ask Don if he created the artwork, but he worked as a graphic designer for a construction magazine before returning to his native Belview from the metro some 10 years ago. He also works part-time at the Belview Post Office.

No matter, the friendly painted farmer in the bib overalls who beckons you inside for a “looksee” will already have you smiling before you stroll through the red doors and plant your feet upon the vintage tongue-and-groove floors in a room the color of butter.

Immediately I noticed the old-style screen door painted a vivid red. It’s a perfect fit for setting the mood of this place. I’ve been in a lot of antique shops in my day, and this one, by far, rates as one of the most inviting with plenty of light streaming in the east-facing windows, merchandise displayed in a way that isn’t cluttered and a down-home atmosphere that makes you feel comfortably at ease.

I poked around for awhile, not as long as I would have liked, though, since my mom was waiting for me back at the aunt and uncle’s house. My husband explored, too, and determined the prices to be reasonable—not too high and not too low.

When I got to the back room, I made the discovery of the day, at least in my opinion. And it wasn’t an antique, collectible or junque. I found Don Gunelson’s “Belview Area Photo Art” displayed on the rear wall. I knew from the signage that I was viewing photos, but they sure didn’t look like photos. So I asked Don to explain.

He takes images of area subjects with an inexpensive camera—the fewer pixels the better—edits the photos on his computer and then prints them on watercolor paper with an ink that is more dye than ink. The result is photo art that resembles watercolor paintings.

I gushed over his creations and told him he needs to get these into a gallery—do an exhibit of his “Belview Area Photo Art.”

Now I’m kicking myself for not buying one of Don’s matted and framed creations because, with prices ranging from $7 to $12.50, they’re a steal.

So there you have it, a charming antique store in downtown Belview with an artist running the place.

FYI: Rainbow Antiques, Crafts & Junque, 103 S. Main, is open from 10 a.m. – 3 p.m. Saturdays. Call (507) 938-4476. Maybe Don will open up the shop if you’re in town on a day other than Saturday.

Ruby red glassware is displayed in a front window. To the right in this photo is the blue Belview water tower.

An example of Don Gunelson's Belview Area Photo Art, an area barn.

Some of the merchandise displayed in the main part of the antique store.

A view across the street through one of the large front windows at Rainbow Antiques.

More Belview Area Photo Art by Don Gunelson.

You'll find plenty of collectibles from the area, including this bird thermometer from Olivia.

This colorful folksy farm family graces the north wall of Rainbow Antiques. This photo was shot looking south on Main Street toward Belview's water tower.

Another view of Rainbow Antiques and Main Street Belview looking south.

Check back for more reasons to visit Belview in a future post.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Zip code 56046 July 26, 2011

THE NEXT TIME YOU’RE traveling Interstate 35 south of Owatonna, instead of whipping by the Hope exit at 70 mph, pull off the freeway and check out this unincorporated community of 120 residents, probably best-known outside of Steele County for Hope Creamery butter.

Unless my husband and I missed the signage, we never saw a sign marking the creamery and simply guessed that the butter-making operation is housed in an old brick creamery on the edge of town next to a farm.

But we discovered several other places of interest after parking our car along the one main road that cuts through Hope. Yes, you need to park your vehicle, get out and walk, rather than simply driving through town thinking, “There’s nothing here.”

You would be wrong, oh, so wrong.

First point of interest: 56046. That would be the Hope Post Office. With a street front facade resembling the general stores of yesteryear or perhaps a building from a western movie set, this old-style structure charms.

The Hope Post Office sits along Main Street. The elevator complex in the background is just across the train tracks.

Take in the details: the red and blue bench, the double front doors, the rock out front, the welcoming porch...

Even the lettering on the front window has old-style charm.

Maybe it doesn’t take much to impress me, but I appreciate buildings with character. I quickly determined that the post office serves as Hope’s community hub. I pulled open the screen door and stepped inside a closet of an entry, the door to the post office to my left, the door to a gift shop to my right. Smack in front of me, I found business cards and signs, church festival notices and other information tacked onto a bulletin board. A clutch of rubber-banded newspapers lay on the floor in front of the post office door.

The community bulletin board inside the post office entry.

A clutch of bundled newspapers outside the locked interior post office door.

From inside the post office entry, a view across the street of the bank and an antique store.

Since I was there on a Sunday afternoon, I had to settle for standing outside, peering through the large, cracked and taped front windows to view the customer service area that is smaller than most bathrooms. But it serves the purpose and I’m sure Hope folks are happy to still have their post office.

I always figure once a community loses its school, its post office and its bank, well then, you may as well close up the town. So far, Hope has only lost its school.

Today the U.S. Postal Service releases a list of 3,600-plus post offices under consideration for possible closure in a cost-cutting effort. I hope Hope is not among them.

Post office hours are listed on a cracked and taped front window.

CHECK BACK FOR MORE posts out of Hope and other area communities I recently visited while on a Sunday afternoon drive. It’s my philosophy that most of us are missing out on the treasures of small-town U.S.A. because we fail to get off the freeways, park our vehicles on Main Street and explore. Either that or we’re “too busy” to slow down and notice the details worth noticing in our small towns.

If anyone knows about the history of the Hope Post Office, submit a comment. I would like to learn more about this building.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


MPR debuts Minnesota architecture series with my submission July 1, 2011

LAST WEEK MINNESOTA Public Radio’s “State of the Arts” blogger Marianne Combs put out a call for photos and stories celebrating the great architecture of Minnesota.

I figured given how much I appreciate old buildings—and that would be considerably—I could submit an entry. But what building would I choose?

I started going through my photo folders in search of an image I considered most worthy of submission. FYI, I even have a folder labeled “architecture.”

Faribault topped my choices since this southeastern Minnesota community, my home since 1982, has many, many buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. And, yes, architecturally, these structures are jewels.

Then I considered images from Lucan, Morgan, Hanley Falls, Wood Lake, West Concord, Mantorville, Alexandria, Northfield and a few other towns I can’t immediately recall. Yes, the list was long.

But something kept tugging at me—my loyalty to my hometown of Vesta. Now those of you familiar with Vesta, population around 350 and with a block-long main street, are likely wondering what on earth I found in this southwestern Minnesota prairie town of architectural worth.

Here is the building I chose and which debuted Marianne Combs’ Minnesota architecture series this afternoon. You can click here to read why I chose the Vesta Municipal Liquor Store.


© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Hail St. Mary’s of Melrose June 26, 2011

The steeples of St. Mary's Catholic Church of Melrose.

I STOOD THERE. Just stood there. For minutes, taking in the glorious splendor before me.

The cornflower blue of the arched ceiling. The pillars. Pews—endless carved pews stretching from the fonts of holy water to the steps leading to the altar.

A view from the back of St. Mary's Catholic Church looking toward the main altar.

I didn't even try to count the hand-carved pews that grace this church. But they are many.

A stone font holding holy water at the back of the church.

Such beauty. Such holiness. Such wonderment.

Opulent, stained glass windows bedecking the sanctuary like jewels on a crown.

One of too many stained glass windows to count.

Statues fit for the finest of museums.

This statue of Jesus and Mary sits at the back of the church.

And then I moved, not sure which direction to go, wondering how I could possibly see every detail. Prayerful hands. Flickering candles. The frayed ends of the bell pull. Gold-leaf stenciled crosses. Worn wood. Angels in flight above the altar.

Clustered candles of prayer at St. Mary's.

Bell ropes dangle by the balcony stairway. Two stairways lead to the balcony.

A gold-leafed stenciled cross borders a side wall of the sanctuary.

My eyes swept across the Church of St. Mary’s, or St. Mary’s Catholic Church of Melrose. Choose the moniker you prefer.

The name and the denomination of this 1898 church mattered not to me. I cared only for the heavenly feel of this holy place.

How could I not be impressed by this multi-steepled house of worship next to the turkey plant and soaring above the landscape 100 miles northwest of the Twin Cities?

How many times, if you travel Interstate 94 in central Minnesota, have you noticed those steeples while zipping by Melrose, but never taken the time to drive into town? Placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1993, this Catholic church is worth a stop if you appreciate craftsmanship, art, history and reverent beauty beyond belief.

The church rises above the land, defining Melrose.

The 113-year-old building was constructed by the parishioners of St. Boniface and renamed St. Mary’s when St. Boniface and St. Patrick’s parishes merged in 1958.

History runs deep here. You will see it in the hitching post out front, smell it in the incense, hear it in the creak of steps leading to the locked balcony.

And if you listen closely, you can almost hear the whispered prayers of those who have come here on bended knees to lift up their sorrows to the Lord.


I COULD NOT POSSIBLY share my many photos of St. Mary’s with you in one blog post. Please check back for more images in a future post.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling



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