Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

The Dari (not dairy) King (not queen) August 29, 2014

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GROWING UP IN A POOR farm family with five siblings, it wasn’t all that often we got ice cream treats in town. Maybe Schwans ice cream in a dish or cone from the basement/porch freezer. But not soft-serve at a walk-up/drive-up.

Dari King in Redwood Falls

Occasionally, though, Dad would treat us to a cone at the Dari King in Redwood Falls. This was back in the day when a small cone cost a dime. But even then a dime was a dime was a dime.

Forty years after I left the farm, the independent (non-chain) Dari King still stands, serving ice cream and more to the next generations. How sweet is that?

Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling




It’s ice cream season in Minnesota April 7, 2014

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Long lines formed to the two serving windows at Blast Softserve, 206 West Rose St., Owatonna.

Long lines form to the two serving windows at Blast Softserve, 206 West Rose St., Owatonna.

SUNDAY AFTERNOON AND THE LINES at Blast Softserve in Owatonna stretch sometimes 15 deep.

Lots of dogs waiting in line with their owners.

Lots of dogs waiting with their owners. Some of the canines got ice cream, too.

Families and couples and teens and dogs (yes, canines, too), all waiting for ice cream treats. No one complaining. No one seemingly in a hurry. Not even me, Ms. Impatience.

A peach pie flurry.

A peach pie flurry.

But after this Winter of Our Discontent—the winter that has blasted us with too much cold and too much snow—I am delighting in the 64-degree weather. No snow, although I order a peach pie flurry. Winter still on the brain, apparently.

Taking an order at the outdoor service window.

Taking an order at the outdoor service window.

I am still dressed in warm threads, too, a flannel shirt, while some here are baring their winter white arms and legs.

So many choices...including grasshopper treats.

So many choices…including grasshopper treats.

The mood is jovial. My husband jokes with a boy, about nine, that getting grasshoppers for a grasshopper treat may be difficult given they are out of season.

His father, quick with the wit, shoots back: “Maybe they bring them (the grasshoppers) in from South America.”

And they all laugh.

The building that houses the ice cream shop and a pizza place. Lots of loitering going on down the sidewalk and to the right at the walk-up ice cream window order area and  patio.

The building that houses the ice cream shop and Rose Street Pizzeria. Lots of loitering going on down the sidewalk to the right at the walk-up ice cream window order area and patio.

You can’t help but feel happy here at this hometown ice cream shop.

Lots of kids lining up for ice cream treats.

Lots of kids lining up for ice cream treats.

Sun and clouds. Kids and dogs. Shirt sleeves and shorts.

Kitschy ice cream art.

Kitschy signage.

Bikes parked in the bike rack. Stenciled letters. Kitschy art.

Just in case...

Just in case…

A bell to ring.

A blueberry sundae.

A blueberry sundae.

Dripping ice cream cones. A mother wiping chocolate ice cream from her son’s face. Temporary brain freeze.

Stenciled on the roof overhang above the serving windows.

Stenciled on the roof overhang above the serving windows.

Life is good on a Sunday afternoon in April in southern Minnesota.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Serving up ice cream & nostalgia at The Whippy Dip July 9, 2013

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WITH THE WEATHER HOT as Hades, nothing beats an ice cream treat.

The Whippy Dip sign close-up

And it’s especially delicious served with a scoop of nostalgia, like that offered at The Whippy Dip in Decorah, Iowa. Don’t you just love that name? Whippy. Dip.

The Whippy Dip, overview

On a recent stop at this popular walk-up/drive-up ice cream/fast food stand, my husband waited in line to order a chocolate twist cone for me and a blueberry sundae for himself while I snapped a few photos.

The Whippy Dip, ice cream

I was impressed with the generous size of the $1.50 small cone, but soon realized my error in choosing a cone on a hot day. Picture chocolate ice cream dripping onto your fingers. Shoulda had the sundae or maybe the tornado or…

Great spot, the Whippy Dip.

What’s your favorite home-grown place to stop for an ice cream treat? And what do you order?

FYI: Look for more stories from Decorah and other northeastern Iowa communities which my husband and I visited last week while vacationing. Yes, this Minnesotan is admitting that she vacationed in Iowa. And loved it.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


A wannabe dairy princess June 20, 2013

The barn where I labored alongside my father while growing up on the southwestern Minnesota prairie. File photo.

The barn where I labored alongside my father and siblings while growing up on the southwestern Minnesota prairie. File photo.

GROWING UP ON A MINNESOTA DAIRY FARM, I’ve always loved dairy products.

Fresh milk from our herd of Holsteins.

Butter and cheese from the bulk truck driver who picked up milk from our farm.

Singing Hills Coffee Shop's delicious maple bacon sundae.

One of my new favorite ice cream treats, a maple bacon sundae from Singing Hills Coffee Shop in Waterville. File photo.

Ice cream from the Schwans man. (My older brother often sneaked the tin can of vanilla ice cream from the freezer and climbed atop the haystack to eat his fill. He failed to remove his spoon, leaving damning evidence connecting him to the ice cream caper. I was too obedient to attempt such thievery.)

Sliced strawberries, cucumbers and Amablu Gorgonzola cheese added to Romaine lettuce made a perfect salad. I topped the salad with lemon poppyseed dressing.

Sliced strawberries, cucumbers and Amablu Gorgonzola cheese added to Romaine lettuce make a perfect salad. I topped the salad with lemon poppyseed dressing. File photo.

My cheese tastes have, thankfully, expanded beyond American and Velveeta, staples of my childhood. I especially favor the blue cheeses made and aged in sandstone caves right here in Faribault and sold under the names Amablu and St. Pete’s Select. If you like blue cheese, this is your cheese.

Cow sculptures outside The Friendly Confines Cheese Shoppe in LeSueur. File photo.

Cow sculptures outside The Friendly Confines Cheese Shoppe in LeSueur. File photo.

I bring up this topic of dairy products because June marks an annual celebration of all things dairy during “June Dairy Month.” This moniker is imprinted upon my brain. I once ran, albeit unsuccessfully, for Redwood County dairy princess.

Krause Feeds & Supplies in Hope advertised the availability of Hope butter and Bongards cheese. File photo.

Krause Feeds & Supplies in Hope advertises the availability of Hope butter and Bongards cheese. File photo.

Steele County, to the south of my Rice County home, is apparently a big dairy county having at one time served as home to more than 20 creameries. One remains, in the unincorporated village of Hope, producing Hope Creamery butter in small batches. The creamy’s organic butter is especially popular in certain Twin Cities metro eateries.

Owatonna, the county seat, once claimed itself to be “The Butter Capital of the World.” That butter capital title will be the subject of an exhibit opening August 1 and running through November 10 at the Steele County History Center in Owatonna. The exhibit will feature the area’s rich dairy history to current day dairy farming in the county. Events will include a roundtable discussion on the dairy industry and, for the kids, butter making and a visit from a real calf.

Notice the cow art on the milkhouse in this image taken this past summer.

Cow art on the milkhouse of my friends Deb and John, who once milked cows in rural Dundas. File photo.

Calves. I love calves. More than any aspect of farming, I loved feeding calves buckets of warm milk replacer or handfuls of pellets. I once named a calf Princess and she became my “pet,” as much as a farm animal can be a pet. Then my older brother—the one who ate ice cream when he wasn’t supposed to—told me one day that my calf had died. I raced upstairs to my bedroom and sobbed and sobbed. Turns out he made up the whole story of Princess’ early demise. She was very much alive.

The vibrant art of Faribault artist Julie Falker of JMF Studio.

The vibrant art of Faribault artist Julie Faklker of JMF Studio. File image.

And so, on this day when I consider June Dairy Month, my mind churns with thoughts of butter and ice cream, of calves and of the dairy princess crown I never wore.

FYI: Faribault area dairy farmers Ron and Diane Wegner are hosting “A Day on the Farm” from 11 a.m. – 2 p.m. this Saturday, June 22. Their farm is located just south of Faribault at 25156 Appleton Avenue. The event includes children’s activities, photos with a baby calf and free cheeseburgers, malts and milk. Event sponsors are the Rice County American Dairy Association and the Minnesota Beef Council. The Wegners’ daughter, Kaylee, is the current Rice County dairy princess.

The Redwood County American Dairy Association in my home county of Redwood in southwestern Minnesota is sponsoring a coloring contest for kids and a trivia contest for adults. Click here for details. 

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


A maple bacon sundae & other delights at a Waterville coffee shop September 13, 2012

Singing Hills Coffee Shop, at the corner of Main and Third Streets in downtown Waterville in southern Minnesota.

KATHY GREW UP in Detroit, worked 20 years as a deck officer on a freighter for the Merchant Marine, met her husband at a Halloween party, birthed two daughters in her 40s and then, with no business experience, opened a coffee shop in December 2010.

That’s the life synopsis of the woman behind Singing Hills Coffee Shop in the southern Minnesota lakeside community of Waterville, best known for its bullheads and Buccaneers—as in the local high school champion football and basketball teams.

Inviting outside dining at the Singing Hills Coffee Shop.

One-third of a stately, anchor brick building on a corner of Waterville’s Main Street houses the coffee shop. It’s as inviting on the outside—with bistro tables and a bench and window baskets popping with hot pink petunias and luscious ivy spilling from pots—as it is inside.

The bright, cozy dining area of the coffee shop with local arts and crafts displayed on shelves to the right and on walls.

Kathy’s daughter, Marina, waits on customers.

On an early Sunday afternoon, 45 minutes before the 2 p.m. closing, Kathy hustles to prepare sandwiches and ice cream treats while her 10-year-old daughter, Marina (yes, her name is a nod to Kathy’s time on the water), takes orders, accepts payment and makes change.

Kathy hurries back to the kitchen to prepare orders while customer and friend, Kari, relaxes in a back coffee shop corner. Tim Foster’s “American lures” painting (oil paint, oil pastels and graphite on canvas) anchors the wall. It was inspired, he says, by old fishing lures. Kathy would like to purchase the $450 painting as a permanent installment in her shop. I suggested she collect tips to help her buy it. Foster sells his mostly abstract and surreal paintings through his website and studio, at Hogan Brothers in Northfield and via art shows. Kathy saw “American lures” at the 2012 Sakatah Arts Experience in Waterville and invited Foster to bring his painting to her coffee shop.

In a comfy corner chair, Kathy’s friend, Kari, is reading her bible, seeking comfort at the recent, unexpected loss of her 36-year-old cousin. Light floods the homey space warmed by walls the hue of honey on two sides and a contrasting robin’s egg blue on the other.

A printed sign on a slim spot between two towering windows reads:

Conduct Code—Love your neighbor as yourself. Treat other people the way you want to be treated!

Owatonna resident John Muellerleile’s fine art photography on display and for sale.

Kathy welcomes customers and artists here, into this corner haven in a town that thrives on summer-time business from resort guests, cabin dwellers and users of the recreational Sakatah Singing Hills State Trail.

Her customers come here for the ever-popular smoothies and the favorite turkey avocado sandwich, for the coffee and the espressos and other beverages, for the breakfast and soup and sandwiches and salads and baked goods and ice cream treats.

On this Sunday, my husband and I have driven 15 miles for an ice cream treat upon the recommendation of our friend, Joy, who raves about the maple bacon sundae.

As Randy places our order with Marina, I chat with Kari in the corner, take photos and admire a focal point, 6-foot by 4-foot oil painting by Tim Foster of Northfield. His fish-themed art piece, titled “American lures,” is “so Watervillian,” Kathy tells me later, fitting this lakeside town which celebrates bullheads at an annual June festival. There’s a deeper meaning to the painting in which words like “love” and “prove it” and “Federal Reserve Bank” are hidden, Kathy says, but we don’t get into details.

An example of the handcrafted work of local artisans for sale in the coffee shop.

Kathy works with the nonprofit Waterville Local Cooperative Outlet to provide a marketplace for some 8-10 local artisans and crafters. Their creations—from woodcrafts to crocheted caps, paintings, photos and more—are displayed on walls and on shelves through-out the coffee shop.

Donald Kelm of Waterville, a custom woodworker, created this mug.

Engaging the arts community exemplifies Kathy’s efforts at community development. That extends to the food aspect of her business, too. She wanted, she says, more dining options than bar food burgers and fries for the town she and her family now call home. And Kathy offers that with a sandwich menu which doesn’t include a single burger. The closest thing to fries are the chips accompanying sandwich orders.

On her sandwich menu, you’ll find choices like egg salad on a croissant; veggie wrap with hummus, provolone, red onion, red pepper and spinach; and cherrywood smoke ham with garlic cheddar, tomato and mustard sauce. You can build your own sandwich, order a cup of soup.

Hungry for a bakery treat? Kathy has selections from cupcakes to pie to traditional Upper Peninsula style pasties, a tribute to her native Michigan.

Singing Hills Coffee Shop’s delicious maple bacon sundae.

But, on this Sunday, I’ve come only to sample the maple bacon sundae with spicy maple-glazed pecans, homemade maple caramel and bacon, yes, bacon, on vanilla ice cream. My husband questions my choice. I don’t, and find the sweet and salty mix a perfect complement to the ice cream. I’d give the maple bacon sundae a five-star recommendation.

An equally tasty blueberry sundae.

My less daring spouse orders a blueberry sundae and is equally pleased with his selection.

These two boys came with their moms, and a sister of one, for ice cream treats. The boy on the right told the boy on the left that he had a mustache. Then I told the boy on the right that he had an ice cream mustache, too.

A retired couple who spend their summers at a Waterville resort rave about the sandwiches while two moms ordering ice cream for themselves and their kids endorse the ice cream.

Kathy, though, admits that business growth was slow during her first year and that she’s still learning, given her inexperience as a businesswoman. With summer winding down, she’s cutting back on hours. Singing Hills Coffee Shop is closed now on Mondays and Tuesdays, but open from 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. Wednesday – Saturday and from 8 a.m. – 2 p.m. on Sunday.

On October 14, the coffee shop will close for the season and then reopen in mid-April.

So, if you want to try that maple bacon sundae…

FYI: For more information about Singing Hills Coffee Shop in Waterville, click here to reach the shop’s website.

To learn more about the arts scene in Waterville, specifically the annual Sakatah Arts Experience, click here.

For more info about Northfield artist T. Andrew Foster, click here to visit his Creative Space Art Studio website. 

Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Appreciating a vintage Dairy Queen sign in Janesville August 22, 2012

ICE CREAM. It has to be the single treat with the most universal appeal. And I expect Dairy Queen rates as the company most universally known for its soft-serve ice cream.

With 6,000 plus Dairy Queens throughout the world, this fast food franchise certainly has established itself as a dominating presence since the first DQ opened in 1940 in Joliet, Illinois.

The Dairy Queen along old U.S. Highway 14 in Janesville on a recent Sunday afternoon.

Within 40 miles of my home are 35 Dairy Queens, including two right here in Faribault, and a walk-up DQ along old U.S. Highway 14 in Janesville some 30 miles away.

On a recent Sunday afternoon while passing through Janesville, located east of Mankato and with a population of about 2,100, I photographed the DQ. I wasn’t hungry, having just eaten too much at a church potluck. But I didn’t let that keep me from stopping at the DQ to photograph this long-time business with the vintage signage.

The vintage Dairy Queen sign that drew me to the Janesville DQ.

It’s the sign that caused me to stop because, well, I like and appreciate old signs as works of art. They’re also classic, charming cultural and historic icons in a community.

I was a bit dismayed, though, when the woman working the counter suggested that once the lights fizzle on the sign, it will be replaced with a newer, more modern DQ sign because, really, who could fix the lighting?

I insisted that shouldn’t happen and may have pleaded a bit. “You can’t do that.”

But she seemed resigned to the sign’s eventual replacement.

On the bottom edge of the sign, I noticed LEROY SIGN REG.

Not so fast. I noticed LEROY SIGN REG printed along the lower edge of the DQ sign. That was just enough for me to google the company and track down the sign’s origin with Leroy Signs & Manufacturing of Brooklyn Park.

After viewing a photo I took of the Janesville sign, Ralph Leroy “Lee” Reiter III told me it dates back to the late 1940s or early 1950s and is one of about 50 made by his grandfather, Ralph Leroy Reiter, Sr. While the younger Reiter doesn’t know exactly how many of these specific signs were placed in Minnesota, he says his third-generation company recently refurbished one in Columbia Heights and he knows of one in Robbinsdale and another in Brooklyn Park.

I was especially pleased to learn that the 75-year-old family business he co-owns with siblings Kaj Reiter and Andria Reiter can replace the neon lighting and otherwise refurbish the porcelain enamel finished vintage DQ sign.

On the other side of the DQ, looking toward downtown Janesville.

Lee Reiter has high praise for the condition of the Janesville DQ sign. “It’s one of the cleanest I’ve seen and in really good condition.”

He observed, though, that the sign may have been touched up some. You could fool me. The sign as designed decades ago—DQ designed and Leroy Sign made the sign—allowed it to take in water, Lee noted.

Early on in DQ’s history, Leroy Signs made signs for DQ, last doing so about five years ago.

As for that vintage DQ sign in Janesville, Lee says if the owner ever wants to get rid of it, he’ll take it. That, in itself, should tell you something, don’t you think?

You know you’re in a rural town when you see a combine driving down the street like this John Deere which passed the Janesville DQ.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


A sweet treasure in downtown Lamberton March 9, 2011

DRIVE INTO ANY SMALL TOWN, U.S.A., and you’ll likely discover a treasure that the locals take for granted.

For instance, in Lamberton, Minnesota, I recently spotted a vintage sign on a beautiful brick building along the town’s main drag. I didn’t have much time to investigate as the guys in the car were anxious to keep moving. But we stopped long enough for me to snap a few photos and peer through the front window and door of Sanger’s Bakery.


This sign, suspended from Sanger's Bakery, first drew me to the building.

Inside, time stood still. An old 7-UP clock hung on the wall behind empty glass bakery cases fronted by one vintage stool (that I could see). Boxes of candy sat on the counter. I almost expected the baker aka ice cream and candy seller to walk into view, open the door and let me inside.

That, of course, was wishful thinking.

The bakery is closed, although men gather here in the morning for coffee, I’m told. You won’t find doughnuts or cinnamon rolls or loaves of freshly-baked bread, just coffee and conversation at the coffee klatsch.

Now, if I had discretionary cash, I’d buy this place, spiff it up a bit, but not too much to ruin its charming character, and reopen the combination bakery, ice cream parlor and candy store.

I could see the possibilities in that weathered sign, in the stunning brick building and in that single, empty stool.


The bakery's front window.

The bakery sits on a corner. I took this building side view through the closed window of the car, after we had driven around the block.

An up-close shot of the lettering on the bakery I wish was still open.

IF YOU KNOW ANYTHING about Sanger’s Bakery or have memories of patronizing this business, please submit a comment. I’d like to learn more about this former bakery which I consider a small-town treasure.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling



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