Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Of bugs, fiddleheads & anthills April 22, 2021

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Grandpa and grandchildren follow the pine-edged driveway last summer at a Minnesota lake cabin. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo July 2020.

HE BENT LOW, SQUATTING, trying to peer into the pinprick of a hole centering the mound of black dirt.

“Bug. Bug,” my 28-month-old grandson repeated. Three of us circled him—me, Grandpa (whom he calls Buddy) and Sister. In that moment, the anthill focused our attention. In that moment I realized, once again, how much I love being a grandma. How much I love seeing the world through the eyes of Isaac and his five-year-old sister, Isabelle.

This past weekend the pair stayed overnight with us, minus the parents. Randy and I love this special time with our grandchildren. Time to hug and cuddle and read and play. And explore nature.

With warm and sunny weather, we spent much of our weekend outdoors. Blowing bubbles. Playing Posy Pitch. Chalking cement. Climbing playground equipment and pushing swings and running after a little guy who moves incredibly fast.

We enjoyed nature in our yard and those anthills along the sidewalk. Isaac delighted in the ants and then did what seems innate—demolished the hills with his shoes. We never showed him.

The bugs that intrigued Isaac.

Bugs and worms enthralled him when Grandpa/Buddy flipped flat slabs of limestone to expose both. I can’t recall how many times Isaac asked to see those bugs.

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

He loved the tulips, too, two red and two yellow blooming on the south side of the house. “Match,” he said. He’s big in to matching, just like he’s big in to letters of the alphabet. And he loves the sun and moon, imagining both in our overhead dining room light. At least this visit Isaac didn’t awaken early enough to see the sun and the moon simultaneously as he did during his last overnight stay.

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

I showed Isaac and Izzy the bird nest I found lying in the grass a few weeks ago, small blue egg still cozied inside the circle of dried grass. They listened, too, to the shrill whistle of a cardinal and heard Grandpa whistle in reply.

Our granddaughter zooms along on her scooter last year at North Alexander Park in Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2020.

When you pause to think like a child, listen like a child, see like a child, the natural world opens wide to awe and new-ness and delight. And that’s worth remembering, especially today, Earth Day.

Fiddleheads in my backyard.

I showed the pair fiddleheads—tightly coiled fern fronds destined to unfurl in the warmth and sunshine of an April day.

Even a pine cone holds wonder in the hands of a two-year-old. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo July 2020.

While walking and playing at the Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf, we pocketed pine cones. And a smooth flat stone. Treasures.

Time with our grandchildren is treasured. Isaac loves watches and clocks. “Tick tock,” he says, when pointing to clocks in our house or carrying around the vintage alarm clocks I have in a small collection. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

But the true treasure is time. Time with Isabelle and Isaac. Time to love on them and teach them and learn from them. Time to grow our love for one another and strengthen that special bond between grandparent and grandchild. A bond unlike any other.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Able to breathe again April 21, 2021

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A message chalked in Bridge Square in Northfield carries a repeated phrase as young Black people continue to die at the hands of police. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo August 2020.

WHEN MY ELDEST DAUGHTER texted at 2:31 pm Tuesday that a verdict had been reached in the Derek Chauvin trial, I replied with one simple word. What?

That the jury could reach a verdict in such a short time—about 10 hours—following weeks of testimony likely meant that the former Minneapolis police officer would be found guilty of killing George Floyd on May 25, 2020, in Minneapolis by pressing his knee on Floyd’s neck for 9 minutes and 29 seconds.

I immediately switched on the TV to await reading of the verdict by Judge Peter Cahill. As I waited and watched news coverage, I felt a sense of hope. Hope that this would end in a conviction. Hope that, finally, there would be accountability in the death of a Black man at the hands of police.

I’d watched the Chauvin trial off-and-on. I heard the words of the bystanders who witnessed Floyd’s death, who pleaded with police officers to give him medical attention. Who asked Chauvin to remove his knee from Floyd’s neck. Who chose to pause and care and document and attempt to save another human being’s life. They felt hopeless, helpless, traumatized, according to their sworn testimony. I listened, too, to police officers testify against one of their own. And I heard Floyd’s loved ones and medical experts speak. Listening to testimony left me at times feeling exhausted and heart-broken.

So when the guilty of all three counts—second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter—came down yesterday, I felt relief. Finally.

I watched Chauvin as the verdict was read. His eyes darted from side-to-side. I wondered what he was thinking in that moment and the moments following—when his bail was revoked, he was handcuffed and led away to wait in a Minnesota prison for his sentencing in eight weeks.

Messages on a house in small town Dundas, Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo August 2020.

But mostly, I wondered how the Floyd family felt. Later they would speak at a news conference led by Civil Rights activist Al Sharpton and Civil Rights attorney Ben Crump. Said Sharpton: “This gives us the energy to fight on.” And Crump: “America, let’s frame this moment as a moment where we are finally getting close to living up to our Declaration of Independence…that all men are created equally…with certain unalienable rights like life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

My mind focused on this single word: life. George Floyd needlessly lost his life on May 25 at the corner of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue in south Minneapolis, a place now known as George Floyd Square.

In the 11 months since, his family has focused on attaining justice in the death of their brother/cousin/uncle/father and on effecting change. They have done that with grace, poise, eloquence, prayer and passion. George’s brother, Philonise Floyd, has stepped up as the family spokesman. At Tuesday’s news conference, these words, especially, resonated with me: “Today we are able to breathe again.” That comment by Philonise linked directly to George Floyd’s plea to police officers as he lay face down on the pavement dying. “I can’t breathe.”

A photo and comment posted at the “Selma to Montgomery: Marching Along the Voting Rights Trail” exhibit at St. Olaf College in Northfield in 2015. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2015.

Much work remains to be done. Tuesday’s verdict marks an important step in accountability and a move toward justice and equality. It’s easy to type that. It’s harder to live it. To speak up. To take action. To care. And we need to care, whether we live along a rural gravel road, in a small town, in the heart of a big city or anywhere in between.

FYI: I’d encourage you to read posts by two Minnesota bloggers whom I respect and follow and who share their thoughts on the Derek Chauvin verdict. Click here to read Margit Johnson’s post, “Endings and Beginnings,” and Kathleen Cassen Mickelson’s “Guilty. Guilty. Guilty.”

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Back at the Rice County Fairgrounds

Looking toward food stands and the Midway. To the right, is the outdoor entertainment center. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.

VACATED. That word best describes my assessment of the Rice County Fairgrounds in Faribault during a recent walk there.

Many local groups have food stands at the fair. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.
Picnic tables near the pork food stand. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.
The presence of 4-Hers at the fair is strong. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.

In the absence of people, the absence of animals, the absence of a carnival, the absence of exhibits, the place feels empty. No pulsating lights on the Midway. No smell of grilling burgers. No taste of sugary mini donuts. No shouts of kids. No feel of a prize stuffed animal clutched in arms.

The entertainment space to the left with the St. Luke’s food stand on the right. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.

If everything works out COVID-wise, this fairgrounds will teem with people come late July. Animals will fill barns. Ribbons will mark prize-winning 4-H entries. Greasy cheese curds will satisfy those who crave fair food. The sounds of music and clustered conversations and happy kids will create a steady buzz of noise. Little hands will grasp adult hands and teenage hands will lock in fair love. People will reconnect. Celebrate. Experience that which was lost last summer, during the height of the pandemic.

Love this signage. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.
The commercial exhibit building. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.
Garden decor stored until the fair. The garden is next to the conservation building. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.

This is the fair I imagine as I walk past shuttered buildings, as I pause to photograph buildings and signs and expanses of open space.

Just a snippet of the 32 barn swallow nests on Curtis Hall. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.

And then I pause outside the 4-H building, Curtis Hall, to photograph the row of barn swallow nests mudded under the eaves. So many. Thirty-two. Too many. If there’s one bird I dislike, it’s the barn swallow. We have a history. As a child, I endured barn swallows swooping over me as I did farm chores. The swallows built their nests on beams above the barn aisle, my direct work route. I felt threatened by them as I shoveled manure into gutters, pushed a wheelbarrow full of ground feed down the aisle. My feelings for the swallow have not changed. Even though they eat mosquitoes, I still don’t like this bird.

Just another view of those swallow nests. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.

That’s my sidebar from the fairgrounds, perhaps one you can relate to if you did farm chores like me.

The sheep arena is named after a Rice County deputy killed in the line of duty. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo 2021.
A view of the sheep barn. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.
Each of the livestock buildings is numbered. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.

Fairs are rooted in agriculture. Prize animals. Prize vegetables. A once-a-year opportunity to showcase the best of barns and of gardens. But today’s fair is much more. Entertainment. Creativity. And, above all, a place for communities to come together once a year in one place. To celebrate. To connect.

The Rice County Fair office with the grandstand in the background. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.

FYI: The Rice County Fair is tentatively set for July 21-25 in Faribault. Whether it happens depends on all of us. See my previous post.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

From Rice County: Fair or not? April 20, 2021

The Rice County Fair office, Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.

DECADES AGO, AS A YOUNG newspaper reporter, I covered county fairs. I’d grab my notebook and my camera and head to the fairgrounds. One particular summer, I was assigned to photograph 4-H kids and their animals at the Brown County Free Fair in New Ulm while working for The Sleepy Eye Herald-Dispatch. I spent days tracking down youth and photographing them with their prize livestock. Pigs. Cows. Sheep. Horses. Chickens. Try getting animals to cooperate for a photo shoot. Not easy. The experience left me so exhausted and fair-weary that I lost all interest in county fairs.

Among the many popular local food booths. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.
Rice County 4-H is an integral part of the fair. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.
Next to a livestock building sits this carnival ride, originating in Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.

Ever since, I’ve seldom attended a county fair. But I recognize most people love fairs, including the Rice County Fair here in Faribault. They enjoy the food, the carnival rides, the entertainment, the exhibits and, yes, even all those penned animals hauled to town by 4-H families.

Livestock buildings at the Rice County Fairgrounds. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.

Last summer, COVID-19 canceled our fair. And most other fairs, including The Minnesota State Fair, aka The Great Minnesota Get-Together. This summer, from small town Minnesota to the metro, officials hope to host fairs. In Rice County, the fair board tentatively plans for a July 21-25 fair. Whether that happens will depend on the pandemic and state restrictions on gatherings.

The open air BINGO shed at the Rice County Fairgrounds. Minnesota Prairie Root photo March 2021.
Just across the way from the BINGO shed sits the Beer Garden. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.
One of the newer fair buildings houses open class exhibits. Minnesota Prairie Roots file March 2021.

I’m all for putting health and safety first. This pandemic is far from over with cases of the virus surging. I recognize the weariness folks are feeling, but don’t accept that as an excuse for behavior that is increasing the spread. If people want to enjoy BINGO and beer, cheese curds and carnival rides, art and animals, and so much more at the fair, then they need to intentionally choose to help stop the spread of COVID. Mask up. Properly. Social distance. Stay home when feeling unwell. Get vaccinated.

An example of needed touch-ups. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.

On a recent afternoon, Randy and I walked the Rice County Fairgrounds, just to have a different place to explore away from people. The emptiness of the space, without distracting crowds, exposes much. I observed that many of the aging buildings need upkeep, especially paint.

The new public restrooms at the Rice County Fairgrounds. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.

I’m sure fair-goers will appreciate one new addition—the construction of public restrooms.

A view of the grandstand underside. This was rebuilt following an arson fire many years ago. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.

I often wonder why the fairgrounds aren’t used more, especially the grandstand. That said, the Cannon Valley Farmers’ Market sets up occasionally at the fairgrounds in Faribault. Car shows and food trucks have also used the grounds. In a year when spread of the virus remains an ongoing concern, this vast outdoor space offers options to indoor gatherings.

Photographed on the side of the Rice County Fair office in March. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.

Whether the Rice County Fair happens in July remains unknown. It’s really up to us to follow public health and safety mandates/guidelines and to choose vaccination. We’re not powerless. We have the ability to control our behavior, to think beyond ourselves to the public good. To make the fair happen in 2021.

FYI: Rice County is lagging in vaccinations. According to Rice County Public Health April 16 data, 41.7 percent of county residents ages 16 and above have received at least one dose of the COVID vaccine. That compares to 52 percent statewide. We can do better.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Please check back for more Rice County Fairgrounds photos.

 

In New Ulm: George’s Ballroom, when the music stops April 19, 2021

The boarded entrance to the long-closed George’s Ballroom in New Ulm. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo June 2020.

I CAN ALMOST HEAR the rhythmic oom-pah-pah of the polka, see the couples twirling across the scuffed wooden dance floor, smell the scent of whiskey poured from bottles hidden in brown paper bags.

George’s, on the corner of Center and German Streets, also housed a bar and, at one time, a bowling alley. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo June 2020.

Across Minnesota, ballrooms once centered Saturday evenings with wedding receptions, concerts and parties celebrating milestones. The Blue Moon Ballroom in Marshall. The Gibbon Ballroom, site of Polka Days, in Gibbon. The Pla-Mor Ballroom in Rochester. George’s Ballroom in New Ulm. And many others.

The historic marquee marks George’s Ballroom. What a beautiful piece of art. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo June 2020.

Now most of these entertainment venues are shuttered. Abandoned. Or gone. The places of memories shared in stories. The places of memories photographed. A bride tossing her bouquet. A couple wrapped in each other’s arms. A trio wildly whirling in The Chicken Dance. My parents met at a dance in a southwestern Minnesota ballroom in the early 1950s. So many Minnesotans hold ballroom memories.

The bar entrance is here, the ballroom entry to the right. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo June 2020.

Last summer while in New Ulm, I photographed the exterior of George’s Ballroom, an art deco style brick structure built in 1947 by George Neuwirth. The facility, which could hold up to 3,000 guests, once served as this community’s celebration and concert hub. Lawrence Welk, Glen Miller, The Six Fat Dutchmen and other big name bands played here.

George’s closed in 1991, reopened for awhile under new ownership and then shuttered again—permanently—in the early 2000s. Property taxes went unpaid. Options expired.

Now, nearly 20 years later, the former dance hall faces likely demolition, according to media reports. Cost to restore the ballroom is estimated at $5 million. Cost to demolish it, $1 million. That’s a lot of money. But when you’re dealing with mold from water damage, asbestos and other health and safety issues, costs climb quickly.

Here you can see some of the damage, underneath that BAR sign. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo June 2020.

All of this saddens me. I love historic buildings. They’re often well-built and hold important historic, community and personal importance. But I am also a realist who recognizes that not everything can be saved.

The marquee first caught my photographic interest. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo June 2020.

I do hope, though, that the George’s marquee and signage—which drew me to photograph the building in the heart of downtown New Ulm—will be saved. It sounds like that’s the plan. I hope the historic art can be incorporated into an outdoor public space rather than tucked inside, mostly unseen and under appreciated. People need easy access to George’s memorabilia. To photograph. To reminisce. To remember the Saturday nights of Big Bands and polkas and partying with family and friends. With a little creative thinking, George’s can continue to draw locals and others, adding another attraction to a community that excels as a destination city.

TELL ME: What would you do with George’s Ballroom and/or the marquee and signage? I’d love to hear your creative ideas and/or your memories of George’s or other ballrooms.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Hope, joy & kindness at the clinic April 16, 2021

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Photographed along the bike trail in the Atwood neighborhood of Madison, Wisconsin. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2020.

AS I WAITED POST VACCINATION in the clinic waiting room for the mandatory 15-minute observation, I observed. I am a people-watcher. A listener. A person who notices her environment.

After texting family, I set my cellphone aside to watch. Nearly every other person was on their phone, one guy even answering two calls. But, with magazines absent from tables and time to pass, few options remained. I’d left my library book, Funeral for a Friend by Brian Freeman, at home.

I wondered about all these people, if they felt as happy and thankful as me to receive the Pfizer vaccine protecting us against COVID-19. I expect they did.

Occasionally the nurse overseeing the small cluster of vaccinated individuals circulated among us. Checking times. And us. We each had labels stuck to our clothing, noting our dismissal time. I moved mine from just above the denim on my right knee to the right of my Army green jacket, making the label more visible.

Patients filtered in and out of the clinic as I sat there. Watching. A young mother entered, baby balanced on her hip. I was surprised to see her little one, perhaps six months old, wearing a face mask. I felt gratitude toward that mother who understands the value of face masks in protecting others and in keeping her child safe. The baby wore the mask with ease.

Photographed at LARK Toys in Kellogg, MN. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Soon my eyes shifted to another mother and child waiting nearby, outside the vision clinic. I watched as the observation nurse walked over and asked if she needed help. Her kindness touched me. I expect this mother, a Muslim woman dressed in a black niqab with only her eyes showing through a rectangular slit, may struggle with English. But she understood enough to reply, although I didn’t hear her response. And then the nurse bent toward the child, perhaps nine months old, waving and talking and engaging her. The baby waved back, a broad smile spreading across her sweet face. In that moment I felt joy. Joy in seeing this very basic human interaction. Culture and dress and skin tone and religion mattering not. Just one human being interacting with another in the most loving way.

Photographed several years ago in the window of a downtown Faribault business. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Moments like this give me hope. Hope that we can accept one another. Connect. Express kindness to one another. Care about each other. And realize that, at the core, we are all simply human beings living on this earth. Individuals with wants and needs, no matter our skin tone, our beliefs, our culture, our language, our job status, our anything.

Love in three languages (Spanish, Somali and English), printed on a mirror along Faribault’s Virtue Trail. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo August 2018.

Understanding and acceptance start with each of us. Like the interaction I witnessed between nurse and mother and child at the clinic. When the observation nurse cleared me to leave at 3:38 pm, I thanked her. Beneath my face mask, I smiled. And although she couldn’t see that smile, I hope she heard the joy and gratitude in my words.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Up for auction: original Edward Curtis photogravures April 15, 2021

WHEN THE AUCTION BOOKLET arrived in the mail, I thumbed through page after page of photos showing Native American artifacts. Tools. Knives. Triangle points. And more. Made from bone, stones, quills…

In the auction booklet, Edward Curtis photogravures are featured along with Native American art and artifcats.

But when I reached the middle of the publication from Helbling Auctioneers* for a May 22 “Large South Dakota Artifact Collection” auction in Lakeville, Minnesota, I paused. Item #131 on the auction list features seven original 1907 photogravures by noted photographer Edward S. Curtis. He is well-known for documenting Native Americans living west of the Mississippi River via his incredible photography.

Among the prints of Edward Curtis photos exhibited at the Montgomery Arts and Heritage Center. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo January 2020.

I was first introduced to Curtis while viewing 60 prints in his “The North American Indian” collection at the Montgomery (MN) Arts & Heritage Center in January 2020. It was a temporary installation funded by a $4,000 grant from the Carl and Verna Schmidt Foundation and an incredible gift to this community of some 3,000.

A photo of Edward Curtis with info about this noted American photographer was showcased in Montgomery, MN. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo January 2020.

Curtis has a connection to the Montgomery area, moving from Wisconsin to nearby Cordova as a child. As he grew, Curtis often traveled with his preacher father, sometimes canoeing with him on the Cannon River. That fostered his love of the outdoors. And apparently his interest in photography. By age 17, he was working at a photography studio in St. Paul. Then, in 1887, the family moved to Seattle.

An insightful and beautiful quote by Edward Curtis shown at the Montgomery exhibit. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo January 2020.

That’s the brief backstory on the man who would become famous for his historical photographic documentation of Native Americans. He lived with these peoples, observed them, understood them, respected them. And that shows in his portraits, his photographs of everyday scenes, of their lives.

From the auction preview book, the photogravures of Edward Curtis.

The seven original photogravures on the May auction block are a mix of portraits and everyday life. I expect they will draw the interest of historians, collectors and others. Certainly, they caught my eye as I paged through all those photos of artifacts.

Edward Curtis specializes in Native American portraits, like this one up for bid.

I appreciate the challenges long ago photographers like Curtis faced with equipment and the whole photographic process. They couldn’t fire off frame after frame to get the perfect image. Rather, they often had to get it right the first time. When I consider that, I am even more impressed by Curtis’ work. He was a master of craft, honed from his connection to the outdoors, his understanding of Native Americans and his desire to honor them with his photography.

FYI: The May 22 auction at the Holiday Inn & Suites in Lakeville begins at 10 a.m. and features primarily items from the Ernie & Barb Spaid Family Artifact Collection (from South Dakota). However, in the middle of the sale, a small collection from North and South Dakotas will be sold. That includes the seven original Edward Curtis 1907 photogravures. For more info about the auction, click here.

* Bob Helbling of Helbling Auctioneers of Kindred and Hankinson, N.D., is a distant cousin of my husband. I wrote this post because of my interest in the photography of Edward S. Curtis.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Fallen & broken April 14, 2021

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Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

LAST WEEK, WHILE RAKING leaves off flowerbeds, I came across a bird nest in the grass. Nestled near a retaining wall, by a row of evergreens.

Inside, a pale blue egg lay in the center, next to the broken shell of another egg.

I didn’t touch anything, didn’t move or investigate, simply photographed. And pondered.

Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

How did this nest, woven with such care and perfection by a bird’s beak, claws and body, end up upon the ground? I speculated that strong winds earlier in the day loosened the nest from the shelter of the neighbor’s evergreens. Or perhaps the nest dropped from the maple in our backyard.

Whatever the story, I felt a sense of sadness at the loss. I recognize the realities of the natural world. Of challenges and predators and unhappy endings.

Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

And that is life. We can choose the materials to build our lives and weave in hopes and dreams, plans and goals. But then along comes a strong wind and, whoosh, just like that our carefully-crafted nests plummet to the earth and we find ourselves struggling, broken. Struggling to rebuild. Wondering why and how this happened. It is then that we need to reach deep inside, to connect with those who listen and care, to remember that we are not alone.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

An early April evening at River Bend April 13, 2021

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One of several immense cottonwoods looms next to the parking lot.

DAYLIGHT WANED AS RANDY and I entered the woods at River Bend Nature Center by the parking lot near the entrance. We haven’t walked this area in a while and were surprised to find the woods littered with fallen trees and limbs. Not just a few, but lots. I expect the powerful winds during a September 2018 tornado in Faribault caused the damage.

From atop a hill, I looked toward the lowlands. We’d just walked the path to the left after exiting the woods.

As we hiked, the shrill trill of frogs in the nearby wetlands reverberated. I’m always amazed by this spring time opera/mating ritual.

The treeline that caught my photographic eye.

A ways into the woods, the dirt path bent right, with another forking to a prairie outlook. We continued on the chosen trail until I noticed a copse of lean trees I wanted to photograph. “I’m surprised we don’t see any deer,” I said, stepping across dried grass and branches to find an open space through which to aim my camera lens.

To the left in this photo, a deer leaves the protection of a treeline.

I snapped a few frames before Randy noticed a lone deer. The deer obviously saw us, too, as it emerged from behind the treeline and leaped through the tall prairie grasses.

There’s something about tall grass that speaks to me. Perhaps because of my Minnesota prairie roots.

We continued down the trail, now on the other side of the horseshoe shaped route that connects with the main path into this section of River Bend. Once on the arterial trail, we walked a short distance before turning right toward the swampland. The overwhelming chorus of thousands of frogs increased in volume to the point of almost hurting my ears.

I love the simplicity of this scene.

Underneath, the ground felt spongy. Occasionally I paused to photograph something. A lone bird atop a bare tree. Tall grasses silhouetted against an evening sky shifting toward darkness. I wished we’d arrived a half hour earlier for optimal lighting during a photographer’s golden hour.

We turned and partially retraced our route once we reached this point leading to the prairie.

But sometimes it’s good for me to simply walk and take in my surroundings. To appreciate the natural world with my God-given eyes rather than through the eye of a camera. To be in the moment. To hear the soprano of frogs singing spring songs in southern Minnesota in early April.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

More than Bridge 4667 in the Minnesota River Valley April 12, 2021

AS DAD GUIDED HIS CHEVY Impala along Highway 19 into the Minnesota River Valley near Morton with our family sandwiched inside, I felt a sense of exhilaration. The change in landscape—from flat prairie farm fields to hills and valley—excited me. It was like driving into another world, albeit only 20 some miles east of our farm place.

We were headed to The Cities, as we called, and I still term, Minneapolis and St. Paul. Our destination—my aunt and uncle’s house along Bryant Avenue South in Minneapolis. Once or twice a year, our family of eight, plus Grandpa, packed into one vehicle for the several hours long drive.

It wasn’t often we traveled. Dad milked cows, so one of his brothers had to do the chores for a day. On the morning of departure, we arose early, our nervous energy palpable. Soon we were on our way, stopping to pick up Grandpa in Redwood Falls, then aiming east toward the Minnesota River Valley.

The Sulphur Lake Bridge (Bridge 4667). MnDOT image from the KLGR radio website.

Sweeping into the valley, all of us kids were on high alert, waiting for the moment when the Chevy would cross The Troll Bridge over an overflow channel of the Minnesota River.

This is what I pictured lurking beneath the bridge near Morton. This illustration comes from Three Billy Goats Gruff. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

When the tires hit the bridge deck, we started pounding on the roof of the car. To scare away the trolls.

One of my favorite childhood books, gifted to me by a blog reader. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2017.

I have no idea how this tradition started. But I suspect it was an effort by our parents to keep us from getting bored and fighting as siblings are wont to do when sitting too close together for too long. Well, this temporary distraction worked. And the memory of that roof pounding tactic to scare off trolls has stuck with me more than half a century later. To this day, I associate aged truss bridges with those rare family trips to Minneapolis. This also connects to one of my favorite childhood storybooks, Three Billy Goats Gruff. In that tale, three goats attempt to cross a bridge under which a troll lurks.

Such are the prompts and content of memories.

Historical details on a sign posted high above the bridge deck of the historic Waterford Bridge over the Cannon River in Dakota County. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo August 2020.

Because of that, I reacted with dismay when I read on the website of Redwood Falls-based KLGR radio that The Troll Bridge, formally known as Sulphur Lake Bridge (Bridge 4667) is being removed this fall. Apparently the 1927 historic bridge, which was bypassed in a 1994 road improvement project and then closed in 2010 to all traffic, has deteriorated to “in poor condition overall” status. This saddens me. When we lose a bridge that was among the largest constructed in the state during a Minnesota Highway Department bridge construction program in the late 1920s, we lose an important part of architectural, local, and sometimes personal, history.

Weeds, wildflowers and other plant growth surround the abandoned Waterford Bridge of similar construction to the Sulphur Lake Bridge. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo August 2020.

Cost of removing the 169-foot long bridge with a 117-foot riveted Camelback through-truss main span is estimated at $980,000. I recognize the Minnesota Department of Transportation did its homework in reaching this decision. But still…I wish this bridge could be saved.

The historic Waterford Bridge. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo August 2020.

Some historic Minnesota bridges have been saved—more than 40 in the past 20 years, according to MnDOT. Others are on a list for rehabilitation. Like the Waterford Bridge I visited and photographed last summer near Northfield in Dakota County. Other bridges have been relocated with one currently listed as an “available bridge”.

The aged bridge in Honner Township in Redwood County will soon join the list of “lost bridges” documented by MnDOT. It may be Sulphur Lake Bridge (Bridge 4667) to officials in St. Paul. But to me, this will always be The Troll Bridge. The bridge of family memories.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling