Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Southwestern Minnesota: The place of my heart, in images & words December 6, 2016

I shot this rural farmsite/sunset scene while traveling along Minnesota State Highway 67 between Redwood Falls and Morgan.

I shot this rural farmsite/sunset scene while traveling along Minnesota State Highway 67 between Redwood Falls and Morgan.

OFTENTIMES IT TAKES LEAVING a place to appreciate it.

A farmhouse along Minnesota State Highway 19 in Redwood County near my hometown of Vesta.

A farmhouse along Minnesota State Highway 19 in Redwood County near my hometown of Vesta.

There are days when I miss my native southwestern Minnesota prairie with an ache that lingers. I long for wide open space and forever skies,

The grain elevator in Morgan.

The grain elevator in Morgan in eastern Redwood County.

for farm fields and familiar grain elevators,

This gravel road connects to Minnesota State Highway 19 between Vesta and Redwood Falls.

This gravel road connects to Minnesota State Highway 19 between Vesta and Redwood Falls.

for gridded gravel roads

A prairie sunset photographed from Minnesota State Highway 67 between Redwood Falls and Morgan.

A prairie sunset photographed from Minnesota State Highway 67 between Redwood Falls and Morgan.

and flaming sunsets. And quiet.

Sure, I could drive into the country here in southeastern Minnesota and see similar sites. But it’s not the same. This is not my native home, the place that shaped me. Although decades removed, I shall always call the prairie my home.

Minnesota State Highway 67, one of the roadways leading "home."

Minnesota State Highway 67, one of the roadways leading “home.”

With family still living in southwestern Minnesota, I return there occasionally. And that, for now, is enough. I drink in the scenery like gulping a glass of cold well water tasting of iron and earth. I am refreshed, renewed, restored.

This lone tree along Minnesota State Highway 19 near the Belview corner has been here as long as I can remember.

This lone tree along Minnesota State Highway 19 near the Belview corner has been here as long as I can remember.

I need to view the prairie, to walk the soil, to reclaim my roots. I need to see the sunsets, to breathe in the scent of freshly-mown alfalfa, to watch corn swaying in the breeze, to observe snow drifting across rural roadways, to feel the bitter cold bite of a prairie wind.

A farmer guides his John Deere tractor along Minnesota State Highway 67 near Morgan.

A farmer guides his John Deere tractor along Minnesota State Highway 67 near Morgan.

There are those who dismiss this region as the middle-of-nowhere. It’s not. It’s a place of community, of good hardworking people, of Saturday night BINGO and Sunday morning worship services. It’s lines at the grain elevator and fans packing bleachers at a high school basketball game. It’s acres of corn and soybeans in the season of growth and tilled black fields in the time between. This place is somewhere to those who live here. And to those of us who were raised here.

Every trip back along Minnesota State Highway 67, I am drawn to photograph the electrical lines that stretch seemingly into forever.

Every trip back along Minnesota State Highway 67, I am drawn to photograph the electrical lines that stretch seemingly into forever.

For me, this land, this prairie, shall always be home.

© Copyright 2106 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Recommended Minnesota reads December 5, 2016

THIS TIME OF YEAR, when daylight fades too early into evening darkness, when I want nothing more than to stay indoors cozied against the Minnesota cold, I find myself gathering books. Stashing, stacking, sequestering them in my home.

And then I read, snugged into a corner of the reclining sofa that no longer reclines (unless the husband yanks on the redneck handle he’s improvised to replace the broken pull). I tuck into a fleece throw in hues that linger autumn.

Then I read. Of mystery in prose and poetry. Of fictional places. Of memories. Words wrapping stories around me. Writers writing so I can read. Of their experiences. Of their imaginations. Of their struggles and joys and moments.

Often I choose to read local, a subconscious decision tracing to my years writing book reviews for a now-defunct Minnesota magazine. But I am also drawn to Minnesota writers because of the connection I have to them. We are, or were, of this place, of these people.

In honor of Minnesota reads, I direct you to these books:

 

under-minnesota-skies

 

Under Minnesota Skies: John and Dorothy Hondl Family History and Farm Memories, penned by sisters Bernadette Hondl Thomasy and Colleen Hondl Gengler, is promoted as a family memoir of farm life in the 1940s-1960s that reflects on Czech and German heritage. The farm referenced in the book sits near Owatonna and has been in the Hondl family since 1881.

I can relate to much of the book’s content. The hard work and joys of farm life. Making hay. Filling silo. Tending livestock. This memoir, too, prompts long-forgotten memories of licking Gold Bond Stamps, of the South St. Paul Stockyard, of listening to WCCO 8-3-0, of driving tractor, of yearning for books.

Turning the pages of Under Minnesota Skies is like flipping the pages of a photo album detailing rural life. Except in words. Email the authors at kbthomasy at aol.com or dcgeng at frontiernet.net to purchase an autographed copy. Or buy the book at Little Professor Book Center in Owatonna or online at amazon.

 

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Voices: Past & Present, The Talking Stick Volume 25, is an eclectic collection of writing by Minnesota authors, or those with a strong Minnesota tie. Published by the northern Minnesota Jackpine Writers’ Bloc, this anthology includes 139 poems, 26 pieces of creative nonfiction and 20 works of fiction from 118 writers. So a good sampling of Minnesota talent.

Getting published in this book is a competitive process. Two of my poems, “Confessions in a Grocery Store Parking Lot” and “Prairie Garden Memories” are among the works printed in this 25th anniversary edition. Order on amazon.

 

farm-country-christmas

 

Finally, anyone interested in rural life, should read the books penned by prolific husband and wife team Gordon and Nancy Fredrickson of Lakeville. The pair offer children’s picture books in their “A Farm Country” and “If I Were a Farmer” series. They have also written American Farm Heritage and poetry volumes for adults.

The Fredricksons’ books truly are a tribute to the rural way of life. These books can be purchased on the authors’ website, via amazon or at these Minnesota locations: Secret Attic in Northfield; The Old Hotel, New Market; and Bongards Cheese Shop, Bongards.

TELL ME: What local books have you read? What local books are you purchasing as Christmas gifts?

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Bell-ringing moments bring smiles & gratitude December 3, 2016

Me, ringing bells for the Salvation Army on Saturday morning in Faribault. Photo by Randy Helbling.

Me, ringing bells for the Salvation Army on Saturday morning in Faribault. Photo by Randy Helbling.

“WE’LL GET YOU on the way out,” he said, his smile wide.

I admit to skepticism. But, as promised, the pre-teen stopped after exiting Walmart Saturday morning to drop money into the Salvation Army’s signature red donation bucket.

“You’re a man true to your word,” I acknowledged, thanking him for his gift.

 

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Likewise, I thanked many others—from kids to seniors—who donated money during my two-hour shift of ringing bells with my husband. I greeted every customer with a smile and wishes for a good morning and a Merry Christmas. Some looked me in the eye and repeated the greetings. Others hurried past, heads down. Whether they could give or not, I wanted them to feel my warm holiday welcome.

 

ringing-bells-sign

 

Many made me smile. Like the cool teens dressed all in black. They pushed coins into the slotted bucket then danced across the parking lot. I never expected them to give. Just goes to show.

Or the girls who gave as they entered Walmart and again on the way out. “We got two kisses,” one said to the other as they walked away. She was referencing the Hershey kisses I give to kids who give. It adds to the fun—to tell kids, “Wait a minute, I have something for you—a kiss.” And then I reach inside the pocket of the red Salvation Army apron and deposit a foil-wrapped kiss in their palms. And they smile like I’ve just handed them the most precious gift.

 

Randy ringing bells.

Randy ringing bells.

My husband’s favorite moment came at my expense when a man stopped, pointed upward and asked, “What’s that up in the sky?” I followed his sight line…to the sun. And then I laughed, getting the joke. And he laughed. And Randy laughed. We haven’t seen the sun through grey clouds in days.

But in that moment, the sun shone like a blessing upon us and our morning of volunteering for the Salvation Army Red Kettle Campaign.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

So thankful for this newer & safer stretch of Highway 14 December 2, 2016

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Heavy traffic on U.S. Highway 14 between Nicollet and North Mankato late last Sunday afternoon.

Heavy traffic on U.S. Highway 14 between Nicollet and North Mankato. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo March 2013.

IN MARCH 2013, I penned a post, “Hope for one of Minnesota’s most dangerous rural highways.” That would be US Highway 14, specifically between North Mankato and New Ulm.

Back then, I quoted the Minnesota Department of Transportation:

The U.S. Highway 14 corridor between New Ulm and North Mankato in Nicollet County recorded 250 crashes from 2006 to 2010. This overall crash rate is consistent with comparable rural state highways. However, 11 of those crashes had either a fatality or a serious injury, leaving this portion of Hwy 14 with a fatal and serious injury crash rate 50 percent greater than comparable rural state highways. Safety in the area from North Mankato to Nicollet and at the intersection of Hwy 14 and Hwy 15 north of New Ulm is of particular concern.

Did you catch that? A fatal and serious injury crash rate 50 percent greater than comparable highways.

I don’t doubt those statistics and that assessment. For decades I’ve traveled Highway 14 to and from my native southwestern Minnesota. Heavy traffic, narrow lanes, and few opportunities to safely pass make this roadway particularly dangerous.

U.S. Highway 14 under construction between Mankato and Nicollet.

Barrels and signage guide motorists onto a detour in the final month of Highway 14 construction between Mankato and Nicollet. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo October 2016.

But now at least 10 miles of Highway 14 are safer due to the completion of a construction project which expanded the roadway from two to four lanes between North Mankato and Nicollet. Several years of putting up with detours was worth it.

Westbound on the new Highway 14 heading to Nicollet.

Westbound on the new Highway 14 heading to Nicollet.

For the first time Thanksgiving weekend, my husband and I traveled on the recently-opened four-lane. It’s great. Simply great. As the smooth highway stretched before us, we considered how reassuring to have a median rather than rumble strips and pylons separating narrow traffic lanes. No worry about cross-over, head-on or rear-end crashes.

You'll see lots of semis traveling this stretch of rural Minnesota highway.

Lots of semis travel this stretch of rural Minnesota highway where rumble strips and pylons once separated lanes. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2013.

We considered how the traffic flowed rather than clogged. On the old two-lane, a driver traveling below the 55 mph posted speed or slow-moving farm equipment could back up traffic. And when drivers get impatient, they don’t always use good judgment.

The highway skirts Nicollet to the south. I wonder what impact this will have on businesses in this small town.

The highway skirts Nicollet to the south. I wonder what impact this will have on businesses in this small town.

As Mankato has grown, becoming a regional shopping and cultural destination, and as our society has become increasingly more mobile, traffic has continued to increase along Highway 14. The need has existed for quite some time to expand this roadway. It makes my occasional travel to the region faster, easier, safer. I can only imagine how grateful are those who live in this area.

The four-lane ends shortly after the exit into Nicollet.

The four-lane ends shortly after the exit into Nicollet.

Now, if funding would be appropriated to finish the expansion to four-lane between Nicollet and New Ulm, I’d be even more pleased.

West of Nicollet, signage warns drivers that Highway 14 goes back to two-lane.

West of Nicollet, signage warns drivers that Highway 14 goes back to two-lane.

But if it’s like the just-finished project, there will be decades of talk and multiple studies and crashes before that happens. Sigh.

© Copyright 2106 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Symbolism from the banks of the North Branch of the Zumbro River December 1, 2016

zumbro-river-234-river-overview

 

THE NORTH BRANCH of the Zumbro River ripples Hamm’s beer Land of Sky Blue Waters blue toward Pine Island Trailhead Park.

 

zumbro-river-236-blue-water

 

Through bare branched trees, sunlight flashes diamonds across the water’s surface.

 

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Light and darkness. Darkness and light. Intertwined, like good and evil.

 

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Farther down, as the river bends, I stand on the trail head bridge appreciating water so clear I can see the sandy, pebbly bottom. Sand sculpted by water. A bird’s footprint. Clarity. If only life was so simple, so clear, so still. Free of that which pollutes.

 

zumbro-river-228-vacant-bridge

 

I turn my attention momentarily away from the water to lines that shadow across the bridge deck. Lines like bars run the length of the pathway. So symbolic. Bars. They hold people in. They keep people safe. Yet they don’t when the system fails.

 

zumbro-river-221-randy-on-bridge

 

I peer through the bars that stop me from tumbling into the shallow water far below. Falling, falling, falling.

 

zumbro-river-225-close-up-of-shadows

 

Between the bars, I see my mini shadow and that of my husband. Shadows so near the water’s edge I fear they may fall in.

 

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The snake of the Zumbro slithers by, curving away until I can no longer see what lies beyond the bend. Beyond today.

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Note: I took these photos in October.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

History, mystery & more along the Straight River November 30, 2016

trail-1-deer-hunt-sign

 

THERE WOULD BE NO HIKING in the River Bend Nature Center as the sun shifted toward dusk on a recent Sunday afternoon.

The sign, “CAUTION DEER HUNT IN PROGRESS,” caused Randy to step on the brakes, back up the car and exit the entry road. “I don’t think I want to be in the woods this time of day,” he said, explaining that hunters prefer to hunt at dusk and dawn. I wasn’t about to disagree with him.

 

trail-3-limestone-buildings-up-close

 

So off we drove to find another trail, parking on a dead end street near the Straight River Trail in the northern section of Faribault. Our entry point started near an aged limestone building. We wondered aloud about the history of the structure so in need of repair.

 

trail-4-side-of-limestone-building-with-barrels

 

I would later learn from Jeff Jarvis, local historian and community enrichment coordinator for the City of Faribault Parks and Recreation Department, that the building was constructed from local limestone in 1903 as the Faribault Gas and Electric Company. Electricity was transmitted by wire from the Cannon Falls hydroelectric facility to the Faribault plant and offered to Faribault customers, he said.

 

trail-10-pallets-stacked-by-limestone-building

 

I knew none of this as I studied the historic structure, noting the blocked window openings, the crumbling limestone, the detailed workmanship, the piled pallets, the empty barrels. Melancholy seeped into my thoughts. I’m always dismayed when buildings like this, an important part of local history, succumb to weather and near abandonment.

After snapping photos, I continued along the paved trail, stepping aside as a biker whizzed by. In the distance a trio of walkers approached, one gripping a dog. I am often wary of meeting canines. But this service dog posed no threat.

 

trail-8-tire-by-river

 

Eventually, Randy and I veered from the paved path to a dirt trail leading to the Straight River. A massive fallen tree blocked us from reaching the river bank. We could only surmise that September flooding or past floods uprooted the many fallen trees in this flood plain.

 

trail-9-single-leaf-on-tree

 

I noticed a tire on a sandbar, a man in a blue jacket walking his dog on the other side of the river, a single leaf clinging to a twig.

 

trail-12-limestone-wall-and-limestone-building

 

trail-22-posts-in-woods

 

trail-13-padlock-on-pipe

 

Pink edged into the day, the light softening. Ideal for photography. We hiked back to the paved path, back toward the aged limestone building and then down once again toward the river along a rock hard trail. Clusters of pipes pocked the woods. We wondered about those and the padlocks fastened to some. A mystery.

 

trail-17-dirt-bike-in-woods

 

trail-19-dirt-bike-spinning-wheels

 

Soon the earth softened to river sand as the trail twisted. A buzz of noise cut through the silence, headlights flashing through the woods as an ATV approached, followed by a dirt bike. We stepped aside, allowing the vehicles to skirt us. And we wondered whether they should be there, near the river. Probably not.

 

trail-26-fishing

 

trail-30-faribault-woolen-mill

 

trail-32-sunset-over-the-cannon-river

 

We ended our outing at Two Rivers Park, the convergence of the Cannon and Straight Rivers. Men fished. On a nearby path, another man pedaled a three-wheeler, his wheelchair strapped to the back. A woman walked her dog. And I paused on a bridge to photograph the Faribault Woolen Mill and the golden sky.

 

trail-41-duck-swimming-in-cannon-river

 

And then, after crossing under Second Avenue via a recreational trail, I photographed a duck rippling water and light in the Cannon River. Lovely in the gloaming of this November day.
© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A photo moment: Two ladies buying squash November 29, 2016

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AS A PHOTOGRAPHER, I strive to document, to tell a story, to record moments and emotions, to photograph people and places and events. Succinctly stated, I desire to present life. As it is.

Nothing gives me greater satisfaction in photography than capturing candid memorable moments. Yes, I take posed photos. But I prefer not to. So if I’m cruising with my camera and someone alerts others to my presence, I typically stop photographing. I want to be unseen. Just there. Blending in. Not always easy to do with a bulky Canon DSLR camera slung around my neck. But I try.

Recently I was rewarded with one of those prize shots while photographing at Minnesota’s Largest Candy Store, in Jordan. A moment of everyday life right there, outside the signature yellow building along US Highway 169.

Two elderly women were shopping for squash as if it was the most important thing in the world on a weekday afternoon in October. And to them, it was important.

I had one chance to photograph them. I love the results—the joy and concentration on their faces as they peruse the squash. I notice the clothing. I can’t recall the last time I saw a woman wearing a kerchief. There are details, too, of oversized purse (not bag) and cane in hand.

I note also the care the merchandiser takes in marketing the squash with historical information, flavor notations and graphics.

The subject of this image is not extraordinary, newsworthy or remarkable. It’s simply ordinary. Everyday. Two ladies buying squash. And therein lies its value to me as a Minnesota photographer.

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Minnesota’s Largest Candy Store is now closed for the season and reopens in time for Memorial Day weekend.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling