Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Blogging about concerts and more July 31, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 10:47 AM
Thursday night band concert in Central Park, Faribault

Thursday night concert in Central Park, Faribault

I’ll be the first to tell you I’m not much of a musician. In fact, I can’t even read a note.

Not that I didn’t want to learn about music. As a child, I longed to play the piano. But our family had no extra money for a piano, let alone room in our cramped 1 ½- story farm house for the space-hogging instrument.

Instead, I got a toy accordion for Christmas one year and practically played the keys right off the squeeze box. I didn’t need to learn notes; I had a cheat sheet to guide my fingers.

Despite my lack of musical knowledge, I savor music, like that which fills Central Park in Faribault nearly every Thursday night during the summer. For years, my husband and I loaded up the lawn chairs and the kids for the weekly “Concerts in the Park” series. Now it’s just my husband and me, and the lawn chairs.

You can read about our recent concert experience in a blog, “Listening to the blues, savoring the moments in Central Park,” posted on the Midwest Mix Magazine website, http://www.midwestmixmagazine.com/.

I’ll be writing occasional blogs for this free-distribution southern Minnesota arts magazine which debuted with the July/August issue.

You can view the entire magazine online or pick up a copy. Check the website for locales. This magazine is packed with stories centering on the artistic side of southern Minnesota—an interview with a St. Peter poet, a feature on an up-and-coming young blues singer from Sleepy Eye, an article about Fieldstone Vineyards near Morgan, book and music reviews and more.

Even two stories by me, about fellow folk blogger Beth Johanneck (and her friend Melanie Dunlap) and about Berne Swissfest, grace the pages. I encourage you to check out Midwest Mix Magazine. And visit Beth’s blog, http://countrymouse.blogharbor.com/. She, like me, grew up in southwestern Minnesota. Beth’s prairie roots show in her down-to-earth writing and photography.

That said, take time this summer to attend an outdoor concert, even if you can’t read a musical note or carry a tune.


Minnesota Prairie Roots update

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 8:13 AM
My office, where I create and write.

My office, where I create and write.

Thanks to you, my readers, views of Minnesota Prairie Roots blogs have reached nearly 600 in two weeks.

That’s small potatoes in the blogging realm, but to me personally, it’s a good feeling to know that others appreciate my writing and photography.

Honestly, there is nothing I would rather do than write.

And although I’ve always done photography as a part of my writing (editors like writers who can also shoot photos), I’ve gotten into the art a lot more since acquiring a digital camera. With no film or costs to worry about, I shoot endlessly, from journalistic and artistic perspectives.

But back to blogging. I’ve grown to love this writing style more than any other as I blog from the viewpoint of a journalist, with a personal touch.

Blogging has taught me to truly “see” everything by fully engaging my senses. I observe the sights, the sounds, the smells, sometimes even the taste and touch, of my world. And then, I infuse that into my writing.

From a purely mechanical angle, my writing has improved as I strive to find the right words—the strongest verbs, a creative phrase, a concise sentence, a zinger ending—to share my stories. When I’ve nailed it, I know it, and this gives me great pleasure.

Blog ideas fill my head. They are everywhere, as close as my backyard or half way across the state. I lug my camera most places, except to the grocery store (and sometimes I wish I had taken it there), medical appointments and church. I’ve missed some great photo opportunities when I’ve left my camera at home. So now I just grab it on my way out the door.

A notebook and pen are always as close as my purse, jeans pocket or camera bag. Sometimes I even get up at night to jot down an idea or a phrase that has popped into my brain when I can’t sleep.

I love this craft called writing.

Thank you, my readers, for embracing Minnesota Prairie Roots. Submit your thoughts and comments. I value your voice. And please tell others about my blog.

I promise to continue writing with a passion, sharing stories and photos that entertain and inform, and that give you a renewed appreciation for the world around you.


Driving around Rice County lakes July 30, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 8:07 AM
Kelly Lake on a July afternoon

Kelly Lake on a July afternoon

Fishing for sunfish on Kelly Lake

Fishing for sunfish on Kelly Lake

Dog days of summer, Kelly Lake

Dog days of summer, French Lake

Sometimes a Sunday afternoon drive can be good for the soul.

I’m not talking destination driving here—traveling to Grandma’s house or rushing to another sporting event or speeding down the freeway en route to a specific place.

I am talking a slow, leisurely drive along back roads, through the country-side, turning when you feel like it, stopping when you spot something interesting, simply appreciating that which lies before you.

Roll down the windows. Turn off the cell phone. Leave the radio turned off.

Look and truly see. Listen and truly hear. Breathe in the air. Take it all in.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, my husband and I did just that, driving past Roberds, Mazaska, French, Kelly-Dudley, Shields, Mud, Hunt, Cedar, Wells and Cannon lakes, clustered in Rice County.

Although I’ve lived in the area for 27 years, I had never traveled many of these country roads. Or if I had, my pace had been hurried.

So on this recent Sunday afternoon, we slowed for the turtle crossing the road, paused to see the beauty of flowers flourishing in road ditches, stopped to talk with the family angling for sunfish, appreciated the clouds reflecting upon the still lake, admired the blooming water lilies worthy of a Monet painting, noticed the rows of alfalfa ringing the hillside.

All of this we saw, because we chose to slow down, on a Sunday afternoon in July.

Daisies and clover near Roberds Lake.

Daisies and clover near Roberds Lake.

Crossing the road, near Roberds Lake.

Crossing the road, near Roberds Lake.

(Watch for more Sunday afternoon drive photos in an upcoming blog.)

Touring Yellowstone, in Minnesota July 29, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 8:11 AM
Ramsey Falls

Ramsey Falls

You would never expect this terrain of steep hillsides and crowded woods and a winding river smack dab in the middle of the flat prairie.

As a child growing up among acres of corn and soybeans with only the occasional grove to break the endless vista of sky and fields, I felt like a foreigner here.

The trees were too close, the roads too curvy and narrow, the heights too frightening.

Yet, I grew to love this spot, this “Little Yellowstone of Minnesota,” Alexander Ramsey Park in Redwood Falls.

Last weekend, while driving through Redwood on the way to a family reunion in Vesta 20 miles farther west, we stopped at this largest of Minnesota’s municipal parks (at 219 acres), located several blocks off Minnesota Highway 19.

First stop, the zoo. I remember the days of monkeys and bears, and buffalo so close you could nearly grab them by the horns. I must settle now for viewing the buffalo from a safe distance through two layers of chain link fence. Oddly, I miss the fear I experienced as a child standing so near these massive beasts.

My favorite, the mischievous monkeys that were occasionally turned loose by equally mischievous pranksters, are long gone. So are the bears.

Instead, a peacock and goats and prairie dogs and ducks and deer occupy the zoo pens.

A stone’s throw away from the riverside zoo, I admire the work of Works Progress Administration Project workers who constructed the stone swayback bridge in 1938. I have always wondered why the bridge was built this way, dipping down, tempting the river to rise up and spill across the roadway. I still wonder.

I note the low water depth and the unpleasant smell of the muddy Redwood River that flows under the bridge and winds through the park.

Later we drive over that swooping bridge, twisting through the park along the narrow paved road that always leaves me hoping we won’t meet another vehicle, especially on the blind 10 mph hairpin curve.

We exit to the falls, the main attraction in this scenic park. Already, I can feel my pulse quickening at the thought of standing at the overlook, peering far below to Ramsey Creek gushing over the rocks.

Camera in hand, I edge inch-by-inch toward the look-out. I back away, move forward again until, finally, I can stand there long enough to compose and shoot several pictures of the falls. The roar of rushing water, and of fear, fills my ears.

And then, a short walk away, a swinging bridge to conquer. The boards rattle and sway beneath my feet. I prefer solid ground, my feet touching the earth.

But still, despite my preference for flat land uninterrupted by trees, I appreciate the beauty of this place, this “Little Yellowstone of Minnesota,” right here, in the heart of the prairie.

Swinging bridge near Ramsey Falls

Swinging bridge near Ramsey Falls

1938 WPA bridge

1938 WPA bridge

The Redwood River

The Redwood River

Zoo deer

Zoo deer

Playful zoo goats

Playful zoo goats


Water fights and catfish in Franklin July 28, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 8:19 AM
Franklin Catfish Derby Days water fight

Franklin Catfish Derby Days water fight

Saturday afternoon and we are westbound on Minnesota Highway 19, slowing for the tiny town of Franklin. I look to the south. And there, across the ball field, I glimpse a fire truck and the arc of spraying water.

“We have to stop,” I immediately tell my husband. “They’re having a water fight.”


Decades have passed since I’ve watched this form of small town festival entertainment and I am determined now to see it.

We turn off the highway, drive past the blockaded streets and find a parking spot only a half block from the park-side residential street where volunteers from four communities—Franklin, Morton, Litchfield and Danube—are competing in a Fire Department Water Ball Fight during Franklin’s annual Catfish Derby Days.

They are aiming their water hoses at a bright red beer keg suspended high in the air on a cable, trying to push the barrel to the other end. Spectator bleachers remain mostly empty as folks have unfolded lawn chairs farther from the action, avoiding the water that showers the area in this afternoon of fierce wind.

Some of the kids, though, frolic in the spray, splashing through the water that runs along the curb.

From the sidelines, firefighters shout encouragement at their trios of team members as the keg wobbles and sways. Finally, when it is over, they knuckle each other, slap each other on the back, swig another taste of beer.

I hope there’s no fire in the Franklin area today, I think.

Then we are heading back to our car and before us walk three boys whom I saw earlier, huddled beside a tree watching the water ball fight. One of them is wrapped in the warmth of a Mickey Mouse towel. A woman walks beside them, a stash of towels tucked under her arm.

The scene makes me smile. So does the sight of three other boys dumping their bikes on a street corner before racing toward the park.

I imagine for a moment that this is the stuff of Norman Rockwell paintings, even though I know in reality no such idyllic place exists.

As we drive west out of town and back toward the highway, I am searching for a fiberglass catfish statue. I see none. But that seems somehow OK for a small Minnesota town which, later Saturday evening, will host a “Kiss the Catfish” contest.

From the sidelines, cheering on the teams.

From the sidelines, cheering on the teams.

Two Litchfield firemen aim to win.

Two Litchfield firemen aim to win.

Walking home after watching the water fights.

Walking home after watching the water fights.


A gathering of family on the Minnesota prairie July 27, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 9:24 AM

I’m standing on the edge of the park, looking to the northwest, across the soybean field at a sky tinged pink by the fading sun. I have missed the best of a prairie sunset. I know that.

But yet, I savor these moments, breathing in the cool night air on a summer evening as perfect as I’ve ever seen in southwestern Minnesota. This is a day made even better by its ending, here in the Vesta Park, gathered with family for a weekend reunion.

Already we have sipped homemade wine, toasted super giant marshmallows over the camp fire, belted out Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire, swapped stories of teenage antics.

As the evening progresses, we reminisce about Chinese jump rope made from recycled underwear elastic and about Old Maid. And running around dark farm yards playing Starlight, Moonlight, Hope to See the Ghost Tonight.

Laughter slices through the darkness.

Flames flare in the camp fire as more wood is added. Later, we draw our lawn chairs closer to the fire, absorbing its warmth.

Above us, stars emerge, filling the sky. Later, my son and niece will tell me they saw six shooting stars while lying on the basketball court with a cluster of star gazing kids.

“Twinkle, twinkle little star…” the kids sing. I tip my head, spot the Big Dipper, and take in the vastness of this prairie sky, the sky I knew so well as a child.

I am back here now, for this weekend, to be with the family that I love—the aunts, the uncles, the cousins, some of my siblings and their families, my mom—reconnecting, remembering, celebrating and making new memories.

Already, we are planning to return next year on Saturday, to extend our family reunion beyond the typical Sunday afternoon potluck. We’ve chosen a theme, recruited volunteers, come up with a list of games

And we’ve vowed to learn all of the words to Ring of Fire.


$88 rocks July 25, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 9:13 AM


“It’s not 88 degrees.”

No way.

The billboard with the red electronic double eights flashing at me from the side of Interstate 35 south of the Twin Cities was absolutely, undeniably wrong. The outdoor temperature read closer to 70 degrees.

Laughter jumbled inside the car like rough stones tumbling inside a rock polisher.

“That’s not the temperature,” he said, he being my husband. “That’s the room rate.”

“Oh,” I answered.

Now it all made sense. Mystic Lake Casino and Hotel was advertising room rates, not providing a friendly service by flashing the current temperature.

“Why then” I wondered aloud, “do they have a sign like that? Do they raise the rates on weekends, lower them during the week?”

“Maybe,” he said.

Sometimes the rocks inside my head require a bit of polishing. But other times I like them just the way they are—unique, imperfect and rough around the edges.


It’s no Lost in Space, but… July 24, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 8:41 AM
My son's mouse pad & childhood toys

My son's mouse pad & childhood toys

Tuesday night, and we are standing on our driveway, looking up the hill to the northwest.

I am the first to spot it, the dot of bright light that is more than a star, different than a planet and most definitely not an airplane.

“I think I see it,” I point. “Is that it, there between the trees?”

We move a bit to our left and again, I see it, this brilliant spot gliding in a straight course across the sky. The bright blip disappears behind the canopy of trees, hidden from our view.

But then the light emerges, this time sailing across the clear expanse of inky sky.

We—my husband, son and I—have just seen the International Space Station.

Although I’m not much of a space person, this sighting seems rather cool even to me.

So the next night, a half hour later, just minutes before 10:00, we are staked out in our driveway again. My 15-year-old space enthusiast son has coaxed my husband and me off our comfy spots on the recliner and couch. I consider just ignoring his invitation to view the space station. I am tired. But then I realize that if a teen wants his parents beside him, sharing his interest, then I best stand beside him.

Wednesday evening we are cranking our necks to the sky almost directly above our house. This view is as good as we will ever get of the space station, which travels some 220 miles above the earth, making nearly 16 orbits daily, moving at an average speed of 17,227 mph.

This is impressive stuff.

As we watch, we wonder. Can those aboard already see New York? And has the toilet, which wasn’t working last week, been fixed?

I learn, too, that we can see the space station because it reflects off the sun. “Oh my gosh, Mom, didn’t you know that?” I hear.


My space knowledge is limited, simply because the subject doesn’t interest me. Unless you count Lost in Space, the science fiction television show that aired in the mid to late 1960s. That interested me. But even then, I think I was more intrigued by the cute Major Don West and in hating the villainous Dr. Zachary Smith than the space aspect of the show.

And just for the record, when my baby brother was born in August 1967, my sister and I lobbied for our Mom to name him Don, after our sci-fi sweetheart. She named him Bradley.

I think, too, how very impressed my 15-year-old would have been, sitting before a television screen watching Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin step onto the moon 40 years ago on July 20, 1969.

All of these thoughts flash through my mind as I gawk at the sky, at the International Space Station on a clear and cool Minnesota night.


Farmers’ market vendors, their stories July 23, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 9:15 AM

SHOPPING A FARMERS’ market encompasses more than shopping. Here there are people to meet and stories to hear in an outdoor marketplace that embraces the senses. This is an experience. Accompany me on a recent Saturday morning as I talk to some of the vendors at the Faribault Farmers’ Market.

Lois' jellies and pickled beans

Lois' jellies and pickled beans

Lois is here with her 91-year-old mother, Mary, eager to talk about the jelly she’s made with huckleberries imported from a friend in Whitefish, Montana. In exchange for the huckleberries, Lois and her husband, Ed, ship raspberries west. Lois worked seven hours to make the nine jars of huckleberry jelly she’s selling for $6.50 a jar.

Across the sidewalk, Dennis pushes his “chocolet covered jalapenos,” his “pickeled eggs,” his breads. He’s “Mr. Betty Crocker,” Lois says.

Virgil's lily

Virgil's lily

Nearby, Virgil showcases sprigs of lilies, buttery yellow and burnt orange, and stalks of gladiolus, unfurling in pale pinks and purples and orange, the colors of a sunset. He has gathered these from his Wetaota Gardens along Cedar Lake. Wetaota, he tells me, means “the lake with many islands.” As I photograph his flowers, Virgil shares that his florals have just garnered more than a dozen ribbons at the Rice County Fair, including grand champion for an Asiatic lily called Virgil. The judges were right; his flowers sing poetic in their beauty.

Paulette's clothespin bags

Paulette's clothespin bags

Around the corner, crafter Paulette sits in a lawn chair reading a mystery by Mary Higgins Clark. I stop, run my hands across the soft flannel pillow cases Paulette sews, admire the straight, even stitches on the clothespin bags she’s made, dress-style cotton bags so flowery and dainty and pretty I think they should be dresses for little girls.

Jewelry at Rhonda's table

Jewelry at Rhonda's table

Then, I circle Rhonda’s tables, loaded with merchandise—homemade shampoos, lotions, soaps, scrubbies, dish cloths, rugs, jewelry, knit purses and more—crafted by her and two friends.

Chuck's maple syrup

Chuck's maple syrup

Jirik's maple syrup

Jirik's maple syrup

Further down, at neighboring tables, Chuck and siblings Erin and Billy, with their mom, peddle maple syrup. “Where is Hill City?” I ask Chuck, who is selling his “Pure Maple Syrup from Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Hill City, MN.” South of Grand Rapids 15 miles, he tells me. His brother Tom has a cabin there and he helps him make the maple syrup. They chose the syrup’s name, he says, for its marketability.

Erin and Billy push their maple syrup, made by dad, Jim. Billy points to a one-pint plastic jug, says he’s missing from the artwork that shows four kids and a dog in a winter scene. He’s the youngest in a family of five siblings and will turn seven on Kolacky Days weekend.

Margaret's kolacky

Margaret's kolacky

Margaret, a full-blooded Czech, offers an array of foods that include kolacky in flavors like prune, poppy seed and raspberry. She’s sold all but one of the 35 packages of Czech pastries she’s brought to the market along with cookies, popcorn, jams and honey. I admire the red and white enamel ware pan that holds the last of her oatmeal chocolate chip cookies.

Kathy & Connie's cookies

Kathy & Connie's cookies

On my final pass past the stands, I stop to chat with Kathy. She and her friend Connie are seasoned vendors here. They’ve carted dozens and dozens of their homemade cookies (today 13 varieties like oatmeal raisin, peanut butter chocolate chip and molasses), breads and bars to the park. Kathy makes no apology for offering baked goods in a marketplace that brims with healthy, garden fresh produce.

“Chocolate is a vegetable,” she says. And then she laughs.


Tasting summer in a tomato July 22, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 10:50 AM
Sweet 100 tomatoes

Sweet 100 tomatoes

The first of my Sweet 100 cherry tomatoes are ripening, morphing from green to yellow to red-orange.

Already, I have popped several into my mouth, straight from the vine, warm from the sun.

As I reach through the wire tomato cage for more, my hand brushes against the rough, hairy plant stems. I pluck several red orbs, toss them into my mouth.

They taste of sky, of sunshine, of summer days in Minnesota.

These tomatoes pack flavor in each juicy burst.

Then I lift my hand to my face, breathe in the strong scent of tomato vine that clings to my skin, the smell that I will later wash away with soap and water.

But for now I allow the pungent odor to linger, reminding me of summer’s bounty, of these sun-ripened tomatoes that, through a lengthy and cold Minnesota winter, I’ve longed to eat.