Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Minnesota Prairie Roots top 10 posts for 2009 December 31, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 12:34 PM

NEARLY SIX MONTHS ago, I launched Minnesota Prairie Roots. The journey thus far has been all I expected. And more.

You, my readers, have responded with a humbling enthusiasm to the stories and photos I’ve shared. I am honored that you have embraced my posts, for blogging has truly become my passion. My readership continues to steadily grow and for that I am grateful.

Often, I am surprised at the posts which receive the most attention.

That said, I want to end 2009 by revealing the 10 most-viewed Minnesota Prairie Roots stories. Here they are, beginning with number 10:

10. “Cream cheese roll-out cookies, a Christmas tradition,” published on December 10, includes my favorite Christmas roll-out cookie recipe.

9. “Preserving the churches of Valley Grove near Nerstrand” ranks ninth among readers, but among the top in my personal favorites. I discovered these duo 1894 and 1862 churches atop a rural hillside while on an autumn drive. Much beauty lies within historic churches. I attempted to capture that in my October 9, 19 and 31 stories and photos from Valley Grove.

8. That legendary Minnesota icon, Paul Bunyan, drew many readers to my September 18 story, “Bemidji: beyond Paul Bunyan.” I published related stories on September 12 and 25 and October 10.

7. For years, I resisted attending a stream and gas engine show with my husband. But this year I decided to see what all the fuss was about by accompanying Randy to a Labor Day weekend event near Dundas. I’m glad I did. The results were some pretty interesting photos, shared in my September 17 post, “Tractors & a whole lot more at the Rice County Steam & Gas Engines Show,” and in several other posts.

6. The Faribault Farmers’ Market also offered plenty of photo opportunities and interviews with some interesting vendors. You readers apparently found the market interesting too as my July 23 story, “Farmers’ market vendors, their stories,” ranked number six.

Chocolate covered jalapenos

5. Ah, what can I say about Dennis and his chocolate-covered jalapeno peppers? I met Dennis peddling his jalapenos at the Faribault Farmers’ Market. If you haven’t already read my July 20 post, “Chocolate covered jalapenos,” do.

Judy Ostrowski applies henna art at Depot Park in Kenyon.

4. I haven’t quite figured out why my September 2 “Henna tattoos and body art by a gypsy woman” story has drawn such readership. But I will say that the tattoo artist I discovered at the Kenyon Rose Fest certainly drew my attention. So I suppose readers would find her equally intriguing.

Rachel Scott, the inspiration for Rachel's Challenge.

3. No other topic moved me as much as a presentation I attended by Rachel’s Challenge in Faribault. Rachel Scott was the first killed in the 1999 Columbine High School shooting. I knew I had to share what I learned and the result was my highly-popular November 5 post, “Rachel’s Challenge: Start a chain reaction of kindness.”

The Los 3 Reyes Bakery in historic downtown Faribault, at the center of a controversy over the exterior paint color. The bakery has since been repainted.

2. That “A controversy over color in downtown Faribault” ranks as number two among the most-viewed Minnesota Prairie Roots pieces comes as no surprise. The issue was a hot topic locally for weeks when a contingent of downtown business owners decided they did not like the vibrant color of a Hispanic bakery. I wrote about this controversy on September 30 and again on October 6 and November 9. I am still appalled that business people in my community would “tell” the owner of Los 3 Reyes Bakery that he needed to repaint his building a subtler color. I was hoping that Mariano Perez would resist. But, alas, the bakery has been repainted and an opportunity to embrace cultural differences has been bypassed.

A view of Immanuel from the church balcony.

1. Finally, the most-viewed post: “Preserving the past at Immanuel, Courtland,” published on August 26. In this story, I wrote about the home church of my maternal ancestors. Some might argue that my relatives bumped the numbers on this piece. But I don’t think so. Whatever the reasons, the statistics clearly define this as the top post for 2009.

What will 2010 bring to Minnesota Prairie Roots? Who knows? But I promise, I will continue to write and photograph with a passion. I love Minnesota (well, maybe not our winters). So continue to look here for writing and photos of the people, places, events, things and everyday life that define this place I call home.

Happy New Year!

© Copyright 2009 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


A wordsmith gets a dictionary for Christmas December 30, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 10:26 AM

My new 2007 dictionary on the left and a 2004 paperback dictionary on the right sandwich my 1969 outdated word resource book.

“WHY DO YOU NEED a new dictionary?” he asks. “You can just go online.”

Not me, son.

I want a hefty dictionary I can grab from the shelf, hold in my hands and page through to find word definitions.

And that’s exactly what I got from my husband for Christmas—the fourth edition of Webster’s New World College Dictionary.

Just to appease my 15-year-old technologically savvy son, I emphasize that a CD-ROM dictionary and thesaurus accompany the new 1,716-page hard-cover dictionary. All of this should keep me happily in the word business for years.

For a long time, I’ve known that my Random House Dictionary of the English Language needed replacing. But not until writing this blog post did I realize just how badly I needed a new word resource book. My tattered dictionary has a 1969 copyright.

I don’t know why that surprises me. After all, I carted this dictionary off to college in the mid-1970s and then hauled it from one town to another when I worked as a newspaper reporter.

More and more lately, I’ve become frustrated with the words that aren’t listed in that four-decades-old reference book. Try finding e-mail, cell phone, internet, website, blog or blogger in a 1969 publication. You won’t.

Times have changed. And like the computer that replaced the typewriter, it’s time for me to upgrade to a current dictionary.

© Copyright 2009 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


I love old barns December 29, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 12:46 PM

The early 1950s barn on the Redwood County dairy farm where I grew up has been basically abandoned.

Nature has taken its toll on the old barn as seen in the weathered wood.

“NOTHING DEFINES RURAL Minnesota more than a red barn.

Whether nestled among the rolling hills of southeastern Minnesota or anchored to the earth in the wide open spaces of the west, red barns symbolize the hope, the fortitude and the dreams of generations of Minnesotans.

For inside the walls of our barns, farm families have worked together, pitching manure, stacking bales, milking cows, building a livelihood as much as a lifestyle. Strong work ethics have been birthed here, life lessons taught.

While many red barns now stand empty, their roofs sagging, their paint peeling, they remain a symbol of all that is good about life in rural Minnesota.”

Several years ago, I wrote those paragraphs for a feature, “Color my world,” published in the fall 2005 issue of Minnesota Moments magazine. The story focused on creating crayon color names—barn red among them—that speak to the uniqueness of Minnesota.

Of the dozens and dozens of stories I’ve written for this Minnesota publication since 2004, I rank this feature as perhaps my most creative and fun.

Clearly, I love old barns.

During my childhood, I spent as much time in the barn as anywhere on my family’s Redwood County farm. I scraped manure into gutters, pushed wheelbarrows full of ground feed down the barn aisle, scooped silage, bedded straw, carried pails of milk from the barn to the milkhouse, fed calves, tossed bales of hay and straw down from the haymow…

I understand barns.

And I enthusiastically support barn preservation efforts, like those of Campbell’s Soup and Friends of Minnesota Barns. See http://HelpGrowYourSoup.com and http://friendsofminnesotabarns.org.

Campbell’s is undertaking a project to restore five barns selected through a voting process. One of the 10 finalist barns is a late 1940s or early 1950s dairy barn at The Farm on St. Mathias near Brainerd. You have until January 5 to cast your ballot for this Minnesota barn that has already been partially-restored with a new roof, dormers, cement floor and hay mow. See the above Campbell’s website to vote. (I had to laugh, though, at the error on the soup website stating that The Farm on St. Mathias is affiliated with the Crow Wine County Future Farmers of America Chapter. That should be Crow Wing.)

Friends of Minnesota Barns recently selected winners in an annual contest aimed at barn preservation. Top honors went to David and Marlyce Logan of Pipestone in the farm use category. Carl and Wanda Erickson of Hawley won in non-farm use. See the Friends website for additional information.

For those of you, who, like me, grew up on farms, there’s a certain comfort in knowing that barn preservation ranks high in importance to a major company like Campbell’s and to grassroots organizations like the Friends of Minnesota Barns.

Farm implements and fields, set against the backdrop of the prairie sky, stretch beyond an open side barn door.

Inside the barn where cows once stood and where I spent many a day feeding cows and doing other chores.

A broken window in my childhood barn reveals a patch of dandelions like those I often plucked for my mom.

The vintage baby stroller that once carried me and some of my siblings around the farmyard now sits abandoned in the barn.

The milkhouse attached to my childhood barn in Redwood County in southwestern Minnesota.

© Copyright 2009 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

(Barn photos were taken in the spring of 2009.)


A nun at Saint Scholastica Convent plays the piano backwards December 28, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 3:49 PM

Sister Ellen plays the piano backwards and from memory.

“SHE CAN PLAY BACKWARDS too,” 101-year-old Sister Arno says.

Yeah, right, I think.

But then Sister Ellen swings her legs around the piano bench, stretches her hands behind her back, crosses them and pounds out “Jingle Bells.”

If I didn’t see this, I might not believe it. But this nun at Saint Scholastica Convent in St. Cloud sits, back to the piano, playing holiday songs. Really. Sister Ellen can’t see her long, limber fingers gracefully moving across the keys. Yet, her performance is flawless, nurtured from decades of practice.

Her cousin taught her to play backwards while they were growing up next door to each other in Minneapolis. “She was crazy,” Sister Ellen says of her cousin, but in a kind way.

Crazy or not, this cousin taught Sister Ellen a skill that is entertaining me on this Sunday afternoon in late December. Ten members of the extended Helbling family, me included, have come to this retirement and assisted living facility on the edge of St. Cloud to visit our relative, Sister Arno, and sing a few holiday carols.

We are singing a cappella until Sister Ellen nearly leaps from her chair to accompany us on the piano. Suddenly our singing is livelier, louder. I sway to the music, take in my surroundings in this spacious gathering room that is flooded in natural light, festooned in holiday greenery. Behind me, a bird rattles in a cage. Across the room, I spy a nativity scene below a crucifix.

Sister Ellen's hands on the piano.

Outside, snowy woods embrace the building and we all take note of our beautiful surroundings as we sing, “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas.”

We don’t always know the words to every song, but we try. And the seven elderly women gathered here tell us how much they appreciate our efforts.

I am intrigued by these nuns, some of whom still wear traditional black and white habits on their heads. I grew up Lutheran and I always find this religious dress rather mysterious and saintly.

These women exude a certain sense of peace that permeates this place. I see peace in their smiles; hear peace in their gentle voices.

Sister Arno asks several times, “How long can you stay?”

“For awhile,” one of my sisters-in-law says.

So we sing. “Away in a Manger.” “Silent Night.”  “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer.” These nuns join in. We all clap, then sing some more.

And then we are leaving, but not before I step inside the on-site sanctuary and chapel to snap a few photos of stained glass windows. This place has left an impression upon my heart and so have the women who live here, these nuns whose very presence has blessed me.

Helbling family members greet 101-year-old sister Arno in a hallway at Saint Scholastica Convent in St. Cloud.

My sister-in-law Cheryl and Sister Arno sing Christmas carols.

One of several stained glass windows in the Saint Scholastica Convent sanctuary in St. Cloud.

© Copyright 2009 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Digging out from Minnesota’s winter storm December 26, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 3:56 PM

My daughters' cars are buried under a blanket of snow in our driveway on Christmas Eve morning.

Snow piled behind my oldest daughter's car measured nine inches deep on Christmas Eve morning.

SCOOP SHOVELFULS of snow tumble over the roof’s edge just above my office window, showering the snow-laden ground. Scrape, scrape scrape. Metal against asphalt shingles. And then, the occasional thump of heavy boots treading. I worry. Will this be the false step that sends my husband sliding off the icy roof?

But he insists that the snow needs to be removed. Fifteen inches on the garage, a bit less on the house. And so he toils, for the second straight day—up the ladder and then scrape and push, scrape and push, scrape and push.

He’s been battling the snow now since Thursday, just like everyone else in Minnesota.

My oldest daughter and I tried to help by shoveling the end of the driveway Thursday morning. He was off to work and I figured even the snowblower couldn’t cut through the chunks of heavy, compacted snow left by the snowplow. So we worked for an hour, scooping and tossing snow onto piles that towered over our heads.

Finally, we quit, exhausted, backs and hips sore from lifting and twisting and turning. When he came home, he said he could have blown away that snowplow-compacted snow with the snowblower. Oh.

Every day, he’s been out clearing the sidewalk and the driveway, and then a neighbor’s sidewalk and driveway of the dozen or so inches of snow that have fallen here the past few days. It is a never-ending chore.

This morning dawned bright and sunny. No snow or rain or sleet falling. Beautiful really.

City crews had cleared the road by our house, but left a large chunk of snow in the middle of our side street. Woe to the inattentive driver who struck that rock.

But when I looked later, the mini boulder had vanished. Good, I thought…until I spotted the Herculean chunk of snow in our driveway. More snow for my husband to move…

The perspective from which my daughter shot this image makes it appear as if Faribault received an unbelievable amount of snow. She was aiming her camera toward the neighbor's place on the hill.

© Copyright 2009 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Photos by Amber Helbling


Memories of Christmas from the Minnesota prairie December 25, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 5:25 PM

A nativity ornament adorns our family Christmas tree.

EVERY YEAR, MEMORIES of childhood Christmases rush back.

And what I remember most from those past years are not the presents, of which there were not all that many in our poor southwestern Minnesota farm family.

Rather, I recall the short, tinsel-strewn Christmas tree that stood on the end of the Formica kitchen table in our tiny farmhouse.

I remember Ham Day, when the Vesta Commercial Club gave away hams and Santa gave brown paper bags of candy and treats to us kids. Marshmallow Santas, peanuts, an orange, a Red Delicious apple.

But mostly, I savor the memories of Christmas Eve services at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Vesta. We Sunday School children filed into the packed sanctuary singing “O, come all ye faithful.”

We spoke our memorized pieces: “And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David;). ” I never wanted to recite that verse from Luke chapter 2 because it was too confusing with all of those towns to remember.

Alternating bible verses with songs, we told the Christmas story, sang, “Away in a manger,” “O little town of Bethlehem,” “Behold a branch is growing.”

The pastor preached and we Sunday School children fidgeted with the anticipation that only a child can feel at Christmas.

“For unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord,” one of us later proclaimed to the congregation.

And then, finally, we raced down the aisle sing-shouting “Joy to the world” as we clumped down the narrow basement steps to the church basement. Coats and boots. Men handing out goodie bags of hard ribbon candy and peanuts, an orange and a Red Delicious apple, and the sweetest of all, a Hershey bar.

Oh, sweet Christmas memories. May they be yours today as we celebrate the birth of Christ, the Saviour of the world, the reason for this day.

Merry CHRISTmas!

I saved this baby Jesus from a childhood Sunday School lesson. This decades-old Christ Child ornament hangs every Christmas on my family's Christmas tree and is among my most-cherished deocrations.

© Copyright 2009 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


An update on Minnesota’s holiday snowstorm December 24, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 11:58 AM

MY NEIGHBOR MUST HAVE too much time on his hands. As I look out my office window, I see Bob swiping snow from his overgrown shrubs with one of those snow-removal roof rakes.

And now I see a guy jogging along the side of the road.

I want to run outside and shout, “Hey, you, if you have so much energy, come and shovel us out!”

But I don’t. I continue to type and await my husband’s return from work to snow-blow us out of this pre-Christmas mess. I’m uncertain how much snow fell on Faribault yesterday, but, with the foot of white stuff we got two weeks ago, it’s more than we’ve had in years. This truly is a winter wonderland.

Right now, all is calm. No snow falling. No anything that would indicate we are in for more of this. Traffic buzzes along the main arterial street that passes by our house. The snowplow just opened a second lane on our side street.

My daughters’ cars are parked in the driveway like humpback whales stranded on the beach, unable to move.

But I am content. My kids are all home. We don’t have to travel tomorrow because the family gathering in southwestern Minnesota has been postponed a week.

Stay safe if you need to be out and about anywhere in Minnesota today.

© Copyright 2009 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Christmas through the art of a child

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 10:10 AM

WHEN MY FAMILY received this Christmas card, I knew I had to share it with you, my Minnesota Prairie Roots readers.

This is not just any card. My 5-year-old niece, Elisabeth, or Beth as we call her, created this image.

The simplicity of the card impresses me as does Beth’s ability, at her young age, to produce such a fine piece of art.

Turns out Beth made this nativity scene during a bi-weekly art class at the Lillian and Coleman Taube Museum of Art in Minot, N.D. My niece lived at the nearby Minot Air Force base before moving recently with her family to West Virginia. In designing her artwork, Beth tore and glued fabric scraps to a pre-cut form and then added rickrack, yarn, beads and such that had been donated to the museum for re-use.

Beth’s mom, Rena, said her daughter could have used buttons, silk flowers, sequins, and many more items, but chose to be frugal. That seems fitting for the subject, Christ’s birth in a stable.

“While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.” Luke 2: 6 – 7

May you, like Beth, celebrate the true meaning of Christmas, found in the birth of the Savior in a Bethlehem barn.


(The Taube Museum scans artwork and creates cards on cardstock, then sells 10 cards for $20. Proceeds benefit the museum. See www.taubemuseum.org.)

© Copyright 2009 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Approaching snowstorm changes Christmas plans in Minnesota December 23, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 11:19 AM

ALREADY, SOUTH DAKOTA Governor Mike Rounds has declared a state of emergency as the Midwest prepares for a major winter snowstorm.

This predicted storm is impacting all of us. Earlier this week I e-mailed my daughter who lives in La Crosse, Wisconsin, and advised her to travel home to Faribault on Tuesday rather than Wednesday. She listened.

I also e-mailed my daughter who lives in south Minneapolis and suggested she drive home after work Wednesday rather than waiting until Thursday. She’s listening too.

We’re all preparing for a storm that is expected to dump up to a foot or more of heavy, wet snow on Minnesota. That, combined with strong winds, will make travel treacherous, if not impossible.

In southwestern Minnesota, where my family was slated to journey on Christmas Day for the Kletscher holiday gathering, I bet authorities will swing snow gates across highways. In that part of the state, winds can whip even an inch of snow into a blizzard or white-out conditions. I grew up there, on the wide open prairie, and I understand the dangers.

As anticipated, I received an e-mail this morning from my oldest brother and his wife, who live in Westbrook and are hosting this year’s gathering: “Just wanted to connect with everyone to see what your thoughts are about rescheduling Kletscher Christmas. The way the weather sounds it doesn’t sound like anyone will be going anyplace…”

Probably not.

This isn’t the first time we’ve had to reschedule the Kletscher Christmas due to snowy weather. And two years ago, we drove 40 mph all the way from Vesta to Mankato on slippery, snow-covered roads during a Christmas Day snowfall. Thankfully the final 40-mile stretch to Faribault was better.

As much as I would like to spend Christmas with my extended family, I value more the safety of those I love. Besides I will be with my family—my husband and our three children. That is truly a gift in itself, especially since last year, my daughter, Miranda, was in Argentina for Christmas.

Wherever you are this holiday season, be safe and cherish the time spent with loved ones.


ORGANIZERS OF THE CHRISTMAS EVE service at historic Valley Grove Church near Nerstrand have wisely canceled that event. In an e-mail I just received, Gary Wagenbach of the Valley Grove Preservation Society writes: “Ken Sahlin and I have reviewed weather and other relevant details and decided on cancellation of our planned, and nicely prepared, Christmas Eve service. Forecasts call for sleet, snow (lots), and the person who plows the church drive doesn’t want the responsibility under the expected conditions.”

I anticipate many more churches will cancel Christmas Eve and/or Day services. So keep your radio tuned for the latest in cancellations and postponements.

© Copyright 2009 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


The ghostly Annie Mary Twente wishes me a “Mousy Christmas!”

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 8:40 AM

WHAT WOULD YOU DO if you received a priority mail package from the ghost of a girl buried alive in 1886? Would you open the box? Or would you toss it in the garbage?

I faced that dilemma on Tuesday when an unexpected package arrived with a return address of “A. Mary from Hanska.”

Instantly, I felt the hairs on my arm rise and not just because of the cold. You see, ever since I heard the true story of 6-year-old Annie Mary Twente, who fell into a coma and was buried alive near Hanska, I’ve been, might I say, taunted by A. M.

Usually, Annie sends only Halloween greetings. But this year she apparently felt I also needed a Christmas gift. Now typically, I like getting packages in the mail because, well, I seldom get them. But this was a bit different, coming from A. Mary.

So I turned to my cousin Dawn for advice. I explained my situation in an e-mail and she advised me to open the package, assuring me that Annie Mary wouldn’t send me anything mean (like the mouse head my husband mailed to his sister nearly 30 years ago. True story, I swear.) But Dawn suggested that the gift could possibly contain Annie’s bones.

Now that was an unsettling thought.

So I proceeded with more than a bit of caution. First, I opened the cardboard box, revealing a wrapped gift and a homemade card wishing me a “Mousy Christmas!” Annie had apparently learned how much I dislike, OK hate, mice.

Then inside, in her childish handwriting, she printed:

Now I was really nervous. I didn’t want to open a box that rattled and that even remotely suggested a mouse-related gift.

With horrible possibilities looming at the forefront of my brain, I tentatively unwrapped the present to discover chocolate candy kisses (at least one thing I like), a Christmas book about mice, a bat and a plastic mouse that poops red and green candies and quite tauntingly wishes me a “Merry Christmas! Guess who?”

Yeah, guess who. I’m guessing my not-so-innocent cousin Dawn and her mom, my Aunt Marilyn (AKA “A.M.”), are behind this whole Annie Mary charade. Upon closer inspection, I discovered a Morgan, Minnesota, postmark on the box. Surprise. Dawn and her family live in Morgan.

So, I decided to accuse my cousin and elicit a confession.

She responded: “Sure, I can confess if that is what you want, but then would you know for sure that I am telling the truth and not just confessing just to confess?!?  A Morgan postmark?  Well, I guess if Norman Bates was in Minnesota, then maybe Annie Mary was in Morgan?  Ever think of that?”

She was referring to Norman Bates of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Bates recently sent Dawn a letter, to which I later confessed authorship. (See my December 15 post, “My cousin receives a chilling letter from Norman Bates.”)

Then Dawn added this warning: “I would continue to watch your mailbox, A.M. may continue to keep in contact with you now.”

Uh, huh. And Norman Bates knows your address too, Dawn.

© Copyright 2009 Audrey Kletscher Helbling