Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Stranded at Westbrook-Walnut Grove Elementary School during a Minnesota blizzard, a teacher’s perspective January 28, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 10:05 AM

I took this photo of a "Welcome to Walnut Grove" sign some five-plus years ago. The small prairie town draws Laura Ingalls Wilder fans here in the summer months.

I discovered these unique street signs in downtown Walnut Grove several years ago.

WHAT HAPPENS WHEN a blizzard strands 100 students and staff overnight in a rural southwestern Minnesota school?

Well, I got an insider’s view from my nephew Adam, a teacher at Westbrook-Walnut Grove Elementary School, and among those hunkered down at the school Monday into Tuesday morning.

In answer to my e-mail inquiry, Adam reflects on his experience as “neat and interesting.” That isn’t exactly the response I expect from a 25-year-old who says, “I slept in my room, on the floor, in my chair, on the floor, in my chair. I didn’t get much sleep!”

But Adam’s positive attitude, on second thought, doesn’t surprise me as I read further into his e-mail and consider how small-town residents pull together in times of need.

And everyone certainly worked together in Walnut Grove, the Redwood County community best known as the childhood home of author Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Folks pitched in by bringing blankets and snacks to school or by taking extra children into their homes. Businesses helped by finding movies for the kids and by also donating snacks.

The generosity of Walnut Grove’s 625 residents and businesses speaks to the spirit of these strong prairie people who, on Monday into Tuesday, found themselves in the middle of an old-fashioned raging blizzard, much like those chronicled in Wilder’s books.

“We were told we were getting out at like 10 (Monday morning), but when the weather was so bad the buses couldn’t leave, we just went back to having class,” Adam says. “I think we all kind of accepted that we wouldn’t be going anywhere.”

At day’s end, Walnut Grove “town kids” were bused home, with my nephew riding along to check that a parent or sibling was home to care for the young students. “That helped get a few kids home, but there were still a lot at the school,” Adam says.

By a lot, he means a few preschoolers and then many kindergartners through sixth graders—a total of about 100 students—and staff stuck at WWG Elementary.

So, naturally, I wondered, how did staff keep 100 students busy and happy?

Well, Adam tells me, kids played dodge ball and basketball in the gym. Some colored in the cafeteria while others watched a movie shown on a projector. Still others played games on the computer. “It seemed like the kids always had something to do,” he says.

My nephew credits the cooks with serving a delicious “mix of this and that” supper which included kid-friendly foods like mac and cheese, hot dogs and that Minnesota standby, Tator Tot Hotdish. They also munched on popcorn and other snacks and, Tuesday morning, were offered cereal, fruit, cheese and juice for breakfast.

First, though, students had to get through the night. For the younger students, that meant sleeping in classrooms, while third through sixth graders slept on wrestling mats in the wrestling room. Adam assures me that townsfolk brought plenty of blankets to go around.

Once the kids were asleep—and Adam didn’t tell me when that may have been—teachers had lots of time to talk. The whole experience, he reflects, was “a good time to bond with other teachers and staff members.” That’s my nephew with his always-positive attitude.

But staff members weren’t the only ones bonding. Adam observes: “I think that it was just nice to see the older kids helping take care of and have fun with the younger students.”

Around 9:30 a.m. Tuesday, when winds had subsided and travel was deemed safe, buses finally departed Westbrook-Walnut Grove Elementary School, more than 24 hours after students arrived there for Monday classes.

That ended one long sleep-over for my tired nephew-teacher. Yet, Adam concludes, “Honestly, I thought the experience was neat and interesting.”

The prairie near Walnut Grove is especially beautiful in the summer. I took this photo of prairie flowers at the Laura Ingalls Wilder dug-out site north of Walnut Grove.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling