Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

People-watching at a Minnesota State Band concert July 31, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 12:19 PM
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WHENEVER I ATTEND A CONCERT, I tend to people-watch as much as I musician-listen.

Take Thursday evening when my husband and I arrived more than a half hour late for an outdoor performance by the Minnesota State Band in Faribault’s Central Park. I immediately noticed our friend Howard dozing in a lawn chair next to a tree next to the drinking fountain.

Randy and I exchanged smirks as we walked by and later, when Howard opened his eyes, my husband greeted him with a cheery “Good morning!” Our friend, who also happens to be a distant relative, claims he wasn’t sleeping, just resting his eyes. Uh huh.

Then I observed the guy lounging sideways on the grass, belly hanging out of his red t-shirt. Yeah, well, that was more like a quick glance, turn-away-the-head type of look.

I wondered about the woman wearing pants topped by a long sleeve shirt topped by a short sleeve shirt. Wasn’t she hot in pants and double layers on this warm, breezeless summer night?

But mostly, I like to watch the kids because they are, for lack of a better word, cute. They dance. They frolic. They sway, uninhibited, to the music. While I didn’t see any dancing kids at this concert, I have in the past. Just watching them makes me smile, makes me happy.

At this concert, I had to settle for observing a fair-haired toddler who, hands clenched by older siblings (or maybe cousins or neighbors) walked back and forth along the sidewalk, occasionally straying to the grass. He was just too cute.

Lest you think I ignored the music, you would be wrong. Randy and I listened to exactly four songs performed by the Minnesota State Band (remember, we arrived late), which I had to research afterward because I’d never heard of the group. They are, according to the band Web site, the official band of the state of Minnesota. In existence since 1898, this non-profit is comprised of volunteers and is the only remaining state band in the United States.

I’m no music person, meaning if a band misses notes or isn’t quite in sync, I typically won’t notice. Howard told us later that the band’s lack of joint practice, as noted by the director, showed a few times. The musicians fooled me because I thought the songs sounded just fine.

We listened to a march, then the melancholy Irish melody, “Danny Boy,” then another song I don’t recall and, finally, a familiar, inspiring patriotic march that I only could place as a John Philip Sousa piece.

“What’s that song? I know that song,” I whispered to Randy as my flip-flopped foot flip-flopped back and forth to the tempo of the music.

“They play it on the Fourth of July,” he answered. “Ask Howard, he’ll know.”

And, indeed, our friend knew that the Minnesota State Band, on this perfect summer evening in the heart of a mid-sized Minnesota community, had performed “Stars and Stripes Forever” before an appreciative and alert (well, mostly alert) crowd.


THE MINNESOTA STATE BAND returns to the Faribault area on Sunday, August 8, when they will present two concerts at the Vintage Band Music Festival in neighboring Northfield.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Minnesota teen debuts Dylan-style hit, “The Unforgettable Storm” July 30, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 8:27 AM
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TAKE NOTE, DYLAN FANS. Minnesota musician Emily Mattison’s debut performance of a Bob-Dylan-style song this past weekend has fans buzzing about this talented teen.

Strumming her guitar and following the talk-sing style of Dylan, the 16-year-old presented “The Unforgettable Storm” to a small-town audience in a city park edged by cornfields.

Fans embraced and applauded the young singer for her original lyrics that accurately captured one woman’s experience during a severe storm that ravaged the state Friday night.

Emily sang this rendition of a memorable ride through that storm following the Laura Ingalls Wilder Pageant in Walnut Grove:

Going home to Vesta

From the Pageant

A bunch of happy campers…not.


It was storming

The wind was howling

It was one of those Minnesota Moments*


My heart was pounding

The weeds were laying flat

And, mom, I saw them

It was very scary


At the Pageant

I’d had a good time

Watching Laura Ingalls in real life


But after it ended

The ride home was terrible


I put my camera on the floor

I don’t know what I was thinking

I was just waiting and praying


When the ride

Finally ended

I screamed “thank you, God!”


Then I went to my mother

And I gave her a hug

“that was so scary”


But now we can joke about it

I don’t have to worry about it

I wish I’d taken some pictures

Of the unforgettable storm


The unforgettable storm

Yeah, the unforgettable storm.


Yup, Emily’s version of my experience caught on the road with three other family members during a severe thunderstorm that packed 70 mph winds is spot on accurate. I did enjoy the Laura Ingalls Wilder Pageant in Walnut Grove. I did see the weeds blown flat along the side of the road.

My heart was pounding. I was praying. I did set my camera bag at my feet in the rocking car. (Why didn’t I take pictures?)

Yes, I hugged my mom and said, “that was so scary” when we safely reached her house an hour after we began the 20-mile drive back to Vesta.

I didn’t scream thanks to God, but I did quietly thank him. That’s OK, Emily. “Scream” sounds more dramatic and there was a lot of drama Friday night, at least for me.

The storm was, as Emily sang in verse three, “one of those Minnesota Moments.” A clever choice of words given I write for Minnesota Moments magazine.

Thanks, Emily, for putting a humorous spin on a truly terrifying experience. And thanks for publicly performing your original hit, per my gentle (maybe not-so-gentle) prodding at the annual Kletscher family reunion.

I loved the song, even if I didn’t love the unforgettable storm.

Minnesota musician Emily Mattison

TWIN CITIES AREA musician Emily Mattison is a member of the Greater Twin Cities Youth Symphonies, has been playing violin for six years, guitar for two and nine months ago began strumming the ukulele. She wrote the lyrics for “The Unforgettable Storm” in about 20 minutes.

© Text Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

© Lyrics Copyright 2010 Emily Mattison

Photo courtesy of Ronda Mattison


Oh, the horror of a paint-by-number painting July 29, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 2:01 PM
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SEE THESE EYES? My second daughter claims they creep her out, that the eyes resemble those of a deranged person in a horror movie.

The horrible, horrible eyes.

Then look at these eyes. Nothing wrong with these brown beauties, she says.

The brown beauties.

Perhaps the hair style, the cut of the bangs, lends to her uneasiness, her favoring one face over the other.

Or possibly she finds the presence of numbers, bleeding through the translucent skin, rather disturbing, adding to the macabre element.

I’m not going to admit to her, not even hint, that I understand her viewpoint. I can’t. I won’t.

These are, after all, my masterpieces. I tediously, laboriously, carefully, proudly painted these ballerinas as a child from a paint-by-number kit.

My ballerinas, painted number by number.

Up until recently, these portraits had been stashed in a chest of drawers. But one day I decided the time had come to unveil my artwork. So I propped the old new art upon a dining room shelf.

I didn’t expect the men in the house to notice the change. If they did, they never uttered a word, not one single comment about the big-eyed ballerinas.

But my daughter, my second-born, who possesses an artistic side and, like me, is always observant of her surroundings, noticed.

I wish she’d kept her horrible opinion about the horrible eyes to herself. Now I can’t shake the feeling that the blue-eyed ballerina, prior to becoming a paint-by-number model, may have starred in a horror film.

The beautiful brown-eyed ballerina.

The horrifying ballerina with the frightening eyes, the fixating gaze.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Making memories at a Minnesota family reunion with red Jell-O and, um, underwear July 28, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 11:41 AM
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UNDERWEAR AND CHEWING GUM, packets of Jell-O and Kool-Aid, a jar of pickles and even a bag of flour—all were part of the annual Kletscher family reunion held last weekend in Vesta.

First a little background. Vesta, a town of about 300, lies in Redwood County in southwestern Minnesota along State Highway 19 between Redwood Falls and Marshall. Every July descendants of Henry and Ida Kletscher, my grandparents, gather at the park in our ancestral hometown. I didn’t take a head count, but I estimate that 150 relatives attended this year’s reunion.

This shows a small section of the Kletscher family gathered for a trivia contest at the annual reunion in Vesta.

But back to that underwear and the other listed items. As a co-coordinator of this year’s reunion, I organized a family trivia contest complete with give-aways. To win prizes, audience members had to quickly shout out answers.

Now, I’m certain you’re wondering what I could have asked that prompted me to offer underwear as a prize. Well, here’s the question: “At family gatherings, the girl cousins played Chinese jump rope, which was made from what material?” The answer: recycled underwear elastic. Yes, because we were poor, we had to be resourceful. Rather than buy an elastic Chinese jump rope, we improvised by cutting elastic from worn-out undergarments and tying the pieces together.

I’m quite certain my niece Tara wishes she hadn’t been the first to respond to that Chinese jump rope question. She appeared shocked, maybe horrified is a better description, when I pulled out over-sized striped underwear and then tossed the panties her way. Later I would discover that she left her panty prize behind (on purpose, I’m sure). Big mistake. Big, big mistake.

Here’s another trivia question: “What was a popular food prize awarded to winners of Kletscher bridal shower games? This food was also served at family birthday gatherings.” As any good Minnesotan knows, that would be Jell-O, specifically red Jell-O. Naturally, I tossed out boxes of strawberry gelatin.

Then, the question that generated the most interest from the young girls: “Who made gum wrapper chains and strung them in her bedroom?” That would be my cousin Diane who carefully crafted discarded gum wrappers into chains. And, here’s the incredible part. Diane still had one of those decades-old chains and, per my request, brought it to the reunion. This intrigued the preteens and teens. And, as you would expect, I gave away packages of gum.

Aunt Iylene shows off the gum wrapper chain made by my cousin Diane decades ago.

Trivia contest winners, Diane, my mom and my niece Tara, pose with their "medals." The trio also received Smarties candy for being so smart. The losing teams received Dum Dum suckers.

So our reunion went…beginning with several families attending the Laura Ingalls Wilder pageant, “Fragments of a Dream,” in Walnut Grove on Friday evening. (Read my July 27 post on the memorable ride home. My cousin Ronda’s daughter Emily wrote a song, “The Unforgettable Storm,” performed on Sunday.)

Saturday evening we gathered at the Vesta Park for a campfire, wine tasting, singing, a texting competition, an outdoor movie and old-fashioned games like gunny sack and three-legged races. I laughed until my stomach hurt and then laughed some more.

Sunday brought the usual potluck followed by an afternoon of activities. Typically we eat and just sit and visit. But in an attempt to generate enthusiasm and more interest in the reunion, especially among the younger generation, we added planned events.

We themed this year’s reunion to the celebration of my cousin Jeff’s 20th wedding anniversary. Unfortunately his wife, Janet, could not attend as she was working, or so Jeff told us. More likely, Janet did not attend because she is not real. Twenty years ago Jeff pulled off an April Fool’s Day prank by announcing a marriage that was totally fraudulent/made-up/imaginary. Jeff, good sport bachelor that he is, allowed us to celebrate his “anniversary” in style. I’m not sure he expected a garter and bouquet toss, anniversary cake, crepe paper and bells, and a pile of gifts.

My husband and I and a handful of young girls decorated the park shelter and a screened tent with bells and crepe paper in honor of Jeff and Janet's 20th wedding anniversary.

My cousin Dawn, with the help of daughter Megan, made two beautiful anniversary cakes for her brother. My Uncle Wally and Aunt Janice made and decorated the less attractive cake with the beanie baby bridal bears.

Other afternoon events included a rock-paper-scissors tournament, a cupcake walk, a scavenger hunt, a memory game, and bean bag toss.

Oh, and I can’t forget the bridesmaid dress judging. Family members hauled their dresses to the reunion, where the garments were hung on a rope strung between two trees.

Family members selected their favorite and least favorite bridesmaid dresses that were hung between the trees.

The black-and-white dress was voted as the prettiest. The green one next to it is from my May 1982 wedding.

Relatives voted for the “prettiest” and the “ugliest.” Pre-teens, teens and my oldest daughter then modeled several dresses—fabric falling from their shoulders and dragging in the grass—before we crowned the winners with a beautiful tiara and a gaudy, flower-bedecked cap.

Later my cousin Terri would share that she felt vindicated as the bridesmaid dress worn in her wedding was voted the “prettiest.” (She claims to have gotten the “young” vote.) When she was married in 1989, Terri’s sisters teased her about the black-and-white bridesmaids’ dresses, saying they made them look like (Holstein) cows. Terri, now a model, actress and co-host of a public television show, Nature Adventures (airing soon in Minnesota), proved even back then that she had style. So there, sisters of hers.

Now, as I reflect on this weekend gathering with my mom, siblings, nieces, nephew, cousins, aunts and uncles and other family members, I have such good memories. I hear the laughter, the engaging conversations, our voices united in song. I feel the hugs, see the smiles. Bonds have been strengthened, new memories made, old ones rekindled. For me, that makes the hours and hours and hours of planning and hard work during the past year worth my time and energy.

I love my family and I would do this again for them in a heartbeat (just give me a few years to recover).

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Photos by my daughter Amber (because I had absolutely no time to shoot photos).


Riding out severe weather in this Minnesota summer of storms July 27, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 7:26 AM
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WITH SEVERE WEATHER once again in the forecast for Minnesota today, I am nervous, and understandably so in this summer of storms.

Between 11 p.m. and midnight Friday, my family was stranded in our car along Redwood County Road 5 north of Walnut Grove during a 45-minute torrential downpour that packed 70 mph winds.

I’ve never been more terrified in my life.

As the wind buffeted and rocked our car in the pitch black darkness of the country, as rain poured, as lightning flashed, I prayed, head pressed for awhile against the back of the driver’s seat where I was seated behind my husband. My 78-year-old mom sat in the front passenger seat and my 16-year-old son was next to me in the back.

At one point I grabbed my son’s hand and squeezed so tightly that he asked me to let go. Later he would slide his hand across the seat and grasp mine in his.

The evening started out pleasantly enough with the drive from Vesta, where I grew up and where my mom still lives, to Walnut Grove some 20 miles away. We were going to the Laura Ingalls Wilder pageant, Fragments of a Dream, presented in an outdoor amphitheater just west of this small town.

Throughout the performance, which began at 9 p.m., I kept a watchful eye on the sky, where clouds were building to the west. My cousin Randy, a trained weather spotter and seated behind me, made the mistake of informing us that the area was under a tornado watch until 4 a.m. That information instantly raised my anxiety radar.

Yet, the show continued as lightning flashed all around us, as rain fell hard enough (for a short while) for audience members to pull out umbrellas and rain gear. I kept thinking they would call the show soon and send us safely on our way. That never happened, although in retrospect it should have. My brother Brian would later tell me he watched the storm cell move into the area on television weather radar.

Around 11 p.m., we exited the pageant grounds and just as we entered Walnut Grove minutes later, the sheets of rain began to fall. My husband drove across State Highway 14 where a police car sat, lights flashing, as is typical for post production. On the other side of the highway, still in town, Randy pulled over, remarking that maybe he shouldn’t park under a tree.

I thought we would stay there until the storm passed. But then, before I could suggest we do so, Randy took off and our nightmare began. On an unfamiliar road marked only by center tabs on the recently sealcoated gravel surface, he blindly (in my opinion) attempted to direct the car north toward Vesta.

Soon enough, after I reminded him that he was responsible for three other lives, not just his own, he pulled partially off the road onto the shoulder. Ahead of us, we could see other vehicles parked too, their emergency lights flashing.

And then, only then, did I realize the gravity of our situation. We were in the midst of a severe storm packing fierce winds with nowhere to go. Winds estimated at 70 mph slammed against the car, flattened the roadside grasses and I’m pretty sure ravaged trees, although I couldn’t see them. As our vehicle rocked, I feared it would flip. I feared also that a tornado would drop from the skies. When the lightning flashed, I could see dark, ominous swirling clouds. The wind changed direction from west to northeast.

Several times I wished out loud that we could seek out the safety of a farmhouse. But how could we even see to find a farm driveway? My mom, in her ignorance or fear, repeatedly told me the car was the safest place we could be. I repeatedly told her that, no, a basement would be the safest place we could be.

To their credit, the rest of my immediate family members did not panic, although they would later admit that they, too, were scared. My aunt Iylene and cousin Janelle, who were caught on the same road during the storm, later shared that they were as terrified as me and especially concerned because six of them were inside a higher profile, wind-catching pick-up that was topped with a canoe.

When the rain would relent enough for us to see somewhat, my husband would drive a short distance. Probably four our five times he drove then pulled over. Drove then pulled over. We kept thinking this could not last forever. But it did.

With a non-functioning radio and the cell phone inside my purse in the car trunk (which didn’t matter since I typically cannot get reception in this area of Minnesota), we were uninformed, at the mercy of the elements and of our imaginations (or at least mine).

Had I been thinking rationally, I would have grabbed my camera and photographed the spectacular lightning show that lit up the entire prairie sky and sent an occasional bolt zig zagging to the ground. But I was not thinking clearly. Instead, I was focused on that wind, that fierce, fierce wind that just kept rocking our car in that nightmare of a night in the middle of the prairie.

When we finally arrived at my mom’s house an hour later, I could have kissed the ground of my hometown. I have never in my life been happier to see Vesta.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Inside the pearly gates of St. Peter, visitors view the notorious “corpse flower” July 26, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 1:15 PM
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A sign at Gustavus Adolphus College directs visitors to the Nobel Hall of Science where "the corpse flower" grows.

FOR SOME, PERRY’S flesh-rotting odor proved too repugnant.

But they came prepared—they being the four Edina kids who traveled to Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter Friday morning to view the flowering of Gustavus’ Amorphophallus titanium, otherwise known as “Hyperion” and nicknamed “Perry.”

With perfumed bandannas in hand, the three Yang siblings and a friend trooped past Perry, the native Indonesian plant that last bloomed in this southern Minnesota college greenhouse in 2007. The large plant (this one is about six feet tall) produces an offending odor that, based on the comments I heard Friday morning, ranges from smelling like barf to fish at an Asian market to “my son’s bedroom.”

I watched with amusement through a greenhouse viewing window as the Yang kids and their friend passed by Perry, handkerchiefs clasped firmly to their faces for much of the brief encounter.

One of the Yang boys wards off the offending odor with a bandanna.

Filtering the offending odor with a bandanna.

Admittedly, Perry does stink, producing an offending odor designed to attract pollinators. This past weekend, Perry also attracted plenty of attention from the media, scientists and just plain curious visitors like my husband, son and I who stopped en route to a family reunion in southwestern Minnesota around noon Friday. About 12 hours earlier, at 11:30 p.m. Thursday, Hyperion opened.

I didn’t know quite what to expect when we reached the greenhouse on the third floor of the Nobel Hall of Science at Gustavus. Surprisingly, I was pleasantly surprised. With camera in hand—no bandanna for me—I entered the viewing area fully prepared to find a decaying smell so overpowering that I would snap a few pictures and flee.

Instead, I discovered an odor that, in all honesty, I found more tolerable than stench that sometimes wafts across the countryside from animal manure at large-scale farming operations.

Perhaps if I had returned Sunday, when Perry was at full bloom, my opinion would have changed. The odor would just get worse as the flowering progressed, we were told Friday.

Maybe then I, too, would have pressed a perfumed bandanna to my nose, filtering the odorous smell of Perry, “the corpse flower.”

I shot this image through a window in the viewing area of the the greenhouse where the curious gathered to see Perry.

A close-up of Perry's unfolding spathe, an outer purple vase-like sheath.

Visitors came with cameras in hand to photograph the rare blooming of Perry, which lasted until Sunday.

A close-up of the sheath that protects the inner tube-like structure called the spadix. The hundreds of small flowers are on the spadix.

A diagram explains the life cycle of "the corpse plant."

A shot through the window into the viewing area of the titan arum.

As of noon Friday, most visitors who signed Perry's guestbook came from the St. Peter-Mankato area. However, as word of the blooming spread, visitors were expected from all over--some had already come from Paris and Sweden (they were already visiting in the area). My husband added our names to the guestbook.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


I plead guilty to eating key lime pie for breakfast July 23, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 9:34 AM
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IF EVER YOU FEEL GUILTY about eating dessert for breakfast, do as I do. Adapt.

I have, on occasion, crumbled a cookie into vanilla yogurt, thereby justifying that this qualifies as a nutritious breakfast (by my definition).

And just the other day, when I opened the refrigerator early in the morning and eyed the key lime pie, I decided, what the heck.

I pulled this key lime pie from the refrigerator. Had my husband and I really eaten this much pie already?

With a handful of blueberries tossed on the side, this could qualify as a breakfast food. Blueberries, after all, are high in antioxidants, which protect cells from damage that leads to aging and various diseases. That’s good enough for me.

So I plated a piece of the key lime pie I had made just a day earlier, added the blueberries and indulged without a twinge of regret.

With a side of blueberries, key lime pie makes a balanced breakfast. You've got your protein (eggs), your dairy products (sweetened condensed milk and sour cream) and your fruit (blueberries and lime juice).

Later I e-mailed Joanne Fluke, creator of this pie, and asked if I could publish her recipe on Minnesota Prairie Roots. She obliged.

But first, you should know that Joanne is a Swanville, Minnesota native and the New York Times bestselling author of the Hannah Swensen culinary cozy mysteries. She defected to California, where she’s lived for years, but I don’t hold that against her. Joanne writes some good Minnesota-based mysteries that include some equally great recipes. And she returns to her home state at least once a year to visit and to promote her books.

The recipe for key lime pie published in 2007 in Key Lime Pie Murder. In that mystery, main character Hannah Swensen, who owns a bakery, is judging baked entries at the Tri-County Fair. As she leaves the fairgrounds one evening while carrying a key lime pie, she discovers a dead body. So that, dear readers, is the story behind the decadent, to-die-for dessert that I devoured for breakfast.

Key Lime Pie


5 eggs

14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk

½ tsp. lemon zest (optional, no substitutes)

½ cup sour cream

½ cup key lime juice (may substitute frozen key lime juice or juice from regular limes)

¼ cup white sugar

Crack one whole egg into a medium-sized bowl. Separate the 4 remaining eggs, placing the 4 yolks into the bowl with the whole egg. Place the 4 whites in another mixing bowl and set aside for later use in the meringue.

Whisk the whole egg and yolks until uniform in color. Stir in sweetened condensed milk. Add the lemon zest, if you decided to use it, and the sour cream. Stir together and set the bowl aside.

Juice the limes and measure out ½ cup of the juice into a small bowl. If you are using the ready-made lime juice, measure out ½ cup of that. Add ¼ cup sugar to the lime juice and stir until the sugar has dissolved. Next, whisk the sugared lime juice into the egg mixture.

Pour the filling into a pre-made graham cracker or cookie crust. Bake 20 minutes at 325 degrees F. Remove from oven and place on cooling rack.

Increase the oven temperature to 350 degrees F. to bake the meringue.


4 egg whites

½ tsp. cream of tartar

pinch of salt

1/3 cup white sugar

Add the cream of tartar and salt to the bowl with the egg whites and mix in. Using an electric mixer, beat the egg whites on high until soft peaks form. Continue to beat at high speed as you sprinkle in the sugar. When the egg whites form firm peaks, stop mixing. Spread the meringue over the filling with a spatula, sealing to the edge of the crust.

Bake at 350 degrees F. for an additional 12 minutes. Remove and cool to room temperature on a wire rack. Refrigerate if you wish. Serve chilled or at room temperature.

Text & images © Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Recipe courtesy of Joanne Fluke


On patrol with the spelling police July 22, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 7:46 AM
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WORDS ARE MY BUSINESS. So when I see a misspelled word, I can’t ignore it.

I tried. I was going to give them time to change the spelling before publishing this post. But I waited several weeks, and that’s long enough to correct the error.

So the other night while waiting at a stoplight in Faribault, I snapped this image of signage at the Community Co-op Oil Association through the passenger car window. I’m aware that the photo isn’t razor sharp. I didn’t have much time to pull my camera from the bag and fire two shots at a slow shutter speed before the light changed.

Do you see the spelling mistake? Does it jump off the sign at you?

Yes, “purchase” is incorrectly spelled as “PURCHASH.”

I admit that the creative spelling seems fitting if you delete the first “H,” making it “PURCASH.”

Did I tell you I once earned runner-up status to represent Vesta Elementary School at the Redwood County spelling bee? My friend Robin beat me in a spelldown. I’ve never quite gotten over that defeat.

(I sincerely hope that I’ve correctly spelled every word in this blog post.)

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


The surprising connection between a Minnesota church and the James-Younger Gang July 21, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 10:30 AM
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WHEN MY HUSBAND AND I EMBARKED on a quest for an old country church Sunday afternoon, we fully expected a challenge. But we didn’t expect to cross paths with a bunch of outlaws.

First, a little background: Several days earlier I had photographed a painting of an old Minnesota church done by our 92-year-old artist-friend, Rhody Yule, in 1969. Rhody remembered only that the church was “somewhere near Montgomery” and on the National Register of Historic Places.

I carried a photograph of this 1969 church painting by Faribault artist Rhody Yule as we set out to find the unidentified church.

With those clues, Randy and I set out on our adventure simply because we love the history and beauty of old country churches. We figured if we drove far enough and long enough, we would find this one.

So off we went, following Rice County Road 9 northwest of Faribault, driving around sweeping curves, up and down hills, past farm places, all the while searching for a steeple. I had no clue where we were, which I find unsettling. I like to know where I am and where I am going. But not the husband; he just kept driving.

Soon we approached a lake. Must be Circle Lake, we speculated. We were right. And then, just as we were about to turn onto a gravel road leading to the public access, I saw a white church high on a hill. “There’s a church!” I shouted. “I bet that’s it.”

Right then and there, I wanted to drive up to that church. But first things first. We had to stop at the lake. A quick stop and we were off to the church, which sits two miles west of Millersburg (not Montgomery) along Rice County Road 1 near its intersection with County Road 9.

Our excitement was palpable as we pulled off the road and parked below the church. I grabbed the picture and compared the painting to the building before me. It was a match. We had found Christdala Swedish Lutheran Church, built in 1878, placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1995 and today preserved through the Christdala Church Presevation & Cemetery Association.

Christdala Swedish Lutheran Church sits atop a hill along Rice County Road 1 just west of Millersburg.

Some 25 steps later and we reached the top of the hill, standing before this simple country church overlooking Circle Lake.

An archway at the top of the church steps frames Circle Lake and the surrounding countryside. Christdala means "Christ's Valley."

Christdala Swedish Lutheran Church, built for $230 in 1878 by John Olson and John Lundberg of Northfield and site of a fall service and open house.

And that’s where we met Phil, who was photographing Christdala and old tombstones. “Can we get inside?” I ask, hopeful that perhaps this stranger has a key. “Are you from around here?”

No and no. Phil is from California, but is president of Le Center-based ShetkaStone, a company that makes tables, countertops, moldings, office furniture and more from recycled paper. When he’s in Minnesota (which is often), this Californian explores old country churches and cemeteries in the home-away-from-home state he has grown to love.  You don’t find this kind of history in California, he says.

We are kindred spirits—the three of us—standing here on a sunny summer Sunday afternoon admiring this 132-year-old church with an intriguing connection to the Sept. 7, 1876 robbery of the First National Bank of Northfield by the notorious James-Younger Gang.

Swedish immigrants built Christdala after one of their own, Nicolaus Gustafson, who had traveled to Northfield on the morning of the bank robbery, was fatally shot by Cole Younger. Because the Millersburg Swedish community had no church or cemetery, Gustafson was buried in Northfield. After his death, the Swedes immediately began formulating plans for their own church and burial place, forming a congregation in July 1877 and constructing a house of worship in 1878.

Today Christdala, which dissolved as a congregation in 1966 due to declining membership, stands as a strong testament to those determined Swedes. They turned the tragic death of their friend, their neighbor, into something positive. Good triumphs over evil. Perhaps it is no coincidence that this church was built beside, and above, the road used as an escape route by the notorious outlaws.

All of this I consider while walking among the tombstones—of the Youngquists, the Swansons, the Paulsons and, yes, even the Gustafsons.

A sign at the church details the historical connection to the 1876 Northfield bank raid by the James-Younger Gang.

A cemetery surrounds Christdala Swedish Lutheran Church near Millersburg.

An honorary star in the Christdala cemetery denotes a soldier as a veteran of the Indian War.

The exterior stained glass top of a Christdala window.

Because the church was locked, I had to settle for peering through the blinds at the altar, which sits in front of the pulpit. The cross rests on the altar. I'll have to return for the annual autumn worship service and open house.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Memories of toiling in the Minnesota cornfields July 20, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 7:17 AM
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WHAT’S THE WORST SUMMER JOB you’ve ever worked?

For me, the response to that question practically flies off my tongue. Detasseling corn ranks, hands down, as the worst job I’ve ever held, beating out picking rock and walking beans by acres.

Here’s a scenario of how that part-time summer position played out for me back in the early 1970s in southwestern Minnesota: Rise early to catch a school bus. Bounce along bumpy gravel roads with a bus full of other sleepy teenagers to the edge of a cornfield. Slide on a rain coat. Then begin your day’s work, stretching on your tiptoes to pull tassels from corn stalks.

Rows and rows of corn stretch across acres and acres of land under the hot summer sky.

Dew slides down your arm. Rough corn leaves scratch across every inch of exposed skin. You itch. You sweat. You hurry up. Sometimes you bend low to the earth to snap sucker plants that leech onto the main corn stalk. Your back aches. Your muscles scream.

And then, when you have to urinate, you squat between corn rows and hope no one is watching. Forget toilet paper, unless you’ve stashed some in your pants pocket.

As the sun moves higher in the sky, heat and humidity rise. You shrug off the raincoat. Your skin burns. (Who’s heard of sunscreen?) Sweat trickles down your face, burning your eyes. You sweat and sweat some more.

Come noon, you’re thankful for a break in the shade-tree oasis of a farm yard (if you’re lucky) or in the shade of the school bus. You grab your Styrofoam cooler, remove the cover with grimy hands, unscrew the lid of a quart jar and lift the glass to your lips, gulping Kool-Aid like a thirsty camel.

Hungry from all that physical labor, you wolf down a sandwich, inhale chips, nearly consume an entire apple in several bites.

Then it’s back to the corn for a few more hours of reaching and yanking. The oppressive afternoon heat blasts like a furnace, smothers your breath, sucks away your energy. Your feet drag. Your mind screams: How much longer must I tread this land, pull these tassels, endure this misery?

By 3:00, you are bone-weary, exhausted, thankful that your supervisor has finally hollered, “This is the last round.” You are finished, for the day, with the tug-of-war you’ve played with the corn.

You join the line of subdued teens climbing onto the bus, bodies weighted with lead-heavy weariness.

Tomorrow you’ll return to the farm fields to fight the corn again, all for $1.25 an hour.

In the setting sun, a corn tassel stretches high above the corn plant.

JUST A NOTE: Working conditions in cornfields have improved dramatically since the 1970s. Today detasselers ride machines (I’m pretty sure), have access to bathrooms and certainly earn more than $1.25 an hour.

If you have a worst summer job story, submit a comment and tell Minnesota Prairie Roots readers about your experience.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling