Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

The football-playing gnomes of New Ulm August 31, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 7:12 AM
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Gnomes line a section of boulevard along S. Broadway Street in New Ulm.

IF YOU’RE ZIPPING along Broadway Street in New Ulm, you might not notice the gnomes strategically lining a stretch of boulevard turf between South Sixth and Seventh Streets. Or if you do spot them, you might wonder, “What the heck was that?” And you’d likely keep right on driving.

But not me. I stopped to check out the gnomes on a recent visit to this German city that seems overrun with these curious little legendary elfins that supposedly live in the depths of the earth and hoard treasures.

The Broadway gnomes aren’t your ordinary gnomes, although at least half of them appear to be treasure-hoarders. More on that later.

Rather, these elfins comprise two football teams—the Minnesota Vikings and their archrival, The Green Bay Packers.

The Minnesota Vikings and The Green Bay Packers play football on a stretch of artificial turf along Broadway.

The creator of this curious football game has distinguished the teams by draping gnomes in purple capes and in green and gold capes. The Vikings sport homemade “helmets” that are more blue hats with tacked on horns than purple helmets. And The Packers appear to be wearing sponges, AKA protective cheese slices, atop their helmet-less heads.

But, hey, I give this sports artist an “A” for creating an original and durable work of roadside art.

This isn’t exactly the safest place to play football, though, I quickly learn as I crouched to take photos just feet away from the heavy traffic. One topple or misstep and I’d find myself sidelined with an injury, or worse.

I see a few tackled, injured, or maybe just wind-blown, Packers lying on the turf. A medic is even carting one off the field. I wonder if, occasionally, a Wisconsinite walks by and covertly knocks over a Vikings gnome. Come to think of it, I didn’t check to see if the football players are secured in place.

An injured Green Bay Packers gnome is carted off the field.

But of one fact I’m certain, these green-and-yellow outfitted football-playing gnomes remain true to their hoarding nature. They’re guarding their treasure, keeping the Vince Lombardi trophy away from the Scandinavian gnomes in this German city.

#

AT THE END of the football field, I discovered this sign: “To mow or not to mow, that is the question. Whats the answer?”

A homeowner makes a statement along a New Ulm boulevard.

Is the sign designer making a literal statement about mowing grass here? (I wouldn’t feel safe mowing this close-to-the-busy-busy-roadway boulevard.)

Or is the writer making a statement about the need for a new open-air football stadium with real grass versus artificial turf?

#

THEN, COINCIDENTALLY (or not), just around the corner from the Broadway football field, I spied this (team?) bus.

The Schell's beer bus was parked near Broadway Stadium.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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Reunion stories: A rabbit tale and a tale of murder August 30, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 9:23 AM
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THIS WEEKEND my husband, Randy, and I attended mini high school class reunions, albeit impromptu ones.

On Saturday afternoon I met a Wabasso High School graduate while touring Betsy’s house in Mankato. That would be Betsy Ray, as in Maud Hart Lovelace’s main character in her Betsy-Tacy books. Betsy is Maud, who really did live in the restored Center Street house now owned by the Betsy-Tacy Society.

But back to that reunion. Penny, our tour guide, asked where I grew up and I responded, “between Redwood Falls and Marshall” since few people have ever heard of my hometown, Vesta.

Imagine my surprise when Penny says she graduated from Wabasso High School, about 20 miles from my hometown.

“I graduated from Wabasso High School too.”

That led to a bit of reminiscing between me, a 1974 grad, and Penny, a 1964 WHS graduate. Because of our 10-year age span, we didn’t know each other during our school days. Yet, we share that common bond of attending the small-town high school with the white rabbit mascot.

“Another white rabbit,” Penny says several times. Just as an explanation, the town’s name originated in an Indian legend about the creation of the earth. Wabasso, a son of the mighty creator of nations, fled north and was changed into a white rabbit. He was considered a great spirit. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow even writes about Wabasso in his The Song of Hiawatha poem.

A white rabbit statue sits along Minnesota Highway 68 in Wabasso.

But I digress. Penny and I enjoyed our new-found white rabbit connection and our shared love for the Betsy-Tacy books. And then we discovered one more link. Penny taught German at Bethany Lutheran College in Mankato. I attended the college and, at one time, intended to major in German.

Now, flash forward to Sunday afternoon, when Randy and I are at a reunion of The Trinity King’s softball team. It’s been a day of remembering root beer barrels (the team drink), belly bumps (exactly what you think) and an injured leg splinted with softball bats.

Then Jane and Larry show up. Larry subbed a few times with the team, so we never really knew him. But as the conversation ebbs and flows, we learn that Jane graduated in 1969 from Pierz Healy High School, Randy’s alma mater. Randy graduated in 1974 with Jane’s sister, Nancy.

Soon the two are tossing out family names and memories with the ease of those who grew up in the same geographical area.

Then I mention the murder. One day after classes, a school librarian used his necktie to strangle a student in the audio-visual room. Jane tells us her brother was working in the adjoining room at the time of the late 1960s murder, but heard nothing.

Revelation of this horrendous crime to outsiders always draws the same reaction—stunned disbelief. How could this happen in a school? But it did.

As the Pierz Healy High School graduates continue to discuss other common topics, I wonder: What happened to the murderer/librarian? Is he out of prison? Is he still alive?

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Learn a little history, drink a little beer on the August Schell Brewing Company tour August 28, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 8:45 PM
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Visitors line up for free tap beer or 1919 root beer following a Schell's brewery tour.

“OK, LET’S DRINK some beer,” our tour guide Matt says, pulling six-packs from a walk-in cooler and distributing bottles among tables in the hospitality/tap room of August Schell Brewing Company.

But before we pour and swig, our bartender instructs us to fill our plastic cups only to the black line, meaning we’ll get about 1 ½ ounces of beer per sample.

On this steamy summer day, the beer goes down fast among the adults who’ve just toured this second oldest family brewery in the United States.

The Schell's brewery is celebrating 150 years in business.

Schell’s has been a New Ulm mainstay since 1860, this year celebrating 150 years in the beer business. That fact surfaces repeatedly during the tour and during the beer tasting session when we are served Hopfenmalz, an amber lager style beer selected by popular vote as the company’s 150th anniversary beer. Matt also passes out other Schell’s beers like Hefeweizen, Pils and Dark, which “isn’t heavy in any way,” but earns the name because of its dark color, he says.

Given the “dark” label, I wouldn’t have tried this beer. Our guide is right, though. Schell’s Dark doesn’t taste dark and this is a beer even I’ll drink.

A sip of Hefeweizen, however, causes me to screw up my face and wish I could toss the sample. Instead, I grab another cup, abandoning the beer “with a beautiful balance of cloves and banana flavors.” I prefer bananas in banana bread, not beer, thank you.

That aside, I’ve enjoyed this historic tour of the brewery tucked in the woods along the banks of the Cottonwood River. The site was carefully selected by August Schell, the flour mill machinist turned brew master, for its natural beauty, artesian springs and riverside location.

Schell was recreating his home in Durbach, Germany, our guide says. I don’t ask, but from what I know of this area in the 1860s, few trees grew here, not exactly like the Schwarzwald back in Deutschland. Perhaps that explains why Matt later tells us that Schell brought pines here from the Black Forest.

German words can be found in numerous locations at the brewery, including this welcome sign above the doorway to the house once occupied by the Alfred Marti family. Just don't ask your guide to interpret the German.

He also informs us that caves were hand-dug under the brewery, into the hill and under our feet. We are standing on a paved area between two old brick homes and the original family home, now the current-day corporate office. Beer and ice, harvested from the Cottonwood River, were stored in the caves.

Disappointingly (but understandably), we don’t see any of today’s modern beer-making operation, only Schell’s traditional 1860s brew house, used until 1999. Here we view a hand-hammered copper vessel, Sud Kessel, purchased for $25,000 in 1895. It holds 3,500 gallons of beer, which translates to 38,000 12-ounce bottles or cans. Now that’s a lot of beer.

This is the only peek you'll get of the beer-making process: Schell's vintage Sud Kessel, used from 1895 - 1999.

But you can’t buy any beer at the brewery, our guide says, because it’s against the law to sell it on-grounds. The samples and a 12-ounce glass of beer or Schell’s 1919 root beer come with the $3 tour fee.

Plenty of history also comes with the guided tour and a visit to the company museum.

The Schell's museum is jam-packed with plenty of information, memorabilia and, yes, even beer bottles.

Among the more interesting facts I learned are these:

  • After the death of her husband, Emma Marti ran the brewery for six years until 1940. As our guide emphasizes, for a woman to run a brewery in that time period certainly ranked as unique. Perhaps Schell’s ought to name a beer in Emma’s honor. Or have they?
  • Company bylaws allow only the Schell’s president to live in August Schell’s on-site retirement mansion. Because he wants his privacy, current president Ted Marti lives elsewhere, Matt says. The home was last occupied in the 1990s. (Umm, I wouldn’t mind living in a mansion.)

August Schell's retirement mansion, currently unoccupied.

A close-up shot of the mansion, re-emphasizing the point that I could be happy living here.

  • Schell’s changes its “Snowstorm” beer recipe annually. The reason: “There are no two Minnesota snowstorms alike and therefore we are going to change our ‘Snowstorms’ every year,” Matt tells us, quoting president Marti. Ah, Mr. Marti, you clearly know your Minnesota winters as well as you know your beers.

Another view of the brewery. And, no, I don't know anything about the decorative post and failed to ask our tour guide. I had already asked more questions than anyone on the tour, so...

SCHELL’S WILL HOST a two-day 150th birthday celebration, Schellabration, on September 17 and 18. During that event, you can see areas of the brewery not typically seen on the regular tours.

WHAT’S WITH ALL the white-tailed deer at the brewery? Revisit Minnesota Prairie Roots for the answer and for photos and an idea I have related to those deer.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Celebrating cultural diversity in Faribault at International Market Day August 27, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 8:59 AM
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An Aztec dancer, garbed in a symbolic headdress entertains the audience during the 2009 International Market Day in Faribault.

TO THE STEADY BEAT of a drum, the 12 dancers sidestepped across the grass, their bodies moving in a rhythmic dance ritual that mesmerized.

As they twirled and kicked and circled just yards away in bare feet blackened by the earth, sweet incense-infused smoke drifted toward me. The smoldering fire of incense, said a member of the Aztec group, Ollin Ayacaxtli, symbolizes cleaning of the air and attracting “the good energy around us.”

The dancing was certainly creating plenty of good vibes among the crowd gathered last August in Faribault’s Central Park for performances by the Northfield/Owatonna-based dancers. Appreciative applause followed each short dance during the Faribault Diversity Coalition’s annual International Market Day celebration.

Everything about the performers spoke to symbolism steeped in deeply-rooted tradition. They dressed in colorful costumes patterned after those of Aztec warriors and adorned with Aztec calendar symbols like butterflies, fire, skeletons and flowers.

The belief that “most things in nature come from two things” is the basis of Aztec thinking, the audience learned in a brief cultural lesson. Nature encircled the faces of the dancers, who wore colorful headdresses sprouting plumes of feathers.

Later I would learn from dancer Jesus Torres of Owatonna that the Aztec culture is all about harmony and about rain, earth, wind and fire, and about respecting elders. The group formed, he said, to teach those involved and others about the tradition, values, costumes and history of the Aztec.

Ollin Ayacaxtli travels to events in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa presenting their symbolic dances that pulse with energy in every dance of the foot, in every beat of the drum, in every shake of a maracas.

Members of Ollin Ayacaxtli perform in front of the Central Park bandshell.

The drums are made from a very old tree and, like our grandfather, are to be respected, the audience was told.

A dancer moved across the grass, bells blending with the drum's beat.

Duo dancers, legs intertwined, danced in a circle.

Smoking incense and shells were integral to the performance with the shells symbolizing the sound that goes across the universe.

A member of Ollin Ayacaxtli dances with the group.

A girl snuggles in her Dad's arms while he watches the Aztec dancers.

EDITOR’S NOTE: I wrote this blog post one year ago for another publication, which subsequently folded and did not publish this piece.

Tomorrow, Saturday, August 28, the International Market Day Committee and the Faribault Diversity Coalition are sponsoring a fifth annual International Market Day. The event runs from 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. in Faribault’s Central Park, at Fifth Street and Second Avenue Northwest. Aztec dances, music and games; international food and market vendors; community resource information; and farmers’ market vendors will be part of the cultural celebration.

Please attend International Market Day and celebrate the diversity of life in Minnesota.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

“Dust Bowl” conditions equal an unhappy taxpayer

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 7:02 AM
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DEAR CITY OF FARIBAULT Street Sweeper:

What are you doing today?

If you’re not busy sweeping dirt off the street and into houses, then I would like you to sweep the dirt out of my house and back onto the street.

You see, yesterday you drove by my home several times, stirring up clouds of dust so choking thick that I expected to see tumbleweeds following in your path.

Typically I would not complain. I’m happy to see dirt removed from the street.

But this time you crept past my house with complete disregard for the dirt carried on the wind directly into my open windows. Even though I raced to slam the windows shut, I was not quick enough. Every surface in my house is covered with a fine layer of grit.

Unkind words surface when I consider all of the cleaning that lies ahead of me.

What were you thinking when you failed to use water while sweeping the street? Is this an attempt to save money, trim the budget, cut costs?

I am no rocket scientist, but it seems to me that the simple act of spraying water onto the road surface would have prevented Dust Bowl-like conditions.

You are fortunate in one regard. I did not have freshly-laundered sheets on the clothesline. Had that been the case, you would find yourself not only sweeping and vacuuming my floors, washing my counters and dusting my furniture, but also doing my laundry.

Signed,

An Unhappy (cough, cough) Taxpayer

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

More than a sewing cabinet August 26, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 10:22 AM
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My "new" sewing cabinet from The Caswell-Runyan Co., Huntington, Ind.

I REALLY, HONESTLY, did not need the sewing cabinet I purchased for $30 at a recent yard sale. Although I have a sewing machine and once stitched nearly everything I wore, I don’t sew much any more.

But the rows of old tables lined up on both sides of the cement driveway lured me to look.

Once I saw the shiny Perfect Sewing Cabinet up close, I couldn’t resist its quaint charm—a lid that opens to reveal thread compartments, a curving front, dove-tailed drawers and unique golden knobs accented with amber heads. I already had visually placed the table in a corner of my dining room. With two drawers, it would be so much more practical than the tiny open-shelved table currently occupying that spot.

The cabinet lid lifts to reveal a compartment for thread and notions.

Craftsmanship is detailed in the dovetail drawer construction.

The original drawer pulls simply gleam.

But for $37, should I buy it? Should I walk away? Pay. Walk. What about that promise to start down-sizing, de-cluttering? Hadn’t my husband and I just returned from the recycling center where we dropped off an old TV, a printer, and a computer monitor and tower?

“Will you take less for it?” I ask the old guy running the sale.

To my surprise, he’ll take $30.

Still, I ask him to “keep my name on it” as I walk further up the driveway, perusing the merchandise while struggling to justify my purchase.

Then I just do it. I open my purse and pull out a $20 bill and two fives and the table is mine.

But I don’t simply walk away. I need to know where this peddler of tables has gotten his goods.

He finds furniture at yard, garage and rummage sales and then refinishes the pieces, he explains. He does magnificent work. Every tabletop shines with a glossy, flawless finish.

Then I learn a bit more. This elderly man (whose name I never do ask), says he rummages all the way to the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Minneapolis, where he’s been doctoring for years.

“World War II?” I ask.

His military time, he says, came between WW II and the Korean Conflict. He was stationed in Alaska, where he injured his back. He’s had numerous surgeries and has a leaky heart valve. But they won’t replace the valve, he says, because during his last heart bypass surgery, doctors had trouble restarting his heart.

And then he tells me that his wife has cancer.

“I’m sorry,” I say, amazed at what people will share because I take the time to genuinely listen. He assures me that she is doing OK.

Then I thank him, wish him well. Randy loads the cabinet from The Caswell-Runyan Co. of Huntington, Indiana, into the back of our van. Then we are on our way with a table that is now more than a piece of furniture. It is also a story of a veteran and a craftsman and a husband whose wife is battling cancer.

A label from The Caswell-Runyan Co. is inside the sewing cabinet lid.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Bette, a button bedecked art car in Northfield August 25, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 5:45 PM
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MARY BARBOSA-JEREZ doesn’t mind if you touch her car. But I kept my hands off her 1989 Toyota Corolla Saturday afternoon in Northfield.

I simply didn’t feel comfortable touching a car that has a name—Bette—and is a work of art.

Allow me to backtrack for a minute. My husband and I had just said goodbye to friends we met for lunch when Randy tells me, “Look at that car.”

Wow, I would have stated “LOOK AT THAT CAR!” in bold-face, uppercase letters with an exclamation point.

This car, which is covered with buttons, stands out from any other parked along Division Street in downtown Northfield. Immediately, I pull out my camera, drop my camera bag onto the sidewalk and start circling the Corolla, snapping photos.

Pedestrian-stopping car, view 1

Passenger-side doors on pedestrian-stopping car.

Backside of pedestrian-stopping car

I figure if I linger long enough, the owner may just show up. After several false hopes—meaning I asked numerous passersby if they owned the vehicle—Mary arrives and informs me that this is her car, an “art car.”

I begin peppering Mary with questions and she is eager to answer them. She bought the car in 2007 and for the past year has been transforming it into a work of art. The St. Olaf College librarian says she is making a statement about saving things, reuse, consumption and accumulation.

“It’s deconstruction of our cultural obsession of automobiles,” she continues. For awhile this former Louisville, Kentucky, resident, who moved to Northfield two years ago, considered doing without an automobile. But she couldn’t and bought the Corolla for $800 from the car’s first and only owners and then named it Bette after a 90-year-old friend of theirs. Bette, she tells me, was an unusual woman who was well-traveled and lived into her 90s.

The name now seems perfectly fitting for this unusual button car.

Beautiful 21-year-old Bette, the art car

Mary initially bought 10 one-gallon bags of plain buttons from a Louisville fabric store that was cleaning out attic space to begin her art project. But since then, the buttons have come from friends and those (mostly women) who see her car.

“It has become like a quilt,” she says, as we examine the infinite buttons adhered with exterior silicone caulk. “It’s a way to meditate and contemplate about women’s lives.”

Buttons, buttons and more buttons beautify Bette.

One of the more unusual buttons is a deer button.

How many buttons? Mary doesn’t know. She knows, however, that it takes her one hour to affix buttons onto a six-by-six inch area. So progress is slow, hampered even more by Minnesota weather. While Mary owns a garage, the interior temperature fails to rise high enough for button adhesion in the winter.

That doesn’t discourage her, nor does the fact that “you lose buttons always.”

Mary has driven Bette between Northfield and Louisville many times and tells me that art cars are common in Louisville, but not so much in Minnesota.

She’s happy to talk about her project and the statement she’s making about turning an item associated with status into a piece of art.

Mary really doesn’t mind either if you touch her car. In fact, she is amused when a button falls off into an unsuspecting hand. “I’ll see them stick it in their pocket as they scuttle away,” she laughs.

But on this day I’m not touching Bette, just photographing her. And I’m thinking, out loud to Mary, that my family’s 1988 hail-pocked van might make a perfect art car.

On Bette's front, Mary placed one of the few buttons she has purchased, a handcrafted nursery rhyme button.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling