Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Top Minnesota Prairie Roots posts honor “strong women” December 31, 2010

GARRISON KEILLOR, in defining the residents of his fictional Lake Wobegon, characterized all the women as strong.

The same could be said for four women I met this past fall while pulling together a series of stories that I’ve selected as my most memorable posts of 2010 here at Minnesota Prairie Roots.

I had no difficulty choosing my favorite posts, because, hands down, the eight stories I wrote in the aftermath of devastating southern Minnesota floods were clearly the most powerful, emotional and heart-wrenching stories I shared in 2010.

A Zumbro Falls home destroyed by the late September flood.

These posts, interestingly enough, evolved by accident. My husband and I were on a Sunday afternoon drive to view the fall colors when we drove into Zumbro Falls, a Wabasha County town of some 200 that was inundated with late September floodwaters. Everywhere we looked, we saw damaged homes.

That’s where I met Zumbro Falls resident Tracy Yennie, who lost her home in the flood. This hard-scrabble young woman willingly shared her story, as did Jackie (I didn’t get her last name), Susie Shones and Katie Shones of nearby Hammond.

Tracy Yennie hangs out in downtown Zumbro Falls 2 1/2 weeks after floodwaters destroyed her home..

These women spoke openly, honestly and frankly about their frustrations, their fears and their concerns about the future. Yet, despite that, they, Yennie especially, maintained a semblance of humor. When Yennie pondered my question about life returning to normal, she replied: “What’s normal? Normal is a setting on a washing machine.”

Throughout their ordeal, Zumbro Falls residents maintained a sense of humor, like that seen in this sign I photographed on the garage of a flood-damaged split-level house along Water Street.

If you have not read these powerful interviews with the strong women of Zumbro Falls, Jarrett and Hammond, then go to “Archives” on my home page, click on “October 2010” and scroll to my October 11, 13 and 14 posts.

You will be impressed by the strength of these women.

In addition to these four, I will also remember a family that was cleaning up their flooded Zumbro Falls property. I asked to photograph them, but the mother lashed out at me, refusing my request. In that moment and in the next moment, when I saw the blank, sad look on her young daughter’s face, I realized the personal, emotional depth of this tragedy.

I was forever changed by that encounter.

The flood-damaged garage of the Zumbro Falls resident who refused my request for a photo.

My stories also brought out the goodness in others. Gary Schmidt of the Twin Cities responded to a November 12 appeal for help in the flooded region. He offered to bring some 10 volunteers to Hammond for several days around January 20. He’s with a church group that has assisted flood victims during the past six years in New Orleans, Rushford, Iowa City and Indiana.

The exposed side of the restaurant/grocery in Hammond, where a portion of a building once stood. The building was lying in a heap in the street.

When I last heard from Schmidt, he was coordinating with a Woodbury church group that helped earlier in Hammond and with Katie Shones, the Hammond resident I interviewed.

You can expect me to follow-up on that volunteerism.

And, next fall, you can expect me to revisit the strong women of Zumbro Falls, Jarrett and Hammond. I’ve promised them I’ll return.

A sign of hope in Zumbro Falls, next to a gas station, on my visit there less than three weeks after the flood.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling




Minnesota Prairie Roots’ top 10 posts for 2010

WHAT WERE THE MOST-VIEWED Minnesota Prairie Roots posts during 2010?

Surprisingly, three of the posts which are in the top five this year were also in the top five last year.

But I’m going to keep you in suspense about those posts as we count down, beginning with the 10th most-viewed post in 2010.

10) “Inspired by Dr. Seuss: My sister’s fat cat,” a Dr. Seuss-type poem published along with three photos of my sister’s cat came in at number 10 with 392 views.

My sister's fat cat, Sable.

9) Whenever I write about old churches, I’m almost guaranteed that my readership that day will soar. So I was not surprised to learn that “Inside the 1894 Valley Grove Church” ranks as my ninth most popular post for 2010 with 411 views. In this story, I take readers inside the historic hilltop country church near Nerstrand.

Simplistic Norwegian style inside the 1894 Valley Grove Church, as viewed from the balcony.

8.) I have no idea why “Saturday ‘steals’ (deals)” held so much interest for Minnesota Prairie Roots readers. Maybe the 447 viewers who clicked on this story are avid garage-salers, just like me, looking for a deal.

The "new" Toshiba TV my husband got for free at a church rummage sale.

7) Like churches, barns bring lots of readers to Minnesota Prairie Roots. In “I love old barns,” I show readers the barn where I labored as a child—feeding cows, scooping manure, bedding straw and more. This post got 484 views.

The early 1950s barn on the Redwood County dairy farm where I grew up is no longer used.

6) When floods ravaged southern Minnesota this fall, I was there, photographing the disaster and interviewing survivors. My “Flooding in Faribault” post (among numerous flood stories) got 519 views.

A roadway arrow on flooded Second Avenue N.W. by the Faribault Foods office directs motorists into North Alexander Park.

5) “Henna tattoos and body art by a “gypsy woman,” which was the fourth most popular in 2009, fell a notch to fifth place in 2010. I still cannot figure out why this story about a henna tattoo artist at the Kenyon Rose Fest has drawn so much interest, with 530 views in 2010.

Henna art at the Kenyon Rose Fest

4) “An autumn drive in Rice County, Minnesota” attracted 549 views as I took readers on a Sunday afternoon drive through the countryside. Local tourism officials, take note. I’ve done my share to draw attention to the Faribault area.

A corn field ripens against a back drop of trees.

3) “Preserving the past at Immanuel, Courtland, MN.,” which was the most- read post last year, slipped to third in 2010 with 623 views. In this story, I take readers inside the home congregation of my maternal forefathers.

A view of Immanuel from the church balcony.

2) The second-place ranking of  “In praise of preserving country churches” does not surprise me as this post was featured on the homepage of WordPress.com on July 10. The Freshly Presssed selection garnered a record number of blog visitors, 1,052, on a single day. This post had 1,304 views in 2010.

An altar painting was transported to Moland Lutheran Church south of Kenyon by horse-drawn wagon from Faribault in 1893.

1) Finally. Number uno, the most viewed post during 2010 was written on November 5, 2009, following a presentation at Faribault High School. “Rachel’s Challenge: Start a chain reaction of kindness,” about the 1999 Columbine High School massacre, got 1,702 views. Last year, this was also one of my most popular stories, coming in at number five.

Rachel Scott, who died at Columbine, and the inspiration for Rachel's Challenge.

I wish I could explain the reasons behind the top 10 rankings. Some I can. I’ve noticed that certain topics—like churches and barns—really interest readers. But henna tattoos and fat cats? Figure that out.

IF YOU MISSED ANY of these most-viewed posts, click on the highlighted titles/words, which will link you to the stories.

DISCLAIMER: These are unscientific results given I simply pulled stats from my administrative page but did not factor in how long, for example, a post has been on Minnesota Prairie Roots. That can skew numbers. However, I am confident the above summary is fairly accurate.

CHECK BACK FOR MY PERSONAL favorite posts of the year.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Memorable 2010 Christmas gifts December 30, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 8:50 AM
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WHAT DID YOU GET for Christmas? Anything interesting, fun, different?

This wind-up NunZilla walked and shot fiery sparks from her mouth. Sadly, the toy worked only briefly.

The gift our second eldest gave to her father ranks as the most entertaining and unusual of all the presents exchanged in our household.

Having heard her dad’s stories about attending a Catholic grade school, our daughter picked up a NunZilla at Vagabond Imports in Appleton, Wisconsin.

The sparking, walking, ruler-toting wind-up toy nun proved to be the perfect humorous gift for a man who endured the physical punishment of a sister or two during his childhood. He’s never explained why the nuns slapped his hands with a ruler or dug a thumb into his scalp. Apparently they thought he was misbehaving. He can laugh about it now, kind of.

I don’t condone corporal punishment. However, times were different back in the 1960s and teachers, unfortunately, got away with such physical abuse. Sad, but true. I can’t speak from first-hand experience (because I did not grow up Catholic), but I would like to believe that the ruler-slapping nuns were in the minority and that most were kind and caring.

Another Christmas gift also drew my attention, or should I say my husband’s attention. As he washed the eight new dinner plates that our eldest gave me, he noticed that the “IKEA of Sweden” plates were “made in China.” No need to say more on that one.

FYI, the wind-up NunZilla was also made in China.

Finally, the ghost of Annie Mary Twente, a 6-year-old girl who was buried alive near Hanska, Minnesota, in 1886, remembered me with a Christmas gift. For the second consecutive year, she (AKA my cousin Dawn and Aunt Marilyn) sent me a book about mice. She knows how much I detest rodents and takes great delight in taunting me.

The book was not—I don’t think—printed in China.

The imprint on the bottom on my new IKEA plates.

But the other part of Annie Mary’s gift, a combination calendar and notepad decorated with chickens (of which I am not fond), was manufactured in China.

HOW ABOUT YOU? Did you receive any memorable Christmas gifts? Humorous or otherwise? Submit a comment to Minnesota Prairie Roots. I’d love to hear your stories.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Sleepy Eye’s Rudolph December 29, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 8:45 AM
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IF I WAS A KID, I would have been genuinely super-excited to see this oversized Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer outside of Sleepy Eye on Christmas Eve afternoon.


I photographed Sleepy Eye's Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer while traveling to southwestern Minnesota on Christmas Eve afternoon.

I would have been firing off questions after first exclaiming, “Look, Mom, Rudolph, Rudolph!

“But why isn’t he flying and where are the other reindeer? Where is Santa and where is his sleigh?”

Yes, I would have been full of questions, just like I am today.

Why is this lone Rudolph prancing in the snow along U.S. Highway 14 on the eastern edge of Sleepy Eye, right before you round the curve into town? Is this reindeer always there, or only at Christmas? Where did he come from?

OK, I suppose some smart aleck will answer, “The North Pole, of course.”

But, really, does anyone know?

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Discovering the beauty of winter in Minnesota December 28, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 8:41 AM
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WHEN I LOOKED through the patio doors of my middle brother’s rural Redwood County home on Christmas morning, I saw this picture-perfect postcard scene.


A farm place near Lamberton on Christmas Day morning.

The quaint farm place sits along Redwood County Road 6 near Lamberton, just north of the county park I call the “gypsy park” because my paternal grandma told me gypsies once camped there.

From the park, the farm site lies only a short distance from an electrical substation which, during my growing up years, my siblings and I dubbed “the chicken pox factory.” It was a name we gave to all such substations, I suspect around the time chicken pox plagued the area. Ironically, the brother who now lives near the chicken pox factory never had the disease.

But I am getting sidetracked here. I wanted to share this photo with you for several reasons. First, this winter in Minnesota is quickly becoming long and wearisome with all of the snow we’ve gotten recently.

That’s why it’s more important than ever to search for the positive (which I have not been too good at lately) in winter. For me, that means viewing the landscape as a photo opportunity. Photography forces you to really see, not simply look at, the details in your environment.

While composing this image, I noticed the contrast of the red buildings against the pristine white snow, the defined fencelines, the old farmhouse that surely has many stories to tell, the slight rise of the land, the shelter belt of trees protecting the farm from the fierce prairie winds. With a gentle snow falling, the scene possessed a dreamy, peaceful, surreal quality.

So, yes, when you make a conscious effort, you truly will find beauty in this winter of overwhelming snow.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


A practical use for icicles from snowy Minnesota December 27, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 8:32 AM
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I HAD THIS EPIPHANY, this brilliant moment, the other night as I watched my husband swing his scoop shovel at icicles hanging from the house roofline.

He had just descended the ladder after scooping several snowstorms worth of snow from the roof when he began knocking mega icicles from the ice-dammed eave troughs with his shovel. Clank. Clank. Clank.

For days I had admired the growing length of those icicles, the longest of which stretched to perhaps six feet. What extraordinary weapons they would make for sword fights, I thought.

But, the practical homeowner in me realized we needed to remove the weaponry to protect the fort, AKA our house.


Ice dams and icicles on the west side of our house.

So, Thursday afternoon I walked across the street to borrow a roof rake from my neighbor. For perhaps 45 minutes I floundered in thigh deep snow banks, pulling snow from the house and garage roofs until I felt like my arms would fall off.

I also knocked down as many of those icicles as I possibly could until I came dangerously close to also knocking out the bathroom window.


I nearly hit the bathroom window while removing snow and icicles from the house.

Anyway, back to that light bulb moment.

“Do we have any ice for the cooler?” I hollered to my husband as he hammered away at the icicles I had missed during my earlier reckless attempt at destroying the ice build-up. By this time, the attack with a scoop shovel method was no longer working.

He looked at me with skepticism, wondering, I’m sure, what exceptionally brilliant idea I had now. I don’t like to boast, but my idea to use icicles, in lieu of purchased, bagged ice, to cool food in a cooler rated as an environmental, cost-saving good use of natural resources. (We needed ice to keep our food cold as we traveled on Christmas Eve.)

Fortunately for me, I have a husband who doesn’t always dismiss my seemingly crazy ideas.

I dragged a cooler up from the basement, handed it outside to him and he continued hammering the ice until we had a whole cooler full of icicles.


My husband begins the task of harvesting icicles with a hammer.

Ice chips fly as Randy breaks the icicles into smaller chunks that will fit into the cooler.

The cooler was only half full of icicle chunks when frozen fingers led me to stop photographing the ice harvest.

Our teenage son made some comment about saving the ice until summer, putting a modern day spin on the concept of harvesting lake ice and packing it in sawdust inside an ice house.

Now, if you were to peek inside the chest freezer in my basement, you would find, um, yes, broken segments of icicles that will work perfectly for chilling beverages this summer.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Heading back home to the southwestern Minnesota prairie for Christmas December 26, 2010

We drove along U.S. Highway 14 as we traveled to southwestern Minnesota for Christmas. This stretch is between the Sanborn corners and Lamberton.

FOR THE FIRST TIME in decades, my family and I celebrated Christmas Eve with my mom and four of my five siblings, and their families, “back home” on the southwestern Minnesota prairie.

It was my mom’s wish that all of us be there, attending Christmas Eve church services with her at our home church, St. John’s Lutheran in Vesta.

Our Christmas together was as wonderful and memorable and as full of laughter and love as I expected it would be.

Initially, I doubted that we would make the 2 ½-hour trip west given the steady snow that began falling early Christmas Eve, slicking the highways and creating difficult driving conditions. But by the time we left Faribault around 2:30 p.m. Friday, the snow had stopped and major highways were clear.

So, with the trunk packed full of luggage, air mattresses and sleeping bags, presents and coolers, the five of us crammed ourselves into the car (along with pillows and board games on our laps) for the journey to Redwood County. We were headed first to my brother’s house just north of Lamberton.

When we got to New Ulm, nearly 1 ½ hours into the trip, I dug my camera out of the camera bag wedged near my feet and snapped occasional photos of the prairie. It is the land I most love—the place my kids call “the middle of nowhere.”

A train travels east along U.S. Highway 14 between Essig and Sleepy Eye while we travel west.

I love this land of plowed fields and wide open spaces, of small-town grain elevators occasionally punctuating the vast skies, of cozy farm sites sheltered by barren trees.

I love, especially, the red barns accented by the fresh-fallen snow, portraying an agrarian beauty that perhaps only someone who grew up on a farm can appreciate.

As much as I have disliked all of the snow we’ve had this winter, I saw only a beautiful winter wonderland when I was back home for Christmas on the prairie.

The sun begins setting over the prairie as we head west, passing through Sleepy Eye and Springfield before reaching Lamberton. We saw only occasional glimpses of sun on a mostly gray day.

The elevators in Sleepy Eye. Small-town prairie elevators like this can be seen for miles away.

One of many picturesque barns along U.S. Highway 14.

Elevators and trains are a common site along U.S. Highway 14 in the rich farmland of southwestern Minnesota. We've nearly reached our destination when I photograph this elevator complex near sunset.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling