Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Winter storm on the prairie December 1, 2010

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Snow blows across the driveway on the farm where I grew up near Vesta.

WHEN I HEARD yesterday of five-foot snowdrifts in the Springfield area, west of New Ulm, I simply had to get my hands on some photos from southwestern Minnesota. Honestly, unless you’ve lived on the flat, open, wind-swept prairie, you really can’t comprehend the ferocity of a Minnesota winter.

In that part of the state, November exited with a strong winter storm that whipped snow into hard, sculpted drifts, made roads nearly impassable if not impassable and closed schools on Monday and Tuesday.

Snowdrifts, some six feet high, sculpted around the grove and bins on the home place.

Although I have not lived on the prairie for nearly four decades, memories of winters there are as fresh as the five, up to 10, inches of snow that fell there.

I won’t tell you that I walked uphill two miles to school in snowdrifts eight feet deep. But I will tell you that when I attended junior high school in Redwood Falls some 20 miles from my farm home, we had a difficult time getting to school one winter. Because of all the snow and poor road conditions, buses would not make their rural routes. One bus left the cafe in my hometown of Vesta each morning bound for Redwood Falls. If you could get into town, then you could go to school. For my brother and me, that journey into Vesta was via an open cab John Deere tractor driven one mile down a county road by our dad. After school he would drive back in to town and bring us home.

I also recall during high school once riding home on a single school bus crammed with students who would normally fill two buses. The driver opted to take all of the Vesta area kids to Vesta (not home) in one bus as weather conditions were so poor. The bus crept along the highway with one student standing just inside the open bus door guiding the driver in near-visibility conditions.

The often brutal winters on the prairie also necessitated designated “snow homes,” homes in town where country kids could stay if snow stranded them in town. Although I had snow homes every year from junior high until I graduated in 1974, I never once had to stay at one. My siblings did.

Even though the prairie winters were harsh, as a kid, I loved winter. Rock-hard snowdrifts that circled the granary and the house and the barn and the snow piles formed by my dad with the bucket of his John Deere tractor became treacherous mountains to explore. We drove our imaginary dog sleds there, played King of the Mountain, dug snow tunnels, slid in our sleds…

Winters were fun back then.

Wind-whipped snow drifts around the abandoned milkhouse and silo.

I’m certain, though, for my parents, winter must have been a lot of hard work—pushing all that snow from the driveway and yard to open a path for the milk truck, thawing frozen drinking cups and a frozen gutter cleaner, emptying the pot that served as our bathroom in the cold front porch…

All of these memories rushed back as I viewed the photos my niece Hillary took of this recent winter storm in southwestern Minnesota. Her images are from the farm where I grew up, the place of sweet memories and of long, cold, harsh winters.

Snow began falling Monday afternoon in the Vesta area, causing low visibility and poor driving conditions as snow covered roadways, according to my niece.

Snow swirled into drifts in the farmyard on the farm of my childhood.

Snowdrifts formed at the edge of the yard, next to the grove.

IF YOU HAVE WINTER memories or stories to share, submit a comment to Minnesota Prairie Roots. I’d like to hear yours.

Text © Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Photos © Copyright 2010 Hillary Kletscher