Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Drive-by barn photo shoot February 28, 2011

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EVERY TIME I TRAVEL Interstate 35 north to the Twin Cities, I think, I need to photograph “that barn.”

That would be the red barn near the Elko/New Market exit with the “Sugardale” lettering painted on the end.

So Sunday afternoon, en route back to Faribault from Burnsville, where I had picked up my camera at National Camera Exchange, I was ready. My fingers were itching to snap more than a few photos since I’d been without my Canon for a week. I had the sensor cleaned.

Anyway, I set a fast shutter speed and hoped for the best as I shot two images through the passenger side window at an interstate speed of 70 mph. That’s all I got before the barn moved out of lens range. My husband asked if I wanted to detour and get a closer shot, but I declined. I was tired and not really dressed for a winter-time photo shoot, meaning I wasn’t wearing boots.

I was pleasantly surprised by the results given I was shooting through a grimy window, at a distance further than I preferred and on a gloomy afternoon.

Here are the results.

Photo one of the "Sugardale" barn.

Photo number two of the "Sugardale" barn. I like how both photos define the starkness of the land on an overcast winter afternoon in Minnesota.

I fully intend to return and shoot the barn close-up. Yeah, I’ve been saying that for years.

In the meantime, does anyone know anything about the history of this barn or Sugardale?

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


The precious children February 27, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 8:32 PM
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A snippet of a painting that hangs in a hallway at my church shows Jesus holding a baby.

“WHY ARE WE HERE? It’s not just because the children are precious. We are here because the children are precious to God.”

Dr. James Lamb, executive director of Lutherans for Life, delivered that message to me and other worshippers today at Trinity Lutheran Church in Faribault as we celebrated “Sanctity of Human Life” Sunday. By the way, I thought his surname—Lamb—quite fitting for a man who heads up an organization that “equips you to be gospel-motivated voices for life, to love and speak the truth compassionately.”

Now I’m not the protesting type, although I wore a pro-life bracelet back in the 1970s. I’ve never rallied against abortion, but I strongly oppose it. I’m not the type to stand on a public soapbox and loudly express my viewpoint.

But I’ve been gifted, through my writing, with the ability to share my thoughts and feelings, facts and opinions, to make a point, or to cause readers to pause and think.

So, this morning, when Rev. Lamb stepped behind the pulpit, I grabbed a pencil and started scribbling notes in the margins of my worship service folder. I expected he might tell me a thing or two regarding human life that I would want to pass along to you. He did.

All the while I was listening to him, I thought of the precious baby girl, newborn Valentine’s Day baby, Abigail Grace, who was sleeping several pews behind me. I almost wished, as the preacher preached, that little Abigail could be up front with him, making a strong visual impact as he talked about the value of human life.

“You knitted me together in my mother’s womb,” Pastor Lamb read from Psalms and then explained that the “knitting together” means not only the physical part, but our essence, our very being, our souls.

We each are, he said, one in 70 trillion.

And then he tossed out more numbers which astonished me. There have been 52 million lives lost to abortion since it was legalized in the U.S. in 1973, he said. Today in the U.S., there are 3,200 abortions daily, he continued.

I thought of little Abigail several pews back, so loved by parents who call her their blessing.

“Your value comes from God, who made you,” the Rev. Lamb told us.

How true?

A portion of Jesus face, photographed from a stained glass window at Trinity Lutheran Church, Faribault.

But then, lest I began feeling all smug and innocent sitting there in my pew on a Sunday morning, the pastor dared to suggest that we worshippers might share in the blame of millions of lives lost through abortion.

Have we failed to speak out against abortion? Have we made the abortion issue a political one rather than focusing on the value of human life that comes from God? Have we failed to show compassion to those who’ve had abortions? Have we failed to tell them, Pastor Lamb said, that “you too are blessed with the forgiveness that is free, unearned, unconditional and complete (through Jesus)”?


So I am doing my part today, from a heart that cares deeply for the unborn children of God and for precious little ones like Abigail Grace, to tell you that I am upholding the sanctity of life because “the children are precious to God.”


Children of God.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Dreaming of sunrises, tangerines and carrot stix February 26, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 11:20 PM
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I WAS LOOKING at paint swatches today while my husband was searching for a toilet bowl gasket at the hardware store.

It seemed like the right thing to do. Crap or color. (I can’t believe I wrote that.) Give me the color.

For some reason, I’ve had bright orange on the brain. I’ve been contemplating adding a jolt of color to my bathroom. Orange towels would do the trick.

I've been fixated with orange lately, like the orange in this poppy I photographed in my neighbor's yard, long, long ago, during the summertime, long, long ago in Minnesota.

But there’s one teeny, tiny problem. My husband, the one who was looking in the, well you know, section of the hardware store while I was ogling the paint, says the towels are just fine.

I suppose they are. They are not threadbare. But I am ready for a change. I need an infusion of brilliant color in my bathroom. Yellow. Orange. Anything but the sage and green that have hung on the towel racks for too many years.

However, because we’ve spent (and are still spending) a lot of money on a major home improvement project, I’ll appease him and hold off on the towel purchase.

But a girl can dream in the meantime. While he searched for that toilet bowl gasket, I admired the sunrise, tangerines and the carrot stix. And then I asked the paint expert at the hardware store if anyone ever buys orange paint.

Orange. Orange. Orange. I can't stop thinking about orange.

“For a kid’s room” she said.

Then I explained my recent fixation with orange, my desire to brighten my bathroom.

She figured this might have something to do with the long, cold and snowy Minnesota winter.

I didn’t disagree.

TODAY MY HUSBAND and I repainted our bathroom in “Popular Gray” by Sherwin Williams. I figure my orange towels will really pop against that gray.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Why some of us appreciate abandoned buildings February 25, 2011


Harriet Traxler photographed this abandoned building along U.S. Highway 14 near Waseca several years ago. She's a hobbyist photographer specializing in nature and rural photography. This photo placed in a photo contest Harriet entered. "It is one of my favorites because of what it doesn't tell you," Harriet says.

SOMETIMES I’M SURPRISED by readers’ reactions to my posts. Usually, the stories and photos I least expect will interest readers, do.

Take my post on abandoned buildings. Last fall, I photographed a dilapidated building in the middle of nowhere along a gravel road near Kasota. I can’t give you the exact location because I don’t know quite where I was on that autumn day.

When I published that photo and wrote about my fascination with abandoned buildings in rural landscapes earlier this week, readers from Oregon, Arkansas and Minnesota responded. Seems I’m not alone in my appreciation of abandoned buildings and the history, memories and stories they hold.

Harriet Traxler, a hobbyist photographer from rural Belle Plaine and the publisher of a book series featuring photos of Sibley County, Minnesota, barns, emailed two photos of abandoned buildings. She is graciously allowing me to share her images and thoughts.

“I, too, am drawn to photographing old, abandoned buildings and then find myself staring at the pictures and trying to imagine who the people were that built and lived in these homes or worked in these barns that now stand empty,” Harriet says. “And the memories of the hard work, the laughter, the troubles; everything that went towards making it a home or farm are now gone forever.

Oftentimes when I would be out photographing the barns in Sibley County or even on a cross country trip, I would see a windmill or a silo or a small grove of trees standing alone in the middle of a field and wonder about the farm that stood there too.

What happened to the family that lived there once not too long ago? Were they happy? Were there children who played and worked alongside their family? Was there a tragedy that occurred that drove the family from the farm?

We often romanticize farm life, but that life was one of the hardest to live. If it was a dairy farm, like most were in rural Minnesota, then it was long days, seven days a week, and children after growing up on this type of farm, learning good work ethics, seldom wanted to spend the rest of their lives doing the work their parents had done for years and years. When they left the farms for those good ‘city jobs,’ that is when farm life began to disappear and those abandoned buildings really began to appear.”

I COULDN’T HAVE said it any better, Harriet. I am one of those kids who left the (dairy) farm.

Harriet, too, grew up on a farm, in Sibley County, on her uncle’s place, that looks nothing like the home of her youth.


The old granary on the farm where Harriet grew up.

“All that remains standing is this old granary that also always smelled of rats and dusty bins of oats,” Harriet says. “It had a lean-to attached to it that was used as a garage for my uncle’s car. I remember every inch of that farm because I loved to explore every inch of it.

I didn’t have to work nearly as hard on that farm as most children had to on the farms they grew up on so maybe that is why I loved it so much.

The freedom to be me was always there and I have often gone back to my ‘roots’ and those memories…the better memories seem to always remain pushing other memories that were not so much fun to the far corners of the mind.”

© Text copyright 2011 by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

© Photo copyright by Harriet Traxler


The neighbor no one wants February 24, 2011

I WALKED OUT OF A NEARLY TWO-HOUR meeting last night at the Faribault Police Department wondering how many more times I will need to sit through a session like this.

For at least the third time, if not the fourth (I’ve lost track), I attended a level three sex offender community notification meeting.

On March 1, a level three offender—designated as most likely to re-offend—is moving into a rental unit in the 300 block of Willow Street, within two blocks of my home. The 34-year-old registered predatory offender has been convicted twice, and sent to prison, for sex crimes against 15-year-old females in Dakota and Rice counties.

He also has an extensive juvenile and adult history of criminal and chemical abuse activity. Some of those crimes involved theft and domestic assault and a shotgun. We weren’t given a detailed list of all his crimes, but he’s not the kind of guy you want moving into your neighborhood.

No one was up in arms at the meeting, which was sparsely attended, I believe, due to the “if it’s not in my neighborhood I don’t care” attitude or perhaps a lack of awareness about the offender moving here. But those who attended, especially mothers whose daughters fit his victim age group of young teens, expressed their very real concerns.

The man’s 15-year-old victims included one with whom he had a relationship and another whom he met at a party and who was under the influence of alcohol. In that last August 2004 assault in Rice County, the offender was sentenced to 98 months in prison. He was released on April 26, 2010, into another Faribault neighborhood. (Surprise. I didn’t know that.) Six months later he was back in prison for violating rules of his supervision by having access to the internet.

Presenter Mark Bliven of the Minnesota Department of Corrections advised attendees to educate their children, offering lists of safety tips. Faribault Police Chief Dan Collins added that many crimes are “crimes of opportunity.” We’ve all heard it before—and I suppose a refresher course doesn’t hurt—but I was more interested in hearing specifics about my new neighbor. So, yes, I asked questions, lots of them.

If we are to believe Bliven, residents outside of my neighborhood and the Faribault community ought to be more concerned about this level three sex offender than those of us living close to him. Typically, he said, offenders, if they recommit, do so outside of their neighborhoods, away from the places where they know they are being watched.

Most often, he added, if offenders are returned to prison, it is for non-criminal offenses, ie. violation of their supervised release. My new neighbor can’t drink, can’t hang out with minors, can’t access the internet, can’t break the law, can’t just go (for now) wherever he pleases…

Bliven spewed out statistics, like 16,500 registered predatory offenders were living in Minnesota as of January 1, 2011. That number encompasses mostly sex offenders, but also includes those involved in crimes of kidnapping and false imprisonment.

Within Minnesota communities there are currently 203 level three offenders. About half of those live in Minneapolis. Of the 203, there are 71 under supervision; 132 are unsupervised.

Come March 1, two level three offenders will be living in Faribault.

We know about those two offenders because they are classified as level three, at high risk for re-offending. By state law, community notification is required.

But 63 other registered predatory offenders live in Faribault. Thirty more live in other parts of Rice County. Their identities are unknown to us because they are classified at lower risk levels.

Throughout the meeting, Blevin tried to reassure us. The offender will be on intensive supervised release until April 24, 2020. He must register as a predatory offender for life. He will be on an active GPS for up to 60 days…six probation officers will be watching him.

Neighbors will be watching too.

I wasn’t upset by the information I learned at Wednesday night’s meeting. I’ve been through this before. I expected to hear what I heard. I truly believe that knowledge is power in protecting ourselves and our children.

What I found most unsettling, because I did not expect this, happened after the meeting. As my husband and I were driving away from the police department, we saw a Rice County probation officer—the supervising agent for the offender moving into my neighborhood—open the back door of her car and slip a bullet-proof vest over her head. I don’t know where she was headed or what she was doing, but that was a frightening reality check for me.


CLICK HERE to reach the Minnesota Department of Corrections website for more information about the level three sex offender moving to Faribault on March 1.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Remembering the children as Minnesota prepares for spring floods February 23, 2011

SOMETIMES WE FORGET, in the jumble of quotes and information, to see a certain human, deeply personal, side of a news story.

Today, thanks to Katie Shones of Hammond, I’m bringing you a child’s perspective on the devastating flood that engulfed her southeastern Minnesota community of 230 during a September 2010 flash flood. I met Katie shortly after the flood.

The disaster was a terrifying ordeal for Hammond residents, who are still reeling in the aftermath. Many have not yet returned to their homes. Some won’t.

Now, as the focus in Minnesota shifts to predicted record spring flooding, as officials prepare for the highest river levels since the 1960s, as crews begin filling sandbags in areas along the Red River, this seems the right moment to let Katie speak—about her children.

But first a little background. Katie and her husband, Scott, live on the east side of Hammond, which is divided by the Zumbro River. The river flows just across Main Street, the highway and the park from the Shones’ home. Floodwaters came within feet—feet—of their house, lapping at their front door.

The home of Katie and Scott Shones and their children, photographed by Hammond resident Gene Reckmann during the September 2010 flood. Their house was spared, by mere feet.

Katie isn’t too worried about flooding this spring. Yet, she’s concerned enough to have a plan. If the Zumbro River rises like it did last fall, she and Scott will haul sand and gravel from a local quarry and build a bank to protect their home. They also have a relocation plan in place.

Their 11-year-old daughter, Rebekah, is ready too. “Ever the resourceful and prepared child she is, she has two bags jam-packed with stuff underneath her bed just in case we have to leave on a moment’s notice due to floodwaters,” Katie says.

This mother’s words break my heart. No child should have to worry about a flood.

But the depth to which the Hammond flood has impacted Rebekah and her 9-year-old brother Jerome reaches beyond concerns about a future flood. “The September flood has affected them more deeply than I had ever imagined,” Katie tells me. “Bekah still occasionally cries out in her sleep, ‘Daddy, Daddy, help me.’ When I ask her what is wrong, she mumbles things about the flood. She never fully wakes up, but I do believe she is having nightmares about that day.”

As a mother, simply reading this brings me to tears. I can only imagine how Katie and Scott feel when they hear their daughter cry out for help in her sleep.

“Jerome has seen the flooding in Australia on the news and is very worried that it will spread to Hammond,” Katie continues. “I have tried to reassure my kids that if it ever gets as bad as it did last fall, we will leave long before it reaches our place and go to Grandma Merle’s (my mother’s farm). The farm is located just two miles from our home, but is on the limestone bluffs above the Zumbro River.”

With so many Hammond residents forced from town and many still not back in their homes, Katie says her children are also without many playmates. “…there never were many children in the area their ages to play with, but now there are only four kids in Hammond left for them to play with.”

That said, the absence of their playmates serves as a daily reminder to Rebekah and Jerome of the floodwaters which ravaged their town and came terrifyingly close to flooding their home.

As Minnesotans physically prepare for the floodwaters that are certain to inundate communities and homes, I hope river town residents are also preparing psychologically, specifically remembering the children like Rebekah and Jerome.

Floodwaters destroyed this portion of Wabasha County Road 11, the river road which runs from Hammond to Jarrett. Gene Reckmann photographed this section of the roadway just outside of Hammond.

THANK YOU, Katie, for allowing me to share your deeply personal story. Thank you also to Gene Reckmann of Hammond for the photos posted here.

READERS, IF YOU have not read my series of posts and photos about the September flood in Hammond and neighboring Zumbro Falls, check my Minnesota Prairie Roots archives for stories published during the week of October 11, 2010.

Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Poetry in abandoned buildings February 22, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 9:42 AM
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I photographed this abandoned building along a country road near Kasota last fall.

ABANDONED FARMHOUSES and rural buildings have always held a special fascination for me.

As odd as this seems, I see poetry in these buildings that lean against the landscape, that view the world through shattered lenses.

I often wonder: Who lived or worked here? Why was this farmhouse or barn or outbuilding or schoolhouse abandoned, left to decay in the elements? I feel a certain sense of sadness knowing that once this building stood strong and proud.

But, yet, I manage to see the beauty in the bones that remain—in weathered boards muted to soft shades of gray, in crooked doors clinging to rusty hinges, in roofs that sag under the weight of time.

In my mind, I have personified this abandoned building, given it new life, through my photos and my poetic thoughts.

HOW ABOUT YOU—do you see what I see in old buildings? Share your thoughts in a comment.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Reflections on the 2008 Cottonwood bus crash February 21, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 10:41 AM
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THREE YEARS AGO Saturday, the small southwestern Minnesota community of Cottonwood suffered an unbelievable tragedy. They lost four of their children when a van ran a stop sign and slammed into a school bus, killing Jesse, Hunter, Reed and Emilee.

I intended to mark that February 19 anniversary date with a blog post. But I forgot. I am not proud of myself. How could I forget to honor these young lives, to remember a prairie town that mourned so deeply, to tell the families that I have not forgotten them or this horrible day?

The event touched me personally as my cousin Joyce’s grandson, 8-year-old Bryce, was riding in the front seat of that bus. He was OK, suffering only several small abrasions.

I’ve kept the emails Joyce and I exchanged after that February 19, 2008, tragedy because I never wanted to forget. And now I’ve gone and done just that.

So today, several days late, I want to remind all of you to hold your children close, to tell them how very much you love them. Treasure them. Every day.

My cousin told me back then, three years ago, about the terror she felt after learning of the crash and not knowing if her grandson was OK. Later, she would thank God for watching over Bryce as she prayed for the recovery of the injured, the families who lost their children and the community of Cottonwood.

I purchased a teddy bear, a bag of M & Ms and a book for Bryce, a voracious reader, and mailed the items to him along with a letter just days after the crash. I figured he could use a teddy bear to hug and words of encouragement.

I wrote, in part, “I hear that you were very brave, which is a tough thing to be when something so scary happens.”

I encouraged him to talk to God, his family or anyone else “when you feel scared and sad.”

Then I ended my letter: “Lots of people love you.”

Today as I reflect on the four children who died that Tuesday afternoon in February 2008 on the cold, wind-swept prairie in a tragedy that should never have happened, my heart aches for their families.

But I hope that through the grief and the pain and the healing they can hold onto the love, the love that will always be there, and the memories, the sweet, sweet memories of their precious children.

CLICK HERE TO READ a blog post I wrote on February 19, 2009, marking the one-year anniversary of the Cottonwood bus crash.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling




A snow day in Faribault

“YOU DIDN’T BELIEVE ME. Give me a high five.”

That’s how the 17-year-old reacted at 7:07 this morning after learning that Faribault schools are closed today because of a snow day.

I wish I had been the one to deliver the good news to him, to a boy who typically lingers in bed until he risks being late for school, which he was one day recently, on a Thursday “late start” day of all days.

But this morning my son heard the “no school” news from his dad, who is currently blowing the eight or nine or 10 inches of snow from ours and our neighbor’s driveways.

Upstairs, the teen is likely back in dreamland and I’ve had a pleasant start to my morning with no snarling, no crabbing, no frowns or grumpy face.

Ah, yes, I love snow days.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Snow in Minnesota, again February 20, 2011

UP UNTIL ABOUT 45 minutes ago, snow was falling fast and furious here in Faribault, at a rate of an inch an hour.

Visibility had dwindled to a block in town. As for the country, I wouldn’t even want to guess.

But now, shortly after noon, the snow flakes aren’t as thick or as heavy and conditions have improved. Perhaps this is simply a lull in a storm predicted to drop up to 15 inches of snow here in southeastern Minnesota, more in southwestern Minnesota, “more” being 20 inches.

My area of Minnesota is currently under a winter storm warning until noon Monday.

In southwestern Minnesota, where my mom and other family members live, a blizzard warning has been issued. Snow and winds have created difficult driving conditions and low visibility on the prairie, according to information I just read on the Minnesota Department of Transportation website. I expect that snow gates, if they have not already been lowered across roads like Minnesota State Highway 19, will soon be put in place. That means you do not travel those roadways without the risk of a hefty fine. Prairie people, for the most part, understand the dangers of traveling in a blizzard and stay put.

I expect to spend my day holed up at home, wrapping up writing projects for Minnesota Moments’ spring issue. It’s a good day to do that and a good way to avoid working on income tax. I detest rounding up tax information and, this year, have put off the awful numbers task longer than normal.

On the way home from church, my husband and I stopped at the grocery store, a busy place at 10 a.m. As we entered the store, we were greeted by a shopper who just smiled and said, “Here we go again.” He was, of course, referring to the snow.

Then, a half hour later as we exited the store with our bread and other food packed into three bags, a cart-pusher, who was struggling to gather grocery carts in the snowy parking lot, declared, “Winter all over again.”

See the common word in their statements? That would be “again.”

Yup, here we go again.

I WOULD LOVE TO HEAR reports about weather conditions in your area. So submit a comment.


I APOLOGIZE for the lack of current photos, but I am without my Canon for a week while it is being cleaned.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling