Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Discovering a Monet painting near St. Charles August 25, 2011

A section of downtown St. Charles, Minnesota, on a recent summer afternoon.

A quilt made by local southeastern Minnesota Amish and sold at the Amish Market Square.

MID-AFTERNOON ON A TUESDAY and we are dining at the Whitewater Café in downtown St. Charles.

We’ve driven to this southeastern Minnesota community of 3,300, sandwiched between Interstate 90 and U.S. Highway 14, because we’re meandering home from a family vacation to Wisconsin.

I’ve specifically placed St. Charles on our route back to Faribault for two reasons: the Amish and the gladiolus.

Before dining at the fishing-themed Whitewater Café in downtown, we stopped at Amish Market Square just off I-90 where you can gas up, eat, buy products handmade by the Amish and pose for a photo in an Amish buggy. While I admired the stunning hand-stitched quilts—priced around $1,500—and the wood cutting boards and more, I didn’t climb into that buggy for a photo. I wanted authentic Amish, not tourist Amish.

That would come later, after lunch downtown, next to “The Table of Knowledge,” aka a group of local guys who gather each morning and afternoon to shoot the breeze, drink coffee and, when asked, give directions to the gladiolus fields and Amish farms.

I didn’t get any of their names, but one of those friendly club members—and I use that term loosely here—found a Winona County map in the restaurant and highlighted a route that would take us southeast of St. Charles past Amish farms and then back north to the glad field just south of Utica. He praised the hardworking Amish, two of whom were working on a fence on his farm at that very moment. He picks them up in the morning, then drives them home at the end of the work day.

These friendly locals at the Whitewater Cafe gave us directions to the glad field and Amish farms.

We left the restaurant, opting to view the flower field first by following Highway 14 east of St. Charles, turning south onto Winona County Road 33 into Utica until we found the rows of gladiolus just outside of town. It should be noted that the flower-growing location changes annually to keep the plants disease-free. Last year the glads were grown next to St. Charles, so the knowledgeable locals told us.

Up until that moment, I’d thought mostly of gladiolus as “funeral flowers,” a moniker that has stuck for decades based on my memories of glads at every funeral I ever attended as a child. Interesting how you associate something with an impressionable event, isn’t it?

As we slowed the car to get an overview of the gladiolus in the field below, I felt as if I was viewing a painting by Claude Monet. Soft pinks and purples and blues—punctuated by splashes of brilliant red, and broken by lines of green, tight-clasped buds and foliage—created a surreal scene against the backdrop of corn, farm places, sky and a distant tree line.

A view of the gladiolus field just south of Utica along Winona County Road 33.

This is as close as I got to the glads, standing along the shoulder of the road photographing them.

I hoped for a close-up look, but found no signage indicating we could stop at a next-door building site to view or purchase flowers.

And so we drove on, further south and then west past several Amish farms—past the horses and wagons, the laundry on clotheslines, the shocks in fields and the Amish men throwing bundles high atop a wagon, their arm muscles bulging from seasons of labor.

An Amish farm site southeast of St. Charles.

We came upon this pastoral scene south of St. Charles, where the Amish were pitching bundles onto wagons.

Heading back into St. Charles, I wished I could spend more time here, in this town promoted on its website as “The Gateway to the Whitewater Valley,” and made world-famous by Carl Fischer, now deceased. He was the world’s leading hybridizer of new and distinctive gladiolus and established Noweta Gardens in 1945.

Each August this Minnesota town celebrates Gladiolus Days, which is happening right now and continues through Sunday, August 28. For a schedule of events, click here.

I fully intend to return some day to experience this festival, to this place where, if you look, you will see southeastern Minnesota’s version of a Monet painting.

The gladiolus field before me could have been a Claude Monet painting.


The main road through downtown St. Charles, the "Gateway to the Whitewater Valley."

I discovered these weathered doors, found them charming, so photographed them in downtown St. Charles.

More downtown St. Charles businesses.

The post office and a pizza place along St. Charles' main drag.

I refused my husband's offer to photograph me in this Amish buggy at the Amish Market Square just off I-90.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Who you gonna call when the bugs invade?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 7:33 AM
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Because I did not get a photo of the female cardinal, I am showing you a photo of a male cardinal taken by my friend Harriet Traxler, an excellent photographer. Scroll to the end of this story for more info about Harriet's work.

CRAZIEST THING HAPPENED Wednesday morning as I hung laundry outside on the clothesline. I heard a scritch-scratch and looked up to see a female cardinal fluttering atop the metal chimney on our house. She would fly away, come back, land on the stack, fly away and then repeat the entire process.

I was baffled until I noticed a spider web the size of a car tire suspended between the chimney and the angled roof.

As I watched, wishing mightily that I had my camera in my hands, the cardinal flew toward the center of the cobweb where, even from the ground, I could see an oversized insect. Maybe the spider?

She flapped and hovered and poked at the web, trying to grab her breakfast.

About then I decided I had enough time to race inside to my office, grab my Canon and snap a picture. I was wrong. In the short time I went missing, the determined bird nabbed the trapped bug. Darn.

Have you ever seen anything like this?

AS LONG AS WE’RE TALKING BUGS, has your home been invaded by gnats—or whatever they are—which are attracted in the evening to flicked-on lights. Tuesday night, when I walked into the kitchen around 9, I found the floor pocked with these pesky winged creatures. I immediately summoned my husband.

“What am I supposed to do?” he asked.

I pulled a sexist comment from my brain: “You’re the man of the house. Protect me.”

He laughed, then laughed some more when I suggested sweeping them into a dustpan.

“They’ll fly away,” he said, wheeling out the vacuum cleaner, a bug’s version of an EF-5 tornado.

EARLIER IN THE EVENING my spouse saved me from two wasps wandering a window screen in the dining room, directly behind the chair where I dine.

“I don’t want to get stung,” I emphasized, reminding him of how my skin swells and itches every time a mosquito bites me. “What do you think would happen if I was stung by a wasp?”

He probably didn’t need the reminder as less than two weeks ago my right hand swelled to about twice its size (I might be exaggerating just a tiny bit, but not much) from two mosquito bites. That resulted in a trip to the doctor followed by a stop at the pharmacy. Those two bites set me back a couple hundred bucks. But at least the infection didn’t spread to my artificial hip, which would have cost me thousands.

Anyway, bottom line, my husband’s done a superb job as my personal Bug Buster. And whenever he’s not available, I have that cardinal as back-up.

FYI: Except for centipedes, I am not afraid of bugs and will deal with them whenever I must. However, I will avoid killing stinging insects if my bug-busting husband is available. Why risk getting stung?

VISIT THE BARNS OF SIBLEY COUNTY website by clicking here to learn more about Harriet Traxler, her photography and the barn books she’s published. She is also currently working on a book of historical fiction.

© Text copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Photo by Harriet Traxler