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


6 Responses to “Discovering a Monet painting near St. Charles”

  1. Bernie Says:

    Love the picture of the weathered door. What fun. I forget that things are still green this time of year. What lovely pictures. Looks like a fun day.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      I love discovering quirky things like the weathered door. Wait until you see some of the other discoveries from our small-town stops. If everyone just took the time to exit their vehicles and look around, they would see these, too.

  2. Gmc St Charles Says:

    My favorite part of all the photos you posted were the glorious rows and rows of flowers! Such vibrant colors.

  3. Heather Says:

    I absolutely loved your take on St. Charles! I have linked your story on our website. I did want to let you know that although we are not “Amish owned”, that we do a lot of business with the local Amish. For instance, all our vegetables for the restaurant, fruits for jam, aprons, quilts, cutting boards, baskets and rugs come from the local Amish. They have made all of our furniture for the restaurant. They built our barn. They have come and trained us how to make their candy. In the summer, we freeze ice for their cellars. The buggy belonged to an Amish friend of ours, and if you look inside, you can see where the man would sit, as the ceiling of the buggy is worn. I know to the outside we seem like a tourist plaza, but we try to offer a taste of the Amish community among other things. Great story, none the less! Thank you for your insight!!

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Heather, thank you so much for telling us more about the Amish Market Square. I did appreciate the Amish handiwork.

      I’m so glad you wrote because I have a question. An acquaintance told me about an Amish auction this coming Saturday near your place of business. Could you give me details on time, location, etc.?

      Also, the photograph of the men in the Whitewater Cafe just published in a photo essay, “Touring Main Street in Small Town, Minnesota,” in the spring issue of Minnesota Moments magazine. I worked with another photographer on that project which includes images from 14 small towns in Minnesota.

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