Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

On-the-road prairie photos December 29, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 11:01 PM
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Somewhere along a back county road between New Ulm and Morgan.

SORTING THROUGH the on-the-road photos I shot while traveling to and from southwestern Minnesota a week ago, I noticed a similarity in many of my images—pops of red in an otherwise mostly grey landscape.

I didn’t consciously swing my camera lens toward the jolts of red. It just happened. My eye would catch a scene and I would press the shutter button. Traveling at highway speeds allows a mere flick of an instant to frame and shoot through the front and passenger side windows of our family van or car.

I’ve practiced this type of traveling photography long enough that I’m now photographing some of the same sites along roadways. Yet, even the same subject, photographed at a different time of day, in another season, under changing skies, can result in a distinct image that tells a story or captures a mood.

This December, the Minnesota prairie, devoid of snow, appears drab and dreary against iron grey skies. Often only the occasional farm site or small town breaks the bleak blackness of tilled fields that can quickly depress the visual sense.

Perhaps for that reason, my eye is naturally drawn to the red barns and other bursts of red that contrast with the black and white and grey. My eyes are seeking color.

A red barn pop of color in the distance while driving toward Morgan last Friday morning.

Along the same road, I caught just a snippet of the red barn peeking from behind the row of grey grain bins.

Sunnier skies prevailed Saturday afternoon at this farm site just north of Lamberton.

Allow your eyes to wander over my images, to take in the stark essence of the southwestern Minnesota prairie on two days in late December. This is my land, the place that shaped me as an individual and as a writer. It is a land where details are noticed without the distracting visual clutter of traffic congestion and buildings clumped together and lights and signs and crowds.

Not everyone appreciates the prairie, dismissing this land as boring and plain and unexciting. I am not among those who wish only to flash across the prairie like a bolt of lightning. Via my roadside photos, you will see how this infinite space of sky and land has claimed my heart, defining my work as a photographer and a writer.

A red car infuses color into this prairie landscape near Lamberton, heading east toward New Ulm along U.S. Highway 14, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Highway.

A stop sign adds color to an otherwise grey image of the elevator in Essig, along Highway 14 west of New Ulm.

Fields like this one between New Ulm and Morgan define the southwestern Minnesota prairie.

AS I FINISHED this post, I wondered why most barns are painted red. Did the color choice come from a desire for a spot of red to brighten dreary days? I found one answer here, in Farmers Almanac Trivia. Click to read.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Farewell to the Swany White Flour Mill of Freeport December 28, 2011

Freeport promotes itself as "The city with a smile!" That's the smiling water tower to the right and the Swany White Flour Mill to the left in front of the church steeple in this June 2011 image. Freeport is among the communities after which Garrison Keillor's fictional Lake Wobegon is fashioned.

CROSSING THE OVERPASS into Freeport last June, I snapped a quick landscape photo with the town’s charming water tower smiling at travelers along Interstate 94 in central Minnesota.

I should have focused, though, on the old-fashioned grain elevator-style flour mill to the left in my framed image.

Late Tuesday afternoon this historic icon, the Swany White Four Mill, built in 1897 and owned by the Thelen family since 1903, burned. Minnesota has lost an important part of her history, a still-functioning mill of yesteryear that specialized in producing commercial grade and organic flour and was known for its famous Swany White Buttercake Pancake and Waffle Mix.

That I never realized the importance of this towering, aged building on that June afternoon saddens me for I am typically drawn to small-town elevators. But when my husband and I swung into Freeport late on that Saturday afternoon 6 ½ months ago, we were more interested in finding Charlie’s Café, a popular dining spot in this town of 450. We were hungry. Charlie’s was packed, so we left town without eating there, but not until I snapped photos of the café and Sacred Heart Church and School.

Popular Charlie's Cafe is noted for its tasty homemade food including caramel rolls, meringue pies and hot beef commercials. To the right is the Pioneer Inn, after which Garrison Keillor modeled The Sidetrack Tap in his fictional Lake Wobegon. Keillor and his family lived near Freeport in the early 1970s.

Sacred Heart Church, Freeport, described by Garrison Keillor as "a fine tall yellow-brick edifice with a high steep roof."

Sacred Heart School in Freeport, a lovely old building that caught my eye.

I totally missed out on the Swany White Flour Mill, simply because I was unaware of its important existence.

Eleven years ago, though, the historic mill, Charlie’s and other central Minnesota scenes were photographed by National Geographic photographer Richard Olsenius, illustrating a story, “In Search of Lake Wobegon,” by Garrison Keillor, expanded in 2001 as a book. A sister-in-law gave me her copy of the December 2000 National Geographic recently, knowing how much I would appreciate Keillor’s writing and the black-and-white images by Olsenius. I do.

Keillor rented a farmhouse south of Freeport some 40 years ago. He and his family weren’t exactly embraced by the community during the three years they lived there. Keillor writes about his experiences in the magazine piece, where he reveals that his fictional Lake Wobegon is based on life in central Minnesota, including Freeport.

I wonder if Keillor is reflecting on those years in Freeport as news of the Swany White Flour Mill’s demise reaches him. A eulogy or a tribute to this historic mill would seem fitting for Keillor’s radio show, “A Prairie Home Companion,” broadcasting from Honolulu, Hawaii, on New Year’s Eve, far from Lake Wobegon “where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”

It hasn’t exactly been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon.


Christmas fun with the family

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 9:12 AM
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CHRISTMAS WITH THE KLETSCHERS could never be termed as uneventful. Thanks to my fun-loving family (typically led by one especially crazy sister), we are always assured that our time together will be laced with laughter, love and a few surprises.

This year the party planning sister arrived at our middle brother’s house on the southwestern Minnesota prairie with an armful of vintage hats for the women, and occasionally the men, to wear. We were remarkably chic. Not a single hat resembled the hideous ribbon-style fascinator sprouted by Princess Beatrice at Prince William and Kate Middleton’s wedding. We Minnesota women possess far better taste than English royalty.

My party-planning sister and her daughter in their hats. My niece's hat is actually a re-purposed baby birds hand puppet that matches her mom's bird nest hat.

I suggested my eldest daughter start a new fashion trend in Minneapolis with her hat.

A few of the guys, including this unidentified family member, briefly wore vintage hats.

I can’t say the same for all attire worn at the holiday gathering. At one point my eldest daughter donned a Christmas sweater, duly admired by her grandmother who likely did not realize the sweater was a joke.

Look to the center of this image and you'll see my sister in her Grinch outfit ready to lead us in the gift exchange.

However, we all roared at the outfit my sister slipped into for the entertaining gift exchange that involves much hoopla and swapping of presents. Only this sister could carry off wearing a Grinch shirt with such fashionable flair.

My fun-loving middle brother suggested this photo op contrasting the modern Kindle with the antique crank wall telephone. There's also a crank phone in the basement and sometimes we pretend to call from the basement to the upstairs, shouting as loud as we can.

Later, a Kindle quickly became a source of entertainment for, ahem, those of us who’ve never seen such technology.

Santa surprised us all. Much laughter and many hugs and lots of photos followed.

Santa swooped in for a surprise visit, bringing back memories for the 20 – 30-something age group who remember past family Christmases with the old young jolly man in attendance.

For the second Christmas in a row we gathered outside for...sorry can't tell you.

We topped off the evening by shrugging into our winter coats and gathering outside the garage for…well…I can’t reveal that part of our family celebration. Suffice to say you would be impressed.

HOW DOES YOUR FAMILY make Christmas fun and memorable? Let’s hear. We’re always open to new entertainment options.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Grilling on a balmy, brown Christmas in Minnesota December 27, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 8:17 AM
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FOR CHRISTMAS DAY dinner, I planned to prepare homemade lasagna complemented by salad and garlic bread.

But at the last minute, due to weather conditions, I changed my mind. The lack of snow and predicted 40-degree temperatures here in southern Minnesota called for firing up the Weber on Christmas Day. My husband enjoys grilling no matter the temperature or ground cover, and he’s darn good at it. (Click here to see images of him grilling atop a snowbank.)

My husband grilling in our snowless and warm backyard on Christmas Day in Faribault, MN.

On Sunday he grilled pork chops, seasoned potatoes and carrot slices, a simple and savory meal.

I proposed setting up a card table on our south-facing, sun-drenched patio, just to say we’d dined outdoors on Christmas Day. But even I found the low 40s still too nippy for comfortable and leisurely noon-time dining.

Instead, I settled for photographing the holiday grilling in shirt-sleeve warm weather without a trace of snow lingering in the backyard.

Weather-wise this marked a mighty fine Christmas weekend here in southern Minnesota with a high of 42 degrees in Minneapolis/St. Paul, the fifth warmest Christmas Day on record since 1905.

On Monday, the temp soared to 52 degrees in the metro, shattering the previous December 26 record high of 51 degrees set in 1936.

I don’t know if Santa appreciated the warmth and absence of snow. But I sure did.

Juicy pork chops on the grill.

Christmas Day dinner ready for dishing up. If you look in the upper left corner through the window, you'll see a smidgen of snow outside on the north side of our house.

Christmas dinner plated on my garage sale china.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


My family still believes in Santa December 26, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 9:02 AM
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Santa poses with my mom and the younger generation at a family holiday gathering on Friday evening.

AGE MATTERS NOT. Not one bit. Not when it comes to Santa.

He’s still magical, whether you’re 12 or 79 ½ or any age in between.

Friday evening, 24 hours before his busiest night of the year, Santa blew into a rural Redwood County residence on the southwestern Minnesota prairie, arriving so unexpectedly that he nearly rocketed a sister-in-law of mine straight out of her chair to the North Pole.

With a rapid drumming on the dining room window, he startled more than a few family members before slipping through a patio door into our holiday gathering.

The oldest family member surprised by Santa's visit, my 79-year-old mom. I should mention that my mom typically does not wear a fancy hat. But my middle sister started a tradition this year of all the women wearing fancy vintage hats. She brought enough for all of us to wear and it was great fun.

The youngest family member in attendance, my 12-year-old nephew, clearly enjoyed Santa's visit, too.

Hugs and handshakes and laughter and good-natured ribbing and even a kiss, followed by countless photos with Santa, defined the surprise visit now imprinted upon our memories.

I love this about my extended family. We don’t allow age to define our fun.

We still believe in Santa.

Santa made the rounds, greeting each family member, except my middle brother who had vanished.

My son and eldest daughter had their picture taken with Santa. My other daughter was unable to make it back to Minnesota for Christmas because she was working at her job as a Spanish medical interpreter in eastern Wisconsin.

Then Santa waved goodbye...

...and magically disappeared as quickly as he had arrived.

HOW ABOUT YOU? What crazy things does your family do at Christmas time to build memories? Does your family still believe in Santa?

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


In praise of old, familiar Christmas hymns December 25, 2011

The doll representing the Christ Child during the Trinity Lutheran Sunday School program on December 17.

FOR THE FIRST TIME in as long as I can remember, I missed Christmas Eve worship services. We were traveling home from a family gathering in southwestern Minnesota.

So this morning, back in Faribault, my husband, eldest daughter, son and I attended Christmas Day services at Trinity Lutheran Church in Faribault.

While a morning worship service doesn’t hold quite the mood-setting anticipation of worshiping on Christmas Eve with candles glowing soft and white holiday lights sparkling bright in the fading daylight and kids restless with excitement, I appreciated the contentment of singing old, familiar hymns on Christmas morning.

From the opening “Oh, Come, All Ye Faithful” to the recessional “Joy to the World,” and many songs in between, I was reminded of all those childhood Christmas Eve worship services at St. John’s Lutheran in Vesta.

Dad hurried to finish the milking early so we could get to church, to participate in the Sunday School program and sing the same old, familiar hymns we sang today: “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come,” and “Angels We Have Heard on High.”

Although we didn’t sing “Silent Night, Holy Night” this morning, we listened to a teenage girl coo a sweet, lovely rendition. And we heard another teen strum “What Child Is This?” on his guitar.

It was a lovely service of praise, voices uplifted in the joyful comfort of aged hymns to celebrate Christ’s birth.

From my family to yours, we wish you a most blessed Christmas.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


My Christmas gift wish list December 22, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 11:27 PM
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IS MINE THE ONLY husband who leaves his Christmas gift shopping until nearly the last minute? I mean, there it was Wednesday evening and he was asking what I want for Christmas.

Honey, if you’re reading this, maybe just click off the computer screen right now. Or, go ahead, keep reading. I simply find it amusing how you dally and dawdle with this Christmas gift buying nearly every year.

I suppose, in your defense, I should tell my readers that you asked several weeks ago for a wish list from me and I failed to deliver.

So Wednesday night I pulled my list from the e-mails I’d sent our daughters and then scratched a few more items onto the bottom: a telephoto or macro lens for my camera and that thing like the professional photographers have with the cord that you can attach to your camera to click the shutter button when you have your camera on a tripod.

I handed the list to the husband and explained about the camera items and other stuff I really want like a new living room chair, a different kitchen sink to replace the vintage 70s brown one (or an entire kitchen re-do), a new boxspring and mattress, new kettles to replace the vintage 70s brown ones and, oh, maybe earrings.

I then qualified that I really didn’t expect him to buy me anything for my Canon EOS 20-D SLR camera because that would kind of be like me walking into an auto parts store and trying to purchase a tool he wants for Christmas (which I did because he wrote down precisely, exactly, what he wanted; he knows because he saw my entry in the checkbook—I am not sneaky, not at all).

By the looks of the small, flat, wrapped box the spouse slid under the Christmas tree, it appears I am not getting a camera lens, chair, sink, mattress, kettles or kitchen re-do.

I’d put my money on earrings.

However, Santa (not my husband), if you’re reading this, I have one other wish: for families everywhere to truly appreciate, value, respect, listen to and love each other this Christmas and into the new year. Amen.

READERS, WHAT’S your wish for Christmas this year whether practical and personal or more of a prayer?

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling