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
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

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
Tags: , , , , , , ,

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
Tags: , , , , , ,

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
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

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
Tags: , , , , , , ,

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


Downtown Faribault in December in black & white

The former Security Bank building anchors a corner of Central Avenue in downtown Faribault.

PHOTOS DEVOID of distracting color possess a certain surreal, dreamy quality and a vintage feel that have always appealed to me.

Some of the best images I’ve seen hearken from years ago which just goes to prove that technology doesn’t always equate better results.

While filing through photos I shot in historic downtown Faribault on Saturday afternoon and evening, I decided to play with my photo editing tools and desaturate several images. I liked the results so much that I stripped every frame of color.

The results, I think, impress even more upon the viewer the history of this early Minnesota community that stretches back to its founding by fur trader Alexander Faribault in 1852.

We’re a city rich in history with 40 properties on the National Register of Historic Places.

With that perspective, please join me on a quick photo tour of the downtown area. Certainly much more comprises our downtown than what you see in the seven images here.

I invite you to explore on your own, to immerse yourself in the history that defines Faribault.

Historic buildings along Central Avenue.

Dandelet Jewelry occupies the former 1882 Dandelet Dry Goods building, which was renovated in 1985.

A scene from the movie, "Grumpy Old Men," was shot in the former drug store to the right in this image. Today the building houses a pawn shop.

A holiday display window at Erickson Furniture, in business since 1956 and located along Fifth Street Northwest just a block off Central Avenue. Erickson Furniture won first place in the Main Street window decorating contest with its suspended green chairs, holiday ornaments and lights.

Holiday decorations in a business window along Third Street Northwest just off Central.

A sign in the window of Burkhartzmeyer Shoes, a third-generation family-owned shoe store founded in 1949.

CLICK HERE to read a previous post about Faribault’s historic downtown.

Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Appreciating historic downtown Faribault, especially in her holiday finery December 21, 2011

Strolling along Central Avenue in historic downtown Faribault late on a Saturday afternoon in December.

SATURDAY AFTERNOON, while my husband shopped for dress shoes at Burkhartzmeyer Shoes in historic downtown Faribault, I meandered a block north to view Central Avenue dressed in holiday finery.

She’s stunning with sparkles and ribbons and Christmas reds and greens befitting any holiday party.

Keepers Antique Store decorated the wrought iron fencing on a downtown street corner as part of a "Winter Wonderland" themed decorating contest.

Honestly, I love the look and feel of my downtown. Even without the glitz and glamour of the holiday season, Faribault shines. The old brick buildings, the comforting small-town vibe, the ease of parking, the slow pace and the friendliness of shopkeepers appeal to me.

Next to the Signature Bar & Grill, a lovely holiday-bedecked street corner.

An elf outside The Crafty Maven, "featuring a unique mix of new and vintage items."

Quotes from Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" portrayed in store-front windows.

I am always surprised when locals fail to appreciate downtown. How can you not value this treasure of a business district with arched windows, decorative trim and more on vintage buildings that impart an historic and homey feel to our town? Perhaps because I didn’t grow up here, I can truly see the beauty that native residents often overlook.

Another seasonally-decorated street corner charms visitors to Central Avenue.

I am always surprised, too, that Faribault hasn’t been discovered—like Red Wing or Stillwater or Wabasha or neighboring Northfield—as a destination city. The potential exists to draw tourists here into our specialty shops and arts scene. It’s not for a lack of effort, but…we’re not there yet.

I aimed my camera skyward as the setting sun caught the tops of historic buildings along Central Avenue.

First, we need to sell our own residents on the value of Central Avenue, our Main Street. Do we truly realize how fortunate we are to have a solid, core downtown like ours with a deep history and an inviting character?

Mega malls and strip malls and Big Box retailers—and I shop at those places, too—have nothing on Main Street.

Yes, I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, meaning my perspective evolves from memories of shopping in a downtown, not a mall.

When I stroll along Central Avenue in Faribault, nostalgia accompanies me. And she’s a mighty fine friend to walk with, especially during the holiday season.

Outside Keepers Antique Store, a rustic vignette charms.

Across the street at That Scrapbooking Place, a punch of color on the front window backed by a holiday display and reflections of historic buildings.

Sweet, dreamy gingerbread houses fill the display window at Sweet Spot, a Central Avenue candy and ice cream shop. I love how the reflection of an old building across the street melds with the gingerbread house.

IF YOU’VE NEVER been to Faribault, consider a trip here. We’re located along Interstate 35, just an hour south of Minneapolis. You’ll find antique, craft, candy, cheese and many other specialty shops and businesses, hometown eateries, as well as an arts center, along Central Avenue. If you have a specific question about Faribault, ask and I’ll answer.

LOCALS,  if you haven’t been downtown in awhile, I’d encourage you to park your vehicle, walk and appreciate your town. She’s all glammed up right now and a wonder to behold.

READERS, PLEASE CHECK back on Thursday for more Central Avenue holiday-themed images.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Give the gift of Minnesota writing December 20, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 10:49 PM
Tags: , , , , , , ,

ALRIGHT THEN, I’m going to put in a days-before-Christmas gift plug idea here for Lake Region Review, a Minnesota literary magazine. Even though the founders, term it a “magazine,” I’d call this 138-page volume a “book.”

Anyway, magazine/book/journal, whatever word you choose, it’s a collection of fiction, creative nonfiction and poetry by 27 Minnesotans, including me.

In my “This Barn Remembers” poem, you’ll read my memories of laboring in my childhood dairy barn on the southwestern Minnesota prairie. You may want to pull on your old boots as you muck your way through my true-to-reality poem. I tell it like it was, right down to “putrid piles of manure” and “streams of hot cow pee.”

I’m not going to choose a favorite piece of poetry or prose to highlight from Lake Region Review. But you’ll find regional writing from those as well-known as New York Times bestselling author Leif Enger to unknown college student Travis Moore in a collection that melds work by experienced and emerging writers. By the way, getting published in the Review was a competitive process. You’ll read quality writing here.

That all said, Lake Region Review would make an ideal gift for anyone who appreciates regional writing.

You can purchase the $10 volume in these Minnesota, and one North Dakota, locales:

  • Becker County Museum, 714 Summit Ave., Detroit Lakes
  • Cherry Street Books, 503 Broadway, Alexandria
  • Lakes Area Theatre, 2214 Geneva Road, N.E., Alexandria
  • Minnesota Historical Society Bookstore, 345 W. Kellogg Blvd, St. Paul
  • Otter Tail County Historical Society, 1110 Lincoln Ave. W., Fergus Falls
  • Victor Lundeens, 126 West Lincoln Ave., Fergus Falls
  • Zandbroz Variety, 420 Broadway, Fargo, N.D.

Or click on this link for instructions on how to order. (Sorry, the anthology won’t arrive by Christmas.)

Thanks for supporting Minnesota writers like me (not that I earned any money from the Review—I didn’t). But I certainly appreciate readers who value regional writing.

IF YOU’VE READ Lake Region Review, I’d like to hear your review.

CLICK HERE to read a previous post I wrote about Lake Region Review and another Minnesota literary journal, The Talking Stick.