Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by 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

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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