Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Preserving central Wisconsin’s rural heritage via on-the-road photography January 5, 2012

Each time I see this Wisconsin barn, I think of the biblical story of Joseph's coat of many colors.

ON OUR FOURTH TRIP through central Wisconsin in a year along the same route—Interstate 90 to Interstate 94 in Tomah then on Wisconsin Highway 21 to Oshkosh, up U.S. Highway 41 to Appleton—I’m getting to know the Dairyland state from her western to near eastern borders.

She’s a beautiful state of rolling hills, flat marsh land, stands of packed pencil-thin pines, too many towns whose names end in “ville,” infinite piles of stacked firewood, cranberry bogs and potato patches, muskrat mounds, cheese stores, Packers fans, small-town bars and barns—oh, the barns that I love to photograph.

One of my favorite barns along Wisconsin Highway 21 because of the stone walls.

As I’ve done on every 600-mile round trip to and from our second daughter’s Appleton home, I capture the scenery via on-the-road photography, meaning I photograph through the passenger side window or windshield of our vehicle at highway speeds. Sometimes I manage to snap a well-composed image. Other times I fail to lift my camera, compose and click in time and miss the photo op.

Journey after journey, I find my eyes drawn to the many old barns that are so much a part of Wisconsin’s landscape and heritage. And mine. Only in Minnesota.

I’ve seen every type of barn, from the well-preserved to the crumbling, pieced-together-with-tin structure. I know that any barn, once left to fall into a rotting pile of boards, will never be replaced by an equally grand structure.

A pieced together weathered barn blends into the gray landscape on a dreary winter afternoon.

A once grand barn shows the first signs of falling into disrepair.

The occasional white barn pops up among the characteristically red barns.

Majestic barns, rising sturdy and proud above the land, are seldom crafted anymore. Instead, mundane metal rectangles sprawl, without any character or beauty, across the landscape. Such structures hold no artistic, but only practical, value on the farm.

Via my barn photography, I am documenting for future generations a way of life—the family farm—which, in many places, has already vanished.

If my photos inspire you to appreciate barns and rural life and the land and our agricultural heritage and the men and women who work the soil and their importance in this great country of ours, then I will have passed along to you something of great worth.

An especially picturesque farm site along Wisconsin Highway 21.

The muted blue-grey of this old farmhouse blends seamlessly with the dreamy landscape on a snowy New Year's Day afternoon in central Wisconsin.

Contrasted against snow, red barns are particularly visually appealing.

NOTE: The above photos were taken on December 30, 2011, and January 1, 2012, along Wisconsin Highway 21 in the central part of the state primarily between Wautoma and Oshkosh.

I have applied a canvas style editing technique to most of the images, creating a quality that is more painting than photo.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


16 Responses to “Preserving central Wisconsin’s rural heritage via on-the-road photography”

  1. htrax107 Says:

    Love the photos of the old barns. They are all so sad though without the dairy cows surrounding them as they did not all that long ago. How farming has changed.


    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      It’s interesting that you would comment about the cows because I also mentioned this to my husband as we were driving through Wisconsin. “Where are all the cows?” I asked.

      Readers, Harriet has photographed old barns in Sibley County, Minnesota, and published her images in numerous books.

  2. Malou Prestado Says:

    I love these old barns, they’re just so beautiful!

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      I agree. Can you imagine the photos I could get if I had time to stop and investigate each barn? One of these trips I’d like to get off the highway and follow a back road.

  3. ceciliag Says:

    I love these barns, esp the first one that was repaired with all the different panels.. and yes, the saddest thing about them is that they are abandoned. John is on a mission to show people that they can bring their barns to life again without spending lots of money.. empty barns are sad.. c

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      I’ve heard that once animals are no longer housed in a barn, then it begins to fall apart. The humidity/moisture from the animals keeps the wood from drying out. So I’ve heard.

      Bless your John for being on a mission to save barns. In Illinois, correct?

      Minnesota has an organization, Friends of Minnesota Barns, aimed at preserving our state’s barns.

  4. I LOVE LOVE LOVE barn photos! 🙂

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Do you have a lovely old barn on your place?

      • Sadly, no – the house was built in 1980 and wasn’t a house site before that. I love old houses, though I’m doomed to not have one, I think! – I posted a falling down barn photo on my post today about the magazine article! But it’s kinda small. I think it would be better as a header photo…but anyway, I love your barn pics!

      • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

        I’m drawn to photographing barns because of my farm girl roots. Plus, they are so photographic.

  5. jeanne Says:

    Totally LOVE the Barn photos, Audrey! Reading the other comments….the barns might be sad… but in a beautiful way. Buildings,,,,even abandoned buildings have an ingrained character that brings beauty and interest to a landscape. I find your photos so lovely and such stories they could tell.
    I’m so happy I found this Blog. Keep up the excellent work (or maybe pleasure). Cannot
    wait to see more.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      You’re right, Jeanne, this blog is not work, but truly a love. I would like it to be “work” though in the sense that I’d like to earn some money from it. Still trying to figure out how to do that.

      But I digress. I agree totally that even abandoned buildings possess a certain beauty. I am naturally drawn to barns because I grew up on a southwestern Minnesota dairy and crop farm. I spent a lot of my childhood laboring in the barn.

      I have more photos from Wisconsin trips which I need to post sometime like Ship Rock along Highway 21, the back country south of Tomah, and other miscellaneous shots (including more from Appleton).

      I’ve also written about Stockholm, Wisconsin, which my husband and I discovered last fall. Just type Stockholm into my blog search engine to find those posts.

      Glad to have you as a Minnesota Prairie Roots reader.

      • jeanne Says:

        Have you ever been to Ripon, Green Lake, Berlin, Omro, Winneconne, all the little towns of Door County (Fish Creek), Bayfield, Kohler, New Glarus (old German town near Madison) and so many, many more? Oh my, your camera would certainly get a workout! I’m sure there are just as many beautiful areas in Minnesota (I’ll have to spend more time there). I simply cannot get enough of the architectural beauty of our wonderful country. My feeling is that if you wonder if God is an artist……look outside. Do not ever put your camera down.

      • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

        My, you’ve given me a long list of towns to explore. I’m familiar with New Glarus (beer made there, correct?) and Omro, which is on the road we travel to reach Appleton. I have not yet explored Omro, though. Door County is on my list of places to visit although I’m concerned about it being too busy and “touristy” for me.

        Yes, Minnesota is equally as beautiful as Wisconsin. There’s so much to explore right here in my backyard. I fully intend to keep photographing the natural and man-made world around me. And I agree, by the way, with your comment about God’s artistry.

  6. Donna Says:

    I’ve been so busy working with animals the last five months I haven’t had time to read your blog, today I’m catching up and thinking Minnesota winter as we have SNOW FALLING here in Chehalis, WA. I love the barn pictures and also noticed when we we in Minnesota last May that many of the barns do not have cows in the barnyard.
    Keep up the pics and blogs!

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      I fully intend to keep searching for those old barns and other interesting subjects and to continue blogging.

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