Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Unlocking the poetry within an abandoned farmhouse April 30, 2012

An abandoned farmhouse along Minnesota State Highway 19 east of Vesta on the southwestern Minnesota prairie.

Abandoned Farmhouse

My old bones rattle in the winter wind,
grown weary from years of standing,
bitter cold encompassing my body.

Despair surrounds me
like rot in the weathered heap of the barn,
like rust consuming the junk pile.

Alone, all alone now, abandoned
except for the dying circle of trees
that embrace me, holding me close.

The years have broken my spirit—
too much silence within my walls,
too many tears shed upon my floors.

Left here, without laughter, without hope.
Dreams shattered in my broken windows.
My door closed, locked with a skeleton key.

Abandoned. Desolate. Alone.
Leaning only on the prairie sky,
in a circle of dying trees.


IN 2001, THIS POEM published in Poetic Strokes, A Regional Anthology of Poetry from Southeastern Minnesota, Volume 3. To this day, it remains one of my favorite poems among all those I’ve penned.

“Abandoned Farmhouse” retains that status because the poem connects to my past, to rural southwestern Minnesota where I grew up in a cramped 1 1/2-story wood-frame farmhouse. When I was 11 years old, my parents built a rambler with a walk-in basement a stone’s throw across the circular gravel driveway from the old house. They needed the space for their growing family as the sixth, and final, child arrived in August of 1967.

The summer after we moved into the new house, we tore down the old house, board by board. Memories of dismembering that house lath by lath, nail by nail, imprinted upon my memory. Decades later I would recall the bones of the old house, the skeleton key that unlocked the porch door, the grove of trees that sheltered it from the strong winds that swept across the prairie.

I would write this poem, personifying an abandoned farmhouse.

My poetic words reach beyond my childhood home, though, to embrace the many abandoned farmhouses that dot the prairie landscape. I often wonder about the families that lived in these houses and about the stories they would tell.

Returning to an even earlier time period, my poem also reflects a pervasive loneliness that often troubled early pioneer women in a land that could feel desolate, harsh and inhospitable.

This past March, I captured that desolation in an abandoned farmhouse photo (above) taken within five miles of my childhood home. It aptly illustrates my poem.

To this day, I see both beauty, and despair, in abandoned farmhouses.

©  Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Shared with you in celebration of National Poetry Month, which ends today, April 30.


The cost of prom and ways to save money April 28, 2012

A 1984 bridesmaid's dress I donated last year to the Faribault High School National Honor Society Prom Dress Drive.

EVEN I WAS SHOCKED when I read the number: $1,078.

That, dear readers, is the average amount American teens are spending on their high school proms this spring, according to results of a Visa Inc. Prom Spending Survey.


I knew the cost of prom was over-the-top, but not to that level of out-of-control spending.

If it’s any solace, here in the Midwest, prom-going teens spend $696, the least of anywhere in the nation. Those in the Northeast shell out $1,944. Southern teens spend an average of $1,047 and those on the West Coast, $744.

Surprised? Shocked? I am.

But wait, there’s more. According to the survey (click here to read a complete report), prom spending is up nearly 34 percent from the 2011 average of $807.

Surprised? Shocked? I am.

That all said, there are ways to cut prom costs, still look great and enjoy this special high school event. Readers of this blog offered plenty of creative money-saving ideas earlier this week after I posted about prom. Since I expect not all readers peruse the comments, here are the suggestions they offered:

No one was more adamant about cutting prom costs than Joan, who advocates thrift store shopping to save significant dollars. Her son picked up a second-hand suit at a local thrift store and his date is wearing a $20 dress from the Salvation Army. Joan spent $10 for the silk flowers she purchased at a craft store and then crafted. Another $45 goes for two prom tickets. She’s spent $10 for after-prom food and will spend an additional amount for her son’s dinner out. Add those numbers, and the cost for Joan’s son to attend prom will likely be around $100.

Affordable? Yes.

A friend of mine, a young mother who lives in Washington D.C., sent a link to a Utah-based business that rents prom dresses for $39 – $99, plus a cleaning fee. Modest Prom lists its mission: Help you find a modest prom dress. Click here to learn about this rental option.

Another reader, a South Dakota mom who last year spent $280 on her daughter’s prom dress, recouped 75 percent of the cost by selling the dress after prom. This year that same mom shelled out $400 for her daughter’s gown.

A similar strategy is recommended by another reader. Her friend bought a dress after prom for a fraction of the price. “Styles don’t change dramatically in a year,” she says.

In Australia, another mom says her daughter is covering some of the costs for attending her school formal.

And then there’s the Twin Cities metro area mother who offers this alternative. Her son, on prom night, invited friends over for pizza, prom night movies and video games. “He got a great turnout, and the kids had a blast,” she says.

My 18-year-old isn’t attending Faribault High School’s prom tonight. His older sisters never attended prom either. I, however, went to my high school proms in 1973 and 1974. Things were different back then. I sewed my dresses. Girls and guys could go solo. We didn’t get our hair or nails done or pay photographers or dine out or ride in limos or… Prom was much simpler back then and certainly way cheaper.

Times have changed and as much as I’d like to sometimes turn the clock back to those simpler days, I can’t.

But I do have two ideas to cut prom costs. How about cooking a fancy meal in your home for your prom-going son/daughter and his/her date? My mom did that for my youngest brother back in the day. Today my brother’s married to his prom date.

The other idea isn’t really mine, but is one the Faribault High School National Honor Society came up with last year. The NHS held a Prom Dress Drive, collecting and recycling prom dresses. You can read about that by clicking here. I know this has been done elsewhere and I consider it a fabulous alternative to spending hundreds of dollars on a new dress.

So there you go. Prom can cost less than the nation-wide average of $1,078 if you’re willing to think creatively, shop thrift stores and simply say “no” to your son/daughter.

IF YOU HAVE ADDITIONAL cost-saving suggestions or prom alternatives, please submit your ideas via a comment on this post. We can all learn from each other. Thank you to all who earlier submitted their great ideas.

FYI: Visa survey results were based on 1,000 telephone interviews conducted nation-wide between March 30 – April 1, 2012.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Embracing the arts at a former Carnegie library April 27, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 7:37 AM
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Crossings at Carnegie, an art center located in Zumbrota sits across the street from Quality Siding and Window Inc. and ACE Hardware and just down the block from the State Theatre and a picturesque white-steepled church.

IT’S TYPICAL Carnegie library with steep front steps and double columns and a gracious, arched doorway fronting a brick building.

But today in Zumbrota (and since 2001), the 1908 Classical Revival style building houses an art center. Crossings at Carnegie, with a gallery and gift shop, with a clay studio and with classes in theater, writing, art and more, and with an array of concerts, centers culture in this southeastern Minnesota community of 3,200.

Colorful yarn wraps a front exterior stairway railing.

Saturday evening I climbed the steps into this privately-owned art center for the first time, into a space that visually overwhelmed me. With elbow-to-elbow people squeezed into the former library and with art crammed everywhere, I admittedly escaped twice—down stairs to the basement and down stairs to the outdoors.

The charming exterior front door leading into Crossings.

An estimated 1,500 visitors walk through the art center doors each month, according to the Crossings website, rating this as one popular spot for shoppers, art lovers, students of the arts and more. Saturday night drew a crowd as Crossings celebrated its 11th annual Poet Artist Collaboration. I was among the 26 participating poets. Click here and here to read two previous blog posts about this event.

I noticed art leaning on the piano as musician Matthew Rivera played the piano at Saturday evening's Poet Artist Collaboration XI gala reception. He also strummed the ukulele later.

In the midst of mingling and weaving and escaping, I tried to notice details like the yarn wrapped around a railing post, the colorful exterior signage, art propped upon the piano, the misspelled sign welcoming dogs…

In the end, I decided to return in the solace of a non-event day to this place which celebrates the arts with such exuberance.

A welcoming misspelled sign on a front window at Crossings.

Vivid colors and outdoor art define Crossings as an art center.

FYI: Click here to learn more about Crossings at Carnegie, 320 East Avenue, Zumbrota.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Prairie lines April 26, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 6:31 AM
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Crisp, straight roof lines define buildings on this farm site along U.S. Highway 14 just minutes west of Springfield in southwestern Minnesota.

I NEVER TIRE of the crisp lines that cut across the southwestern Minnesota countryside. The razor sharp edge of a barn roof. The thick, defined rails of train tracks. The precise spacing of orderly crop rows.

This rich farmland, more familiar to me than any place on this earth, has always been defined by lines. It is the visual perspective I hold of this land that holds my heart.

Crop lines along U.S. Highway 14 west of Springfield in a field that awaits planting.

I cannot view this prairie place without seeing those strong, bold and definitive horizontal lines.

It is the expanse of the sky and of the land in this visually uncluttered place that naturally draws my eyes to rest upon the lines, to lock onto a spot that connects me to a concrete object or to the earth.

This barn stands strong and sturdy between Sleepy Eye and Springfield along U.S. Highway 14.

Consider this perspective the next time you travel through western Minnesota. Forget your preconceived notion of this as a place you simply must pass through to get from point A to point B. View the land and the sky, the small towns and the farm sites, the endless vistas with your eyes wide open, appreciating all that unfolds before you.

A farm site with a smiley face on the barn, between Sleepy Eye and Springfield.

Just west of Springfield off U.S. Highway 14, a gravel road and an orange snow fence cut horizontal lines across the prairie as do the low-slung farm buildings.

A pastoral hillside scene on the edge of Courtland along U.S. Highway 14.

Railroad tracks edge past this farm site along U.S. Highway 14 between Essig and Sleepy Eye. To the right in the photo, a tractor awaits the planting season.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Second Faribault jeweler hit in apparent state-wide crime wave April 25, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 2:50 PM
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Chappius Jewelers, photographed several years ago, and the latest target of thieves.

YOU HAVE TO HAND IT to the owners of Douglas Diamonds & Fine Jewelry. They possess a sense of humor.

Less than two weeks after a Saturday morning break-in netted smash-and-grab thieves $10,000 in merchandise, the Faribault jeweler is running an ad in the Faribault Daily News with this tag:

Even thieves know great jewelry when they see it.

Examined alone, this ad would, indeed, strike you as funny, and creative. The catchy phrase grabs the reader’s attention.

But a few pages back in the same issue (today’s), this headline also draws attention:

Break-in at Chappuis Jewelry

The Faribault newspaper is reporting that a second jewelry store was targeted around 9:45 p.m. Tuesday by smash-and-grab thieves. You can read the complete story about the theft at Chappuis Jewelry, right around the block from the police station in the heart of historic downtown Faribault, by clicking here.

When you read that story, you won’t laugh. Not at all. The newspaper reports a string of jewelry store break-ins state-wide and a growing concern among law enforcement about the brashness of the criminals and the safety of their own, business owners and the public.

After leaving Faribault last night, the same group reportedly continued on to Hastings and hit a jewelry store there around 11 p.m.

The jewelry store crime wave apparently began on April 7 with a theft at Chilson Jewelers in Cambridge. Since then, jewelers in Apple Valley, Farmington and Buffalo have also been hit and investigators are looking into a connection with similar cases in Wayzata and Alexandria.

Let’s hope investigators get a break in these cases soon, before a break-in (and I expect there will be more) escalates into a violent confrontation.


Main Street Wabasso, home of the White Rabbit

The Roadhouse Bar & Grill is a popular gathering and dining spot in Wabasso. During the summer, old car enthusiasts and motorcyclists gather here for Tuesday evening "Roll-ins" that draw up to 1,000 people. There's plenty of outdoor seating on a sprawling patio where a hamburger bar is set up for the popular event. The Grill also offers an extensive burger and sandwich menu with reasonable prices.

WITH A HALF HOUR wait before we could be seated at the Roadhouse Bar and Grill in Wabasso on a recent Saturday evening, I hit the sidewalk determined to photograph the Main Street of this small southwestern Minnesota town where I attended high school.

This road-side sculpture welcomes travelers to Wabasso, which means white rabbit.

I have, through the decades, discovered minimal familiarity among most Minnesotans with Wabasso, a Redwood County farming community of around 650 that links to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem, “The Song of Hiawatha.”

Longfellow writes in his section on the Four Winds:

“Honor be to Mudjekeewis!”
Cried the warriors, cried the old men,
When he came in triumph homeward
With the sacred Belt of Wampum,
From the regions of the North-Wind,
From the kingdom of Wabasso,
From the land of the White Rabbit.

I’ve always been told that Wabasso is an Indian word meaning “white rabbit.” I never learned of the poetic connection until researching on my own; English teachers at Wabasso High never taught this, that I recall. I doubt many of the locals are aware of Longfellow’s reference.

Wabasso is decidedly proud of its white rabbit namesake, though. You’ll find an oversized rabbit statue along State Highway 68 on the south side of town. The public school mascot is, of course, a white rabbit. And, as I found, even local businesses support the Rabbits via storefront signage.

Wabasso’s downtown business district is typical rural Minnesota with a mix of well-kept and deteriorating buildings that border a broad street. Attempts to modernize once stately brick buildings with wood and metal fail and make you wish for a money bag of gold to restore such structures to their original grandeur.

But for now, in this economy, one must choose to appreciate the imperfections of Main Street as adding character to a community like Wabasso, home of the white rabbit.

A broad view of a block along Wabasso's Main Street on a recent Saturday evening.

Wabasso is a strong agricultural-based community. The outgoing Future Farmers of America Minnesota State President Hillary Kletscher (my niece) graduated from Wabasso High School in 2011.

A sign supporting the high school sports team hangs in a salon window.

Wabasso is fortunate enough to still have a grocery store.

Signage in the window of Salfer's Food Center.

My WHS class of 1974 classmate Marcis owns this combination floral shop and hair salon along Main Street. Marcy was also waiting tables at the Roadhouse the Saturday evening I was in town.

Wabasso is fortunate to also still have a post office, unlike more and more rural communities in Minnesota.

THE PHOTOS IN THIS POST are similar in content to those printed in the just-published spring issue of Minnesota Moments magazine. Photographer Ryan Ware of Chaska and I contributed 16 images from 14 small towns to a photo essay titled “Touring Main Street in Small Town, Minnesota.” The essay is only a small sampling of the hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of images we have taken of small towns and rural areas. Both natives of southwestern Minnesota, Ryan and I share a passion for photography that connects us to our rural roots. I would encourage you to check out Ryan’s photos at his Fleeting Farms blog by clicking here.

CLICK HERE to reach the Minnesota Moments website.

CLICK HERE for more information about the Roadhouse Bar & Grill.

CLICK HERE to learn more about Wabasso.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Am I the only mom who thinks prom is ridiculously expensive? April 24, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 8:12 AM
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HOW WOULD YOU react if you reached into your mailbox and pulled out a letter from the county attorney’s office addressed to the “parents of?”

My heart skipped a beat last Thursday morning when I saw my son’s name on that official envelope. Turns out it was simply a mass mailing endorsed by the Rice County Chemical Health Coalition’s Enforcement Team, Rice County Attorney Paul Beaumaster, Faribault Community Action Team, Rice County Safe Communities Coalition and Rice County MADD.

But talk about momentarily scaring the heck out of me. Seriously.

With prom approaching this Saturday at the local high school, these organizations and the county attorney wanted to remind parents and students about safety and legal issues related to driving and to alcohol use. Message received.

If scaring parents by mailing the flier in an official Rice County Attorney’s envelope was the intended result, then they achieved that with me. But I would have preferred delivery of this important information in a less intimidating manner.

Now about prom…, my son isn’t attending. I’m glad. Why? Prom has become so overblown in importance and expense to the point of ridiculousness.

I can’t understand spending hundreds of dollars on clothes, hair styling, photos, flowers, food and transportation for a formal high school dance.

At Faribault High School, the upfront cost to attend prom is $175/couple. That covers transportation to a European style nightclub in St. Paul, a dinner (I think, although it is not listed on the official itinerary) and a dance.

Add to that the dress/tux, shoes and all the other expenses and you’re looking at hundreds of dollars. For prom. For one night.

Is this affordable for parents and students, in this economy, in any economy? Are too many students being priced out of prom? Won’t many of these same students soon hope for college scholarships at senior awards ceremonies and later borrow thousands of dollars for college?

How can parents and students justify hefty prom expenditures? This mother can’t. And, yes, I am financially conservative. None of my three children ever attended their high school proms. Unlike some moms who would be absolutely devastated by this (and, believe me, I know one mom who was frantic when her daughter didn’t have a date months before prom), I was/am not.

How do you feel about the cost of prom and the importance placed upon it? What changes could be implemented to make prom more affordable for anyone who wants to attend? Is too much importance placed on prom? I’d like to hear your opinions and ideas.

And just to assure you that I’m not totally anti-prom, I like to see teens have fun and build memories from their high school days. But within reason.

And, I do see the economic benefits with all that money parents and students are pumping into prom.

© Text copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Graphics were in the mailing my family received from the Rice County Attorney’s office.