Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

In which I meet Amish quilter Fannie Miller on her Lenora farm October 11, 2013

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THE AMISH HAVE ALWAYS intrigued me. I can’t explain specifically why, except to admit that perhaps I am a bit envious of their minimalist lifestyle, one likely similar to that of my farmer forefathers.

Never have I gotten a closer look at Amish life than on an early October 2012 day trip to the Lenora/Canton/Harmony area of southeastern Minnesota.

My first glimpse of the Amish began in unincorporated Lenora in southeastern Fillmore County where my husband and I were searching for the historic Lenora Methodist Church. Unable to initially locate the church (how we could miss it in tiny Lenora is beyond me), we stopped at Summer Kitchen Antiques, which was closed, and then began driving east onto a gravel road.

An Amish buggy approaches our car just on the outskirts of Lenora.

Just barely past the antique shop, an Amish buggy came into view and I raised my camera to snap two quick photos through the passenger side windshield. Now I know how the Amish forbid face photos, and I am (mostly) respectful in their close presence. But when they are traveling on a public roadway in a region that markets itself as a “see the Amish” destination, from which the Amish benefit financially, I do not feel obliged to keep my camera tucked away.

A close-up look at the approaching buggy shows a young Amish boy reading a book to his little sister as their mother guides the horse and buggy down the gravel road.

After that initial sighting, we came upon a roadside sign advertising quilts and table runners less than one-quarter of a mile from Lenora. My excitement heightened as we turned into the Amish farmyard, even though I was acutely aware I’d need to keep my shutter button finger mostly still.

That proved to be a challenge as I desired more than anything to photograph the red-haired pre-teen Amish girl with the pinkish birthmark splotched across her right cheek lolling on the feather-littered lawn next to her younger brother with the bowl-cut auburn hair.

When I cannot take a photo, I imprint visual details upon my mind.

Fannie Miller’s brick house is on the right, her shop in the attached lean-to just to the left.

The siblings directed us toward a lean-to attached to a stately and aging brick house adjacent to a wood-frame house. Dogs roamed while a third one, tethered to a thick chain in a pole shed next to an Amish buggy, barked with a ferocity that made me thankful he was restrained.

My first glimpse of the Millers’ dog chained in the pole shed.

The pungent smell of silage wafted across the yard as, across the gravel road, a farmer pushed the fermented corn with his tractor and loader.

Stepping onto the lean-to porch, I eyed a handwritten “no photos” sign and pulled my camera close to my side. Randy made a point of pointing out the warning to me, as if I couldn’t see it.

And then we met Fannie Miller, whose name aptly describes her rotund physical appearance. She settled onto a chair and watched as I caressed her fine handiwork, praised her stitching. I admired the sturdy, blue built-in wall of cupboards in the corner and told Fannie so.

I wished, in that moment, that I could photograph the entire scene before me and through the doorway into the next room where Fannie’s husband napped in a chair by the wood-burning stove. His chin dipped, his scruffy beard defining my side view of the old man sleeping. In the corner I spotted a patchwork quilt snugged across a single bed. I dared not look more for fear Fannie would banish me from her home.

I hang my laundry outside, so I was particularly intrigued by this circular drying rack onto which handkerchiefs were clipped on the porch of Fannie’s house.

I remember thinking, though, before exiting Fannie’s shop, before asking her if I could photograph hankies drying on her porch on this Monday wash day in October, how perfect and lovely the natural light that filtered into the two rooms of her house.

The children ran into this house after I stepped out of Fannie’s shop.

She granted me permission to photograph outside, as long as I did not photograph the children. I told her I would respect her request, then watched the red-haired siblings scamper inside their house.

Just another buggy parked on the Miller farm. I was surprised to see the round bales.

I snapped several more building and buggy photos, though not too many as to overstay our welcome, before passing by the now placid chained dog and turning onto the gravel road back to Lenora.

My final photo on the Miller farm, of the dog turned docile.

PLEASE CHECK BACK for another post about the Amish in the Canton and Harmony areas.

Click here to read my previous post about the historic Lenora United Methodist Church.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling