Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

An “end of innocence” & my thoughts after a deadly shooting in Wisconsin May 4, 2015

UPDATE THREE, May 6: A Facebook page, Hands Over the Fox, has been set up to unite the people of the Fox Valley in the aftermath of the tragic shootings. A National Day of Prayer Trestle Trail event is set for 5:30 p.m. Thursday at the site of the tragedy. Click here to learn more about this community gathering to remember, demonstrate compassion and show strength. Attendees will gather on the Trestle Trail Bridge for 15 minutes of prayer. A potluck meal will follow at Fritse Park.

UPDATE TWO, May 5: A Go Fund Me website has now been established for the family of shooting victim Adam Bentdahl to help them deal with the financial burdens related to his death. Click here to support this family. I just learned of Minnesota connections. Adam was born on August 21, 1983, in Mankato, Minnesota, which is 40 miles from my community of Faribault. He has family (a grandmother in Hanska and a brother in White Bear Lake) in Minnesota.  Click here to read Adam’s obituary.

UPDATE, May 5: Calvary Bible Church in Neenah, Wisconsin, has set up a Stoffel Family Love Offering. Click here to see how you can support and donate to this family as they deal with the tragic deaths of Jon and Olivia. 

An edited image of a Wisconsin lake, used here for illustration purposes only. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2012.

An edited image of a Wisconsin lake, used here for illustration purposes only. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2012.

I AWOKE TO A NIGHTMARE so vivid this morning that I can still feel the icy waters of the black lake suffocating, pulling my second daughter and me into her deep, dark depths. We are dropping farther and farther from the surface, sinking to our deaths while I cry for my daughter to let go because it is the only way I can save her. Even though I cannot swim, I am determined to reach the surface.

But she won’t release me, no matter how I plead and scream. I gasp for air. My wool pea coat weighs and tightens around me like a straightjacket. My girl still clings to me. There is nothing I can do. And then I awaken, feeling the need to suck in air. I am so shaken by this dream that I don’t even tell my husband about my nightmare.

Hours later my phone bings with a text from my daughter: “There was a shooting in Menasha last night.” She lives in nearby Appleton, works in the medical field in the Fox Valley region of eastern Wisconsin with her office based in Menasha. I text and ask if I can call. She calls me.

Four are dead including gunman Sergio Daniel Valencia del Toro, a 27-year-old Air Force veteran and college student, who reportedly randomly opened fire Sunday evening on people crossing the Fox Cities Trestle Trail bridge. A 33-year-old father, Jonathan Stoffel of Neenah, and his 11-year-old daughter, Olivia, are dead. Their wife/mother was shot multiple times and remains hospitalized in critical condition. Two other children in the family were unharmed.  Adam Bentdahl, 31, from Appleton was also killed. The shooter shot himself. There were 75-100 people in the park/trail area at the time of the shooting.

This is the type of tragedy that stuns you, that hits especially hard when your daughter tells you she has used this very trail, when you’ve dreamed only hours earlier of drowning with that dear daughter in a cold, dark lake. There is no logical connection, of course, between my nightmare and the tragic shooting in Menasha. Still, the coincidence raises goosebumps.

Today I feel a profound sense of sadness that a young family and a young man simply out for a Sunday evening walk should suffer such loss at the hands of a man who’d reportedly just argued with his ex-fiancee. I don’t understand this type of unprovoked violence. Why?

At a news conference on Monday, Dr. Ray Georgen, director of trauma services at Neenah Theda Clark Medical Center and on duty Sunday evening, spoke of young mother Erin Stoffel’s arrival with three gunshot wounds, life-threatening injuries that required immediate emergency surgery. But I was struck most by Dr. Georgen’s statement that the random shootings mark “the end of innocence” for the Fox Valley region. Menasha Police Chief Tim Styka later concurred, saying that “Times have kind of caught up to us in the Fox Valley.” Violence like this can happen anywhere, he explained. Now it’s happened in his community in eastern Wisconsin.

The two also emphasized the heroism of Erin Stoffel. Despite three gunshot wounds, she got herself and her two surviving children, ages five and seven, off the bridge. That act, Dr. Georgen says, shows the power of the human spirit, of a mother determined to protect and save her children. What strength. What courage. What love.

FYI: A Go Fund Me fundraising site has been set up for the Stoffel family as Erin, Ezra and Selah deal with the deaths of their loved ones.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Rest in peace, Ole, Sophia, Amelie…

THERE WAS A TIME when I stayed away from cemeteries. Walking among tombstones, atop burial sites, creeped me out.

But I’ve since matured, realized that a cemetery holds history and art, life stories and loss, and serves as a place to grieve, to honor and to remember loved ones.

A marker at the entry to North Grove Church and Cemetery in Cannon City Township, rural Rice County, Minnesota.

A marker at the entry to North Grove Church and Cemetery in Cannon City Township, rural Rice County, Minnesota.

My most recent cemetery tour took me to North Grove Church and Cemetery just north of Faribault along Minnesota Highway 3. I’ve passed this site hundreds of times in 30-plus years, never once stopping to investigate.

North Grove Church, closed in 1931.

North Grove Church closed in 1931.

Here I discovered a quaint church, long closed.

I opened this door into the church entry, but found the interior sanctuary door locked.

I opened this door into the church entry, but found the interior sanctuary door locked.

Peering through curtained windows, I glimpsed pews and wished I could get inside the locked building.

The Norwegian name, Ole, is common on North Grove tombstones.

The Norwegian name, Ole, is common on North Grove tombstones.

On a quick perusal of grave markers, where the name “Ole” is chiseled in stone many times, I determined that Norwegian immigrants built this house of worship and established this cemetery.

As was common in early Minnesota churches, the cemetery is right next to the church building.

As was common in early Minnesota churches, the cemetery is right next to the church building.

John Dalby of Faribault, who runs the Dalby Database along with wife, Jan, confirmed the ethnicity of North Grove Church. The Norwegian church was started in 1869 and likely closed in 1931, when First English Lutheran Church in Faribault formed, Dalby says.

Too many babies died.

Too many babies died.

Wander this burial grounds and you begin to understand the losses and grief endured by early Minnesota settlers. Babies dead. Wives and husbands gone too young. Immigrants who left Norway for a new, but not always better, life in America.

Ole Christiansen, who lived to age 91, came from Norway. His first wife, Sophia Swenson, died. He then married Caroline.

Ole Christiansen, who lived to age 91, came from Norway. His first wife, Sophia Swenson, died. He then married Caroline.

Then scroll through obituaries on the Dalby Database, which includes 2.5 million records from cemeteries, birth and death certificates and more, and names morph into people. Ole Christiansen is no longer simply a Norwegian name inscribed on a tombstone, but a man who was born in Alerude Odemark, Norway. Husband of Sophia. Then Caroline.

June's first husband was Rice County Sheriff Chuck Carver, who died in a 1971 plane crash. The wreck was discovered several years later. She was remarried to a former Goodhue County sheriff.

June’s first husband was Rice County Sheriff Chuck Carver, who died in a 1971 plane crash. The wreck was discovered several years later. She was remarried to a former Goodhue County sheriff.

June Carver-Zillgitt lived in a jailhouse with her husband-sheriff and cooked for inmates.

The name, Audrey, drew me to this in-ground marker as did the Scripture inscribed thereon.

The name, Audrey, drew me to this in-ground marker as did the Scripture inscribed thereon.

Audrey Saufferrer had five grandchildren.

Grocer O.A. Brekke was termed a man of “sterling character.”

Mathilda Lund was a pioneer resident of the North Grove community.

Trees are budding in the old cemetery.

Trees are budding in the old cemetery.

Those buried at North Grove are 326 individuals who lived and loved and labored, although some were dead at birth, or lived too few days or months or years.

The fenced cemetery holds many stories. The cemetery is sandwiched between a highway and fields.

The fenced cemetery holds many stories. The cemetery is sandwiched between a highway and fields with a woods just a bit beyond as shown here.

I knew none of them. But, after walking among their gravestones, I am reminded that a cemetery holds life stories, if only we pause to read them.

Imagine the hands that worked this pump, those who drank the earth's water. The pump is located behind the church.

Imagine the hands that worked this pump, those who drank the earth’s water. The pump is behind the church.

FYI: Click here to access the Dalby Database, a great resource for anyone doing family history research in Minnesota.

This is one of two old tea kettles sitting near the water pump. I assume they are there  for watering flowers and plants.

This is one of two old tea kettles sitting near the water pump. I assume they are there for watering flowers and plants.

FYI: Janice Uggen Johnson recently published a book, Faith of our Fathers: History of Markers Norwegian Lutheran Church and North Grove Church and Cemetery, Faribault, Rice County, Minnesota (2014). She is an associate member of the Norwegian-American Historical Association. I have not seen or read the book.

The Norwegian-American Historical Association, based at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, is “a private membership organization dedicated to locating, collecting, preserving and interpreting the Norwegian-American experience with accuracy, integrity and liveliness.” It was founded in 1925.

Check back for a close-up look at a memorial in the North Grove Cemetery honoring a young Faribault woman.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling