Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Part IV from Albert Lea: Snapshots around town October 30, 2015

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A street scene in downtown Albert Lea, Minnesota.

A street scene in downtown Albert Lea, Minnesota.

IN THE MANY COMMUNITIES I tour, I always seek the everyday scenes, the snapshot details that comprise a place. I may find the snapshot in an alley. Along a side street. In the heart of a downtown.

Alley-side bar art.

Alley-side bar art in downtown Albert Lea.

Wherever, I look, I see clues that reveal a town’s personality.

What a great name, Elbow Room.

What a great name, Elbow Room.

In business signs, I can spot humor and/or creativity.

I appreciate the simplicity

No flashy signage here, but someone’s business, someone’s dream.

In conditions of buildings, I can identify pride or lack thereof. Or perhaps it’s simply a lack of funds to upkeep a structure. Or the desire to keep things simple.

Downtown Albert Lea boasts a downtown Commercial Historic District with stunning architecture.

Downtown Albert Lea boasts a sprawling Commercial Historic District with lovely architecture.

One of the many stunning buildings in the historic downtown.

One of the many stunning buildings in the historic downtown.

Albert Lea provided plenty of snapshot details. I see a southeastern Minnesota community that appreciates its past through preservation of historic buildings. I see a town that’s working hard to save itself.

An inspiratinal message chalked onto steps leading to/from a downtown Albert Lea parking lot.

An inspirational message chalked onto steps leading to/from a downtown Albert Lea parking lot.

Community service messages and time and temperature flash across the board on an old grain elevator.

Community service messages and time and temperature flash across the board on an old grain elevator.

I see positivity and care in messages.

Nancy's Cafe, presents an iconic Main Street appearance.

Nancy’s Cafe, presents an iconic Main Street appearance.

Expect basics like his hand-formed hamburger patty at Nancy's.

Expect basics like his hand-formed hamburger patty at Nancy’s.

I see the mix of small town Main Street and chain businesses along Interstate 35 meeting travelers’ needs. A duo personality town.

This old grain elevator has been repurposed into another use. Note the upper level balcony and windows. I asked around town. But no one could tell me what's housed here.

This old grain elevator has been repurposed into another use. Note the upper level balcony and windows. I asked around town, but no one could tell me what’s housed here.

Agricultural merchandise is showcased in a downtown antique store window.

Agricultural merchandise is showcased in a downtown antique store window.

Agriculturally-born. Yet evolving into something else.

A Total Security truck parked next to the old grain elevator.

A Total Security truck parked next to the old grain elevator.

Every part, every building, every sign, every person, every scene snapshots into a single album—Albert Lea.

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This concludes my four-part series on Albert Lea. To read my first three posts, click here and here and here.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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My reaction to developments in the Jacob Wetterling abduction October 29, 2015

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ALL ACROSS MINNESOTA today, we are holding our collective breaths, hoping that news about a possible break in the 1989 abduction of Jacob Wetterling provides answers. Answers we’ve waited to get for 26 years.

An Annandale man, arrested for possession of child pornography, is now considered a “person of interest” in the October 22, 1989, abduction of 11-year-old Jacob near the Wetterlings’ St. Joseph home. He was questioned early on in the Wetterling case and several times thereafter.

Jacob’s abduction marked a change in parenting in Minnesota. I remember, as a young mother of two and three-year-old daughters, teaching my girls what to do in the event of a possible kidnapping. I didn’t want to scare them. Yet, because of what happened to Jacob, I felt compelled to educate my then preschoolers about stranger danger.

Rural Minnesota, especially, lost a bit of innocence on that October day when a masked man approached Jacob, his brother and a friend while they were riding bikes from a convenience store. The man disappeared with Jacob after threatening to shoot the other two.

It all seemed so random. A horrible crime in an ordinary place. Anytown in rural Minnesota. Jacob could have been our son, our nephew, our neighbor boy. He was the face of all Minnesota children. And his parents, especially Patty, were the faces we saw in the mirror. We feared this could happen to any of our families.

For 26 years, we have grieved and hoped and prayed with the Wetterlings. And maybe soon we will all have the answers we long for, that we need. Who took Jacob? Where is he? And why? Oh, why?

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Part III From Albert Lea: Antiques & memories

A Halloween mask for sale at Antiques of the Midwest.

One of several Halloween masks I spotted at Antiques of the Midwest in Albert Lea, Minnesota.

DO YOU REMEMBER your favorite Halloween costume? I do. I dressed like a gypsy, pulling a black cotton skirt striped with vivid hues from my mom’s closet and safety pinning it around my waist. I topped whatever blouse I wore with a winter coat. A thin elastic band on a molded plastic gypsy face mask gripped my head as I peered through cut-out eye holes. Strands of plastic beads swayed from my neck. Bangles danced on my wrists. I felt every part the care-free gypsy.

Clown masks can be scary or fun, depending.

Clown masks can be scary or fun, depending.

Memories of my brief gypsy life flitted through my thoughts as I perused Antiques of the Midwest in historic downtown Albert Lea. Among all of the merchandise in this sprawling shop, I spotted several Halloween masks. And that sparked the playback of childhood memories.

Three stacks of JC Penney catalogs dating back to the 1940s are available for purchase at Antiques of the Midwest.

Three stacks of JC Penney catalogs dating back to the 1940s are available for purchase at Antiques of the Midwest.

An Archie mask for sale.

An Archie mask for sale.

Vintage clothing proved fun to peruse.

Vintage clothing proved fun to peruse.

And isn’t that what antique stores play into—cherished memories? Nostalgia sells. Otherwise why would I care about outdated merchandise like uncomfortable plastic Halloween masks that curbed clear vision and psychedelic clothing and stacks of old JC Penney catalogs?

Although I didn't want this vintage 1960s make-up mirror, I never-the-less was drawn to it.

Although I didn’t want this vintage 1960s make-up mirror, I never-the-less was drawn to it.

When you shop at an antique store, what do you find yourself drawn to?

I hold a fondness for old glass pitchers. They are works of art.

I hold a fondness for old glass pitchers. They are works of art.

For me it’s vintage drinking glasses and tablecloths (yes, I already own too many), clocks and art. Oh, how I love a vintage print or an original. Most often, though, I buy these at garage sales or thrift stores. I have enough art that I can switch it out in my home. Often.

If only I still had that toy buggy in which I pushed dolls and cats dressed in doll clothes.

If only I still had that toy buggy in which I pushed dolls and cats dressed in doll clothes.

Filing through a rack of children’s clothing at Antiques of the Midwest, I discovered a red plaid wool skirt just like one I wore as a child. How many of you have clothes from your childhood or teenage years? While cleaning my mom’s basement several years ago, I found a pair of cuffed lime green pants worn when I was a stick thin teen. They are hanging now in the closet of a spare bedroom in my home. Someday, my children will ask, “Why did Mom keep these?” Perhaps the pants will end up in an antique store, but more likely will be trashed.

Antiques of the Midwest holds thousands of antiques and collectibles.

Antiques of the Midwest holds thousands of antiques and collectibles.

Opening the door into an antique shop compares to opening a book about life. Therein, in the collections of items from yesteryear, our stories unfold. Imagine the stories I could write if I sat in an antique store, unobserved, eavesdropping.

BONUS PHOTOS:

Just inside the front door, the canary yellow molded chairs caught my eye.

Just inside the front door, the canary yellow molded chairs caught my eye.

Mannequins always make merchandise seem more usable and personal.

Mannequins always make merchandise seem more usable and personal. I also consider them artsy.

This creative display helps shoppers to visualize this merchandise in their homes.

This creative display helps shoppers visualize merchandise in their homes.

If you're already thinking Christmas, at least one vendor has a sizable Christmas display.

If you’re already thinking Christmas, at least one Antiques of the Midwest vendor has a sizable Christmas display.

Merchandise snugged into a cabinet.

Merchandise snugged into a cabinet makes for a museum like display.

This is the first puppet I can remember finding in an antique store.

This is the first puppet I can remember finding in an antique store.

FYI: Antiques of the Midwest is open from 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. Monday – Saturday and from noon to 4 p.m. on Sundays. It is closed on Mondays from December – March. The shop is located at 218 S. Washington Avenue in downtown Albert Lea.

This is the third in my “From Albert Lea” series. Check back for one final post. Click here to read my first and then my second story.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Part II From Albert Lea: An unbelievable shop, Adams Originals October 28, 2015

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Adams Originals Shop, 238 S. Broadway Avenue, Albert Lea, Minnesota.

Adams Originals Shop, 238 S. Broadway Avenue, Albert Lea, Minnesota

THE CLUTTERED EXTERIOR tipped me off to what I would find inside Adams Originals Shop. Yet, I was not prepared. Not prepared for the mounds of merchandise heaped into this narrow building in historic downtown Albert Lea.

Dolls, dolls and more dolls. Everywhere.

Dolls, dolls and more dolls. Everywhere.

Adams Originals rates as truly original. I’ve never seen a store like it with thousands of dolls and other items crammed onto shelves, set on the floor and piled into every conceivable space.

Just inside the shop and looking toward the front door.

Just inside the shop and looking toward the front door.

Inside, I simply stood for a minute taking it all in, overwhelmed by the sheer volume of goods displayed along both sides of a single narrow aisle branching into nooks of merchandise.

A Lone Ranger poster for sale.

A Lone Ranger poster for sale.

Much more than dolls pack this shop.

Much more than dolls pack this shop.

A piece of merchandise showcased outside the store.

A piece of merchandise showcased outside the store.

You can’t meet another customer in here without sidling sideways. Even on a blustery Monday morning, shoppers stopped by to peruse the goods offered by Eloise and Jack Adams.

Eloise Adams

Eloise Adams

That’s Eloise, pronounced Eloyce, as in rhyming with Joyce. Eloise doesn’t correct mispronunciations of her name; it happens all too often. It doesn’t seem to bother her. She’s just honored that her dad named her and with the uncommon pronunciation he chose.

An example of the art Eloise creates with labels.

An example of the art Eloise creates with labels.

She is as unique as her store, exuding a peaceful calm in her soft-spoken voice and gentle manner. I don’t think you’ll meet a kinder soul. In just a few minutes of conversation, I already felt comfortably at home with this 78-year-old. She speaks with the blessedness of a saint, living her faith. She speaks with the cadence of a poet, her words thoughtful and rhythmic. She speaks with the passion of an artist, for she is an artist. She speaks with the love of a mother and a grandmother and a great grandmother. She is all of those.

Eloise pulled this portrait off the hook so she could read the note about the date it was gifted to someone. I don't recall details. But I do remember how Eloise lovingly noted the girl's beautiful blue eyes accented by her blue dress.

Eloise pulled this portrait off the hook so she could read the note about the date it was gifted to someone. I don’t recall details. But I do remember how Eloise lovingly noted the girl’s beautiful blue eyes accented by her blue dress.

In short, Eloise is passionate about life and people and celebrating each day. She didn’t tell me that. She didn’t need to. It shows.

 

Adams Originals, 5 doll close-up

 

Adams Originals, 8 doll close-ups

 

Adams Originals, 26 doll close-up 2

 

When I asked Eloise about her favorite doll, she politely refused to name one. That would be, she said, like asking her to choose which of her six children is her favorite. It can’t be done.

There's a whole section of Barbie dolls and Barbie stuff.

There’s a whole section of Barbie dolls and Barbie stuff.

Even Elvis is among the dolls.

Elvis has not left the building.

Lots and lots and lots of Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls...

Lots and lots and lots of Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls…

But she’ll share, when asked, how this whole doll collecting thing started. A friend collected dolls and, she said, you can’t hang around too long with a doll collector without getting hooked yourself. The dolls belonging to that friend, who died of cancer, are now housed in the Freeborn County Historical Society Museum after being showcased downtown for many years.

An example of Adams pottery, center, sits among other merchandise.

An example of Adams pottery, center, sits among other merchandise.

Although dolls dominate Adams Originals, this shop isn’t solely about dolls. Eloyce and her husband are also artists who produce stoneware pottery, much of it for churches. Chalices. That sort of functional pottery. But there’s decorative pottery, too, like sculpted lions or a dragon, made years ago for a dragon-loving son. Eloise noted that Jack’s shoulders are wearing out, curbing pottery throwing.

An example of Eloise's Eddie Cochran art.

An example of Eloise’s Eddie Cochran art.

Pressing Eloise, I learn that she is a Minnesota State University Mankato art major. Prints of her pen and ink art are scattered throughout her shop. She designs art for local celebrations like Big Island Rendezvous and Eddie Cochran Days and will custom create pieces for individual customers.

Second floor windows hint at what's inside the shop.

Second floor windows hint at what’s inside the shop.

Her work is exquisitely detailed. And, Eloise noted, she drew the building that now houses Adams Originals when it was still a bookstore. On the bookstore’s last day, she and Jack stopped by to thank the booksellers for being part of the Albert Lea business community. They learned then that a purchase agreement fell through. The couple needed more space for their business which had outgrown their home. So they bought the booksellers’ building.

Today, at nearly eighty years old, Eloise has no plans to retire. Why? She loves what she does. And that’s a good enough reason to stay in business.

Check back tomorrow to read the third installment in this series from Albert Lea. Click here to read my introductory post.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Part I: Discovering Albert Lea’s strongest asset, in my opinion October 27, 2015

EXITING INTERSTATE 35 in southeastern Minnesota into Albert Lea, I saw the usual hotels, fast food places, a Big Box retailer and gas stations that could have made this Anywhere, USA. Nothing special. Just another place to fill up with food or gas, turn around and continue onto a destination.

But Albert Lea was my destination on a recent day trip to explore this city of some 18,000.

I knew little of this community, only that it hosts the annual Big Island Rendezvous and Eddie Cochran Days and is home to a chemical dependency treatment center.

 

Historic buildings in Albert Lea, 89 interchange to furniture store

 

It’s strongest asset, as I was about to discover, lies in the heart of downtown. Albert Lea boasts a Commercial Historic District with some incredible architecture. You would never know that, though, driving into town from the first exit on the north. You would never know that by skimming the tourism website or reading the Experience Albert Lea brochure (which mentions the district but features no photos of old buildings).

 

Historic buildings in Albert Lea, 57 tops of buildings

 

An informational kiosk in the downtown shares info about historic buildings.

A kiosk in the downtown shares info about historic buildings.

 

Historic buildings in Albert Lea, 56 furniture store

 

I discovered this treasure of historic buildings simply by driving into the downtown. One hundred and fifteen buildings comprise the Albert Lea Commercial Historic District, according to information I later found on the Minnesota Historical Society website. Wow.

Architectural details on the bank.

Architectural details on the former Albert Lea State Bank building.

This stunning old bank building, if all goes as hoped, will provide housing and serve as an art center.

The former bank building, one of the most impressive buildings downtown.

Sculpted lady above the bank building entry.

Sculpted lady above the bank building entry.

If you appreciate aged buildings that are architecturally stunning, then you must tour Albert Lea. Especially impressive is the massive former Albert Lea State Bank building anchoring a corner of South Broadway. Built in 1922 for $200,000, the structure features a marble facade and is decorated with cream hued terra cotta art. The City of Albert Lea invested about $2 million in its exterior restoration in 2007. Millions more, perhaps three times as much, are needed for additional interior (electrical, plumbing, heating/cooling, etc.) improvements.

Plans are to house the Art Center in the historic bank.

Plans are to house the Art Center in the historic bank.

The Art Center is currently in a building across the street from the bank.

The Art Center is currently in a building across the street from the bank.

A sign above the door labels the old bank as the future home of the Albert Lea Art Center. Online research also reveals that a Kansas developer plans to convert the upper floors into income-limited apartments.  However, that was contingent on securing housing tax credits, which the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency recently failed to award to the proposed project. Albert Lea officials and the developer must now decide whether to reapply for the tax credits (for the third time) or pursue other options.

A local whom I met downtown (prior to the MHFA decision) said I could probably buy the building for $10. Through November, the first floor of the old bank houses a Des Moines based West End Architectural Salvage pop-up shop, next open from 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. October 30 – November 1.

So much potential exists in Albert Lea's downtown given the volume of historic buildings.

So much potential exists in Albert Lea’s downtown given the volume of historic buildings.

Many empty storefronts occupy downtown Albert Lea. I don’t know why this surprises me. But it does. In recent years, I’ve visited all too many mid-sized Minnesota cities expecting to find bustling downtowns. Instead, I find many gaps between businesses.

A view of a side street in the downtown.

A view of a side street in the downtown.

In all fairness to Albert Lea, plenty of businesses still exist. It’s just that to a first-time visitor, multiple vacant storefronts present an impression of a struggling downtown. Correct assessment or not, visual impressions count.

Even though a sign flashed open in this antique shop, we could not figure out a way to gain entry to the business around newly-poured sidewalks.

Even though a sign flashed open in this antique shop, I could not figure out a way to gain entry to the business around newly-poured sidewalks on the day I was in town.

And, in all fairness to Albert Lea, I visited on a particularly blustery day, less than ideal conditions for fully exploring this community. The city lies between two lakes. But the weather was too blasted cold, grey and windy to even consider much time outdoors. As it was, I struggled to hold my camera steady against the wind for downtown photos. Road and sidewalk construction created additional obstacles.

 

Historic buildings in Albert Lea, 71 jeweler building

 

Will I return to Albert Lea? Perhaps.

Another former bank building in the downtown.

Another former bank building in the downtown.

I see the potential in this community for a destination downtown. That requires a strong mission/vision, money and a marketing plan that fully embraces and promotes Albert Lea’s Commercial Historic District as its greatest asset.

Tomorrow I'll take you inside the second building from the left in this image.

Tomorrow I’ll take you inside the third building from the corner in this image.

FYI: Return tomorrow to read the second part in this series from Albert Lea. I will take you inside a business that’s truly one-of-a-kind.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Exploring La Crosse Part V: A great place to visit October 26, 2015

Pearl Street in historic downtown La Crosse, Wisconsin.

Pearl Street in historic downtown La Crosse, Wisconsin.

ON THE FRIDAY and Saturday I visited La Crosse, Wisconsin, the city pulsed with people. Driving. Walking through the downtown. Dining. Everything I saw pointed to a vibrant community of some 51,000.

A billboard in La Crosse depicts the natural appeal of this Mississippi River city.

A billboard in La Crosse depicts the natural appeal of this Mississippi River city.

The La Crosse Queen offers cruises on the Mississippi River.

The La Crosse Queen offers seasonal cruises on the Mississippi River. The paddlewheeler docks in Riverside Park near downtown.

A bridge spanning the Mississippi in La Crosse.

A bridge spanning the Mississippi in La Crosse, photographed from Riverside Park.

This is a college town, a regional hub in western Wisconsin, a place of rugged natural beauty, especially in autumn with trees blazing color in the valley and along bluffs.

You can listen to everyday stories of the city by dialing the number posted on street level signs. In the audio, you'll hear first person accounts of events that happened at that exact location. Go ahead, dial the number seen in this image.

You can listen to everyday stories of the city by dialing the number posted on street level signs. In the audio, you’ll hear first person accounts of events that happened at that exact location. Go ahead, dial the number seen in this image.

A snippet of the historic buildings in downtown La Crosse.

A snippet of the historic buildings in downtown La Crosse.

Several businesses are housed in Pearl Street West.

Several businesses are housed in Pearl Street West.

This city presents an architecturally pleasing downtown with the five-block La Crosse Commercial Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places. More than 100 buildings in the Historic District about a block from the Mississippi River.

Downtwon La Crosse features stunning architectural details in its downtown Commercial Historic District.

Downtwon La Crosse features stunning architectural details in its downtown Commercial Historic District.

You'll find down-home shops in historic buildings. Cheddarheads offers Wisconsin-themed gifts and t-shirts focusing on cheese and the state's dairy industry.

You’ll find down-home shops in historic buildings. Cheddarheads offers Wisconsin-themed gifts and t-shirts focusing on cheese and the state’s dairy industry.

I could spend an entire afternoon simply strolling through the downtown, eyes focused upward to study curves of windows, artsy architectural details and other aspects of these mostly aged brick buildings. This community obviously cares about these stately structures of the past. And that pleases me.

Corralling wedding balloons in downtown La Crosse.

Corralling wedding balloons in downtown La Crosse.

La Crosse evokes a small town Main Street feel. Yet, for someone like me who grew up in rural southwestern Minnesota, La Crosse is anything but small. This city throbs with energy. Heavy downtown traffic. Foot and motor. Busy shops and eateries.

If I could afford the price of a downtown hotel, I would have stayed there rather than along Interstate 90 in an overpriced room (for the condition and age) in a hotel badly in need of updating.

Strolling through downtown La Crosse.

Strolling through downtown La Crosse.

I’ll return to La Crosse. I need more time in this community. More time to explore the downtown. More time to check out the parks. More time to visit museums and art centers and other places of interest. It’s one of those cities that appeals to me. It is large enough to offer lots to do, yet small enough that I feel comfortably at home.

BONUS PHOTOS:

A sign reminds me that I'm in Dairyland.

A sign reminds me that I’m in America’s dairyland.

I notice details, even graffiti on a business side door.

I notice details, even graffiti on a business side door.

This concludes my five-part series from downtown La Crosse. Check back for related posts from the area.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Exploring La Crosse Part IV: Bars aplenty October 23, 2015

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A flight at Turtle Stack Brewery.

A flight at Turtle Stack Brewery.

LA CROSSE, WISCONSIN, HOLDS a reputation as a beer-drinking town.

Want booze with your breakfast? During Oktoberfest you could attend Kegs & Eggs, starting at 6 a.m.

Want booze with your breakfast? During Oktoberfest you could attend Kegs & Eggs, starting at 6 a.m.

 

Weeks after La Crosse's celebration of its German heritage, Oktoberfest signs are still posted.

Weeks after La Crosse’s celebration of its German heritage, Oktoberfest signs are still posted. Overhead permanent signage also directs you to bars.

The city’s annual Oktoberfest and volume of downtown bars back that up. Or just ask any college kid in La Crosse and you’ll likely get the same assessment.

I ate at Buzzard Billy's, which includes a bar, and then walked through The Starlite Lounge (a 1950s style cocktail lounge) afterward.

I ate at Buzzard Billy’s, which includes a bar, and then walked through The Starlite Lounge (a 1950s style cocktail lounge) afterward.

On a recent visit to this Mississippi River town, I spent some time downtown drinking beer (at a brewery), dining and shopping. If I was bar-hopping college age, I could have hung around into the evening and drank until bar closing time. Not that I encourage excessive drinking, but I was once young…

I believe all bars in Wisconsin are now smoke-free.

I believe all bars in Wisconsin are now smoke-free.

Digger's Sting is a retro steakhouse and cocktail bar.

Digger’s Sting is a retro steakhouse and cocktail bar.

Advertised drink specials alongside a sign that

Advertised drink specials alongside a sign that reads: Tavern League of Wisconsin…A Responsible Server.

By far the most creative bar signage.

By far the most creative bar signage.

I noticed, in particular, how La Crosse bars really try to draw patrons inside with creative signage. Take The Library, which clearly aims to attract college students via this message bannered across its awning: If Mom calls, tell her I’m at The Library! My second daughter, who attended the University of Wiscosnin, La Crosse, confirms that The Library truly looks like a library inside. She worked at the library. Not The Library. But at UW-L’s Murphy Library.

Anyone know how many places sell alcohol in downtown La Crosse?

Anyone know how many places sell alcohol in downtown La Crosse?

Should you happen to visit La Crosse, take note of all the bars. Try to count them. I wonder how many line the streets of this historic downtown.

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Check back Monday for the final post in my La Crosse series. And click here, then here and here to read my first three posts.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling