Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Two Minnesota towns July 27, 2017

Fields and sky envelope a farm building just west of Wabasso in my native Redwood County. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2015.


I GREW UP ON THE PRAIRIE, a place of earth and sky and wind. Land and sky stretch into forever there, broken only by farm sites and the grain elevators and water towers that define small towns.


Along Minnesota Highway 19, this sign once marked my hometown. That sign has since been replaced. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


My hometown of Vesta in Redwood County once bustled with businesses—a lumberyard, feed mill, hardware stores, grocers, cafes, a blacksmith… Now the one-block center of town is mostly empty, vacant lots replacing wood-frame buildings that once housed local shops. Time, economics and abandonment rotted the structures into decay and eventual collapse or demolition.


One of the few businesses remaining downtown, the Vesta Cafe. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


Why do I tell you all of this? The back story of my prairie hometown, where buildings were built mostly of wood rather than brick or stone, led me to a deep respect and appreciation for communities that have retained buildings of yesteryear. Cities like Cannon Falls, founded in 1854. By comparison, Vesta was founded in 1900.


The rear of an historic stone building in the heart of downtown Cannon Falls. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo March 2017.


Cannon Falls still has a thriving downtown landmarked by 29 properties in a Commercial Historic District. It’s population of around 4,000 and location between Rochester and the metro contrast sharply with Vesta’s population of 300 in the much more rural southwestern corner of Minnesota.


This sign marks the aged former Firemen’s Hall, now the Cannon Falls Museum, pictured below. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo March 2017.


The Cannon Falls Museum. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo March 2017.


Drive through Cannon Falls neighborhoods and you will see history still standing. In Vesta, history comes in photos and memories. It’s sad really. But that is reality.


The Church of the Redeemer, an Episcopal congregation founded in Cannon Falls in 1866. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo March 2017.


Because I grew up without solid stone buildings in a place that unsettles many for its breadth of sky and land, I am drawn to stone structures. They portray a strength and permanency that defies time and change. Yet I expect both masons and carpenters shared the same dreams of a better life, of prosperity and success.


Another lovely stone building photographed behind downtown Cannon Falls buildings. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo March 2017.


That’s the underlying truth. Even if the buildings and businesses in my hometown have mostly vanished, the ground upon which they stood represents something. The land remains—the same earth upon which early settlers planted their boots and stood with hope in their hearts.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


26 Responses to “Two Minnesota towns”

  1. Go Grandma Says:

    I also grew up on the prairies – the Canadian prairies. There’s a beauty about it that only a prairie girl can appreciate. Miss those old grain elevators – sitting with my grandpa chewing on wheat kernels. Wheat and canola fields for miles. The smell of harvest – I miss it.

    • We are kindred spirits then. Most people consider the prairie to be the middle of nowhere. It may be, but it is a nowhere which I find incredibly beautiful for its peace, spaciousness and rootedness to the land. The prairie shaped me as a writer and photographer, and as a person.

  2. Beth Ann Says:

    It is sad when towns decay as it appears Vesta has but it is absolutely something that occurs everywhere. The structures that go by the wayside can lead way to new structures and businesses if there is the desire and support but so often that is not the case. Nice to see the Cannon Falls buildings that are surviving.

    • The decline of Vesta and similar small towns began with the exodus of my generation from the family farm. These towns are all ag-based. With increased mobility, locals began shopping in county seat towns or larger communities that could support more businesses. Local business owners could no longer compete with regional shopping centers and Big Box retailers. It is the same issue many downtowns face still today.

  3. Such a poignant post- I’m falling in love with your prairie. Beautiful last paragraph. After such a well-thought post, I don’t mean to sound disrespectful but your post reminded me of the story of the Three Little Pigs.

  4. Brick, mortar and lumber the foundation of the American landscape. Before plastic, neoprene and rubber.

  5. Almost Iowa Says:

    Even if the buildings and businesses in my hometown have mostly vanished, the ground upon which they stood represents something.

    Beautifully written.

  6. Valerie Says:

    I really enjoy your writing. This is a great piece comparing two towns.
    And there’s no place like home.

  7. Littlesundog Says:

    My hometown in Nebraska has dwindled too, though the consolidated school district is located there and the BNSF coal freighters run through every 15 minutes, so there is still life. Once a town loses its school or the railroad, it deteriorates quickly. The Farmer’s Coop is still running strong in most communities, which is important in an agricultural region.

    I love this post, Audrey. Your words tug at the heart of any person of the prairie.

    • Vesta long ago lost its school and its train. Several churches have also closed. Yes, once a community loses its school, the decline starts. It sounds like your little Nebraska town is managing to hold on.

      Thank you for your kind words regarding my writing. When I write about the prairie, the words release like a strong prairie wind.

  8. Charles Hess Says:

    My brothers family lives in Wabasso. We used to travel to all the little towns and visit the bars when I was young. We would leave Redwood Falls and stop at Belview, Echo, Wood Lake, Vesta. Is the Liqour store still open In Vesta?

  9. I will always retain my MN roots – I grew up in Dakota and Rice Counties, have family either in Kandiyohi County or Redwood County. I was so blessed to grow up on a 10 acre farm and my two uncles still retain the 40 acres of the family farm. I am now a city girl who thinks about escaping to the country some days to live the simple life 🙂 Happy Day – Enjoy!

  10. Don Says:

    For me there is something very peaceful and tranquil about the prairie. Mountains on the other hand while they may be beautiful they make me feel like they are overbearing and an obstacle to be conquered.

    I love the brick buildings but alas we have none of that here.

  11. Thanks for this post. I have lived in Minneapolis for a long time, but was born in the country near Montevideo. I need to get out and drive around Minnesota more. Soon I will visit my brother who lives in Southwest Minnesota.

    • Stephen, it’s wonderful to have you here in the comments section. Welcome. Driving around rural Minnesota and stopping in its small towns is one of my favorite activities. I always find something that draws my interest whether in the arts, architecture, nature, history and more.

      Enjoy your visit with your brother in southwestern Minnesota.

  12. It is really sad to see small communities that seem disappear while others seem to keep growing. So much history lost…

  13. 30fordmodela Says:

    Thank you for the description of these small towns. When we return to the Minnesota prairies every few years from the cities of the west coast, it is like stepping back in time to a simpler life. So it is sad to see the change in many small towns we see and visit.
    Growing up on the very edge of the prairie in western Minnesota – we could see “forever” as we looked West toward Breckenridge and Whapeton – the farm buildings were taken down and buried just before our last visit in 2014 to the land my great grandfather homesteaded in 1872 and where four generations of my family were born and lived, some all of their lives. Our small town was Carlisle: once the location of a grain elevator, fuel delivery and sales operation, post office, school, town hall, and in earlier years railroad depot, blacksmith, and more. All are gone now. Several houses remain.

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