Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Thoughts from Minnesota after the Halloween Day terrorist attack in NYC October 31, 2017

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Assorted squash in Hayfield, MN. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo, October 2016

 

AT THE KITCHEN COUNTER, I position the knife across the squash, pushing hard to slice through the tough skin. When that effort fails, I thwack the squash against the cutting board, splitting the garden fresh produce in half.

 

 

As I work, the television blares a news conference from the living room. I sprinkle sea salt and grind fresh pepper onto the squash, add pinches of brown sugar and dabs of butter. In between I strain to hear the words of public officials talking about the latest terrorist attack, this time in my country, in Lower Manhattan in New York City.

Far removed from Minnesota, this attack still hits home. A bike path. A school bus. The selected weapon of terror—a rental truck from The Home Depot. Ordinary. Everyday. Unexpected. People just going about their daily routines. On Halloween afternoon.

As details unfold, I hear of eight dead and a dozen or more injured, bikers and pedestrians plowed down on that bike path. And then that school bus, with two adults and two children inside also struck by the rental truck.

Now he’s in custody, a 29-year-old suspect labeled as a terrorist. Shot. Hospitalized. Under investigation.

Back in my Minnesota kitchen, I slide the pan of squash into the oven. Soon the scent of autumn permeates my home. The TV still blares. And I think of family on the East Coast, although not in NYC. I grab my cell phone and text I love you! Happy Halloween! to my son in Boston. At times like this, I want nothing more than to hold close those dearest to me.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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Gotcha: A pre-Halloween scare

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Three almost ghost-like faces, with undefined, haunting eyes, created by Pam Bidelman, and featured in a 2012 exhibit at the Arts Center of Saint Peter. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2012.

 

WHEN THE DOORBELL BINGED twice in rapid succession Saturday evening, my body pumped adrenalin. The ringing happened at the precise moment of intense drama in a psychological thriller unfolding on our DVD player.

I’ve heard this type of hurry-up-and-answer-your-door ring before, years ago when a young man appeared on our stoop seeking protection from a group of men pursuing him. In that panic of phoning 911, of split second decisions, of waiting for the cops, I felt exposed to real, definitive danger.

 

 

This time I expected a law enforcement officer at my door given the darkened hour. Instead, when I switched on the exterior light and peered through the narrow glass in the deadbolted front door, I saw nothing. No shadowy figure. Nothing.

 

 

Until I looked to the bottom step. And then my mind clicked into relief mode, to understanding that an unknown person left a Halloween treat for us. After Randy retrieved the treats—by that time he’d already sprung from his comfortable spot—we discovered that we’d been BOOed. That seems a fitting word given the pre-Halloween scare.

 

 

Once we recovered, we fingered through an oversized seasonal mug holding mini candy bars, a Little Debbie snack, two packets of hot chocolate, a mini scarecrow and my favorite, a blinking jack-o-lantern ring. You can bet I’ll sport that this evening when doorbell-ringing ghosts and goblins arrive, perhaps even the mysterious ghost who BOOed us. I have my suspicions about that spirit’s identity…

 

FYI: We’ve been recipients of such kindness in the past, although not on Halloween. But a cousin and an aunt have continued to haunt me each Halloween with the story of Annie Mary Twente. We’ve carried out such stealthy under-the-cover-of-darkness missions on unsuspecting friends on other occasions like Valentine’s Day.

 

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Biancabella, books & bliss at Becky’s bookshop October 30, 2017

 

PRINCESS BIANCABELLA first drew me to the business along Milaca’s main drag. Stretched out atop carpet next to stacks of books in the front window display area, the calico cat appeared blissfully content. Not even my photographic efforts disturbed her.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The scene delighted me—this bookstore cat in one window, a vintage typewriter in another and a creative OPEN sign crafted from a book and propped outside Bexter Book & Copy.

 

 

It’s not often anymore that you find an independent bookstore, especially in a town the size of Milaca with not quite 3,000 residents. This shop, which opened about a year ago, anchors a corner of the downtown business district in an historic building. And it appears the owner, Rebecca Rittenour, is working hard to make her business a success. She not only sells new and used books, but also offers hometown copy services and engages her patrons via a Mystery Book Club, creative in-store displays and more.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I especially like her artistic vignettes that encourage folks to shop local. I didn’t speak much with Becky other than to greet her, ask for permission to photograph and praise her store. But I got the sense, both from wandering the bookshop and from reading the Bexter website and Facebook page, that she truly holds a passion for books and for sharing her love and knowledge with others. That’s always the benefit of shopping local—excellent customer service from a passionate shopkeeper.

 

 

 

 

Milaca is fortunate to have an independent bookstore with books tucked into open drawers, filed onto shelves and showcased in artful ways.

 

 

On my quick stop in town, this bookshop charmed me with its vivid chartreuse walls, homey character and resident princess cat.

 

TELL ME: Do you have a favorite independent bookstore? If yes, what delights you and draws you to this bookshop?

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Part III from Hackensack: A close call along Highway 371 October 27, 2017

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TOOLING ALONG MINNESOTA State Highway 371 just south of Hackensack on the second to last day of our Up North vacation, Randy and I chatted and watched the northwoods landscape pass by. We’d had a good past five days exploring this part of the state, attending a book release party and visiting with friends.

Except for the cool and rainy mid-September weather and me forgetting my swimsuit, our much-needed get-away to the Brainerd Lakes and Park Rapids areas and to Hackensack had gone well. But that almost changed. Almost.

Ahead of us on the shoulder of the opposite traffic lane, we spotted a large bird huddled and feasting on roadkill. We expected a crow.

But as the van drew nearer, we identified the bird as a bald eagle. With my Canon DSLR camera in my lap, I was excited about the prospect of photographing the eagle.

 

An eagle sculpture at Veterans Memorial Park in Morristown. Imagine if this was a live eagle flying over your vehicle. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2012 used here for illustration purposes only.

 

That did not happen because…moments before our vehicle drew even with the eagle, the bird lifted off from the roadside. That would have been OK except for one problem. The eagle flew directly toward our traffic lane and our van.

In that moment, thoughts flashed of the eagle slamming into, and through, our windshield. Instinctively I ducked. Massive talons and an impressive wing span filled my view as the eagle flew over our windshield. This bird of prey is much larger than you think when observed from an underside open wing span perspective.

Randy estimates the eagle missed our van by four feet. He later told me he swerved slightly toward the fog line hoping to soften the blow of impact. I had no sense of him doing that.

Looking back on this incident, I am thankful the eagle cleared our windshield. But I’m kicking myself for missing what would have been a heckuva photo.

 

FYI: This concludes my series from Hackensack. Click here to read my first post and then my second.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Paul & Babe, more than a Minnesota legend October 26, 2017

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I purchased this vintage 1960s mini book, published by BANG Printing of Brainerd, at a used book sale.

 

IN MINNESOTA, PERHAPS no other legend perpetuates as much as that of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox.

 

Photographed outside a hardware store in Pequot Lakes.

 

The larger-than-life pair fits the image we present of hardiness and strength, of surviving, and thriving, in a cold and snowy land. Paul cleared woods in one swell swoop of his axe. Babe imprinted our soil with depressions soon filled with water in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.

 

“The Paul Bunyan Family” with Babe the Blue Ox suggested as a Halloween costume on a recent edition of Twin Cities Live.

 

Dressed in our buffalo plaid flannel shirts—and I’m wearing one right now while typing this post—we embrace our identity as practical people. We don our flannels and our snow boots, fish on frozen lakes, shovel snow and long for summer, although we’re not going to tell you that.

 

Many northern Minnesota businesses tap into the Paul Bunyan legend as indicated in this sign photographed in Pine River.

 

We are of stolid, hardworking immigrant stock—of farmers who broke virgin sod, of lumberjacks who felled trees, of families who fled refugee camps and war torn countries, of men and women and children who decided Minnesota offered a place to fulfill our dreams.

 

Legendary Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox in Bemidj. Minnesota Prairie Roots edited file photo.

 

We showcase Paul and Babe as legendary celebrities not because we’re trying to boast—we are mostly a modest bunch—but because we realize the value of these two. The pair reflects us, markets Minnesota, promotes tourism, boosts local economies, especially in the Brainerd Lakes area and to the north in Bemidji. Both communities feature oversized statues of Paul and Babe.

 

Paul Bunyan and Babe stand next to the iconic Brainerd water tower in this sculpture on a downtown Brainerd street corner.

 

Throughout the Minnesota northwoods and lakes region, the lumberjack and the ox show up in roadside attractions, in business and state trail names, in art and more. They symbolize the Minnesota spirit of strength and of creativity. We are a place of artists and wordsmiths, of hardworking men and women unafraid of getting our hands dirty, of determined entrepreneurs, of business leaders, of educators, of young people forging their paths into the woods of life…

We are individuals crafting our lives in a land that has, for generations, valued the legend of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox as part of our Minnesota story.

 

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The things you learn about Minnesota prisons while on the road October 25, 2017

 

ONCE UPON A TIME, beginning in the late 1870s, inmates at the Minnesota Correctional Facility, Stillwater, built agricultural equipment. Through the years they crafted threshing machines, hay rakes, barge wagons, manure spreaders and more.

 

 

This proved news to me. But Randy noted that as we followed a tractor pulling a gravity box along LeSueur County Road 13 on Sunday afternoon. He pegged the wagon as 1970s vintage prisoner made.

 

 

Online research confirmed Randy’s claim in articles published in Farm Collector magazine. According to those stories, prisoners built ag equipment until 2006.

 

 

Today inmates within Minnesota’s correctional system—including right here in my community of Faribault—produce products through the prison system’s MINNCOR Industries. Those range from residential and office furniture to clothing to printed materials to cabinetry and more.

 

Prisoner made furniture at Buckham Memorial Library. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo February 2017.

 

When I visit my local library, I can sit on inmate built easy chairs or loveseats, some upholstered in knock-knock joke fabric with this favorite prisoner joke:

How do prisoners make phone calls?

With cell phones.

 

 

Much has changed since the days of building manure spreaders…and gravity boxes

 

 

as time passes in the rearview mirror of prison life.

 

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The season of autumn in rural Minnesota, a photo essay October 24, 2017

 

IN THE SEASON of autumn, farm memories draw me back to the land.

 

 

To follow country gravel roads

 

 

and county highways

 

 

past sweeping fields of corn

 

 

harvested,

 

A vintage Gleaner combine harvests a cornfield along LeSueur County Road 13 near Lake Jefferson.

under harvest

 

Partially harvested…

 

and unharvested.

 

 

Roads lead me by farm sites,

 

 

aged stately barns

 

Near historic Marysburg in LeSueur County.

 

and mammoth bins awaiting the yield.

 

Following a tractor pulling a 1970s era gravity box along LeSueur County Road 13.

 

I observe, too, farmers creeping tractors trailing wagons,

 

 

zipping along rural roadways

 

Visiting at the intersection of LeSueur County roads 13 and 16.

 

and stalled in conversation at a rural intersection.

 

Cattle graze along 241st Avenue, just off LeSueur County Road 13.

 

I scan the landscape with the eyes of someone who misses the farm,

 

A harvested field glistens with puddled rainwater and mud. Too much rain has slowed the harvest for farmers in southern Minnesota. They will be working long days and nights to catch up and get the crop in before the snow flies.

 

who remembers the hurry of her farmer father,

 

Enjoying a beautiful autumn Sunday afternoon along Waseca County Road 22.

 

who follows country roads in the season of autumn.

 

FYI: I shot these images in Rice, LeSueur and Waseca counties during a Sunday afternoon, October 22, drive with my husband.

Check back for more photos from that drive.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling