Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Celebrating heritage & history at the Valley Grove churches September 18, 2018

I propped my camera on the grass and tilted it up to snap this photo of the 1894 Valley Grove church, rural Nerstrand, Minnesota.


MID-SEPTEMBER AIR HUNG HEAVY with humidity, more summer-like than autumn on this Sunday afternoon at two country churches in southeastern Minnesota.


A view of a section of the Valley Grove cemetery through a partially open window in the wood-frame church.


But, inside the sanctuary, Randy and I sat near a window cracked open to the cemetery, wind fanning a breeze, and at one time a wasp.


Duo churches grace the hilltop, the clapboard church replacing the original stone church for worship.


Inside the 1894 church with Doug Ohman’s equipment set up for his talk about country churches.


Visitors take a guided walk of the restored prairie.


I shifted, trying to find comfort on the hard wooden pew inside the 1894 church at Valley Grove, one of two built on a hilltop offering sweeping views of the countryside, Nerstrand Big Woods State Park next door and the small town of Nerstrand just miles to the southeast. Both church buildings remain, preserved, sanctuary doors opening to one another across a short swatch of lawn.


The arched entry gate to the church and cemetery grounds.


Imagine how many preachers preached from this pulpit. Ohman ended his talk with a short “sermon” advising us to view people and situations from the inside rather than the outside. He used a visual–that of a stained glass window appearing unimpressive from the outside but beautiful when seen from the inside.


Altar details hold history.


We joined others here for the Valley Grove Country Social, an annual autumn event that celebrates this place. On this day, noted Minnesota photographer Doug Ohman blessed us with his storytelling and photo presentation on selected historic churches of Minnesota. “Valley Grove,” he said, “is one of my favorite spots in all of Minnesota. You can feel the history.”


The Valley Grove churches and cemetery.


And that’s saying something. Ohman has photographed 3,000 plus Minnesota churches, many featured in his book Churches of Minnesota published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press as part of the Minnesota Byway series that also covers barns, courthouses, schoolhouses, cabins and libraries.


Vintage photos and artifacts were propped on windows in the stone church.


As Ohman talked of the early immigrants, like the Norwegians who founded Valley Grove, he noted “…communities were being knit together in the shadow of the church.”


Visitors observed and participated in the craft of rope making.


A woman demonstrated the art of making krumkake, a Norwegian cookie, available for sampling.


Old buggies on the grounds added to the sense of history.


A strong sense of history certainly exists at Valley Grove. Although I have no personal connection to these historic churches, I appreciate them. Like Ohman. “The church,” he said, “is a symbol of our heritage.” I agree.


Valley Grove is an oft-photographed site with photos and artwork of the churches gracing notecards for sale at the country social.


This photographer not only documents with his camera, but he gathers stories, too. Ohman is a master storyteller. He regaled us with humorous and poignant stories—of retrieving a church key from an outhouse, of stringing 600 feet of extension cords from a farm to Lenora United Methodist Church so he would have electrical power to present, of a $70,000 check gifted to a central Minnesota bible camp to relocate Marble Lutheran Church 100 miles…



He personalized, as did Jon Rondestvedt, another storyteller who shared cemetery stories following Ohman’s talk. Rondestvedt spoke of Oscar and Clara Bonde, a couple buried in the cemetery adjacent to the two churches. Clara, he noted, was a teacher within the Normal School system before her marriage to Oscar. She loved raspberries, hated moles. She was known for her green thumb skill of growing African violets. And Oscar, well, he was known as a cookie thief, a tag that caused us to burst into laughter.


A snippet of the musical group Hutenanny, which performed under a sprawling oak.


Such stories reinforce Rondestvedt’s opening statement that tombstones are “testimonies to people who lived, breathed and mattered.” I like that word choice, mattered. “It’s up to us to remember them,” this storyteller said.


Jon Rondestvedt talks about the Hellerud family at their gravesites.


Later he moved from the shade of a sprawling burr oak to the sun-drenched plots of the Hellerud family. There he explained how husbands sometimes chose to honor their wives via only the woman’s name engraved on a large tombstone, the man’s grave marker nearby, a simple flat stone laid flush to the ground. “She was seen as a treasure by her husband,” Rondestvedt said. This was a new piece of information I will take with me now in my stops at country cemeteries.


As I watched draft horses pull a wagon through the prairie, I imagined immigrant families traversing the prairie also.


I left Valley Grove, too, with a desire to read Giants of the Earth, a classic by O.E. Rolvaag about Norwegian immigrants settling in America. Rondestvedt read selected passages at the burial sites of the Helleruds, the wind ruffling pages of the aged novel.


Packets of milkweed seed ready for the taking.


Shortly thereafter we gathered around the grave marker of Hannah Stenbakken Hellerud, a school teacher so beloved by a young boy that he said she was the first person he wanted to see in heaven. A monarch butterfly dipped and rose, circling our group. The butterfly seemed a symbolic ending to the afternoon, coming full circle to my first stop upon arriving at the Valley Grove Country Social. I’d stopped initially to check out a booth about monarchs. I left with a packet of swamp milkweed seeds which I will seed near the common milkweed already growing in my yard.


Efforts have been onging since 2007 to restore the 1862 limestone church.


Inside the plain stone church, a rebuilt chandelier adds elegance.


The Valley Grove Preservation Society has worked hard to restore both churches. Valley Grove is on the National Register of Historic Sites.


It is up to us to preserve—a population of threatened butterflies, country churches atop a hill, stories from churches and cemeteries…all that which holds our history, our heritage.


Every celebration calls for cake, including this cake served inside the stone church at the Valley Grove Country Social.


And it is up to us also to celebrate that which has been preserved.


© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


22 Responses to “Celebrating heritage & history at the Valley Grove churches”

  1. Beautiful post. “It’s up to us to remember them,” this storyteller said…as this story does as well.

  2. Colleen Hondl Gengler Says:

    I hope to visit there sometime as I enjoy rural churches and cemeteries even when I have no connection to them. Really liked this part about the tombstones and markers:

    “testimonies to people who lived, breathed and mattered.” I like that word choice, mattered. “It’s up to us to remember them,” this storyteller said.

    I think this is true of old photos as well. Someone once said to me that he was couldn’t understand keeping old photos of people where he could identify no one. I thought, “but they are still people who lived.” I have a couple of old photos from an auction box. I have no idea who the people are but I just think the people deserve to live on through keeping the photos.

    • Oh, Colleen, you would love Valley Grove. I’ve been there multiple times. It’s especially beautiful in the autumn, when the leaves are turning color. That is beginning. Valley Grove also holds a Christmas Eve service, which is on my list to attend.

      I agree with you about the photos. Randy and I were in an antique store last week when he spotted a vintage photo of a woman in a casket. I was actually appalled that such an image would be for sale. I found that disrespectful.

      • Colleen Hondl Gengler Says:

        I do hope to do a visit, seriously! On the photos, our church receives donations of fabric, sewing supplies, etc for quilting. We were taken aback one day when we found old snapshots in one of the boxes. No way to know who they were. So sad that no one looked through the box before donating. We felt badly about throwing them out.

      • I can understand your dismay about tossing those photos.

  3. What a BEAUTIFUL Post – touches and connects with my whole being 🙂 The details, the event planning, the experience . . . Brings back some memories too. There was always donuts, cake, bars, and pies in the church basements when I was growing up. Happy Day – Enjoy!

  4. Thank you, Audrey, for letting me peek through “your lens” at the Country Social at Valley Grove. We didn’t stay for Jon Ronstadt’s cemetery tour. I really appreciated hearing about his account of tombstones representing people who “lived, breathed, and mattered.” Like you, I think that the word “matter” is a good thought-provoking word choice. Raises interesting questions in my own mind about how I “matter” beyond just living and breathing.

  5. valeriebollinger Says:

    We were hiking out at Valley Grove last weekend and wondered what the autumn festival dates were…guess we missed it. I love that place. It was beautiful hiking there at twilight…the lighting on the prairie grasses was awesome.

    • I thought of you and wondered if you might be at the social. But then when I read that your son was visiting, I figured not. I will remember that lighting at twilight. Perhaps time for a visit then with my camera in hand. Thanks for the tip. I hope you had a great weekend with your family.

  6. Brenda R Says:

    I appreciated the comment about the windows appearing unimpressive from the outside but beautiful when seen from the inside. It reminds me that my dad always encouraged us to put ourselves in other peoples place to understand their feelings. Just this past weekend our Pastor highlighted the meaning of each of our almost 80 year old stained glass windows in our church and their history. One of my bucket list things is to visit all of Minnesota’s State Parks. This area looks really beautiful.
    When I go to our cemetery to care for the plants at my parents gravestone, I can stand there and see the gravestone of 1 uncle and aunt to the left, 2 uncles and aunts to the right, 1 set of my Grandparents to the right and the other straight ahead to the west. I stop at each one and pull any weeds & water them when needed because they are testimonies to relatives who lived,breathed and mattered. That was so wonderfully said!!

    • Oh, Brenda, you bring tears to my eyes with your detailed account of your cemetery visits. These are individuals who mattered, and still matter.

      I love, too, your dad’s advice to put yourself in other people’s places. He was a wise man. Just like Doug Ohman with that stained glass window illustration. I would have loved to have heard that explanation of the stained glass windows at Immanuel.

      I have an aunt and uncle who have visited all of Minnesota’s state parks. How many have you visited thus far?

      • Brenda R Says:

        I am at about 10 out of 75 state parks- so a long way to go! Our church Ice Cream Social is tomorrow so I have been busy making pies- 3 peach and 1 apple. Also making the poppy seed cake my mom always made. Our youngest son Dalton just got a job working for Ducks Unlimited. While we’re so happy for him getting his dream job– it’s in Indiana! 😜 So the beginning of next week we’re off to look for a place for him to live! I am not looking forward to that!! I once heard that the best thing you can teach your children is how to live on their own- so I guess we’ll find out how we did!!

      • Congrats to Dalton on landing his dream job. But I feel your sense of anxiety about the distance already. At least Indiana is do-able for a road trip.

        Those pies sound delicious.

  7. Missy's Crafty Mess Says:

    What beautiful churches you have managed to capture. I’m sure you had a good time. *slightly jealous about those cookies too they are one of my favorites

  8. Sandra Van Erp Says:

    Hutenanny, perfect! Wonderful post and pictures!

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