Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

From Ulen: Ole & Lena would feel right at home in this Minnesota town November 8, 2018

The ethnicity of Ulen displayed on a business sign. I absolutely love the artistry of this signage.


I’D NEVER BEEN TO ULEN, a decidedly Norwegian-American community of some 600 in northwestern Minnesota. But it was on our route from Hendrum back to Detroit Lakes last week Thursday.



Ulen looks like many other small towns in this remote agricultural region. There’s a school, a grain elevator, a few businesses downtown. Typical.


Approaching the grain elevator complex, we notice the rising dust.


But then Randy and I observed something not so typical—the demolition of an aged grain elevator. Back in their heyday, these rectangular buildings rose like cathedrals on the prairie, visible for miles. They centered communities, held the harvest. Now many sit empty, replaced by massive grain bins and towering grain silos that hold no aesthetic appeal.

I don’t know the story behind the removal of the vintage elevator in Ulen. I can speculate. But speculation isn’t truth.



I know only that I felt a sense of sadness as Randy and I sat in our van watching the dust fly while demolition equipment chomped away chunks of this historic building. We missed seeing the elevator in-tact given our late arrival.



After a bit we drove back through town, past the Ulen Museum, formerly the Viking Sword Museum (the Viking sword found near Ulen has been proven a legend, not truth), then past the Top Hat Theatre.



When we spotted a vintage house for sale on a corner lot, Randy stopped to pick up a flier. He asked me to guess the price. “$47,000,” I said. Oh, how wrong that guess. The five-bedroom, two-bath house of 3,088 square feet and with four garage stalls is priced at $179,900. No, we’re not interested in living in Ulen, home to a Turkey BBQ going on its 58th year.



As we exited town, a plain green poleshed caught my eye. Lena’s Lefse, the sign thereon read. Now I know a lot of people who love lefse, who make lefse each holiday season. I’ll eat it just to be polite. I’m convinced the appeal of lefse is more about family tradition and heritage than taste. But then I’m not Norwegian. And I’m not from Ulen. Nor do I know a good Ole and Lena joke to share right now.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


24 Responses to “From Ulen: Ole & Lena would feel right at home in this Minnesota town”

  1. Ruth Says:

    Love the signage and your tour today.

  2. Beth Ann Says:

    Another great little town that you happened upon with your camera in hand! Perfect shots and you captured a lot in your photographs.

  3. Boy does Lefse bring back the memories – sprinkled with cinnamon sugar – YUM 🙂 Nothing better than a good Ole and Lena joke – ha!
    Happy Day – Enjoy

  4. Almost Iowa Says:

    Lefsa is GREAT!

    [but only if you smother it in sauerkraut]

  5. I have heard hundreds of Ole and Lena jokes! I am Norwegian and grew up laughing at those with my Grandmother. She made the best lefse. Now my sister makes it.

  6. BradG Says:

    Y’all need to Google “Ole and Lena”. Many Ole, Lena, Sven stories. May keep you on the computer for hours. Especially like one titled “Lutefisk Legend” Ulen reminds me of Belview.

  7. Valerie Says:

    I’m s hearty Norwegian…and I like lefse… with butter and sugar. It’s interesting to learn about these towns. Thanks.

  8. Neil Says:

    Here’s an Ole and Lena joke. I’m not so sure about whether it’s a good one…

    Ole and Lena were ice fishing one day when Ole ran out of snoose. He told Lena she’d have to go across the lake and get some from Sven’s General Store.

    After she left, Ole called Sven on his cell phone and explained that Lena was coming after snoose for him, but he’d have to charge it because he didn’t send any money with her.

    When Sven asked why not, Ole explained, “I didn’t know how thick the ice was.”

  9. Philip Holum Says:

    Lefse is good, if well-made. I’m 64 and asked my mom to show me how to make it in 2010, the year before she died. Now, I make it every year, and, yes it is popular with my family both for sentimental reasons and the taste. I stay away from the “Lena” lefse and other factory-made. I can detect ingredients like veg oil and instant potatoes. Just not the same. The old elevator’s destruction is so sad, I can’t help but think there might be a purpose for these structures, but I suppose they are a fire hazard. For the area, I would think the house is a little over-priced? Thanks for the nice post. Phil/Eagle Bend

    • Although I seldom eat lefse, I would have to agree that using real mashed potatoes would certainly make the treat more tasty. Good for you to learn how to make lefse from your mom. I bet you’re thankful you asked her to teach you.

      As for the elevator, I would like to know why the Ulen one was demolished. Was there a fire? Was more space needed for new bins? Was it falling apart?

      I thought the house seemed over-priced, too. But then I don’t know that market area.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post, Phil from Eagle Bend. It’s good to have you here in the comments section.

  10. Gunny Says:

    Before I knew I was of Norwegian descent, I picked up a model of a Viking ship and my attention has never waivered. Thank you for such great photography of Ulen.

    OK, my trip agenda to Minnesota in June will take me to Alexandria for the Valdres Samband – yup I am a member. However, Before I get their I am planning on going up into the thumb of Michigan for a visit with a life-long friend. Then back down through M/SP (gotta see historic Fort Snelling), then Red Wing / Albert Lea on to Fargo/Moorhead and back down from there – all starting from San Antonio, Texas. And my pickup window has all the stickers to entertain any traveler that happened to pass me by.

    Happy Veterans Day to all and Happy Birthday to any Marines or Marine family. Semper Fi!

  11. Kristin Sellentine Says:

    Ulen is about 10 mi from my folks place north of Lake Park. The female singer in Monroe Crossing is from Ulen. Whenever they introduce her during a show, there is always someone in the audience who knows where Ulen is. Also, several years ago I was in Aruba and met a woman at our resort who was from Ulen. Small world. Oh, yeah, the house probably cost that much because a lot of people who work in Fargo-Moorhead live in the surrounding communities.

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