Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

WW I from a Steele County, Minnesota, personal perspective April 16, 2019


YOU CAN SPEND considerable time reading all of the information included in a World War I exhibit at the Steele Country History Center in Owatonna. But I am more a Cliffs Notes reader when it comes to museum-based history. I scan to gain a general overall understanding and then choose to focus more on content that interests me most.




“Fight the foe with the hoe.”


The “Over Here, Over There: The Great War” exhibit presents Steele County’s role in WW I, both on the battlefield and at home. It’s an incredible research project. Well done. Detailed and personalized. I’ve come to expect such historical accuracy and professionalism in homegrown exhibits at this southern Minnesota museum.



As I ducked into military and medical tents, listened to the sounds of machine gun fire,





took in the wall of nearly 1,100 soldiers’ names,



admired military medals,



pulled copies of soldiers’ letters from mailboxes,



observed blacklisted books of German poetry,



considered the sacrifices of Wheatless Wednesdays and Heatless Mondays, I contemplated how this war affected every aspect of life. Not just for those military personnel in battle, but for the everyday American.



And when I read the section on immigration, I contemplated how little has changed. How the issues of yesterday—back then the hatred of Germans—today has only a new color, a new ethnicity. I read: Mass immigration created social tensions. Many native-born citizens demanded assimilation and wanted less immigration.

I don’t intend for this post to spark intense discussion on immigration issues. But the immigration section of this exhibit certainly resonated with me. I am of German heritage. If my grandparents were still living, I would question them about issues they faced because of their ethnicity.

It saddens me to think how, still today, social tensions and demands for assimilation and hostility toward immigrants remain. Strong. Often hateful. As if we didn’t all come from immigrants. As if we aren’t all human beings worthy of love and respect and a place to call home.




All of that aside, I’d encourage you to tour “Over Here, Over There: The Great War.” There is much to be culled from this exhibit whether you read every single word or browse through the information. In history we learn. If only we’d retain those lessons so history does not repeat itself.


© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


10 Responses to “WW I from a Steele County, Minnesota, personal perspective”

  1. Almost Iowa Says:

    I have related this story here before, but it needs repeating. My grandmother was 14 years old and living in Chippewa Falls, WI when the United States entered into WWI.

    Chippewa Falls was a predominately German and German speaking town. On April 6, 1917, the day war was declared, the German language was no longer allowed to be spoken in town. Those who could not speak English, could not speak.

    As for immigration, there always have been tensions and there will always be tensions because immigration by its very nature causes social and economic upheaval. This is the way it is, always was and always will be – everywhere in the world.

    Things tend to work themselves out in time – except for the places where they never work themselves out – and God help anyone who lives there and it is amazing how many places there are like that.

    We have been lucky in the past. I hope we can continue to be lucky in the future.

  2. Thank you Audrey for all your photo essays that I have enjoyed in the past. Is this a permanent exhibit? If not, for how long will it be available?

    • Bonnie, this is not a permanent exhibit. These change out and are always interesting and extremely well done. I called the Steele County History Center before publishing this post and asked how long the exhibit would be up and was told until fall sometime. But I’d suggest you call to confirm. I wasn’t given a final end date. I would hate for you to miss it.

      Thank you for appreciating my work.

  3. BERNADETTE Thomasy Says:

    This looks like a terrific exhibit and I agree with your personal take on it. I particularly enjoyed the photo of the wall of names. I recognized many as familiar families and neighbors with whom we grew up and that our parents also talked about. Thanks for the electronic visit.

    • You are welcome, Bernadette. The Steele County History Center does an outstanding job with their exhibits, many of which I’ve seen in recent years. It’s truly an Owatonna treasure. You don’t need to be from Steele County to appreciate it. But these exhibits are even more meaningful for a Steele County native like you. I’m happy to have taken you here today.

  4. Gunny Says:

    War is terrible! War affects everyone!

    Audrey, we would have no country without borders. American laws apply here. There are those who would usurp those laws for others that most Americans would find either barbaric and or unacceptable. We have had rules for immigrants all along. Gaining entrance to America isn’t and shouldn’t be a free pass. Is it getting harder to get into this country? Yes. It wasn’t exactly easy by the 1900s. Many were turned away. A recent article on Norway noted that 100% of the rapes that occurred in that country in the last year was attributable to immigrants. 100%! Why?

    The Roman Empire was a mix of various countries, various religions, various cultures and a mixture of acceptable laws (much like modern day America). A story comes to mind of a “civilized” Roman Legion which faced a horde of barbarians across a river (if one wasn’t Roman then one must have been a “barbarian”. A Roman Army was one of the world’s most efficient and effective fighting organizations.

    The soldiers got very uncomfortable as the number of barbarians increased and who were starving and depleting the resources on the other side of the river. As winter set in, the river ice formed to the point one could walk across. Then the ice thickened and it would support groups of people. At this point the horde streamed across. When they streamed across, they overwhelmed the Roman legion, took the legion’s food, clothes and the Roman legion was no more. The territory was lost to the barbarians, who after killing the Romans, eating all the food, then plundered the Roman goods and the countryside for anything usable. Whatever was Roman, was gone. The laws that existed were no more. The dress codes, customs, culture and everything of art, literature, everything a society brings, holds dear, were forever changed.

    In 1862, Sioux were on a government support (form of welfare) program. Not so the white settlers. The US Government defaulted on their treaty obligations to the Sioux who, starving, then went on the warpath killing an estimated 500 to 800 immigrants who were trying to make a living without government largess. While 100 plus Indians were charged with capitol crimes earning the death penalty, all but 35 were pardoned by Abraham Lincoln.
    This whole affair was wrong on so many levels as to defy making any sense of the results of such actions here.

    In WWI America, many people were only a generation or two from when that family immigrated. What occurred is termed “The Great Leveling” which basically did away with dual allegiance (but not entirely). One was American or Not! My own grandmother was married to a man of German (and Norwegian) extraction and dual loyalties were not condoned.

    While there are many who wish to leave the hovels and hearths of their home country, doesn’t mean that they are willing and able to adopt all that their new country offers. Many opt for cheating on welfare and taking advantage of the largess offered via this country’s resources and infrastructure which is unheard of in their own countries.

    Good exhibit Audrey. I wish I were there to take it in. There is much to learn, study and evaluate. This war still affects the lives of Americans to this day – and most don’t even know it. Read the book “1916” or is it “1918”.

    God Bless..

    • Gunny, your interest in history and issues always shows here. Thank you for taking the time to comment, even if we don’t always agree on everything.

      • Gunny Says:

        Thank You Audrey, you are very kind. What I wrote initially was VERTY long and what is posted is but a fragment. You see joy and beauty in things while I have served my country beyond the 20 years of military service. I question authority, and I question motives of almost everyone. I will endeavor not to post such diatribes in the future. However, you security and that of all Americans has always been at the forefront of my life’s goal. I gotta run now, some politician is trying to erase some history.

      • “Some politician is trying to erase some history…”

        Oh, Gunny, I appreciate you. And thank you for continuing to question. That’s vital.

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