Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Dance, smile, toss confetti, spread joy… September 30, 2019

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THE BEST GIFTS cannot be bought. How often have you heard that cliché? It’s true.

We each hold the capacity to give gifts that hold value far beyond anything that can be purchased. For example, when I celebrated my birthday last week, I received several unexpected gifts that brought me profound joy. Joy as in crying and experiencing an overall feeling of being deeply loved.

 

 

 

The first arrived in my mailbox, by all appearances just a birthday card sealed inside an envelope. But when I opened the card, I discovered a clutch of colorful sticky notes. Upon those neon slips of paper, a friend and her family penned powerful words of encouragement and love. Exactly what I needed.

How could I not feel joyful when I’m told I’m loved and that God created me to do amazing things?

 

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2018.

 

The simple word SMILE, written in an artsy font, prompted a smile.

Now I have that stack of uplifting notes to remind me that Life is not about waiting for the storm to pass; it’s about dancing in the rain. I needed to read that perspective and my friend knew it.

Then several hours later my dear Aunt Dorothy called from New Jersey to wish me a happy birthday. She’s the aunt who lived in Minneapolis when I was a child and who gave me her old nail polish and lipstick and jewelry and made me feel so loved, especially with her endearing name for me, My Little Princess. All these decades later, Dorothy still calls me that sweet name. Not simply Little Princess. But My Little Princess. I feel so loved.

 

 

And then, just as Randy was preparing to cook dinner on my birthday (because I refuse to cook on my birthday), my niece Tara arrived with her sweet family. She held a box containing six fancy cupcakes from Cream of the Cakes in Lakeville. I never expected this. And that’s the sweetness of this act. This young mom took time out of her busy life to not only buy those delicious cupcakes but then to drive 20 some minutes to deliver them. And bonus, I got wonderful hugs from my great nephew who is, as he told me, three. Not two.

Add to that a bouquet of garden-fresh hydrangea from a friend earlier in the week and flowers from Randy and I feel pretty darned loved. Calls, emails and a video chat with the grandkids brought more birthday joy. The best gifts cannot be bought.

I challenge you this week to reach out to someone who needs the gift of joy—of uplifting words, of a simple act of love and kindness, of a surprise gift. As my friend printed on a sticky note: Be the reason someone smiles today!

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Connecting at the Faribault Farmers’ Market September 27, 2019

 

Garden-fresh flowers, like these spider mums, are available at the Faribault Farmers’ Market, open now on Saturday mornings from 7 a.m. – noon in Central Park.

 

SHOPPING AT A FARMERS’ MARKET is not simply about shopping for garden-fresh produce, home-baked goods, handcrafted items and more. It’s about the experience. That much I’ve learned in my many years of frequenting the Faribault Farmers’ Market on Saturday mornings.

 

Musicians perform at the recent Faribault Farmers’ Market Family Day while shoppers visit the market.

 

A Minnesota item crafted by Becker Woodcraft LLC.

 

Vegetables are in abundance.

 

The experience is one of community—of coming together, of connecting, of appreciating this place and the people committed to sharing their products.

 

My friend Al sells his flowers and produce.

 

Old-fashioned zinnias grown by Al.

 

One of the youngest vendors from 3 Glad Girls sells gladiolus.

 

My local farmers’ market offers opportunities to chat with vendors like Kelly of The Giant’s House Bakery, Al with his ever-brilliant bouquets of my favorite zinnias, Denny with whatever creative treat he concocts (like chocolate-dipped jalapenos), Tiffany of Graise Farm with her duck eggs…

 

 

Heirloom tomato.

 

One of the more unusual items for sale, agates displayed in a bowl of water.

 

 

I often pause and chat with friends who are also seeking locally-grown/baked/crafted food/goods. Pumpkins. Kolacky. Homemade jams and jellies. Cookies. Bouquets of flowers. Jewelry and art.

 

A bouncy house provides fun for the kids during Family Day.

 

A musician plays the flute during Family Day.

 

The goats were a popular Family Day draw.

 

Meet the goat.

 

Milk the goat.

 

When the Faribault Farmers’ Market hosted Family Day a few Saturdays ago, I was pleased to see Central Park crowded with young families enjoying the extras of fun activities, informational booths, music and farm animals up-close.

 

Kids make fruit and vegetable prints during Family Day.

 

The atmosphere felt festive and spirited with a prevailing sense of community. More than ever today, we need to reclaim and maintain that feeling, that sense of connection that brings us together. We need one another. Whether we live in town or the country. Your local farmer’s market is a good place to start building community.

 

 

TELL ME: Do you shop farmers’ markets? If yes, what do you buy? Tell me also about your experiences.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Food stories from Minnesota as I celebrate my birthday September 26, 2019

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Assorted hot dishes, salads, desserts and more fill several tables at the annual Kletscher family reunion held each July at the city park in my hometown of Vesta, Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

WHAT FOODS AND FOOD TRADITIONS do you consider unique to the place you live?

 

Assorted bars. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Ask any Minnesotan and it’s surely not grape salad. Rather, the typical Minnesotan might respond with hot dish, walleye, chicken wild rice soup… Or bars. And we’re not talking the local watering hole here. We’re talking a sweet treat pressed or poured into a 9 x 13-inch cake pan. My favorite are peanut butter oatmeal bars.

 

Chicken Wild Rice Hot Dish with salad and bread served at an eatery in Park Rapids, Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Whatever your answer, food in many ways defines us. And food is the subject of a research project underway by a young Minnesota woman working on her Master of Fine Arts nonfiction writing degree from the University of New Hampshire. Lindsey phoned last week to ask about my food history, one rooted in my rural upbringing. We talked for an hour. I don’t envy Lindsey’s eventual task of condensing months of research into a succinct paper. But I do look forward to some day reading her findings.

 

My mother-in-law, who passed away in October 1993, often made Seven Layer Jell-O Salad. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

I expect she will include Jell-O, once the queen of Minnesota salads. Make that red Jell-O laced with sliced bananas. It is a signature food of many an extended family gathering from my childhood. Many Baby Boomers from rural Minnesota could probably say the same.

 

A friend gifted me with a copy of the book my mom used to craft birthday cakes.

 

But there’s one story likely unique to me and my five siblings. We grew up on a crop and dairy farm in southwestern Minnesota. With little money, our parents could not afford to give us gifts on our birthdays. The thing is, we didn’t know to expect presents. We were that poor. But Mom found another way to make our birthdays special. Days before our birthday, she would pull out her Animal Cut-Up Cake booklet and allow us to thumb through the pages and choose an animal-shaped birthday cake. Simple two-page spreads showed, for example, how to create a lion from a 9-inch square cake. Mom would follow the instructions in the publication by General Foods Corporation and create the chosen animal cake.

 

The clown cake my mom made for me in one of the few photos I have of myself from my childhood.

 

I cherish those birthday memories. I’m convinced that, had I gotten childhood birthday gifts, I would have forgotten those long ago. But my mom’s homemade birthday cakes, no. Whether a turtle, terrier or teddy bear, those cakes equated love.

 

I can’t take credit for this cake. But my daughters crafted this PEEF cake for their brother the year he turned eight. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

When I became a mother, I followed the tradition of creating homemade birthday cakes—like Garfield the cat, a horse, a snowman—for my three kids. But they, unlike me and my siblings, also received birthday gifts.

 

Me with my mom. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo December 2017.

 

Today I celebrate my birthday. I don’t expect a cake, because who will bake one for me? I’m the mom. Rather I’ll remember and honor my mom, who is on hospice in a care center 2 ½ hours away. I doubt she remembers today is my birthday. I’m simply thankful if she recognizes me. But maybe, if I prompted her, she would recall all those special birthday cakes she baked for me and my siblings. The tradition was a gift of love from the mom I love. And miss.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Wine, wheat & unwinding at a Wanamingo area winery September 25, 2019

Heritage Wheat Demonstration Day at Aspelund Winery.

 

VISIT ASPELUND WINERY and Peony Gardens between Kenyon and Wanamingo, and you’ll discover a place of peace. I love this country spot. For its quiet setting. Its beauty. The genuine friendliness of owners Bruce and Dawn Rohl. And the wine.

 

So many lovely peonies in multitudes of colors, shapes and scents. The Rohls hybridize, grow and sell peony plants. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo, June 2016.

 

In the spring, I delight in the peony fields bursting with color and fragrance.

 

A pile of wheat awaits threshing.

 

In autumn, the changing hues of the surrounding farmland delight me as I sip wine on the tasting room deck.

 

Separating the wheat with a treadle-powered threshing machine.

 

This past Sunday afternoon brought a new experience as I watched the threshing of wheat, then grinding into flour. The winery hosted Heritage Wheat Demonstration Day, part of the Cannon Falls Area Historical Society’s Heritage Wheat Project.

 

First, threshing the wheat.

 

Grinding and regrinding the wheat into fine flour.

 

Bruce Rohl grinds the wheat into flour.

 

After observing that process, I held a deeper appreciation for the early farmers who worked hard to grow, harvest, separate and grind wheat into flour. What a job.

 

 

But, oh, the delicious result—the grainy textured bread…

 

 

I didn’t just watch this demo, though. I wandered through the vineyard, already harvested. Photographed a golden apple.

 

Rows of flint corn border the driveway into the winery.

 

The Rohls grind this flint corn into corn meal for cornbread. They also grow popcorn, offered for sale and also for complementary tasting with their wines.

 

Examined the towering flint corn the Rohls grow and grind into corn meal.

 

 

 

I paused, too, to photograph a homemade (I think) vehicle parked on the grounds.

 

A mug of mulled Lady Cara-Mel wine from Aspelund Winery.

 

And, of course, no visit here is complete without wine, this time mulled and sipped from a mug. Perfect for an autumn afternoon on the deck overlooking the ever-changing Minnesota countryside.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Embracing Autumn in Southern Minnesota, a photo essay September 23, 2019

 

THE LATEST ISSUE of Southern Minn Scene magazine has published. And it’s appropriately fall-themed with a focus on celebrating autumn and all that entails in my region of Minnesota.

In my second photo essay column for this publication, I pulled images from my files to accompany text that speaks to my personal appreciation of autumn.

I’d encourage you to click here and page through this free lifestyle magazine. You’ll find Through a SoMinn Lens on pages 12-14. Fifteen photos publish in my essay, “Embracing Autumn in Southern Minnesota.”

These images and words reflect my deep connection to the land and to this place I call home. Enjoy.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

More than a car show September 20, 2019

 

CAR CRUISES REPRESENT much more than a bunch of vintage vehicles washed and waxed for prime public viewing.

 

 

 

 

Car Cruises represent passion, family projects, heritage, stories, history, art…whatever perspective you bring to a car show.

 

 

 

 

But most of all, they represent community. I’ve attended enough car shows, most in my city of Faribault, to recognize that these events bring folks together. To mingle in the street or on the sidewalk to talk cars. Or family. Or weather. Maybe even politics, but probably not.

 

 

 

 

While the vehicles take participants and attendees back in time, so does the overall feel of a car show. In this high tech busy world, we need to remember the importance of gathering and of visiting. Face-to-face, cellphones tucked away.

 

 

 

Faribault offers one final opportunity this season to embrace togetherness at the Faribault Car Cruise Night set for 6 p.m. – 9 p.m. Friday, September 20, at Faribault Harley-Davidson, a move from the usual Central Avenue location. I prefer the intimate and historic downtown setting. But I also understand the need to change things up a bit.

 

 

 

The Harley dealer is also offering a free showing of the classic movie, American Graffiti, at 6 p.m. (according to promotional info). The event is advertised as family-friendly with offerings of popcorn, s’mores, pop and a bonfire. Bring your lawn chairs and blankets.

 

 

This vintage wagon promotes tourism and the Minne-Roadtrip that includes the communities of Faribault, Northfield and Owatonna.

 

 

I appreciate the efforts of Faribault Main Street and others who organize Car Cruise Night. They are building community, connecting us with one another. Exactly what we need in an ever-increasingly disconnected world.

 

All of these photos were taken at the August Faribault Car Cruise Night in historic downtown Faribault.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Book review: A closer look at mental health care reform in Minnesota from 1946-1954 September 19, 2019

AS A WRITER, hearing other writers share insights into their work always interests me. That includes listening to Susan Bartlett Foote talk about her book, The Crusade for Forgotten Souls—Reforming Minnesota’s Mental Institutions, 1946-1954, at the Owatonna Public Library on Tuesday evening. Foote’s book won the 2019 Minnesota Book Award in nonfiction. It’s a well-deserved honor for a book which shares the powerful, and previously untold, story of reform in Minnesota’s mental health care system some 70 years ago.

Despite the four years Foote invested in researching and writing, she is quick to credit another woman for this story. Engla Schey. Foote dedicated her Minnesota Book Award to this activist and aspiring writer whom she calls the first mental health advocate in Minnesota. Schey worked initially as an attendant in several state mental health hospitals, or “insane asylums” as they were called back in the day. She witnessed first-hand the neglect, abuse, inhumane treatment, poor living and working conditions…all documented in her diaries. Foote read those diaries, in the possession of Schey’s great great niece.

The result is a deeply personal story about one ordinary woman’s efforts to change “a cynical and secretive system.” Schey’s insider perspective, Foote notes, allowed her to upend the whole structure. At the time, some 15,000 people lived in the state’s seven mental health hospitals with 80 percent of them committed and 35 percent senile/elderly. Half suffered from mental illnesses with stays of sometimes 20 years. The statistics are startling. But it is the stories Foote shares that make the most impact. Read this book and you will find yourself in tears.

As Foote related in her Tuesday evening talk, Schey quickly recognized that she needed help—of liberal churches, unions and writers—if she was to effect change within the system. She cared deeply. And personally. Her father voluntarily committed himself to the state hospital in Fergus Falls.

Eventually, the Minnesota Unitarian Church got involved, taking the approach of responsible study and analysis rather than jumping in and demanding immediate reform. The Rev. Arthur Foote (Susan Foote’s former father-in-law) led those efforts along with activist Genevieve Steefel and others.

Soon those initial reformers recognized the need to engage the press and political leadership and to build popular support, Foote said. Investigative news stories published. And some politicians, like then Minnesota Governor Luther Youngdahl, set aside partisan politics to make mental health care reform a top issue. Foote praised Youngdahl, referencing his stand that all mentally ill Minnesotans were entitled to fundamental human guarantees (dignity) and his goal to build a patient-centered mental health care system. A photo of Youngdahl burning a pile of straightjackets (and published in the book) signaled that change was going to happen, Foote said. And it did. Conditions improved both for patients and staff.

Like anything, though, change did not come easily nor is it always permanent. I experienced a deep sense of disappointment and frustration as I read in detail about all the politicking, untruths and denials. I can only imagine how those deeply involved in reform efforts felt. Youngdahls’s biggest disappointment, Foote shared with us in Owatonna on Tuesday, was that Minnesota churches (other than the Unitarians) wanted nothing to do with the issue of mental health. Has that changed much?

Youngdahl, in the ever-evolving political environment, suffered another disappointment in his failure to open a state hospital in Brainerd. One eventually opened there and my brother-in-law Brian became a resident after suffering incapacitating permanent brain damage. I knew him only briefly before his passing in 1984 at the age of 23.

At Tuesday’s talk in Owatonna, an audience member shared afterwards that a family member died of tuberculosis while hospitalized in a state hospital. Another attendee told me privately of staff intentionally breaking the legs of a man who lived at a state hospital in Faribault. For every story spoken, I expect many more remain unspoken. The hurt runs deep even all these decades later.

Although politicians and the public moved on and times changed and cuts began in the state hospital system by the early 1950s with Minnesota falling back to “average” in mental health care, Foote said, “I maintain this story is an inspiration, not a failure.”

She closed with a quote from Governor Luther Youngdahl: “Protection of the patient depends on our eternal vigilance.”

I agree. And I contend that we can all be Engla Scheys. We have within us—within our families, our circles of friends, our churches, our schools, our communities—the ability to make a difference in the lives of those dealing with mental illnesses and those who love them. Through our compassion, care, understanding, love and support. On multiple levels.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling