Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Not your typical Valentine’s Day story February 14, 2020

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Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.

That memorable quote from the movie Forrest Gump rings so true in life. To a point. With a box of chocolates, you can choose. You can use the cheat sheet to find your preferred flavor. Let’s call that planning. Or you can take a risk and just grab a chocolate, any chocolate.

And then you bite into the sweet morsel and it’s either exactly what you expected, a disappointment or a sweet surprise.

 

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Life is like that. Some days all goes exactly as we plan. Other days not so much. And then there are those days when you simply want to take the entire box of chocolates and toss them out because the “you never know what you’re gonna get” part is just too much to handle.

Yeah, this seems rather heavy to write about on Valentine’s Day. But there’s a reason. The other evening, while donating blood, I struck up a conversation with the young woman drawing my blood. I noticed a tattoo on her arm and inquired about the poetic sentence inked thereon. I can’t recall the exact wording, but it was beautiful and honored the loved one who penned it. Her brother. Today marks exactly six months since his unexpected death.

I told her how sorry I was for her loss. And then she asked if I wanted to hear the story behind her tattoo and that’s when the phlebotomist told me about her brother and how they’d always wanted to get the same tattoo and now it was too late. And then, while paging through her brother’s journals, she found the quote that now graces her arm.

He was a writer. And a veteran. I looked up his obit online. He struggled, after two deployments, to readjust to life.

As I sat on the table, blood flowing from my vein into a bag that would bring life-saving blood to someone, I considered this young woman, her brother and the loss of his life. She wasn’t bitter. She wasn’t angry. Sad, yes. Yet, she had no choice but to go on with life, she said. I admired her positive attitude in the newness of her grief.

She talked, too, about how writing helps her deal with her loss. Like me, she holds a degree in communications, is a published writer and loves writing. It was reaffirming, even in the darkness of the topic which prompted our conversation, to talk shop with someone who loves the craft as much as I do. I encouraged her to keep writing. She smiled. And I felt that in some way perhaps I’d helped her. And myself. We agreed that writing is therapeutic and that we can’t allow life to get in the way of our writing. No more excuses.

And then, four minutes and 17 seconds after blood began flowing, the collection bag was full and we wrapped up our conversation while she filled tubes and wrapped my arm in tape. I thanked her. And it wasn’t just for her work with the Red Cross.

There’s more.

As I sat at the snack and recovery table, I commented on a patriotic tattoo covering nearly the entire right arm of a blood donor. It honors those who serve, he said. And then the young man directly across the table—the father of three young children who came with his wife to donate—shared that he’s a veteran. His wife, too. She was by this time already giving blood. We thanked him for his service, which includes several deployments. I couldn’t help but think of the other vet, the brother gone.

This felt like one of those moments meant to be. Here a small group of people came together on a bitterly cold Minnesota winter evening to donate blood at the local Eagles Club. And by the time we all left, we felt a connection, bonding over tattoos and stories and a genuine care and appreciation for one another.

 

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get. But on this evening we got the choicest of chocolates. Without a cheat sheet. Without any planning or effort on our parts. Because sometimes life brings sweet surprises when we most need them.

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FYI: I welcome any chocolate, especially dark chocolate. Happy Valentine’s Day, dear readers! Make today the day you will reach out to someone, ask a question, listen to a story, offer support, show compassion and love.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

How a drive along a back road prompts thoughts about farming today February 12, 2020

 

I CALL IT THE BACK ROAD to Morristown, Rice County Road 15 south of Faribault and running west to Morristown. The more-traveled main route follows Minnesota State Highway 60.

 

 

But, I prefer the back way, which takes me past farm sites hugging the county road.

 

Looking across a snowy field along Rice County Road 15 near CR 45.

 

Here I feel immersed in the rural setting with less traffic, open land spreading wide under an equally wide sky.

 

 

I know some of the people who live along this road. They are salt-of-the-earth folks, hardworking, caring… Dairy farmers. Retired pig and crop farmer. A farmer who balances crop farming with a full-time job in town. Families raised on the land, with only one son among those I know along CR 15 continuing in farming. One son’s moved to Nashville, where he’s finding success as a professional oboist. I’m working on a story about him for a regional arts and entertainment magazine.

The times they are a changin’.

 

 

But then agriculture has always been evolving. I think back to my great grandparents and my grandparents who broke the land and farmed with horses in an especially labor-intensive way of life. And then machinery replaced horse power for my dad and his farmer brothers. And my middle brother, who no longer farms, saw even more advances in mechanization and technology. I barely recognize the farms of today.

 

 

I’d like to think, though, that those who still work the land do so because they love and value the land. In recent years I’ve observed a shift in attitudes toward a deepening respect of the soil, of using less chemicals (or even none), of adapting innovative erosion control practices, of protecting waterways…

 

 

I recognize the challenges of balancing the need to earn a living from the land, getting the highest yields possible, with decisions about farming practices. It’s not easy. Public perception and government regulations and weather and fluctuating markets add to the stress. It’s not easy being a farmer today. This is not our grandparents’ farm. Nor even our parents.

 

 

To those who choose to live on and work the land, I admire your stamina and determination. While I miss the peace and solitude of living in the country on land where the nearest neighbor lives more than a driveway width away, I realize I never would have made it as a farmer. I don’t have the guts or the fortitude or adaptability necessary to farm.

THOUGHTS?

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A look back at high collars in light of 2020 Oscars fashion February 11, 2020

Note the high stand-up collars in fashion in the 1930s (top row) in this photo taken of Kolacky Days queen portraits. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo January 2020.

 

LEATTA. EMMA. GLADYS. Leone. Josephine.

Cynthia Erivo.

If you watched the Oscars or have seen the movie “Harriet,” you recognize Erivo’s name. She was nominated for best actress. And she performed “Stand Up,” in the running for best original song, during Sunday evening’s star-studded awards night. She won neither.

Typically I don’t watch the Oscars. My knowledge of celebrities is minimal. I last saw a movie in the theater about 2 ½ years ago. One I walked out on last May and demanded a refund for doesn’t count. That said, I really want to see “Harriet,” a movie based on former slave and abolitionist Harriet Tubman.

Erivo and background gospel singers presented a moving and powerful performance of “Stand Up” during the Oscars. The singer/actress wore a shimmering gold gown with a high stand-up collar. And, as we all know, those glamorous gowns garner lots of attention. Even from me, someone who doesn’t much bother with fashion. Peek into my closet and you’ll find primarily jeans, tees and flannel shirts.

But the Oscars fashion interested me. And apparently my husband. “Remember those pictures of the Kolacky queens?” Randy asked Sunday evening as I commented on Erivo’s high collar dress.

“Huh?” I responded.

Randy suggested I review my photos of 1930s Kolacky Days queen portraits taken during a recent visit to the Montgomery Arts & Heritage Center. That would be in Minnesota. Not Alabama. So I did. And sure enough, there were Leatta, Emma, Gladys, Leone and Josephine wearing gowns, or maybe it’s capes, with high stand-up collars. Just like Cynthia Erivo some 90 years later.

TELL ME: Did you watch the Oscars? Any observations you would like to share on gowns past or present?

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

No day of rest on a snowy Sunday in Minnesota February 9, 2020

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A bank sign in Faribault flashes the weather late Saturday afternoon.

 

SATURDAY BROUGHT SUNSHINE and cold temps to Minnesota. Below zero in the morning, up to 20 in the afternoon. But that is manageable when the sun shines. Everything’s better under sunny skies in the depth of winter.

 

The grandkids, ages one and three, play hide-and-seek behind curtains for a short while until Grandma decided that probably wasn’t the best idea. (The parents were gone.)

 

We headed to the north metro to spend time with our eldest and her family, which includes our two darling grandchildren. I think everyone had the same idea to be out and about before the winter storm hit Saturday night. Roads were congested in areas and too many drivers wove in and out of traffic, not bothering to use their signals and cutting in too close. I always wonder, what’s the hurry that you must drive like this?

 

More snow to add to the piles. I took this shot from our driveway.

 

All of that aside, the promised snow arrived and we awoke to about eight inches on the ground Sunday morning. I was tempted to roll over, pull the covers tighter and snuggle in for more sleep when the alarm sounded at 6:45 a.m. But I didn’t.

 

A city of Faribault snowplow clears the street in front of my home.

 

I wondered if we would get out the driveway to make it to the 8 a.m. church service. But the arterial street past our house was already plowed so Randy needed only to gun it out our drive and then plow through the unplowed side street a short distance and we were on our way.

 

The beautiful snowy wooded hillside in our backyard.

 

Church was so empty that we all clumped together in front pews rather than sit in our regular spots. That is so un-Lutheran.

 

Randy starts down the driveway with the snowblower.

 

As any Minnesotan knows, the worst thing is to have the driveway all cleared and then the snowplow plows the end shut with a ridge of snow.

 

Making progress on clearing the driveway of snow.

 

Post worship service found Randy and me back home tackling snow removal—ours and that of a neighbor in her eighties. Randy maneuvers our Noah’s ark vintage snowblower while I shovel.

 

Our assorted shovels stacked in the garage.

 

Today I used all three shovels—the scoop shovel, plastic shovel and metal shovel. All serve a different purpose. Best for throwing. Best for pushing. Best for scraping. I’ve shoveled snow for enough decades to understand the importance of assorted tools.

 

Our driveway, clear of snow. Yeah!

 

Now I’m inside, feeling the ache of shoveling in my back, even if the snow was feather-light. But, hey, the sun is shining again and the snow has moved east into Wisconsin.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Documenting rural Minnesota February 6, 2020

 

I OFTEN WONDER, as I travel past farm sites in southern Minnesota, how these places will look in 50, even 20, years.

 

 

Will once grand barns still stand? Will farmhouses be abandoned? Will corporate ag operations completely replace family farms?

 

 

Already the evolution is well underway. Many barns no longer hold livestock, serving instead as storage sheds. Rural houses are not so much farmhouses as dwellings for those working off the farm to supplement their farm income.

 

 

Independent farmers either quit, expand or try to hang on for one more year. Some have become innovative—diversifying, organizing, working together to grow and sell local.

 

 

The rural landscape is changing, shaped by markets and weather and operating costs and government regulations, issues that have always affected farming. Technology, too, now factors into agriculture.

 

 

Some 40-plus years removed from the farm, I’ve witnessed the changes from afar. None of my five siblings stayed on the farm, although two work in ag fields. I no longer have a direct link to the land. And because of that, my children and grandchildren are losing that generational connection to farming, to a way of life. This saddens me. They prefer city over country.

 

 

And so I continue to photograph, documenting with my camera lens the places of rural Minnesota. Therein I present a visual history, a memory prompt and an expression of appreciation for the land which shaped me.

 

 

FYI: This Saturday, February 8, from 1 – 4 p.m., embrace and celebrate locally-grown and crafted during Family Day at the Faribault Winter Farmers’ Market. In addition to vendors, you’ll find hands-on art activities for kids, games, healthy recipes and more. The market is located inside the Paradise Center for the Arts along Central Avenue in the heart of historic downtown Faribault.

These photos were taken last Saturday along Minnesota State Highway 21 on my way to Montgomery.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

How a small Minnesota town celebrates the arts & its Czech heritage February 4, 2020

The Montgomery Arts & Heritage Center in small town Minnesota.

 

IN THE HEART OF CZECH COUNTRY, in the small southern Minnesota community of Montgomery, population 3,000, the arts thrive.

 

Photographed in the arts center gift shop.

 

That’s a testament to the devotion of those who care about the arts and about preserving Czech culture and heritage in this self-proclaimed Kolacky Capital of the World. (Kolacky are a Czech pastry.)

 

Beautiful Hilltop Hall with the arts center on the right and a floral and gift shop on the left. A performing arts space is located on the second floor.

 

In a section of historic Hilltop Hall—yes, appropriately named for its hilltop location in the heart of downtown—the Montgomery Arts & Heritage Center centers the arts. I love this place, where I’ve attended theatrical performances and viewed exhibits, most recently vintage photos of western U.S. Native Americans photographed by Edward S. Curtis.

 

The Edward Curtis exhibit in the foreground and the gift shop in the back.

 

Czech glassware in the gift shop.

 

After touring that exhibit, I walked toward the back of the narrow room to the gift shop which features Czech, handcrafted and other goods.

 

Portraits of past Masopust kings in Montgomery.

 

There I also spotted portraits of Masopust kings, young men crowned at the community’s annual Czech Mardi Gras. That celebration is set for noon – 5 p.m. Sunday, February 23, at American Legion Post 79 and includes a costume ball, polka music, silent auction and Czech food.

In April, the Legion hosts an Escape Room Experience fundraiser for the Arts & Heritage Center through Tri-City United Community Ed.

I love how people in small towns work together and support one another. At different times from March into May, the arts center will exhibit the artwork of local elementary, middle and high school students.

The arts center is also honoring Montgomery’s rural-ness with a “Celebration of Farmers and Agriculture” exhibit of art at local businesses from mid-May to the end of October. Work from artists, in any 2D or 3D medium, is being sought with a March 1 registration deadline. To entice entrants, there’s a top prize of $1,000. That’s substantial. Prizes will be awarded during Kolacky Days weekend July 24-26.

 

A sampling of Kolacky Days queen portraits.

 

Jane shows me a group photo of Kolacky Days queens.

 

Czech words I inquired about.

 

As I meandered through the Arts & Heritage Center, I noticed portraits of Kolacky Days queens rimming the room near the ceiling. Jane, volunteering her time to staff the center on the day of my visit, pulled down a group photo of past queens riding together on a Kolacky Days float. She’s of Czech heritage. But she couldn’t translate a posting of Czech words I spotted. Not that I, of German heritage, could translate German words, even if I studied German for six years. I understand.

 

Volunteer Jane stationed near the front door.

 

Jane presented a warm welcome to this exceptional small town Minnesota center for the arts and preservation of the community’s Czech heritage. I encourage you to visit Montgomery. Stop at the Arts & Heritage Center, walk through the main business district, shop the small shops, grab a bite to eat, maybe even a beer at the local brewery. There’s so much to appreciate about Montgomery. (Keep in mind that this is a small town and places are open limited hours.)

 

Quilt art honoring Montgomery’s Czech heritage hangs in the gift shop.

 

This community is the focus of my monthly Through a SoMinn Lens photo essay, publishing soon in Southern Minn Scene magazine.

 

 

FYI: The Montgomery Arts & Heritage Center is open from 2-5 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays and from 9 a.m. – noon on Saturdays. It is supported primarily by memberships, fundraisers and donations. Visit the center’s Facebook page for more info on events mentioned in this post.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Oh, glorious Sunday sunshine in southern Minnesota February 3, 2020

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A view of the Cannon River dam, river and surrounding area around Father Slevin and North Alexander Parks in Faribault, on Sunday afternoon. Portions of the river are open and sections iced-over.

 

BLUE STRETCHED WIDE AND FILTERED across the sky accompanied by bright sunshine melting snow and ice, warming backs, dancing across open water.

 

Looking the other direction down the Cannon River from the dam walkway toward the Second Avenue bridge.

 

This weekend brought a welcome end to a nearly 10-day streak of grey skies here in southern Minnesota. And it was glorious.

 

Trees reflect in an open section of the Cannon River next to a frozen section.

 

In multiple conversations, I listened to Minnesotans praise the change in weather, thankful for a respite from winter. I added my own words of gratitude. And, like most everyone, I felt the urgent need to get outdoors, to take in the sunshine we’ve craved. Missed.

 

A lone fisherman angles along the banks of the Cannon River Sunday afternoon.

 

Sunday afternoon, with the temp at 40 degrees, Randy and I followed the recreational trail along the banks of the Cannon River in North Alexander Park. It’s a favorite scenic walking spot in Faribault with no worry of packed ice or snow.

 

Just across the street, the Faribault Public Schools’ football stadium.

 

Occasionally I paused to take photos, my fingers quickly chilling in temps that felt more like 30 degrees given the 15 mph wind. Only when we curved into the shelter of evergreen trees did the cutting wind cease.

 

Photographed in the Ace Hardware parking lot, on our way to North Alexander Park, a woman pushing a stroller.

 

Fishing in the Cannon River on February 2, 2020.

 

From a distance, I observed this jogger attired in shorts as he ran along Second Avenue.

 

Everywhere, people were out and about—fishing from the shore of the Cannon, walking the trail, pushing babies in strollers, jogging (in shorts), pedaling on a fat tire bike, chipping ice from driveways, walking dogs…

 

Looking toward the dam, the shelter in Father Slevin Park and the Faribault Woolen Mill in the distance.

 

Water rushes over the dam.

 

Geese walk across the ice near the Woolen Mill dam.

 

And on the river, water churned over the dam, geese walked on ice and ducks swam in open water.

 

Suspended from a light post along Second Avenue, a relatively new banner defines this as Faribault’s Mill District as part of a branding campaign by the Faribault Area Chamber of Commerce & Tourism.

 

Photographed from the riverside trail, the Second Avenue bridge and Mill District banner.

 

The historic Faribault Woolen Mill (right), with its signature smokestack, located along the banks of the Cannon River.

 

Nearby, vehicles dodged ponding water on busy Second Avenue in this area now bannered as the Mill District. The historic Faribault Woolen Mill sits here along the Cannon.

I love this spot, especially on a lovely sunshine-filled Sunday afternoon in February.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling