HOW DO YOU DEFINE a small town?
For some, it’s a community to pass by or through en route to wherever.
For others, it’s an occasional destination to visit extended family.
But for some of us, it’s the place of our roots.
Randy and I both grew up on dairy and crop farms near small towns—him near Buckman in central Minnesota and me just outside Vesta in southwestern Minnesota. Those communities, once thriving with elementary schools and many businesses, are no longer hubs of local commerce or education. Much has changed since we each left our respective rural towns in 1974.
Yet, the core of our hometowns, with populations under 300 and 145 miles apart, remains unchanged. Community spirit and neighborliness and a certain connection to place remain particularly strong. Often, generations of families live within miles of each other. Churches center these towns, too, as do bars, both community gathering spots.
It’s not often now that either of us returns to our hometowns. The farms we grew up on are no longer in the family, a loss I feel deeply. I return only for funerals and the annual family reunion. Only occasionally do we divert to Buckman so we can visit the gravesites of Randy’s mom and brother, Brian.
We did just that this past fall after spending time at a family member’s guest lake cabin in the Brainerd Lakes area. Buckman lies some 40 miles to the south of Brainerd. We drove through Pierz, where Randy attended junior and senior high schools, on our way to his hometown.
Some seven miles later, we pulled off Minnesota State Highway 25, which slices through Buckman, and turned into St. Michael’s Cemetery. I always feel such a sense of sadness upon visiting my mother-in-law’s gravesite. She died way too young at age 59, just months before her grandson, our son, was born.
Tragedies, like those of the Dehler family, are written upon tombstones in this cemetery landmarked by a towering stone cross.
Across the street, Family Memorial Park—with a mini playground, picnic tables and gazebo—honors 36-year-old Suzette Dehler and her children, Gerald, 15, Christopher, 14, and Tammi, 8. They died in a car-train accident in July 1986.
On this autumn afternoon, we picnicked there, behind Sev’s Food & Liquor and across the street from the bus garage. A dog barked at the neighboring house, breaking the small town silence.
To the north, massive grain bins define this as an agricultural community.
And to the west, the steeple of St. Michael’s Catholic Church rises above Buckman. It’s a beautiful church, recently refurbished, and an integral part of this town. Randy worshiped here with classmates from St. Michael’s Parochial School and with his parents and siblings. He served as an altar boy, too. We mourned his mom here and a few years later he stood as best man when his dad remarried. I photographed the wedding.
On this day, I carried my camera inside again, this time to document the sanctuary. I feel like a foreigner inside Catholic churches, which are typically massive and ornate, so different from the simple Lutheran churches of my upbringing.
Check back as I take you inside St. Michael’s in a series of posts focusing solely on this church. The art inside will, I expect, impress you. And remind you that, even in the smallest of towns, treasures await our discovery.
Upcoming posts will also feature more photos from Buckman and several from neighboring Pierz.
© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling
Very nice article and photos! I grew up in Buckman just across the field from Randy. My husband and I were married in that Buckman church. I tipped back a few over the years at the local Buckman bars. Such great memories. I now work with your Brother Brad and we are friends. I met you years ago at your Dad’s wake. Such a small world we live in. My husband grew up in New Ulm and we read your article from a while ago on Annie Mary Twente. Her grave was already gone, but he remembers it there when he was in HS. Well done! Joan Quade
Joan, thank you. Yes, I certainly do remember you and your association with my youngest brother. It certainly is a small world.
Randy has told me many stories about good times in Buckman. It was a different time back in the day. I have more photos to share, so please check back. If you haven’t been inside St. Michael’s since it was restored, you will be amazed. It was stunning before, but even more so now. I was thankful when we found the doors unlocked and were able to explore. Randy pointed out, however, that plenty of security cameras were “watching.”
We had friends whose daughter and family farmed in Pierz. We’ve never been to see the town.
The famous Thielen’s Meat Market is based in Pierz. We just drove through the town. Next trip we will have to drive around.
We stopped in Buckman this summer after meeting my parents in Little Falls to drop the kids off, as they were all going to the lake together. Jason had never been to Buckman, so we spent lots of time at the cemetery, went into St. Michaels, and drove out to the old farm site. Of course, I have no memory of St. Michael’s before the renovations. We also stopped at Thielen’s in Pierz.
Another small town site: Selling sweet corn out of the back of the truck on the street in front of the church. Janson Sweet Corn is the some of the best we’ve ever had. They also have a site in Onamia which is conveniently in route to Cross Lake. We may have to pull a bag out of the freezer for dinner tonight.
I’m so glad you and Jason had this opportunity to tour St. Michael’s, spend time at the cemetery and drive past the former Helbling farm.
I remember the sweet corn truck parked in front of the church and have a photo some place in my archives, perhaps from the prior year. Enjoy your memories and corn this evening.
Small towns are a favorite of mine Thank you for taking me to Buckman!
You are welcome. I’ll take you back to Buckman for a few more pix once I finish my series on St. Michael’s.
What a cute little town with a beautiful church. How heartbreaking to loose an entire family in one accident
I know you understand the heartbreak, having lost your dear sister.
I remember White Farm Machinery. We had a dealer in Westbrook that sold White and Oliver. Always strange to me that White tractors were really silver in color. But at the time Case was white in color not to mention the “too sexy” Gleaner which were galvanized. It also looks like Walnut Grove and Buckner shopped at the same store for water towers.
Hope you are well. I plan to get out and shoot some photos this spring and summer.
It’s good to hear from you, Ryan. I look forward to seeing your photos. My brother Doug was a partsman at Klasse. Is that the dealer you are referencing?
Very nice article. My grandmother was a Janson from Buckman. She was born there in 1888. She used to tell us stories of when she was younger. Large family. My mom is 90 and talks of all the cousins she had. I would like to visit there sometime.
I’ll ask Randy if he knows the Janson name. I didn’t grow up in Buckman, so wouldn’t know. And, yes, most of the families are large given they are of the Catholic faith.
Thank you for your reply. Always fun to learn more about where families come from.
Randy is familiar with the Janson name. A family of all boys, as he recalls.