Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Small towns, through the lenses of nostalgia & possibilities March 17, 2021

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 5:00 AM
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My uncle’s gas station with the fuel delivery truck parked by The Old Log Cabin. Photo from Envisioning a Century, Vesta, 1900-2000. The Miland station and the restaurant across Highway 19 in Vesta no longer exist. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

GROWING UP IN SMALL TOWN Minnesota in the 60s and 70s, I saw local businesses thriving. There were two hardware stores, two grocery stores, a lumberyard, feed mill, grain elevator, bank, restaurants, corner bar, barbershop, several service stations, post office and more in my hometown of Vesta, population 365. But today, the one-block Main Street stands mostly empty, pocked by vacant lots from long-ago torn down buildings. A few businesses remain. The elementary school closed decades ago.

Downtown Belview, Minnesota, photographed last Saturday, March 13, 2021.

In Belview seven miles to the north and east, the story repeats. I recall driving to Belview with my grandma in the early 1970s to shop for fabric so I could sew dresses for her. That dry goods store is long gone. Belview has, like most rural communities, experienced the closure of many businesses as locals headed to regional shopping hubs to shop at Big Box stores and also embraced online shopping.

An historic anchor building in downtown Redwood Falls. Sward Kemp Snyder Drug recently moved out of downtown to the new hospital and clinic on the east edge of Redwood.

Likewise, Redwood Falls, to the east of Belview along Minnesota State Highway 19, has changed considerably. That Redwood County seat and the Lyon County seat of Marshall were our family’s go-to larger towns to shop for clothes, shoes and other necessities when I was growing up on the prairie. Last Saturday when Randy and I stopped in downtown Redwood, I found the streets nearly empty and few businesses open. Nothing like the bustling downtown I remember.

Vintage Vinyl, a newly-opened business in the heart of Redwood Falls.

I can sit here and write about this with nostalgia and sadness, wishing these rural communities remained self-sufficient. But wishes are not reality. And wishing does not change things. Action does.

An overview of Vintage Vinyl, packed with albums plus gaming and trading cards, books, video games, DVDs and VHSs, figurines and more. The tables provide a place for folks to play checkers, etc., and/or just hang out.
Vinyl galore…in all musical genres.
Randy files through vinyl selections.

While in Redwood Falls, I met a young man, Nate Rohlik, who recently opened Vintage Vinyl, Toys & Games. He’s passionate about improving his community, about providing a place for young people to gather, about growing opportunities.

Looking for a poster? You’ll find them in Nate’s shop.
I spotted this Buddy Holly album leaning against the wall on the floor.
In the basement, an array of merchandise.

He’s friendly, outgoing, welcoming. Everything you want in a shopkeeper. But Nate also carries a sense of responsibility, it seems. He recently-returned to his home area after a stint with the military that took him around the world. He could have settled elsewhere. But he chose to return to his roots. (He graduated from nearby Wabasso High School, my alma mater, in 2004.) That says something.

Endless musical options…

We didn’t chat all that long. But my brief conversation with Nate gives me hope. Hope that his positive attitude, his efforts—including purchasing two arcade games—and his drive will ignite a fire of possibilities.

PLEASE CHECK BACK to read my thoughts on small towns and what draws me to them.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

16 Responses to “Small towns, through the lenses of nostalgia & possibilities”

  1. Ruth Says:

    You capture the American reality. In your writing snd photographs. Hooray for Nate! Love all that vinyl and his spirit. Thanks for taking us on your journey.

  2. I could spend hours in a place like that!

  3. Washe Koda Says:

    🙂 thanks for sharing Audrey. Makes my wonder why Grandpa used to say ‘don’t blink or you’ll miss it while on trips through rural Minnesota’ 😉

  4. valeriebollinger Says:

    Good for Nate for opening Vintage Vinyl in his hometown. I hope the shop is successful!

  5. I know Colin would love that Vintage Vinyl shop! We might have to take a road trip!

    • He and Randy both love vinyl. Be sure to call Nate before heading to Vintage Vinyl to assure he’s open. Hopefull Treasures in Hope is also another great source for vinyl. That’s south of Owatonna along I-35. Again, call before you go.

  6. Charles P Ziegler Says:

    Thanks for this! I pre-date you by at least a decade. As I’ve written to you before, during many summers in the ’50s and ’60s my family would come out from New Jersey to stay at my grandfather’s farm in Sheridan Township, which is near Belview, where one of my favorite aunts lived. Your articles bring back many memories of these visits. It is interesting to see how these small towns are doing. I think that the apparent decline of these small and even medium-size towns is a result of complex factors. The transition from the small family farm to larger farms consolidated from these smaller farms (my grandfather’s farm was 240 acres) is certainly one of them, along with the internet, which as you have noted makes shopping easier and obviates the need for many of the small businesses that have closed. In many respects, the small towns in the area have lost their economic purpose. But with the pandemic showing that much of modern work can be done from home, many businesses, both large and small, may decentralize, permitting those who prefer a rural life style (not me!) to move back. So stay tuned; the best may be yet to come for these small towns!

    • Charles, I appreciate your insights. I agree this is a complex topic. Much has changed in the decades since I left the farm. And much has changed in the past year. So, yes, perhaps more people may move to rural areas. That said, good internet access can be an issue in rural parts.

      I have family from New Jersey who also came to our farm every summer or every other summer.

  7. LISA A SANDBERG Says:

    Thanks for the nostalgic post…I am so grateful that we had the small-town upbringing that you describe so poignantly! I love the image of you sewing dresses for your grandma…that is a special memory! We could probably compare notes for hours if we ever got together! Coffee at the Viking Cafe in Fergus? Yours, Lisa

  8. RWare Says:

    Lots of memories of the Sward Kemp building for me. My orthodontist, Dr. Ingles was in the upstairs. For the past couple of years I’ve stopped into the drug store on my way though. They must have moved locations since last Summer or Fall. RWF had a wonderful downtown at one time, now it’s all on the “strip”. 😦

    • Ryan, I remember downtown Redwood Falls as you do. Busy. Thriving. “The place” to shop. Now the downtown is mostly vacant. And, yes, the pharmacy relocated upon the construction of a new hospital/clinic. My dentist was the same as yours, up that long long flight of stairs.


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