Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Appreciating, & branding of, small towns March 18, 2021

Belview, located in southwestern Minnesota, some seven miles from my hometown of Vesta.

FOR THOSE OF YOU who’ve followed my Minnesota Prairie Roots blog for awhile, you understand that I value small towns. They are a favorite destination, an escape of sorts back to my rural prairie roots. To a less-populated place, typically rooted in agriculture.

The grain complex in unincorporated Bixby in Aurora Township in Steele County, MN, reflects in the passenger side mirror.

That said, I recognize that my definition of a “small town” may differ from yours. I view small towns as communities with populations of several thousand or less. I would not, for example, consider my city of Faribault to be small. Others would given its population of around 24,000.

A favorite stop (when it’s open) is Rainbow Antiques, Crafts & Junque in Belview. Other attractions in Belview include the historic Odeon Hall, Rock Dell Lutheran Church, rural Belview, and Grandview Valley Winery, to the north of town. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo August 2011.

What draws me to small towns, to photograph and write about them, beyond my desire to reconnect with rural places and share my finds?

I love this kitschy bar stool atop the City & Country Tavern roof overhang in Morgan in southwestern MN.

It’s discovering nuances of character. It’s connecting with people. It’s the architecture and oddities and so much more. Exploring small towns is like taking a basic sentence and enhancing the main subject with adjectives.

This prairie chicken statue along Interstate 94 in western Minnesota celebrates the real prairie chickens which reside in the Rothsay area. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo May 2013.

Yet, I realize not everyone appreciates language like I do. All too often, small towns are bypassed or driven through—seemingly not a place that would attract visitors. But I am here to tell you they are worth the detour off the interstate, the destination for a day trip, the stopping on Main Street.

Popular Franke’s Bakery anchors a corner in downtown Montgomery, MN. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo August 2020.

Montgomery, Minnesota, for example, is one of my favorite nearby small towns. Why? I love going to Franke’s Bakery, a staple in this community for 100-plus years. The bakery specializes in Czech treats, in this self-proclaimed Kolacky Capital of the World. Across the street from the bakery, a mural tells the history of this town. Aged buildings line the main business district, with home-grown shops and eateries and bars. The adjectives enhancing the main subject.

The Montgomery Arts & Heritage Center, right, and Posy Floral, left, along First Street North on the north end of downtown Montgomery, MN. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo August 2020.

The Montgomery Arts and Cultural Heritage Center and Montgomery Brewing also draw me to this Le Sueur County community. And the signs and architecture.

The good folks of Montgomery have branded their community, tapping into their heritage and then building on that to create a place that attracts visitors. I think potential exists in every small town to do the same. And it starts with recognizing the strengths, the uniqueness, of a community. I know that requires time, money and effort. But, oh, the possibilities.

The community of New Ulm is home to many home-grown restaurants, like the Ulmer Cafe.

I, for one, love small town bakeries, antique shops, thrift stores, art centers and home-grown cafes with meal offerings that are crafted by hand, not pulled from a freezer and heated. I recently saw a sign for Beef Commercials in New Ulm. I haven’t eaten one—roast beef layered between slices of white bread, topped with a dollop of mashed potatoes and smothered in gravy—for years. Had it been meal time and not a pandemic, I may have stopped to indulge in nostalgia.

New Ulm, population 13,500, is not exactly small town by my definition, but it’s definitely a city that excels in attracting visitors via branding built on its German heritage.

A thriving grocery store in small town Ellendale, MN.

Now I know every community can’t tap into heritage like New Ulm and Montgomery. But, each place truly possesses potential to attract visitors. In Ellendale, for example, the award-winning Steve’s Meat Market draws meat lovers. I am partial to Lerberg’s Foods and its worn wooden floor, narrow aisles and aged moose head looming over cans of stacked corn.

Outside the local hardware store in the downtown main business district, this heart art shows pride, marketing savvy and identity in Blooming Prairie. This small town is located in southern Steele County, south of Owatonna.

I delight in such discoveries. Kitsch. Identity. A strong sense of place and pride. I hope that, by sharing my thoughts and photos, you, too, will view small towns through a lens of appreciation.

TELL ME: Have you discovered a small town that you just love. I’d like to hear.

PLEASE CHECK BACK as I expand on this post with more photos from some of the communities featured here.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


18 Responses to “Appreciating, & branding of, small towns”

  1. valeriebollinger Says:

    I do enjoy visiting small towns through your lens and words…I like all the places you mention…bakeries, meat markets, antique stores, hardware stores, etc. I do like small towns but I don’t have one I keep returning to.

  2. I love New Ulm! Delicious German restaurants (and the statue of Herman the German!) and the home of Wanda Gag! And Colin likes the brewery! I’d like to spend more time there.

  3. I have a few favorite small towns that stretch across the U.S. I love their uniqueness – be it painted oranges to artistic dolphin statues to being near wine country with beautiful views of the ocean to the local ma and pa shops (i.e., bakeries, meat markets, hardware stores, etc.). I live in an area with 3.1 million and call home in a small hamlet of that area of around 36,000, which swells with Spring Training (Go! Jays, Phillies, Rays, & Yankees), Spring Breakers and those looking for warmer weather for a few months out of the year. I am a little bit gypsy with a twist of roots grounding me where I call home for the time being 🙂 Happy Day – Enjoy!

  4. BERNADETTE Thomasy Says:

    Thank you for the trip back to Bixby, Ellendale and Blooming Prairie. Those little towns were part of our growing up years since our farm was located just three miles from Bixby. I don’t think we appreciated the towns then; they were too ordinary to be interesting to teenagers. But now as retirees, whenever we go back to visit family, we love to take a drive to those places, amazed at how fascinating the meat market, the antique store and the vintage grocery store have become. Love your small town treks.

    • Bernadette, I feel the same. We didn’t appreciate small towns when living near them. But now we view them through a different lens.

      I’ll have more photos coming from those Steele County communities so familiar to you.

  5. Charles P Ziegler Says:

    Thanks for the photos of Belview, where one of my aunts lived. It is only a few miles from the farm where my father’s family was born and raise. Indeed, I remember seeing the Belview water tower from the grove at that farm. Seaforth is another town that you have posted about, but other postings about it would be of great interest to me. I visited Seaforth many times as a youngster when my New Jersey family went to Minnesota for summer visits. My great uncle had a barber shop in Seaforth. I recall my mother telling me that I had said that Seaforth looked like a “cowboy town. I also remember that on cetain nights they would show movies outside in one of the main streets.

    • A “cowboy town.” What an interesting word choice. But I suppose it could seem that way to a young lad back in the day.

      I haven’t been to Seaforth in awhile. In fact, I don’t get to southwestern MN all that often any more. You can be assured that whenever I visit, I have my camera with me.

  6. I share your love of small towns and smaller communities. I have recently discovered that there is a Penelope, Texas! Populations about 200. I’m going to see it soon to explore! I will keep you posted. Nice post, Audrey. ❤

  7. Jackie Hemmer Says:

    Small towns are the best, when Rick and I are out for a drive I always say, “lets hit the small towns”, he happily navigates me 🙂 I learned something new from your post today…I never knew that there was something called a Prairie Chicken, now I do 🙂

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