Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

From Faribault: When graffiti overtakes nature & history May 6, 2021

A view of the Straight River and the railroad bridge crossing it, photographed from the footbridge. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

IF NOT FOR THE OFFENSIVE GRAFFITI, the natural setting would be particularly inviting. But obscene words and disturbing messages kept me from fully enjoying the trail leading from Faribault’s Teepee Tonka Park into River Bend Nature Center.

Along the trail from Teepee Tonka Park into River Bend Nature Center, I saw trees tagged with graffiti. Here I’m approaching the footbridge crossing the Straight River. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

Even trees were tagged with paint. That’s a first.

Randy looks over the Straight River. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

On the footbridge which spans the Straight River, I found the most disturbing of accusations—J**** killed my mother. That shifted my already on-alert mode to what the h*** is going on in these woods? I read derogatory comments about Faribault. And I thought, why do those who hate this community so much stay here?

This marker on one end of the bridge remains unmarred. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

I tried to overlook all that awful graffiti, but it was just too much to dismiss. I wouldn’t bring a child here, not one who can read anyway.

I expect there’s a story behind this beautiful railroad bridge over the Straight River. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

Yet, there’s much to see and appreciate here, if you look beyond the tagging, the offensive messages. Nature and history intertwine, leaving me with more questions than answers.

I felt tempted to climb these stairs, but didn’t have the energy. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

A lengthy stairway climbs a hillside. Slabs of limestone and chunks of concrete—perhaps foundations of long ago buildings—cling to steep banks.

Graffiti mars the tunnel entrance. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

And then there’s the tunnel. The 442-foot-long tunnel, which I refused to enter. One look at the graffiti at the entry, especially the rat art, and I knew, no way, would I walk through that former root cellar. So I photographed that space, editing out the obscenities (which proved nearly impossible).

A sign above the tunnel details its history. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

And I photographed the sign above, which summarizes the history of this 1937 Works Progress Administration project. Workers hand dug the tunnel with picks, hauling the dirt and rocks away with wheelbarrows. Once complete, the tunnel served as a root cellar for the Minnesota School and Colony (later known as The Faribault State School and Hospital). The Teepee Tonka Tunnel once held 25-30 carloads of vegetables to feed the 2,300 residents and 350 employees. Most of those potatoes, carrots, beets, onions and cabbage were grown on the school farm.

Another snippet of the tunnel graffiti. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

Now the history, the hard work, the humanity were dishonored by those who use this as a canvas for words and art that shouldn’t be here.

Trees tower over the trail. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

All of this saddened me as I retraced my steps, watched as a young man walked along the railroad tracks, backpack strapped on, county music blaring. This should be a place of peace. Not only noise-wise, but also mentally. I pictured picnic tables near a footbridge devoid of menacing messages. I pictured a beautiful natural setting where I could bring my grandchildren. But, in reality, I understood that those tables would only be defaced, maybe even burned.

The beautiful Straight River, which winds past Teepee Tonka Park and River Bend Nature Center. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

This could be so much. A respite. Water and woods converging. River flowing with history. Images of men hard at work tunneling into a 60-foot high hill. I could envision all of that…the possibilities beyond that which I’d seen.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


18 Responses to “From Faribault: When graffiti overtakes nature & history”

  1. It saddens me to see the offense to such a beautiful, natural place that had an interesting history too. I married into the maternal side of the DeBourgh’s and have not seen one of their bridges so marked up. This park certainly needs some much needed clean up. I can see the beauty though. Happy Exploring 🙂

  2. So sad, what is done by some to deface the beauty around us. The history of that tunnel is fascinating! Lovely photos, Audrey. ❤

  3. Norma Says:

    I share your disgust for graffiti, Audrey. We have it here also. Signs that are posted along freeways are also spray painted. Some of the towns are having murals painted on old buildings , and these are really spectacular. I just don’t understand the mentality of those that deface public places..

  4. Sandra Says:

    Didn’t realize there was another “steps” other than the iron ones on Ravine to SMH and the Deaf School. I’ve never been in that famous tunnel, others have with wild stories and pictures, it also suffers from abuse and definitely not inviting. The graffiti mentality I really don’t understand…anywhere, much less natural beauty. Seems railroad trestles are so inviting. There’s more? On trees or walks? I can see why you hope for more in that park setting, so much is being done in other parks. I don’t remember Teepee Tonka being our first stop. Thank heavens for River Bend. I mapped where I think you were, now that the prison has so much property. Absolutely need to get to Donahue’s!

    • The path I took into River Bend, leading to the tunnel, starts near the archery range in Teepee Tonka Park. Enjoy your trip to Faribault. And, yes, Donahue’s Greenhouse and River Bend are wonderful Faribault assets.

  5. Valerie Says:

    I’m not sure where Teepee Tonka park is…we’ll have to explore it sometime. Too bad for the graffiti!

  6. Shelly Miller Says:

    Hi Audrey, Just read your article….. Your words. Flow so eloquently… And describe the beauty yet the destruction of a place we are so bless to have. Obviously many people young or old alike some how don’t seem to have respect for such history or beauty in their life…. For whatever reason “they feel” defacing such beauty tells a bit of their story. Thank you. Ireally enjoyed this❤

  7. Lloyd Pittman Says:

    My Dad worked on that tunnel. After that it was WPA. No jobs. He finally got work in Rosemount at the ammo plant. He rode there with four other men in Clem’s car. He had the A ration card for gas. He put me in charge of our Victory garden. He showed me how to clean bullheads, sold them to Luke’s grocery store, 25 cents for a dozen.

    • Lloyd, thank you for sharing your dad’s involvement in construction of the Teepee Tonka Tunnel. Stories like these are so important to hear. I enjoyed reading about your efforts during this time also. Thank you for commenting and sharing all of this.

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