Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Gabitaweegama & the Faribault connection September 29, 2021

Two weeks ago, leaves were already changing color at Mission Park. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

I NEVER EXPECTED that my search for information about Mission Park in Mission Township in the central Minnesota lakes region would connect to Faribault. But it did. To my church, Trinity Lutheran.

Among the many mushrooms I discovered in the woods at Mission Park. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

But let’s back up a minute. As I read the township history, I noted that Mission Township is named after a mission founded there among the Ojibwe in 1857 by the “Rev. Ottmar Cloetter,” a pastor with the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod.

Even brown oak leaves hold beauty. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

Almost immediately I questioned the spelling of the surname as “Cloetter.” The Rev. O.H. (Ottomar Helmut) Cloeter served as pastor at Trinity from 1957-1978. The name similarities between the Faribault pastor and the missionary noted in the township history gave me reason to pause. And investigate.

More mushrooms growing in the woods. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

That led me to the Minnesota Digital Library and a 1931 letter from O. Cloeter of Vernon Center. He was the son of the pastor who moved from Michigan to start a mission among the Ojibwe. Located 14 miles north of current-day Brainerd, the mission station was called Gabitaweegama. That means “parallel waters,” denoting the mission’s location on a strip of land between the Mississippi River and Mission Creek. Ernst Ottmar Cloeter (not Cloetter) settled there with his young family in a newly-built log cabin. During the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, Crossing-the-Sky, a leader of the Gull and Rabbit Lake Ojibwe, advised Cloeter and his family to leave (presumably for their safety). The mission station was destroyed and Cloeter relocated to Crow Wing.

Another oak changing color at Mission Park. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

Six generations of Cloeter men would go on to become pastors, including O.H. Cloeter—great grandson of the long ago missionary. The younger Cloeter ended his ministry at Trinity in Faribault. I found it interesting that his family’s pastoral history traces back to Mission Township and to Mission Park, a park I appreciate for its quiet, wooded natural beauty. Now I also value the park for its sacred and historical connection.

Birch trees populate the northwoods, including at Mission Park. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

When I next walk the trails of Mission Park, I will consider the Ojibwe and how some perhaps resented the intrusion of a white missionary into their culture and lives while others embraced the newcomers. Here, among the woods and rivers and lakes, the Ojibwe hunted for deer, gathered berries, crafted birch bark in to canoes, raised their families… They lived off and of the land that would become Minnesota.

A pinecone dropped upright onto a path at Mission Park. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

And I’ll consider, too, how the Rev. Ernst Ottmar Cloeter settled here in the year before Minnesota became a state with expectations of connecting with these Native Peoples. It’s interesting how history and people intertwine. How choices and actions connect us, even after 164 years.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling