IN THEORY, THE PLAN seemed a good one. Randy and I would hike in a nearby state park on February 19, the first of four “free entry” days to Minnesota’s 75 state parks and recreation areas.
Mid Saturday morning, we packed sandwiches, fruit, granola bars and almonds for a picnic lunch, although we would eat in the comfort and warmth of our van. Temps in the 20s do not allow for outdoor dining.
Originally we intended to drive to Carley State Park south of Plainview. It’s a park we have not visited. But part way there, I suggested we wait. A description of Carley’s Whitewater River-hugging Wildflower Trail and Virginia bluebells carpeting the forest floor in May prompted the change in plans.
Instead, we aimed for Rice Lake State Park some eight miles east of Owatonna. We’ve previously been there, although not in winter. Following back paved county and gravel roads, I already envisioned hiking the park’s trails along frozen Rice Lake. I imagined the quiet of the woods, the beauty of the snow-covered landscape. Such were my expectations. I also felt excited to participate in the Rice Lake State Park Challenge, a special free entry day event that involved finding passwords to claim a possible prize.
When we pulled into the park, I checked in at the park office for a map and the challenge entry form. As I was about to leave, the park staffer warned, “Be careful, the trails are icy.” I would soon discover for myself just how right she was in that assessment.
The snow-packed, icy parking lot offered the first clue to conditions. I carefully stepped from the van, draped my camera strap around my neck and aimed toward the lakeside trail. Not even part way there, I was already grasping Randy’s arm. As someone who’s broken her right shoulder and left wrist in falls (the last requiring surgery), I have no desire to fall and break a third bone. Note that neither occurred in winter but rather in May and June and involved a missed step inside a hospital and a rain-slicked wooden step in a friend’s backyard.
At the beginning of the trail at Rice Lake State Park, I paused, observed and assessed that, yes, the trail was, indeed, icy. But I was willing to try, hoping conditions would improve. They didn’t. Soon Randy and I found ourselves crunching through the snow aside the trail rather than traversing the ice-packed path. Not even 20 feet in, Randy advised that perhaps we best turn around. I agreed.
Disappointment filled my thoughts. I didn’t realize how much I had anticipated this time in nature, in the woods, by the lake. And now…plans would pivot. We realized conditions would likely be the same at other state parks. So we headed west to Owatonna for that picnic lunch and more.
TELL ME: If you live in southern Minnesota, where can I find clear trails for winter hiking? If you live elsewhere, where do you like to hike this time of year?
FYI: Minnesota has three more upcoming “free entry” to state parks and recreation areas in 2022. Those dates are April 23, June 11 and November 25. I highly-recommend a warm weather hike in Rice Lake State Park. It’s especially peaceful.
YESTERDAY I PULLED A SPIRAL-BOUND family genealogy book from an upstairs closet. Compiled in 1993 by my sister-in-law Vivian, the book details the families of Alfred Helbling and Rosa Schaner Knoll Helbling. For someone like me who married into the Helbling family, it takes effort to understand the information therein, especially with second marriages (due to deaths) and stepchildren.
But I’m clear on one fact—the Helbling ancestors are considered “Germans from Russia.” As the family tree shows, the Helblings trace their roots back to Wingen, Alsace in the Rhine River Plain. Like many Germans, they left their homeland for Russia when Russian Czarina Catherine the Great (a former German princess) promised free farmland and more to immigrants. My husband Randy’s great great great great grandfather and his family were among the founding fathers of the Catholic colony of Speier in 1809. That’s in the southern area of current day Ukraine near the Black Sea port city of Odessa.
So now you understand why I pulled that family genealogy book from the closet. The unfolding invasion of Ukraine (including in Odessa) resonates with me in a way that is personal. This land, now under attack by the Russian military, was once home to the Helbling family. They arrived in this area with hopes and dreams.
As often happens in history, leadership and policies change. That prompted Randy’s great grandparents, Russian-born Valentine and Emina Helbling, to emigrate to the U.S. from Russia. They arrived in Mandan, North Dakota in May 1893. Accompanying them were their three sons, including 5-year-old Alfred, Randy’s grandpa.
I’m always amazed at the generational closeness of my husband to his family’s homeland. Mine is a generation farther removed (from Germany). In 1898, Valentine and Emina homesteaded a claim near St. Anthony south of Mandan. That young boy who traversed the ocean from Russia with his parents would also farm there as would Randy’s father, Tom. When Randy was seven, his family uprooted and moved to central Minnesota.
As I consider all of this family history, I wonder at the dreams and challenges. To leave your home country behind, understanding you would never return, takes fortitude. I can only imagine the fortitude Ukrainians must tap in to today as they face a Russian invasion.
Early in his marriage, Alfred Helbling faced an unspeakable loss—the tragic death of his first wife. Katherine, 27, apparently lost her balance, fell into a well and died while retrieving a container of milk stored inside.
Today people are dying in Ukraine, a country that suddenly doesn’t seem all that far away. An ocean and some 5,200 miles separate this land from Minnesota. But when I page through the spiral-bound genealogy of the Helbling family, I feel much closer. Closer in a way that causes me to feel emotional. Upset. Concerned. Worried about not only the future of Ukraine, but also of this world.
AS A MEGA APPRECIATOR of outdoor public art, I delighted in the recent discovery of some new, at least new-to-me, art staged in historic downtown Northfield. This southern Minnesota river town boasts a thriving community of literary, visual and performing artists.
Here you’ll find poems imprinted in sidewalks, painted on steps and read at poetry readings in a city with a poet laureate. Here you’ll see outdoor sculptures scattered about town. Here you can listen to a concert at Bridge Square, a local church, St. Olaf or Carleton Colleges or elsewhere. Here you can enjoy live theater. Here you can appreciate the works of creatives at the Northfield Arts Guild and many other venues.
Northfield truly is synonymous with the arts.
So when I spied a recently-installed sculpture, “Framing the Scene” by St. Paul glass artist Erin Ward, I felt a jolt of excitement. The free-standing, two-dimensional mosaic frames the nearby Cannon River and Riverwalk on one side and Bridge Square on the other. It’s meant to be an interactive sculpture for framing photos.
“Framing the Scene” meets all of those criteria, in my creative opinion. The artwork itself represents the vision and skills of a talented artist. The art adds to the downtown Northfield experience. That experience is one of dipping in and out of mostly home-grown local shops or of dining in an historic setting. The cliques “quaint and charming” fit Northfield. This is a community rich in history, rich in historic architecture, rich in natural beauty and rich in art.
I appreciate how Ward melded art and nature in creating a mosaic which honors both. As I studied her interpretation of the Cannon River, I recognized the thought she invested in this detailed art of many many pieces. Her river evokes movement in waters teeming with fish and the occasional turtle. Assorted greens and blues evoke a sense of calm and peacefulness. Ward’s art honors this river which runs through. This river of life, now a backdrop to a community which still appreciates her beauty, her recreational qualities, her history, her aesthetic value.
And then, on the flip side of “Framing the Scene,” bold pieces of mostly yellow, orange and red triangles create a completely different feeling. It’s as if sunbeams fell from the sun in a chaotic, jumbled mix of happiness. That’s my interpretation.
This side of the art looks toward Bridge Square, community gathering spot in downtown Northfield. Place of concerts and popcorn wagon, Santa house and quiet bench-sitting. Place of artistic activism. And beyond that, to the back of the frame, historic buildings rise.
Art rises in Northfield, enriching the lives of locals and the lives of visitors like me, come to town to follow the Riverwalk, to walk along Division Street and, then, to pause near Bridge Square and frame the scene.
Please check back for more posts about art in historic downtown Northfield, Minnesota.
“DUCK, DUCK, GRAY DUCK!” If you’re not a native Minnesotan, you might stop me right here and protest. “It’s Duck, Duck, Goose!” you likely would correct. And then I would protest.
A few years back, in October 2017 to be exact, a tight end for the Minnesota Vikings initiated a game of Duck, Duck, Goose following a touchdown. Ohio native Kyle Rudolph was quickly corrected. Here in Minnesota, we term that children’s game Duck, Duck, Gray Duck. Not Goose. But Gray Duck. That set off a storm of conversations in which many a Minnesotan defended our name for this game which involves participants sitting in a circle, tapping each other on the head and calling out “Duck” or assorted versions thereof. The child pegged as the “Gray Duck” then tries to catch the person who is “It.”
Duck thoughts fly through my head as I consider a scene on the Cannon River in the heart of downtown Northfield Sunday afternoon. There, among the drake mallards with brilliant iridescent green heads and the hens in their unassuming shades of brown, were four white ducks. All white with brilliant orange beaks and webbed feet.
I was thrilled to finally see these white ducks Randy has previously spotted flying over Northfield on his way to work. These, he said, are not domestic ducks given their propensity to fly just like any other wild duck.
We can only guess at their origins since we are uninformed, except when it comes to Duck, Duck, Gray Duck. Perhaps the white ducks resulted from a genetic mutation. Or the mixing of wild and domesticated. Whatever the reason, these waterfowl drew our interest.
I wondered if the other ducks would exclude/shun/avoid the white ducks. As I watched them walk across the ice and swim in patches of open water, I observed no ostracization. We could learn a thing or ten from those ducks.
SUNDAY PROVED ENLIGHTENING, educational and reflective. And that’s a good thing because ongoing learning often makes us more informed, compassionate and caring individuals.
The focus of my learning was not intentional, but rather a coming together of several elements. That began with a decision to follow the Riverwalk in Northfield on a rare February afternoon of sunshine and warmth in southern Minnesota. At 40-plus degrees, it was simply too nice to stay indoors. Northfield, only about a 25-minute drive, is a beautiful progressive river town, home to St. Olaf and Carleton Colleges, a thriving downtown historic business district, an active arts scene and more, including community activism.
On this Sunday, activism and engagement focused my initial attention as Randy and I exited the van across from Bridge Square, a mini middle-of-the-downtown park next to the Cannon River. As I pulled my camera strap over my neck, I noticed a group of young people chalking the sidewalk leading to and around the Civil War Monument and center fountain. I decided in that moment not to photograph them writing their messages as part of SAY THEIR NAMES INTERVENTION #32. I remembered the controversy over such chalk art at Bridge Square. I believe the City of Northfield enacted an ordinance banning the chalking of the public space, although I could not confirm that information online.
Later, after we walked along the river and then along Division Street, we paused to read the messages printed by SAY THEIR NAMES NORTHFIELD participants who had now left the square. As in previous “interventions,” their words repeated that BLACK LIVES MATTER. All too familiar names were chalked onto the cement—George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Philando Castile, Jamar Clark, Daunte Wright… And new to the list, Amir Locke.
As I photographed the names and messages, I felt an overwhelming sense of sadness at the injustices, the fact that this is 2022 and we are still grappling with racism and social injustice and many other issues related to race.
I was especially moved by the joyful performance of “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” by Fifth Dimension, complete with audience participation and by the singing of “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” Martin Luther King Jr’s favorite hymn sung at his funeral. All were performed against a stage backdrop collage of vibrant squares, rectangles and L shapes. (I’d love to have a poster of that artsy 1969 graphic.)
I felt a mix of sadness and concern that here we are, 53 years later, and just now this film footage has been released. Woodstock, the Apollo moon landing and more overshadowed the Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969. I appreciate the release of this film nominated for a 2022 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature and a 2022 Grammy Award for Best Music Film. It’s important I watched it for, among many reasons, the insights and perspectives gained.
Before “The Summer of Soul” aired on TV Sunday evening, I’d begun reading Under the Tulip Tree, a historical novel by Michelle Shocklee set in Nashville following the stock market crash of 1929. Only a third into the book, I found it fitting of my unexpected Sunday focus on Black lives The main character is a young White writer interviewing a former slave. And, yes, although fictional, real-life stories weave into the book.
I feel grateful for all the elements—chalk art, a documentary and a book—which came together on a February Sunday in Minnesota to educate and enlighten me about many aspects of Black lives. To learn is to grow in understanding and compassion.
FYI: Activism and art will theme an event on Thursday, March 3, offered through St. John’s Women, a Northfield-based group in its fourth year of sponsoring “Courageous Conversations” via monthly speakers and book studies. Carleton College Professor Cecilia Cornejo, an artist and also leader of the local SAY THEIR NAMES group, will talk about “Anti-Racism Activism Through Community-Engaged Art” at 7 pm via Zoom. Click here for more information.
LIVING ALONG A BUSY STREET means more than dealing with noisy traffic. It also means dealing with litter. Tossed beer bottles and cans. Fast food bags and containers. Lots of those. Even a tire, which rolled off a vehicle and slammed into the side of our house, just missing the gas meter many years ago. And this winter, a stop sign propelled into the yard after a car went out of control on the icy street, jumped the curb and took out the sign.
It bugs me when people litter. The phrase “Don’t be a litterbug” comes to mind. If you’re of a certain age, you perhaps remember that 1960s anti-littering ad campaign. Lady Bird Johnson (First Lady to President Lyndon B. Johnson) championed efforts to stop littering and to limit billboards visually littering our roadways.
As a teen, I once picked up litter from road ditches in my home county of Redwood. Employed through a southwestern Minnesota summertime program for low income families, I joined three other girls in working for the county highway department. One day we were tasked with collecting litter. Now decades later I recall only two of the many items we gathered from ditches—a dirty diaper and a torn up love letter. During our noon lunch break, we pieced together that letter. I wish I recalled the words written on that lined notebook paper. But I only remember how entertained we were.
Thankfully we’ve come a long ways in eliminating litter—although I still see plenty—and in reducing trash sent to the landfill. Recycling helps. My eldest daughter and her husband even participate in organic recycling. In this program offered through their south metro county, they save food scraps, tissues, napkins and more which can be recycled. Yes, it’s extra work. But I applaud this additional effort to limit what goes into our landfills.
Of all the littering, other than in my own yard, I’m particularly bothered by the dumping of appliances, mattresses and furniture into ditches and along roadways. I recognize getting rid of these unwanted items can prove costly. Some cities host annual community clean-up days to collect items like these. And maybe that’s the solution because not everyone can afford disposal. Make the disposal easy, convenient and free, or low cost.
Therein lies a benefit of living along a busy street. Whenever Randy and I want to get rid of something, because we’ve upgraded or no longer need the item, we set it curbside tagged with a FREE sign. And each time, someone stops to claim our discards. Swing set. Recliner. Lamp. End table. Headboard and frame. Bookshelf. And more items that I’m not recalling. Sure, maybe we could have sold these things, but we didn’t want the hassle. And, if someone needed what we no longer needed, then we were happy to give it away.
But please, dear people, who pass by our house either on foot or by vehicle, we don’t need your litter.
TELL ME: What litter/discards/trash bother you in particular? What especially unusual items have you seen tossed in a ditch, onto a sidewalk, along the road, at a nature center…? Do you recycle and, if yes, what?
I’VE ALWAYS SENSED within the artistic community an unwavering support of one another. A kinship in creativity. A connection sparked by the sheer act of creating, whether by words, by music, by paintbrush or pencil or camera or hands or…
Well, Craig heard about my post, followed up with an email to me and then posted the kindest/loveliest/nicest review of my work on his website (click here). I am not only humbled by his generous words, but by his detailed gratitude for Minnesota Prairie Roots. He clearly understands me, my artistic and journalistic passions, my love for small towns and rural Minnesota, and my desire to share my discoveries.
Craig is just one example of how generous this community of creatives.
When we create, we share part of ourselves with the world. I cannot imagine not creating. That comes from a southwestern Minnesota farm girl who grew up with minimal exposure to the arts. No music lessons. No art classes. No gallery shows. No community concerts. Nothing outside the basic core of required class courses in middle and high school.
But what I lacked in the arts I found in the prairie landscape. In the unrelenting wind. In sunsets bold and beautiful. In snowstorms that washed all color from the earth. In wild pink roses pushing through road ditch grass. In the earthy scent of black dirt turned by a plow. I took it all in, every detail in a sparse land.
And I read. Laura Ingalls Wilder, pioneer girl from Walnut Grove only 20 miles distant. Nancy Drew with her inquisitive mind. Whatever books I could find in a town without a library.
Today I feel grateful to live blocks from a library. I feel grateful to have access to the arts. You will find me often posting about creatives on this blog. Creatives like Craig Kotasek of Tin Can Valley Printing. He’s a gifted craftsman and artist specializing in letterpress printing. What a talented community of artists we have in rural Minnesota. I feel grateful to be part of that creative community.
What beautiful, meaningful and heartfelt words. That message titles a 10-page mini altered book crafted by my dear friend Kathleen upon the recent death of my mom. The book arrived unexpectedly from Kathleen’s secluded cabin studio in Idaho on a February morning, when I most needed it.
I settled into a comfy chair, paging through the book as tears fell. Soon I was sobbing.
Kathleen, using carefully selected photos pulled from my blog, inspirational quotes and poems, recycled materials and more, created a book reflecting my mom. From Mom’s faith to her love of irises to our mother-daughter bond to her rural background and more, this book lovingly honors my mother.
It is a treasure, an absolute treasure, now cherished.
My long-time friend, once the children’s librarian in Faribault, never met Mom. But you’d never realize that by seeing this visual memoir. That’s a tribute to Kathleen, a kind, caring and compassionate soul who truly listens, whose empathy runs deep, whose heart overflows with goodness and love.
Kathleen has read my blog posts about Mom through the years. She’s viewed the photos I’ve posted (and some I sent to her), from past until recently. She understood the essence of my mother—her strong faith, her farm background, her love of family, her compassion for others, and more.
No detail went unnoticed by my friend in creating this work of art. In a mini-bottle attached to the book, “Amazing Grace” labels a music scroll. That was among three hymns sung at Mom’s funeral. Polka dotted ribbon and paper frame two family photos, matching the polka dotted blanket covering my Mom’s lap and the polka dots decorating her great grandson’s birthday cake in two images. A swatch of gold lace mimics the frame of my mom’s “The Good Shepherd” print which now hangs on my dining room wall. Kathleen incorporated selected “good shepherd” verses from John 10 (read at the funeral) into the book along with a photo of that cherished print.
Words cannot fully convey my gratitude to Kathleen for crafting this keepsake. It is, for me, a love-filled book to be shared with my children and grandchildren. Sweet memories of my mom, their grandmother and great grandmother. My three now-grown children are connected to Kathleen also, my daughters once working as library pages and attending teen events under her supervision and my son as a young boy asking her to find space-themed and other books for him.
Kathleen left Faribault years ago with her dear husband, Justin. But we remain deeply connected. Connected via our shared love of words and writing and reading and poetry and libraries. Connected via our shared values and genuine compassion for others. Connected via her connection to my children as they were growing, developing. And now that has extended to the next generation. Geographically, we are distanced from one another. But our friendship remains rooted, strong, enduring. Miles matter not.
And when Those we love stay forever in our hearts arrived from 1,400 miles away, I felt as if Kathleen had stopped by to give me a hug. Such are my loving thoughts upon embracing this comforting keepsake crafted by my dear dear friend.
NOTE: Several years back, Kathleen created an altered (much larger) book all about me. It tells my life story. As with the book about my mom, Kathleen tapped into my blog for images and information. My friend, even without that resource, knows me well. That book, too, is a treasure, deeply cherished.
As a journalist and an art lover especially appreciative of letterpress printing, I delighted in this exhibit of an art now in revival. Not only that, I hold a connection to Kotasek. We both worked at The Gaylord Hub, me as my first newspaper reporting job straight out of college in 1978 and he as an apprentice printer there in 1999. We learned under the mentorship of Jim Deis, then editor and publisher of the generational family-owned newspaper. I’ve never met Kotasek, yet I feel linked via The Hub.
To view his art is to gain an appreciation for a past printing process. In letterpress printing, movable raised wood or lead letters/type are pieced together in a frame, then secured before inking onto paper via a printing press. That’s a simplistic explanation. If multiple ink colors are required, the process is layered, longer, more labor intensive. Likewise, art carved from linoleum or wood blocks goes through a similar process in creating fine art prints, gig posters and more.
When I entered the narrow room which houses The Arts & Heritage Center in the small southern Minnesota community of Montgomery and saw Kotasek’s letterpress art, memories rushed back. Memories of the strong scent of ink, the clacking of noisy printing presses, scenes of printers Dale and Bucky laboring in stained printers’ aprons, me trying to hear phone conversations with sources. Me pounding out news stories on an aged manual typewriter against the backdrop of all that noise.
But on this February morning, quiet prevailed as I studied the work of this craftsman, this visual artist. Letterpress is both craft and art.
Beneath professional portraits of Kolacky Days queens, which ring this room near the ceiling, hang examples of Kotasek’s assorted creations. Gig posters for musical groups (including his own Oxbow Boys band). Fine art prints created with hard-carved blocks. A mix of letterpress and block. And on a shelf, a box of his popular letterpress greeting cards. Another display holds his $10 numbered prints.
I feel such an appreciation for Kotasek. His love for the letterpress craft shows in his printing skills, his creativity. To get clear, crisp prints takes patience, practice, time, effort. But before that comes the visualization, the creativity, the ability to bring many elements together in hands-on work.
A tall enclosed cabinet holds some of Kotasek’s tools of the craft. Letters. Rollers. Ink. Wood-cuts. All offer a glimpse into this artist’s world. He’s gathered abandoned, about-to-be-scrapped printing presses and other printing tools from small town newspapers in Minnesota and set up shop in a renovated granary on the family farm just outside Le Sueur. His studio overlooks the valley, home of the Jolly Green Giant associated with Minnesota Valley Canning Company, later Green Giant.
Kotasek pays homage to the vegetable canning company in the name of his printing business, Tin Can Valley Printing. On his website, he offers several explanations, one referencing a farmer who fed discarded canned vegetables to his pigs from damaged cans. As the story goes, the pig farmer tossed those empty tin cans into a ravine. During a massive flood of the Minnesota River Valley in 1965, the cans reportedly floated into town, causing an array of issues. The name Tin Can Valley stuck. I like the historic reference, the memorable moniker.
I found myself drawn to Kotasek’s Green Giant-themed prints. I purchased No. 38 of his 2019 “Niblets Corn Sign” 8 x 10 card stock print. It’s a reproduction of a metal sign that once marked the Green Giant canning factory in Le Sueur. The four-color print, crafted from wood type and hand-carved wood and linoleum blocks, features the legendary Green Giant hefting a massive ear of sweetcorn. The image is iconic rural Minnesota.
Kotasek represents in many ways the past of newspapers in Minnesota. Early editors printed their papers with letterpress. They also served their communities as print shops. When I worked at The Gaylord Hub, farm auction bills flew off the aged printing presses. Kotasek remembers the endless fundraiser raffle tickets he printed while learning the printing trade.
If you’re interested in meeting Kotasek, visit The Arts & Heritage Center of Montgomery, 206 First Street North, between 9 am – noon on Saturday, February 26, during an artist’s reception. The center is open limited hours: from 2-5 pm Thursdays and Fridays and from 9 am-noon on Saturdays. The show closes February 26.
While in Montgomery, be sure to check out the shops (gift, floral, quilt, thrift, drugstore…) and stop at Franke’s Bakery for a sweet treat. You’ll find kolacky there in this self-proclaimed “Kolacky Capital of the World.” The town is also home to Montgomery Brewing and Pizzeria 201 (a popular local eatery with curbside pick-up only currently). I encourage you to check destination hours in advance of a visit to avoid disappointment. Also notice the historic architecture, the photo tributes to veterans and the town mural (across from the bakery). Montgomery rates as one of my favorite area small towns…because of The Arts & Heritage Center and more.
Proper Mailbox Installation will Help Keep it Upright this Winter
Shoveling Driveway Openings
Children Stay Clear of the Street
Keep Trash & Recycling Bins Out of the Street
So basically keep your vehicles (during snow emergencies), garbage cans, snow and kids off streets.
Clear fire hydrants near your home because, you know, if firefighters need to dig out a hydrant, your house could burn down.
Remove snow and ice from sidewalks so pedestrians (especially letter carriers) don’t slip and fall and break a bone. And as long as we’re talking mailboxes, shovel the snow away from them. If a snowplow hits your curbside mailbox (note, you must have it properly installed), call the city.
Don’t blame the city if your water pipes freeze. They’ve advised you to insulate them and take other precautions to prevent freezing.
Also, do not blame city snowplow drivers for plowing snow across the end of your driveway within minutes of your having opened your driveway. That one’s really tough to take. Too many times the plow arrives shortly after all snow has been removed from driveway’s end. Then it’s back to shoveling or blowing, mean-spirited words unheard over the scrape of plow blade upon asphalt.
The city is, after all, grateful for your cooperation as noted in this sentence of gratitude:
Thank you very much for your assistance and patience in getting through another Minnesota winter and plowing season.
You’re welcome, City of Faribault. My words, not theirs.
TELL ME: What’s on your fridge? Anything snow/winter-related?