Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Preserving yesterday at rural-themed show, rural Dundas September 2, 2022

Photo cut-outs just inside the entrance. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

BARELY INSIDE THE GATES of the Rice County Steam & Gas Engines Show mid Friday morning, I boarded a train. It was an unexpected ride, this double loop around the tracks while straddling a slightly swaying model train car. I thought these free train rides were only for kids. Not so, the crew assured me.

The model train carries all ages. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

On a train car, a mini Massey-Harris the featured tractor. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

Riding the rails. Kids must be accompanied by an adult. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

When I disembarked, a preschooler sandwiched between two adults for his turn on the rails.

Photographed on a tractor, show stickers. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

What a fun way to begin my four hours at the show, which continues through Sunday at the event grounds south of Dundas, which is south of Northfield. This 47th annual gathering is about “Preserving a Bit of Yesterday for Tomorrow.” And that’s exactly what you will find here. Old. Aged. Vintage. Snapshots into the past. Farming as it was done back in the day. Agriculture/farming/rural life center the show.

Massey-Harris tractors all in a row. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)
Conversation while leaning on a John Deere. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)
A tractor made by Cockshutt and marketed by Gambles. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

Vintage tractors are the focus with a field of tractors on display. This year’s featured brand is Massey-Harris. But brands ranging from the well-known John Deere, Allis Chalmers, International Harvester…to the rare Gambles line the grassy grounds.

The threshing crew. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

Other farm machinery is also on-site, including a threshing machine, typically threshing oats, but under repair during my visit.

The blacksmith at work. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

There’s simply so much to see here, so much equipment to take in, so many demonstrations to watch. I observed blacksmithing and sorghum pressing. There’s also syrup making, corn shelling, flour milling, lumber sawing… Not all were up and running yet Friday morning.

The 1912 farmhouse. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

Sorghum towers in a field. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)
Delicious cookies made with sorghum. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

While demonstrations are a major draw, so are the aged farm buildings moved onto the grounds. Inside the 1912 Drentlaw farmhouse, my friend Ruth served cookies made with sorghum.

Pressing sorghum. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

Across the way, two men fed sorghum stalks into a press, liquid streaming into a bucket.

A massive stove defines the farmhouse kitchen. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

As I walked upon the wood floors of the farmhouse, I felt immersed in the past. A wood-burning stove anchors the small kitchen where a water dipper rests in an enamelware bowl in the sink. Embroidered dish towels drape a drying rack.

The dining room table set for guests. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

In the dining room, with fine china set upon a lace-covered table, the morning breeze billowed lace curtains.

Rounding the corn crib… (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

Outside the main house sits a summer kitchen with a corn crib and granary nearby. Replicating a farm site of yesteryear seems a goal. As a farm girl, I appreciate these efforts to preserve a bit of yesterday. Our Minnesota agrarian history needs to be shared at events like this which connect all ages to a way of life that is quickly vanishing.

My oddest find at this year’s flea market. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

Even the flea market connects attendees to the past where old stuff mixes with crafts and an assortment of other merchandise. Every time here, I challenge myself to find oddities, weird whatever that makes me do a double take. This year’s vendors did not disappoint me.

A burger basket from the Northfield Knights of Columbus. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

Nor did the food. Vendors offer an assortment of tasty food and beverages ranging from burgers and fries to Mexican food, milkshakes, lemonade, kettle corn, mini donuts and more. It’s all about food and conversation and watching the daily tractor parade at noon while seated at a picnic table in the Food Pavilion.

One of three musicians in the band Steam Machine performs Friday afternoon. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

Over in the poleshed style music building, I listened to the bluegrass band Steam Machine. A couple danced across the cement floor, nearby hay racks piled with oats bundles. I photographed, then attempted to cool down after too much time in the heat and humidity.

A gigantic ear of corn made of milk jugs. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

Another music appreciator stepped off her golf cart to show me a photo on her phone—an image of an over-sized ear of corn crafted from 1,000 gallon milk jugs by her cousin in Wisconsin and gifted to her. He’s made six. The corn art will be displayed at the 22nd Annual Corn Shredding Autumn Harvest Days on September 24 and 25 in rural Lake City.

A poster promotes the 2023 Credit River show. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

I love how so many people care about our agricultural history. That includes the guys from the Credit River Antique Tractor Club who were selling raffle tickets for a 1952 Ford 8N tractor. Their annual show is set for July 14-16, 2023, in rural New Prague.

Teaching the younger generation about tractors. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

The Rice County folks will be back, too, in 2023, “Preserving a Bit of Yesterday for Tomorrow.” There will be a tractor parade, a Kids Pedal Pull, demonstrations, tractors galore and, oh, so much more at the Labor Day weekend show. Even train rides…


FYI: Visit the Rice County Steam & Gas Engines website for more information. The show continues Saturday and Sunday from 7 am – 5:30 pm. Admission cost for the entire weekend is $10 with 12 and under admitted for free.

The club also hosts a Swap Meet and Flea Market on Memorial Day weekend and Minnesota Military Days in June.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Learning about the Wahpekute in Faribault

Signage marks an entry to Wapacuta Park near my Faribault home. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

FOR 38 YEARS I’VE LIVED in the same house, “the Swanson house,” along Willow Street in Faribault. Just below Wapacuta Park, blocks from the home of town founder Alexander Faribault. Wednesday evening I learned information about the park up the hill, about my neighborhood, which left me feeling unsettled and troubled, but newly-informed.

This shows just a small section of Wapacuta Park, shelter in the distance. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

The park atop the hill, according to Susan Garwood, executive director of the Rice County Historical Society, was used by the Wahpekute, one of the seven “Council Fires” of the Dakota Nation, for honoring their dead. Not for final burial of their loved ones in this place which now houses a picnic shelter, playground, disc golf course and basketball courts, but rather for the construction of scaffolding to temporarily hold the deceased. Letters and other documents verify the placement of the scaffolding in Wapacuta (incorrectly spelled) Park.

I had no idea. No idea at all that this hilltop land held such importance in the lives, and deaths, of these Indigenous Peoples who called Rice County home long before French Canadians and others settled here.

Peace Park, where Wahpekute were buried, is located near Buckham Memorial Library in the background. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

The monument in Peace Park honors those who served in WW II. There is no mention that this slice of land is a Wahpekute burial site. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)
The WW II monument at Peace Park. That’s Willow Street running aside the park. The area across the road is being cleared for apartments and senior housing. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

But Garwood shared even more unknown-to-me information. After a year, the bodies of the Wahpekute were removed from the scaffolding to a nearby burial spot. That’s the current day Peace Park, located near the intersection of Minnesota State Highway 60, Division Street and Willow Street by Buckham Memorial Library. The site, she said, is considered a cemetery, confirmed many decades ago by the discovery of bones wrapped in bark and hide. There were 14 burial mounds and sacred sites in the county, according to Garwood, who said this is closely-guarded information known to historians.

To learn all of this proved enlightening and left me wondering how many others are unaware. And what can be done to raise awareness and respect? Garwood asked the same question during her public presentation on “The Indigenous History of the land that is now Rice County, Minnesota.” She was the first presenter in a new endeavor, the Faribault Diversity Coalition Speaker Series, which will introduce those who call/called Faribault home through these monthly speaking events at the Paradise Center for the Arts.

This was part of an outdoor art installment at Bridge Square during Northfield’s Earth Day celebration. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo April 2022)

Near the end of her hour-plus-long talk followed by questions and comments, Garwood encouraged attendees to remember and acknowledge the Wahpekute, who are still here. She referenced a Land Acknowledgment Statement and “Eagle Relatives” sculpture now in place in neighboring Northfield. She also mentioned efforts underway to honor the culture, history and places of the Wahpekute in Faribault. She encouraged all of us to become informed, to educate ourselves, to listen to the stories of Indigenous Peoples.

These first peoples lived in harmony with nature, with the land, Garwood noted. Life changed when fur traders came to the area and a dependency grew as the Wahpekute traded for goods that would make their lives easier. The US-Dakota War of 1862, centered to the west in Redwood, Renville and Brown counties, brought more change, including the loss of life, land and relocation for Indigenous Peoples. That aspect of Garwood’s talk was familiar to me given I grew up in Redwood County.

This sculpture of Alexander Faribault with a Dakota trading partner stands in Faribault’s Heritage Park near the Straight River. Faribault artist Ivan Whillock created this artwork gracing the Bea Duncan Memorial Fountain. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

She talked, too, about Alexander Faribault and Bishop Henry Whipple and how they befriended and helped the Dakota. Faribault, after the 1862 war, offered land he owned (today River Bend Nature Center and the Minnesota State Academy for the Blind) as an “Indian Camp,” Garwood said. Sixty-five Wahpekute from 12 families lived there.

Peace Park is located at a major Faribault intersection. The Alexander Faribault house can be seen in the background, just to the right of the red-roofed gas canopies at the local co-op and behind the hedge row. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

Garwood focused primarily on the Wahpekute, the first people of Rice County, the “Shooters Among the Leaves.” They were, she said, hunters and gatherers who did not work the land but rather moved from place to place to find food, to sustain themselves. Every lake in the county was home to a Wahpekute village, she said. Rivers, too. Teepee Tonka Park along the banks of the Straight River in Faribault was among their riverside homes. Not far from Peace Park. Not far from Wapacuta Park. Near my home.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling