Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Honoring Howard Mohr, author of “How to Talk Minnesotan” September 8, 2022

Image source: Goodreads

MINNESOTA SEEMS, TO ME, a hotbed for writers. And five days ago we lost one of our most beloved, Howard Mohr. He was perhaps best-known for his wildly popular, at least in Minnesota, book, How to Talk Minnesotan: A Visitor’s Guide, published in 1987. The book was later updated and adapted into an equally popular musical.

Many years have passed since I read my copy of this entertaining, humorous, and, yes, truthful, summary of Minnesota life. In honor of Mohr, who died September 4 of Parkinson’s at Fieldcrest Assisted Living in Cottonwood, I pulled my book from the shelf and reread it.

A corn field in southwestern Minnesota. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

That Mohr, 83, recently moved from his Lyon County farm home of 52 years to a facility called Fieldcrest seems especially fitting. He lived in farming country, my native southwestern Minnesota, the place of small towns defined by grain elevators and land defined by fields of corn and soybean. He understood the people and place of the prairie. So when I read the sentence in his book declaring the produce of Minnesota writers to be as valuable as a crop of soybeans and corn, I felt he nailed it.

A harvested field and farm site in my native Redwood County, Minnesota, where the land and sky stretch into forever. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

I’ve long celebrated writers rooted in the prairie like Mohr, Bill Holm, Robert Bly, Frederick Manfred, Leo Dangel… My friend Larry Gavin of Faribault, too, poet and writer who studied under those writers and lived for 15 years on the prairie. Some shared their knowledge, their talents, by teaching at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall. That’s near Cottonwood. Mohr taught English at Southwest State. He also penned Minnesota Book of Days, How to Tell a Tornado (poetry and prose) and wrote for “A Prairie Home Companion,” also appearing on the show.

A serene country scene just north of Lamberton in southern Redwood County. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

I’m most familiar with How to Talk Minnesotan. The content reflects my rural upbringing. The dairy and crop farm of my youth lies a mere 15 miles to the south and east of Cottonwood, thus rereading Mohr’s book is like traveling back home, a reminder of that which defines me as a native of rural Redwood County. Even after nearly 40 years of living in Faribault, in town, I still call the noon-time meal “dinner” and the evening meal “supper.” My adult kids don’t, so I/they, always clarify when invitations are extended to a meal. To me “lunch” will always come mid-afternoon or in the evening before guests leave.

This huge, hard-as-rock snowdrift blocked our Redwood County farm driveway in this March 1965 photo. I’m standing next to my mom in the back. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

Mohr’s references to the noon whistle, Jell-O (once popular, not so much now) winter survival kits, snowbirds (those who leave Minnesota in the winter and return in the spring), hotdish (casserole), pancake feeds, seed corn caps, lutefisk, Lutherans, bullheads (smaller versions of catfish), the “long goodbye” all resonate. I especially understand his point that Minnesotans are obsessed with the weather. We are.

Bars made by Lutherans. ( Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

Some 10-plus years ago, when my now son-in-law moved to Minnesota from Los Angeles after falling in love with my eldest daughter, I gifted him with Mohr’s How to Talk Minnesotan. I figured this would help him adjust to our language and state. Whether it did or didn’t, I don’t know. But Marc hasn’t moved back to his native California. And he never commented on Mohr’s statement that Californians struggle to adapt to life in Minnesota. Marc fits in just fine. I do recall, though, his comment on “bars,” a word with duo meaning here in our state. “Bars” are both a place to gather and drink alcohol and a baked or unbaked sweet treat (made with lots of sugar and often topped with chocolate) pressed or spread into a 9 x 13-inch cake pan.

Maybe I really ought to make a pan of bars, cut them into squares, plate and serve them with coffee for “a little lunch” as a way to honor Howard Mohr, writer, satirist, humorist. He yielded a mighty fine crop of writing.

FYI: I encourage you to read Mohr’s obituary by clicking here. Be sure to read the insightful and loving comments. And if you haven’t read How to Talk Minnesotan, do. If you’re Minnesotan, it will be a refresher course in our life and language. If you’re not from here, you’ll better understand us upon reading this guide.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


12 Responses to “Honoring Howard Mohr, author of “How to Talk Minnesotan””

  1. Boy does this bring back the memories of growing up in Minnesota. I was just thinking that we need to whip up a hotdish in Mohr’s honor and celebration of his life. Bars and coffee sound like a great idea too. Get the 9 x 13 pans ready – ha! Happy Day – appreciate you sharing MN with your readers and giving them a slice of the prairie life – Enjoy 🙂

  2. Larry Gavin Says:

    Howard and I were dear friends. I played “the host” in ktca’s tv version of the book. It won an Emmy. Check out the video sometime it is funny. Howard was a comic genius. And a great guy.

    • Larry, I was hoping I would hear from you. First, my sympathies to you at the loss of your dear friend Howard. He sounds very much like someone I would enjoy, based on what you reveal here and based on my appreciation of his writing.

      Thanks also for sharing that you hosted a version of Howard’s book. I had no idea it won an Emmy. I watched a clip this summer when you appeared in one of his “stories.” Wonderfully entertaining.

  3. beth Says:

    How utterly wonderful. You have so many great writers for you beautiful part of the country. I think your way to honor Mr. Mohr is a great idea

  4. I think his book should be required reading for every school child!
    His insightful view of rural Minnesota life was a true treasure and very entertaining.
    My deepest sympathies to those who (like me) will miss his insightful truly Minnesota experiences.

  5. Bernadette Thomasy Says:

    Absolutely delightful reflection on Howard Mohr. I have not read his work but your lovely reactions tell me I should. The photos, too, made a wonderful homage to a memorable Minnesotan.

  6. I am making tons of bars today as I prepare for an Open House at Sharing House on Monday. I was struck when we moved to Iowa about the “bar” concept. Definitely not an Ohio thing.
    I love how different terms are part of a geographic area. Buggy for shopping cart. Soda or pop. There are so many!
    My condolences to all who cared for this gifted author. It seems he left quite a legacy.

    • How wonderful that you’re baking bars. And, yes, you’re right about the regional differences in wordage. I remember going to the East Coast while in college and asking what types of pop were available. I got this blank look. Nope, no pop here. Only soda.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.