Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Celebrating supper clubs, including Jerry’s in Owatonna December 4, 2020

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The once popular Jerry’s Supper Club, shuttered in downtown Owatonna. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo May 2020.

SUPPER CLUBS. What visual comes to mind when you read those words?

I picture a dark, probably paneled, restaurant with red carpet. Low lights. Candles flickering on tables draped with heavy tablecloths. Fine cutlery and water goblets. Hefty china.

Menu printed on fine paper and placed inside a thick black leather folder. Salad and steak and mammoth baked potatoes. Or shrimp. Maybe a whiskey sour or a Tom Collins.

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo May 2020.

I am of the age that I still remember the hey day of supper clubs. Like the Cat N’ Fiddle in rural New Ulm, where my parents occasionally dined. I recall my mom bringing home packages of crackers lifted from baskets and stuffed into her purse. A rare treat for us kids. And I remember my dad talking about the tasty frog legs he ordered at a supper club in Granite Falls. I always wondered how anyone could eat frog legs. But Dad could enjoy steak—the supper club feature food—any time given he raised beef cattle.

As a teen, I gathered with my best friends at Club 59 in Marshall to celebrate our senior year of high school in 1974. Photos from that day show the five of us bundled in winter coats, wide smiles gracing our youthful faces. Oh, the memories.

Years later, after college and launching my career as a newspaper reporter and then eventually marrying and moving to Faribault, I rediscovered supper clubs. I dined a few times at The Lavender Inn and The Evergreen Knoll. Both closed years ago, as dining preferences changed, the economy tanked and the food scene evolved.

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo May 2020.

In Owatonna, a 20-minute drive to the south along Interstate 35, Jerry’s Supper Club closed in 2009. An article published in the Owatonna People’s Press called Jerry’s, opened in 1960, “an Owatonna institution.” I expect people gathered here for business meetings, special occasions or simply supper (not dinner) out at a fancy restaurant on a Saturday night. Perhaps minus frog legs on the menu.

Signage and hours still remain on the door, long after Jerry’s closed. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo May 2020.

Soon the building which housed this long-time popular supper club, this place of so many memories, will be gone, replaced by a Marriott Courtyard hotel. Before that happens, I hope someone—perhaps the Steele County Historical Society—salvages tangible pieces of Jerry’s. Like the exterior signage. And, if any restaurant-related memorabilia/furniture/whatever remains inside, that, too.

The building housing Jerry’s Supper Club has architecturally beautiful details. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo May 2020.

I photographed Jerry’s in May while walking around downtown Owatonna. The alterations to the exterior of the building with the additions and covered windows and everything painted white are aesthetically unappealing. I don’t know when the changes were made to this once beautiful brick building. But I recognize it was once “a thing” to modernize. I am thankful that mindset has returned to an appreciation for historic structures.

The dated term, “lounge,” remains on the exterior of Jerry’s Supper Club. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo May 2020.

And so progress happens. A much-desired hotel is coming to downtown Owatonna. That will include an in-house restaurant in the former Jerry’s Supper Club space, according to the People’s Press. Nothing can replace Jerry’s. While some supper clubs still exist, especially in Wisconsin, they seem mostly a thing of the past. A place of paneled walls, red carpet and low light. And memories.

TELL ME: Do you have memories of Jerry’s Supper Club? Or of any supper club? I’d like to hear.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Oh, how sweet this dessert from Basilleo’s December 3, 2020

A popular pizza (and more) restaurant in downtown Faribault, Minnesota.

IT WAS A NICE GESTURE of gratitude. The free wedge of apple dessert pizza boxed in Styrofoam with a note of thanks handwritten in marker atop the cover.

This thankfulness for our patronage expressed by Basilleo’s 2.0, a Faribault pizzeria, impressed me. These are tough times to be in the restaurant and bar business. But yet Tom and Connie, co-owners of this homegrown eatery, took the extra time and effort to connect with customers in a personal way.

Basilleo’s has a long history in my community, tracing back to 1960 when brothers Basil and Leo Burger opened the pizza place. They combined their first names to come up with the catchy business name. Basilleo’s has long been a favorite local source of homemade thin crust pizza. Spicy Italian sausage remains our family’s top choice.

Randy and I last dined at Basilleo’s with friends on a Sunday evening in early March, the day before Minnesota Governor Tim Walz closed bars and restaurants due to COVID-19. We didn’t know then that this would mark our last time eating inside a restaurant in 2020. Yes, the governor later re-opened bars and restaurants, but with limited capacity. We opted out of in-person dining, choosing to occasionally do take-out. Like last Saturday evening, when Randy picked up our ready-to-go Italian sausage pizza at Basilleo’s along with a complementary slice of apple or cherry dessert pizza.

Now, as COVID rages out of control in Minnesota, bars and restaurants are once again closed to in-house drinking, dining and socializing. I think it a wise, and necessary, move from a public health perspective. Now it’s up to those who typically frequent bars and restaurants to continue supporting them via carry-out orders. Complaining that these businesses are closed during a pandemic helps no one. Rather, spending money at these businesses will help them, hopefully, survive.

When Tom and Connie conveyed their gratitude through a simple handwritten message and a free slice of dessert, they made an impression. Their small act of kindness shows they value their customers. And, in these days of COVID-19, I welcome such thoughtfulness.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Focus on mental illness: A Minnesota family’s story December 2, 2020

I READ THE BOOK in a single day. That should tell you something. Fix What You Can—Schizophrenia and a Lawmaker’s Fight for Her Son by Mindy Greiling is an incredibly powerful book. It is painfully honest, deeply personal and informative. A must read, whether you know little or a lot about people with serious mental illnesses.

Greiling writes about the flaws in the mental healthcare system—from lack of providers and treatments and options to poor communication to the struggles families face, too often alone.

You will cry with this mother as she shares the challenges faced by her son, Jim, diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder and also a substance abuser. You will feel her pain, her fear, her anger. This is her story. Jim’s story. Her family’s story. Maybe your, or a loved one’s, story.

GRIEF. ANGER. ADVOCACY.

Mindy writes of transitioning through the stages of grief. From anger to advocacy. Not because her son has died, but rather grieving the loss of what may have been if not for Jim’s disease. She takes her personal experiences and uses her position as a state representative to effect changes in Minnesota laws and ways in which people view mental illness. She became involved in the National Alliance on Mental Illness. She became not only Jim’s advocate, but an advocate for the broader base. All the while managing her own fears and feelings of being alone through all of this, of experiencing trauma.

IMAGINE.

Imagine if your son heard voices directing him to kill you. Imagine if your son suffered from paranoia. Imagine if your son had to get off the one most effective medication for his disease because side effects could kill him. Imagine…

This was/is reality for the Greiling family as Jim continues to navigate life and his disease. But it is also a story of hope and resilience and the strength of not only Mindy, but of her son. She recognizes that, even with schizoaffective disorder, Jim is capable of so much. She believes in him. Never gives up. You will see that repeated throughout the pages of this book written by a determined and caring mother faced with crisis after crisis.

There is no fairy tale ending to this story. Jim’s is a life-long disease with no cure.

PUTTING A FACE TO A DISEASE

I admire Mindy, who sought her son’s input in writing this book released in early October. I admire Jim’s strength in the public telling of his story. Such first-hand accounts make an impact, take a disease beyond statistics to a face. An individual. A family. This is a mother trying her best to secure help for her son, to advocate when needed, to make tough decisions when necessary. This is a family in need of understanding and support, all too often missing when it comes to mental illness. When Mindy’s husband, Roger, emails extended family and asks them to send get well cards to Jim in a hospital psych ward, my heart breaks. But this is too often reality. Families feel alone, without much-needed support from family and friends.

LEARN. LISTEN. SUPPORT.

I encourage you to read Fix What You Can—Schizophrenia and a Lawmaker’s Fight for Her Son published by the University of Minnesota Press. And then, when you’ve finished, reassess how you feel about individuals who are dealing with mental illness. Consider that they did not choose these brain diseases, just like people do not choose cancer.

There is much to be learned from the Greiling family’s story. We’ve come a long way in opening up about mental health. But so much remains to be done. We need more mental healthcare providers. (Mindy writes of a six-week wait for Jim to see a psychiatrist, more common here in Minnesota than uncommon.) We need more programs. More funding. More housing and treatment options. More training for law enforcement. More understanding and compassion. And support. We can pledge, as individuals, to educate ourselves about mental illness and then to take that knowledge and be that person who sends a card, listens, prepares a meal…for an individual/family in need of our ongoing care, compassion, understanding and support. A family like the Greilings.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A lovely November day at River Bend December 1, 2020

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Outside the River Bend Nature Center interpretative center, berries pop color into the November sky.

NOVEMBER 2020, while a dreadfully awful month for COVID-19 in Minnesota, brought the gift of some lovely days. Weather-wise. Any November day without snow and with temps in the 40s or higher delights me. Warm, sunny, blue-sky, snow-less days in the 11th month mean a shorter winter.

We crossed paths with this jogger running her dog.

On one of those above-average afternoons in early November, Randy and I headed across the viaduct to the east side of Faribault and River Bend Nature Center. It’s one of our favorite local spots to hike and immerse ourselves in the peace, solitude and beauty of the outdoors.

River Bend, appreciated by so many who come here to explore.

This marked the busiest we’d ever seen River Bend outside of a scheduled event. Yet, despite the high number of parked vehicles, we didn’t encounter all that many people in the nearly 750-acre nature center. Exactly what we had hoped.

There’s a certain beauty even in dried plants.

Any visit here always finds me with camera slung over my shoulder or around my neck. Even in the mostly grey and muted browns of November, I can still find something to photograph. Each season presents a unique perspective of nature when focused through a viewfinder. I love that about photography, how it invites me to notice the details in my surroundings.

Into the woods at River Bend…
I noticed artistic beauty in the bare branches of a lone tree.
I’m always intrigued by fungi on trees, stumps or elsewhere in the woods.

And so we walked along paved paths into the woods. Occasionally I paused to document a discovery with my camera. Whatever caught my eye or interest. Or whatever Randy noticed and thought I may want to capture. I appreciate his awareness of our surroundings, too, and how he values my interest in photography.

One of the few places on earth to find the dwarf trout lily in the spring.
Not far from the Straight River overlook, Randy spotted what we presume to be a fossil in stone.
A personalized paver at the overlook.

At an overlook above the Straight River, near the Trout Lily Trail and near fossils imprinted in stone, I stopped to photograph pavers that speak to others’ love of this place.

Later I would find a bench marker noting the same.

The woods open to and edge the prairie, where I feel particularly at home.

There’s so much to love about River Bend from the woods to the prairie, from the river bottom to the waterfall.

The only bold color in the November landscape.

Mostly, I simply enjoy being here, immersed in the quiet, in the details of earth and sky. Taking in the trees, now barren of leaves, except for the stubborn oak. Wrinkled berries still clinging to branches.

I watched a muskrat swim near these houses in the pond.

And, out of the woods, I observed a muskrat swimming in the pond not yet iced over.

The look-out dock along pond’s edge.

This unseasonably warm November day proved uplifting, reminding me that even in a month when COVID-19 raged in Minnesota, places to find peace remain. Enduring. A bit of bright hope in an otherwise typically grey and dreary month.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

From southern Minnesota: Hardy Harley biker November 30, 2020

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WITH TEMPERATURES IN THE LOW 50s here in southern Minnesota on Saturday, the unseasonably warm weather presented another opportunity for some bikers to hit the road before winter settles in for good.

This die-hard Harley rider passed us while we traveled northbound along Interstate 35 in Owatonna early Saturday afternoon.

The biker lowered his left hand here, presumably to warm his hand.

He looked cold to me with his head hunched into his leather-clad shoulders while gripping the handlebars of his windshield-less bike. With his gloved hands in that high position, no blood flowed warmth to his fingers.

Exiting Interstate 35 in Owatonna.

Randy guessed the windchill on that bike to be in the mid-20s based on the air temp and highway speed of 70 mph. Brrr. Now that’s cold, even for a hardy Minnesota Harley rider.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Note: I took these photos while a passenger in our vehicle.

 

A Thanksgiving of gratitude November 25, 2020

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I created this Thanksgiving centerpiece using a vintage tray, vintage candles, pinecones from friends, shells from Detroit Lake and letters from my 1970s Scrabble game. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Start each day with a grateful heart.

This Thanksgiving, more than ever, those seem important words to consider and then follow.

I’m thankful to my friend Beth Ann, who back in January, before 2020 evolved into the year of COVID-19, gifted me with a daily gratitude journal. It helped me then, and helps me now, to focus on reasons to feel thankful.

A quick look back to the beginning of the year shows a much different gratitude mindset as I wrote of thankfulness for photos of the grandkids, a handwritten letter, a comment from a blog reader that my images of rural Minnesota calm her, time with friends and more.

On March 7, I wrote, “Grateful for another opportunity to spend time with Mom.” I didn’t know it then, but this would mark the last time I stepped inside her care center room, hugged her, kissed her cheek. My heart hurts now every time I think of Mom. It’s an ache that never leaves, that rises sometimes unexpectedly to the surface in raw emotions. But then I reshift my thinking and consider how grateful I am that Mom is still with us, in the care of kind, caring and compassionate individuals who truly value her.

Shortly after that last in-person early March visit, everything changed. There would be no more visits inside the care center. Life as we once knew it changed due to COVID-19. My gratitude journal reflects that as my writing focused more on thankfulness for beautiful days outdoors, for mask mandates, for a stop at a winery, for country drives. And, more recently, for loved ones recovered from COVID-19, for a day that passes without news of another person I know infected with the virus.

In this year 2020, gratitude takes effort. But it’s still there. And this Thanksgiving, more than any, I feel grateful for my health, for my loved ones, for all the blessings that define my days.

Dear readers, I wish you a blessed and joyful Thanksgiving overflowing with gratitude.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Minnesota’s COVID-19 reality, as photographed in Rochester November 24, 2020

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A message posted along U.S. Highway 52 in Rochester, home of the world famous Mayo Clinic, reveals the current crisis in Minnesota’s healthcare system as COVID-19 rages. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo, Monday, November 23, 2020.
Highway signage directs motorists to the Mayo Clinic and St. Mary’s Hospital.
In the distance, the downtown Rochester skyline, including the Mayo Clinic, as photographed from the entrance ramp onto U.S. Highway 14 west.

NOTE: I took the above photos while riding as a passenger in a vehicle, not while driving.

Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Left behind November 23, 2020

I found this kindness rock lying on the ground in Nisswa Lake Park. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2020.

I LOVE FINDING KINDNESS STONES. I appreciate the effort an artist or wordsmith takes to craft a message, add some art and then drop the stone in a public place. Each time I discover these sweet surprises, I feel uplifted. And I wonder about the individual inspired to show such kindness.

On a recent weekend, while out and about, I didn’t discover any inspirational stones. Rather I found several items left behind, the first at Medford Straight River Park. An abandoned purple scooter leaned against a picnic table in the shelterhouse near the playground with no kid in sight. As Randy and I ate our picnic lunch, a Grandma showed up with her 5-year-old granddaughter to reclaim the well-used scooter, forgotten the previous evening. How small town, I thought.

The next day, while picnicking again, this time at Mill Park in Dundas, I noted black-frame glasses stuck in the crack of a picnic table. What is it about picnic tables and stuff left behind? Now, if I’d left my glasses behind, I would struggle to see, such is the state of my vision. Randy checked and confirmed the lost glasses were cheaters. Whew.

From Mill Park, we crossed the Cannon River pedestrian bridge to Memorial Park by the ball field.

There, by the playground, sat two perfectly fine lawn chairs. Opened, as if someone had recently occupied the two spots. But there were no adults, no kids, anywhere, except a couple picnicking by the ball diamond, bikes parked nearby. Obviously not their chairs.

Next, we drove to Northfield, parked downtown and walked around. While crossing the pedestrian bridge over the Cannon River, I discovered a mini skull atop dirt in an otherwise empty flower box hanging on the bridge. The skull looked pretty darned real to me. But then I remembered that just days earlier it was Halloween and I figured that was the reason someone left a skull behind.

TELL ME: Have you ever found something particularly interesting left in a public place? I’d like to hear about your odd discoveries.

© 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Escape into the Cannon River Wilderness Area November 20, 2020

SOME DAYS I WISH I could simply disappear, vanish into the woods or wheel across the prairie like the Ingalls family to an unknown destination. Far from reality. Far from COVID-19.

But, since I must live in the context of a pandemic, in the place I call home, I look for places to escape nearby. And, on a recent Sunday afternoon, Randy and I disappeared into the Cannon River Wilderness Area between Faribault and Northfield off Minnesota State Highway 3.

In the nearly 40 years we have lived in Rice County, we’ve only stopped here once, many years ago for a family picnic, but never to hike. On this day we followed the rutted gravel road along the river, past a junkyard and into the wilderness parking lot. We walked a short path to the Cannon River, then a longer one along the river to a foot bridge.

To get there, we passed two tents in the primitive camping area. I delighted in watching a young family gathered in the woods near river’s edge, enjoying the outdoors, away from distracting/detracting technology. At the next tent down, I observed a caged dog.

After passing the campers, we spotted a hillside bluff of limestone looming to the side of the trail.

Springs bubbled water across the muddy path partially covered by a thin layer of wood chips. I found myself tensing at the thought of traversing mud. My slip-on shoes, unlike Randy’s treaded boots, offered zero traction. And, with a history of two falls, one on rain-slicked wooden steps that resulted in a broken wrist and subsequent surgery to implant a plate, I felt angst.

But Randy offered his hand to steady me as we walked across mud, atop slippery rocks and balanced on railroad ties. Eventually, we reached the pedestrian bridge over the Cannon.

If anything soothes me, it is water and wind. And, on this early November day, I stood on that wooden bridge, taking in the elements that calm me. River rushing over rocks. Wind roaring through woods.

 

 

The sun, too, warming me and casting artsy criss-cross shadows upon the bridge deck.

Then I noticed the trees. Tornado trees, I term them. Two years ago, in September 2018, tornadoes ravaged Rice County, including the 800-acre Cannon River Wilderness Area. Evidence of the storm remains in fallen trees, limbless trees, trees stripped of branches. In the woods. In the river. Along the riverbank. Thoughts of tornadoes invite distress as I recall the 1968 deadly tornado in Tracy, Minnesota, a storm I remember from my childhood in southwestern Minnesota. Some things you never forget.

But for a short time, I forgot about COVID as I immersed myself in the natural world. Even among tornado trees, some of which groaned in the strong wind.

As Randy and I retraced our steps along the muddy path, I focused on getting safely back to the parking lot without falling. But in a single step onto a rounded rock, my shoes slipped and I felt myself falling to the right. Thoughts of another broken bone flashed. As did the likelihood that my camera would be destroyed. Yet, Randy, who had been gripping my hand, caught me, even as he, too, nearly landed in the mud. I felt gratitude for his strength, for his support, for his care. We have traversed many a difficult journey through life. Together. And for that I am grateful, especially during a global pandemic.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A Saturday in November in southern Minnesota November 19, 2020

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The weather on Saturday, November 7, was warm enough to put the top down on the convertible, this one driving along Rice County Road 45 toward Medford.

WITH SNOW LAYERING the ground as I write this several days before publication and with the furnace cranking out heat to stave off the cold, warmer days seem but a distant memory. But not that long ago, on November 7 and 8, we were enjoying warm temps and sunshine here in southern Minnesota. And my photos document that.

Before the recent snow, fallen leaves defined the lawn at the Medford City Park.

On that recent weekend, Randy and I finished raking and hauling leaves to the compost pile on Saturday morning. Then we packed a picnic lunch with intentions of an afternoon wandering through rural Minnesota with no specific destination. One of our Sunday afternoon drives, except on a Saturday. Only briefly did we discuss staying home to wash windows. Nope, the weather was too nice and we wanted to enjoy the afternoon. In Minnesota we recognize such beautiful November days as rarities to savor in time spent outdoors. Playing, not working.

So we gased up the van and then headed south on the back county road to Medford. A few miles from Faribault, we heard a clunk and Randy realized he’d left the gas cap at the gas station. We retraced our route, retrieved the cover and restarted our leisurely drive. I was a bit irritated with the husband for forgetting the gas cap. More on that later.

An artsy roofline on the shelter where we ate our picnic lunch.
A plaque on a bench: Kevin loved this park!
The expansive playground next to the shelterhouse.

By the time we reached Medford, it was past noon and we were both hungry for that picnic lunch. So we pulled into the city park along the Straight River, settled in at a picnic table inside a wind-whipped shelter and watched kids on the playground while we ate our sandwiches.

The Straight River winds past the park.
The second shelter sits by the ballpark.
A view of the ball field.

Afterward, we walked around the park for a bit, down to the banks of the Straight River, around the ballpark and then back to the van. After more photos—I can always find something interesting to photograph—we were on our way.

I laughed at this sign, at the “softball landing area” warning.

Except we weren’t. Two blocks from the park, the power steering went out in the van. The engine light flashed on. Gauges indicated overheating. Randy switched off the van, lifted the hood and investigated. At times like this, I am thankful for a husband who has worked as an automotive machinist for decades and is extremely knowledgeable in diagnosing and dealing with vehicle issues.

I love small town scoreboards like this with character.

I suggested we call a tow truck. Randy insisted we could make it home to Faribault. If the engine didn’t overheat. I was skeptical. Half-way back, he noted that the engine was getting hotter. Long story, but we pulled into friends’ rural property (they weren’t home) and waited about 45 minutes for the engine to cool. Back on the road, with only miles to go, Randy cut the engine at the top of a hill. The van then coasted the final miles into Faribault. At a stop sign, Randy restarted the van to get the remaining blocks home. We made it. Who would have thought?

Love the colorful bleachers…

So much for that planned afternoon outing. Randy was now out in the garage, back under the hood, rooting out the problem. He diagnosed a broken spring inside the tensioner. That caused the belt to come loose which caused the subsequent issues. A trip to the parts store and about an hour later, he had fixed the van.

Posted on the ball field fence. Small towns have a knack for finding creative ways to fund projects.

But here’s the deal. Remember that forgotten gas cap and the irritation I felt over Randy’s forgetfulness? Well, if he hadn’t left the cover, we would have been further down the road, probably to Owatonna. And those extra miles likely would not have allowed us to get the van back home on our own. So, yeah, sometimes when little things like this happen and delay our best-laid plans, it’s for a reason. Lesson learned. On a beautiful day in early November in Minnesota.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling