Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

From Ulen: Ole & Lena would feel right at home in this Minnesota town November 8, 2018

The ethnicity of Ulen displayed on a business sign. I absolutely love the artistry of this signage.

 

I’D NEVER BEEN TO ULEN, a decidedly Norwegian-American community of some 600 in northwestern Minnesota. But it was on our route from Hendrum back to Detroit Lakes last week Thursday.

 

 

Ulen looks like many other small towns in this remote agricultural region. There’s a school, a grain elevator, a few businesses downtown. Typical.

 

Approaching the grain elevator complex, we notice the rising dust.

 

But then Randy and I observed something not so typical—the demolition of an aged grain elevator. Back in their heyday, these rectangular buildings rose like cathedrals on the prairie, visible for miles. They centered communities, held the harvest. Now many sit empty, replaced by massive grain bins and towering grain silos that hold no aesthetic appeal.

I don’t know the story behind the removal of the vintage elevator in Ulen. I can speculate. But speculation isn’t truth.

 

 

I know only that I felt a sense of sadness as Randy and I sat in our van watching the dust fly while demolition equipment chomped away chunks of this historic building. We missed seeing the elevator in-tact given our late arrival.

 

 

After a bit we drove back through town, past the Ulen Museum, formerly the Viking Sword Museum (the Viking sword found near Ulen has been proven a legend, not truth), then past the Top Hat Theatre.

 

 

When we spotted a vintage house for sale on a corner lot, Randy stopped to pick up a flier. He asked me to guess the price. “$47,000,” I said. Oh, how wrong that guess. The five-bedroom, two-bath house of 3,088 square feet and with four garage stalls is priced at $179,900. No, we’re not interested in living in Ulen, home to a Turkey BBQ going on its 58th year.

 

 

As we exited town, a plain green poleshed caught my eye. Lena’s Lefse, the sign thereon read. Now I know a lot of people who love lefse, who make lefse each holiday season. I’ll eat it just to be polite. I’m convinced the appeal of lefse is more about family tradition and heritage than taste. But then I’m not Norwegian. And I’m not from Ulen. Nor do I know a good Ole and Lena joke to share right now.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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The humor of Hendrum November 7, 2018

The Hendrum welcome sign is posted next to the dike.

 

WHEN MY FRIEND Tammy gave me directions to her family’s home in Hendrum, she failed to give me the exit number. Not that I expected multiple exits into this community along U.S. Highway 75. But there, on the sign welcoming me into this Red River Valley town of some 300, I read Welcome HENDRUM MINNESOTA Next 9 exits.

 

 

I laughed. Simply laughed at the absurdity of nine exits. Already I appreciated the humor of Hendrum, further expounded in the message If You Lived Here You’d be Home Now! Indeed, I would. But my home lies about five hours to the south and east in southern Minnesota, far from this community 30 miles north of Fargo-Moorhead.

 

Entering Hendrum from the south.

 

Exits into Hendrum are not exits in the sense that most would think of exits. Rather, Hendrum’s exits are the streets spoking off Highway 75 with the grain elevator, Red River and North Dakota to the west

 

 

 

 

and the business district, school, Lutheran church and residential neighborhoods to the east.

Tammy told me if we passed the dike protecting Hendrum from Red River flooding, we’d driven too far north. Only a line of trees separates my friend’s backyard from the grassy earthen dike ringing this small town. Her kids use the dike as a sledding hill. Good luck finding a natural hill anywhere near here. This place is flat.

 

Inside the entry into my friend’s house stands this statue of Bigfoot. It was a gift to her husband, who appreciates this creature that may or may not have been sighted in the area. I saw Bigfoot art on a nearby farm site. Whatever the truth, this Bigfoot art fits well with the humor of Hendrum.

 

But what Hendrum lacks perhaps in landscape appeal, it makes up for in appealing to those wanting a quiet place in which to raise a family. The median age of Hendrum residents is 37. I was delighted to see that my friend’s younger children built stick and log forts and tended chickens in a backyard coop. They’re actually outdoors, using their imaginations, playing, having fun.

 

 

This family of seven could be the poster family of Hendrum, fitting the demographic target market. The town’s website, banners EVERYTHING YOUR FAMILY NEEDS TO SHINE. That would be a low student-to-teacher ratio (although my friend’s kids are homeschooled), a strong and loyal local economy, and no traffic. I can vouch for that lack of traffic congestion.

The creative who put together the city’s website recognizes the strengths of this town:

Our commuters bask in their own quiet retreat, leaving the traffic and hustle in the rearview mirror every day as they head home.

Unlike other small communities surrounding Fargo-Moorhead, Hendrum resides on a quiet MN highway—not a thoroughfare of hurried weekend traffic.

We’re a small community of farmers, bankers, teachers and friends, and we’d love to show you around our neighborhood. We’re the first town with a speed limit north of Moorhead on Highway 75. Come take a tour… you’ll be home before you know it.

Just take one of the nine exits into town…

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

En route to the Red River Valley of Minnesota November 6, 2018

Somewhere on a back road between Detroit Lakes and Hendrum.

 

TRAVELING NORTHWEST TOWARD the Red River Valley from Detroit Lakes last Thursday morning, I thought I was mentally prepared for the vastness, the flatness that define this area. I am, after all, a native of the southwestern Minnesota prairie. And I’ve been to Fargo-Moorhead, which is tabletop flat.

 

Trucks hauling crops are the most common vehicles on roads in these parts this time of year.

 

But this route was different. This nearly 1.5 hour drive took Randy and me off the interstate and onto back county roads and state highways as we aimed toward Hendrum in Norman County. At times we drove for endless miles without sighting another vehicle. It’s unsettling to feel such isolation, to know that you are miles between towns, that the distance between farm places stretches farther and farther.

 

Our route took us through several small towns, including Borup just 20 miles southeast of Hendrum.

 

Yet, I tried to make the best of this drive to visit friends who once lived in Faribault. A job relocated the family of seven to this town of 300 some 30 miles north of Fargo-Moorhead along U.S. Highway 75.

 

Mountains of sugar beets are prevalent in this region.

 

As we headed toward Hendrum, Randy and I, both Minnesota farm-raised, observed the progress of harvest—seemingly slowed by too much rain. In places, mud from farm equipment stamped the roadway and signs warned of slippery surfaces. Acres and acres of corn remain to be harvested. Muddy conditions, however, apparently don’t stop the picking of sugar beets, a major crop in this region. Our friends’ oldest son works at a sugar beet plant as he saves money to attend a college in Washington, D.C. I can only imagine the cultural shock of moving from remote northwestern Minnesota to our nation’s capital.

 

Clusters of grain bins are common in this agricultural area.

 

This is an area that truly is Red River Valley flat, that seems to an outsider rather desolate. But, framed in a positive way, it is a peaceful place. Wide. Spacious. Uncluttered by traffic and housing developments.

 

 

It is a land marked by grain bins and by small town elevators, which can be seen for miles—seven miles once, Randy noted.

 

 

It is a land marked, too, by rectangles of stacked bales rising like barges along our route toward the Red River.

 

 

Here the land and sky seem endless.

 

 

Here agriculture anchors the economy.

 

 

Although I couldn’t live here given the flatness, the remoteness, I can appreciate that others call this place home.

TELL ME: Have you been to the Red River Valley of Minnesota or neighboring North Dakota?

RELATED: Check out this story (click here) by Bob Collins of Minnesota Public Radio about a Sugar Beet Museum in Minnesota.

CHECK BACK as I take you into Hendrum. You won’t want to miss the humor of Hendrum.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Just vote November 5, 2018

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IN A YEAR WHEN POLITICAL CAMPAIGNS have reached a new level of negativity, it’s refreshing to see nonpartisan billboards encouraging people to vote. Just vote.

Who wins matters banners hundreds of billboards posted across Minnesota. The Pohlad family, owner of the Minnesota Twins, paid for the signage. I don’t know their political affiliation, and it doesn’t matter to me. What matters is the message.

Election Day presents an opportunity to exercise our freedom to vote, to choose the candidates we want in office. If you don’t vote, then don’t complain about the results.

I am so ready for this campaign season to end. I am weary of the attack ads. I’d much rather a candidate told me who they are, their views and what they hope to accomplish than attack an opponent.

I am so weary of the phone calls, including one from a particularly insistent campaign caller who pushed to the edge of harassment/intimidation/bullying/verbal abuse when I stated my viewpoint. You can bet that candidate will not get my vote, not that I intended to vote for him anyway.

I am so weary of the campaign literature that fills my mailbox daily. I don’t even read it. The mailings go directly into the recycling bin. I don’t need to read the accusations, the words that are unkind, hurtful, bordering hateful. I’d rather read positive words. I’d rather just vote on November 6.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Beyond salad, a Minnesota Halloween horror story October 31, 2018

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I’M NOT A BIG FAN of scary anything. Reality is scary enough. So if you want to talk about things that go bump in the night, exclude me from the conversation.

Yet, when Halloween rolls around, it’s pretty difficult to avoid that which frightens. Right now, as I write, I look out my office window across the street to a Scream face. I’ve never seen the movie, or whatever, that features this character. But I recognize the image as something meant to frighten.

I can’t exactly stride across the street and yank the cloth from my neighbor’s front yard tree. That wouldn’t be nice. But if I had little kids…

Kid talk brings to mind a particularly memorable Halloween from my youth. As a member of the Junior Legion Auxiliary, I attended a Halloween party held in the basement of the local veterinarian’s house. Can you see where this is going?

 

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo of grapes in a Minnesota vineyard. Grapes used for wine, not salad.

 

The vet’s daughter blindfolded me and then asked me to touch something. “Cow eyeballs,” she said. Now you can only imagine how horrifying that experience to an impressionable elementary-aged girl. As my fingertips landed on the cold orbs and those frightening words were uttered, I shrieked. Cold grapes feel an awful lot like cow eyeballs, let me tell you. Not that I’ve ever touched a cow’s eyeballs.

Likewise, cold spaghetti feels like guts. I don’t know that I touched anything else in that vet’s basement after that. But the experience has stuck with me as a particularly memorable Halloween.

And, yes, I eat grapes.

TELL ME: I’d like to hear your memorable Halloween stories. Keep in mind that I’m not a big fan of scary.

NOW, IF YOU’RE WONDERING about the title of this piece, flash back to November 2014 when a New York Times reporter wrote an article listing the Thanksgiving recipes that “evoke each of the 50 states.” For Minnesota, he chose Grape Salad. That unleashed The Grapes of Wrath from Minnesotans who found that an absurd choice for our state. Most of us, but not all, had never heard of, let alone eaten, Grape Salad. Oh, the horror of eating cow’s eyeballs.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Focus on feline photography October 29, 2018

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Brianna’s cat, in her home in Hayfield, Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo October 2016.

 

HALLOWEEN PROMPTS THOUGHTS of cats. Not necessarily black ones. Just cats in general. I’ve photographed a few through the years. Because, well, they are photogenic.

 

One of the many cats on a Morristown, Minnesota, area farm.

 

I’m no cat person. I grew up on a farm, where cats served the sole purpose of catching mice. But I’ll stroke a cat, allow one to wind around my legs. For awhile. I have my limits. Recently when about a dozen farm cats swarmed from a barn toward me, I retreated to the safety of the van and slammed the door. That was too many cats. I felt like I was inside New Ulm native Wanda Gag’s Millions of Cats children’s picture book or in some Stephen King horror story.

 

Ian with Zephyr in rural Bigelow, Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2013.

 

Yet, I know many of you adore cats, own cats. And that’s OK by me. I can pet your cat, photograph your cat without the costs and responsibilities of pet ownership. That works for me.

 

My sister’s cat, Sable, now deceased. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2010.

 

TELL ME: Do you own a cat(s), why and what do you love about your pet(s)?

BONUS CAT IMAGES from my photo files:

 

“Grandview Farm Cat” by Faribault animal portrait artist Julie M. Fakler. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Princess Biancabella bookshop cat at Bexter Book & Copy in Milaca, Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo October 2017.

 

Posted on the screen door of Paper Moon in McGregor, Iowa. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2013.

 

The cat that needs to be kept inside Paper Moon. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2013.

 

Iowa cat. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2013.

 

One of two cats outside Hopefull Treasures in Hope, Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo July 2011.

 

The lazy life of a Hopefull Treasures cat. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo July 2011.

 

“Dog and Cats” by Faribault Lutheran School first grader Frankie Spicer shown at a student art show at the Paradise Center for the Arts. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2018.

 

This stray kitten showed up while I dined with friends on the patio at The Tavern, a downtown Northfield, Minnesota, eatery. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2010.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The art of autumn October 26, 2018

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“White Mountains and Aspens” by Robert Wood, purchased several years ago for a few bucks at a garage sale spans a wall in my living room.

 

I’M MOSTLY A MINIMALIST when it comes to decorating. I wasn’t always that way. At one time I displayed lots of knick knacks in my home. I got caught up in the craft trend for awhile, too. But now I’m back to the basics. Of art.

 

One of the most unique pieces in my art collection is this work by Dutch artist Theodore Degroot. This LathArt was designed by Degroot and made by Austin Productions in the 1970s. The company used a patent to die cut the pieces. The patent on my art is number 4,061,514. I bought this at a recycled art sale.

 

Through the years I’ve collected an assortment of original and print art at primarily garage sales, thrift stores and a recycled art sale held annually at the local Paradise Center for the Arts. I buy what I like. And, if it turns out to have value, well, then that’s a bonus.

 

Kitschy honeycomb tissue art purchased recently at a thrift store for 20 cents.

 

I change my art out seasonally, sometimes more depending on my mood and pieces I want to showcase.

 

Even this vintage 1976 cloth calendar, purchased at a garage sale, is a work of art.

 

Right now art with hues of orange, of brown, of rust, of muted yellows grace my home.

 

Art from a maple tree, mine or my neighbor’s.

 

It’s as if I’ve gathered in the harvest, the landscape, brought the outdoors inside.

 

I stitched this crewel embroidery art in the 1970s from a kit gifted by an aunt and uncle.

 

Whether honeycomb tissue pumpkins, an owl crafted from wood, a crewel embroidery mountain scene, all are pieces I value. They appeal to me visually but, more importantly, intrinsically.

TELL ME: What type of art do you display in your home and why? Do you change it out?