Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Briana, more than a statistic April 28, 2021

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo used for illustration only.

SHE DIED ON FRIDAY due to complications from COVID-19. And she was 30. Only 30.

I didn’t know Briana, who graduated from Faribault High School in 2009. But that matters not. Here’s a young life lost to a deadly virus, Briana’s name now on the ever-lengthening list of 7,091 (as of Tuesday) Minnesotans who have died from COVID or complications thereof.

Briana’s obituary, published April 27, 2021 in The Faribault Daily News.

My heart hurts for Briana’s family and friends. Her obituary and the comments therein, describe a vibrant and artsy young woman who enjoyed photography, crafts, sewing and music. She was also tagged as a passionate activist.

Briana’s friend Corrina writes: Briana was the most fieriest, artistic, and admirable person I knew. She inspired me to protest and we walked together through the streets fighting for justice. She made the world a better place.

She made the world a better place. I think we would all like to be remembered in that way.

It’s so important to remember that behind every COVID-19 death statistic is a person. An individual who loved and was loved. Who perhaps, like Briana, marched with fiery passion. Or quietly helped others via kindness, generosity and compassion. Or still had their whole life ahead of them. Like the first grader from Park Side Elementary School in Marshall who died on Sunday due to complications from COVID-19. A child with no underlying health conditions. My heart breaks. My cousin’s daughter teaches at Park Side. Marshall sits in Lyon County, in the southwestern corner of the state, in a region with one of Minnesota’s highest COVID infection rates.

As I watch and read media coverage of the COVID situation in India, my heart also breaks at the overwhelming number of new cases—some 350,000 in a single day—and the resulting deaths. It’s difficult to see film of people suffering, of bodies wrapped in blankets and lying in the streets, of oxygen masks clamped onto faces and hear the pleas for oxygen, medicine, PPE. Pleas, too, for vaccines.

An article published in the April 27 edition of The Faribault Daily News highlights how the virus continues to spread in my region of Minnesota. I see more and more people in public without face masks or half-masking. Tuesday stats from the Minnesota Department of Health list 12 new deaths, including one from my county of Rice. That individual was between the ages of 55-59. That makes 104 COVID-19 deaths now in my county

I feel thankful that the US and other countries are offering help to the people of India in this overwhelming health crisis. Yet, I can’t help but think how people in the US are turning down vaccines, not wearing face masks, living like there’s no pandemic…

Monday evening I watched “The Virus That Shook the World,” a two-part FRONTLINE public television documentary featuring people from around the world in the first year of COVID-19. A doctor. Filmmakers. Dancers. It was heart-wrenching to listen, to watch. But necessary to document. Important to view. I felt my grief building as the film progressed. And then, when a daughter in Iceland shared the story of her mother’s death from COVID, all the grief and pain I’ve felt during the past year-plus erupted. I couldn’t stop crying as I observed this family’s loss and pain. I felt like I was crying the grief of the world. Crying for Briana and her family. Crying for the family of that first grader and the entire community of Marshall. Crying for those in my circle who have lost loved ones (seven thus far) to COVID.

In all this grief and suffering and pain and death, I hold onto hope. Hope that we can overcome. Hope that we can heal. Hope that we can set aside politics and misinformation and me-attitudes to do what is right. To care about others and to act like we care. To understand the importance of health and science in defeating this virus. To cry tears of joy rather than tears of unending grief.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Honoring farm women via my poetry in a Minnesota museum April 27, 2021

My poem (to the left of the woman in the dress), my mom’s high school graduation photo and a four-generation family photo of me, my mom, eldest daughter and granddaughter are included in a museum exhibit in southwestern Minnesota. Photo courtesy of the Lyon County Historical Society Museum.

AS NATIONAL POETRY MONTH ends this week, I want to share exciting news about a rural-themed poem I wrote. The poem, “Ode to My Farm Wife Mother,” originally published in South Dakota State University’s literary journal, Oakwood, in 2017. Today that poem is part of a museum exhibit in Marshall, Minnesota, 60 miles to the northeast of Brookings, South Dakota.

My poem first published in South Dakota State’s Oakwood literary magazine.

I feel humbled and honored to have my poem, inspired by memories of my hardworking farm wife mother, in the Lyon County Historical Society Museum’s newest semi-permanent exhibit, “Making Lyon County Home.” The exhibit opened in January. Its purpose, according to Executive Director Jennifer Andries, is “to share stories, artifacts, and photographs from Lyon County after World War II and to inspire residents and visitors to share their memories and experiences of growing up and living in Lyon County and the region.”

4-H and more are featured in this section of “Making Lyon County Home.” Photo courtesy of the Lyon County Historical Society Museum.

I grew up in this prime agricultural region, some 20 miles to the west on a dairy and crop farm near Vesta in Redwood County. I knew Marshall well back then as a shopping destination. A place to buy clothes, shoes and other essentials. But even more, I understood rural life decades ago because I lived it. I witnessed, too, how my mom worked hard to raise six children on our family farm. Before marriage, she attended Mankato Commercial College and then returned to her home area to work an office job in Marshall. Like most women of the 1950s, once she married, she stopped working off the farm.

These family photos complement my poem. Photo courtesy of the Lyon County Historical Society Museum.

My poem honors her in a poetic snapshot timeline of life beginning shortly before she married my farmer father. Saturday evening dances. Then rocking babies. Everyday life on the farm. Challenges. And finally, the final verse of Mom shoving her walker down the hallways of Parkview.

Whenever I write poetry, especially about life in rural Minnesota, I find myself deep within memory. Visualizing, tasting, smelling, hearing, even feeling. Although I took some creative license in penning “Ode to My Farm Wife Mother” (I don’t know that Mom ever drank whiskey or danced at the Blue Moon Ballroom in Marshall), it is primarily true. She met my dad at a dance in southwestern Minnesota. She washed laundry in a Maytag, baked bread every week, made the best peanut butter oatmeal bars…

An overview of the exhibit space featuring my poem and family photos. Photo courtesy of Lyon County Historical Society Museum.

I expect many who lived in this rural region in the 1950s-1970s can relate. Says LCHS Director Andries of my poem: “It is a good fit for the exhibit and fits with the agriculture section and the role of farm wives and mothers. The poem itself goes beyond just the agriculture area. I feel many people can resonate with the poem with the sense of being carefree while we are young but at some point we all have responsibilities but that doesn’t mean we lose our carefree spirit.”

Exactly.

Those sentiments were echoed by Tom Church, former managing director of Minneapolis-based Museology Museum Services, lead contractor for the “Making Lyon County Home” exhibit. Church first contacted me more than a year ago about using my poem. He said then that the poem “offers a nice snapshot of the era and setting we’re trying to evoke in several places within the exhibit and will fit well with our story.”

A 1950s era kitchen, left, is part of the “Making Lyon County Home” exhibit. Photo courtesy of the Lyon County Historical Society Museum.

I appreciate stories rooted in a strong sense of place. The new exhibit features themes of natural landscape, agriculture, education, industry and community. For example, the devastating and deadly June 13, 1968, F5 tornado in Tracy centers a display with information and oral histories. How well I remember that disaster. The 1980s farm crisis focuses another section. A late 1950s era kitchen fits the beginning time period of my poem.

Although I have yet to view the exhibit, I hope to do so this summer. And even more, I want my mom to know how she, and other farm women of the era, are honored via my poem. I want them to see themselves in my words, to understand the depth to which I value them. My mom, through her selflessness, her hard work, her kindness, her love, her faith, helped shape me. Today, as Mom lives out her final days in hospice, her memory and cognition diminished, I feel a deep sense of loss, of grief. But I hold onto the memories of a mother who read nursery rhymes, gardened, and, before I was born, enjoyed carefree Saturday evenings out with friends. Dancing. Laughing, Delighting in life.

FYI: The Lyon County Historical Society Museum, 301 West Lyon Street, Marshall, is open from 11 am – 4 pm Monday – Friday and from noon – 4 pm Saturdays. The “Making Lyon County Home” exhibit was partially funded by a Minnesota Historical and Cultural Heritage grant. The exhibit is semi-permanent, meaning artifacts and stories can be rotated to fit within the themes.

Ode to My Farm Wife Mother

Before my brother,

you were Saturday nights at the Blue Moon Ballroom—

a bottle of Jim Beam whiskey in a brown paper bag,

Old Spice scenting your dampened curls,

Perry Como crooning love in your ear.

Then motherhood quelled your dancing duet.

Interludes passed between births

until the sixth, and final, baby slipped into your world

in 1967. Thirteen years after you married.

Not at all unlucky.

Life shifted to the thrum of the Maytag,

sing-song nursery rhymes,

sway of Naugahyde rocker on red-and-white checked linoleum.

Your skin smelled of baby and yeasty homemade bread

and your kisses tasted of sweet apple jelly.

In the rhythm of your days, you still danced,

but to the beat of farm life—

laundry tangled on the clothesline,

charred burgers jazzed with ketch-up,

finances rocked by falling corn and soybean prices.

Yet, you showed gratitude in bowed head,

hard work in a sun-baked garden,

sweetness in peanut butter oatmeal bars,

endurance in endless summer days of canning,

goodness in the kindness of silence.

All of this I remember now

as you shove your walker down the halls of Parkview.

in the final set of your life, in a place far removed

from Blue Moon Ballroom memories

and the young woman you once were.

#

Poem copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Blog post © Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Welcome to the river in Northfield April 26, 2021

The historic Ames Mill hugs the Cannon River at the dam in downtown Northfield, Minnesota.

THE RIVER RUNS THROUGH. Behind businesses, over the dam by the aged mill, under bridges…

Bridging the Cannon by Bridge Square.

In Northfield, the Cannon River always draws me. There’s something about water. About the power of a river, the mesmerizing movement, the rise and fall thereof, the sense of peace which flows through me when I view water. Or watch fire. Or hear wind.

Posted on the railing by the dam, a reminder that we’re still in a pandemic.

On a recent Sunday, Randy and I headed toward the Riverwalk in the heart of historic downtown Northfield. We passed, and paused, at Bridge Square, the community’s gathering place. Every town should have a spot like this for folks to meet, to center causes, to converse or to simply sit.

We stopped to watch the Cannon spill over the Ames Mill Dam next to the 1865 Malt-O-Meal (now Post Consumer Brands) mill that still produces hot cereal, the scent often wafting over the city.

A flowering tree bursts color into Bridge Square near the river.
Spring in art, at the local tourism office.

I delighted in a blossoming tree and the spring-themed art painted on the front window of the Northfield Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism office. Seemingly small things like this add an artsy vibe to Northfield. Details matter. Art matters. Nature matters.

The narrow walkway by the Contented Cow (a British style pub) leads to Division Street from the Riverwalk.

When we reached the riverside back of the Contented Cow, I noticed for the first time the Holstein painted retaining walls and tables. Why had I not previously seen this? It appears to have been here for awhile.

The back of an aged building photographed from the Riverwalk.

I find backs of buildings bare bones interesting, like nouns without adjectives.

Words on the Riverwalk stairway.

That’s the thing about slowing down. Noticing. Sometimes we fail to walk at a pace that allows us to see, truly see, the world around us. The backs of buildings. The flow of the river. To take it all in, starry-eyed at the beauty which surrounds us.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

April observations from my Minnesota backyard April 23, 2021

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Oh, to see the trees leafing out…a sure sign of spring in Minnesota.

SPRING IN MINNESOTA brings depth to the landscape. A richness of color. Months of grey and brown fade, replaced by pops of vibrant hues in spring flowers, by vivid blue skies, by bursts of green in leafing trees.

My backyard shows all those signs of spring. As I hang laundry on the line on an April morning with a lingering nip of cold, the sun shines bright. The shrill voice of cardinals pierces through the steady noise of traffic.

Tulips color my yard.

Around the corner, next to the house foundation, 18 red and yellow tulips await the shifting of the sun. Soon they will “open their mouths,” as my now 30-something daughter assessed as a toddler.

Soon ferns will unfold in fullness. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

In the same flowerbeds, ferns rise from the earth. Soon to fill the space, to wave in the wind with a rhythm that seems poetically beautiful.

Oh, the light on these hosta leaves…

Hostas erupt in clusters of green leaves that will eventually spread wide.

Soon the bleeding hearts will bloom. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

And in three spots along the fence, bleeding hearts emerge, buds already forming on one plant.

This week has proven hard on plants with morning temps in the 20s. Tulip heads and bleeding heart buds drooped, bowing to the cold. They’ve since rebounded.

The reality of spring in Minnesota is fickle. One day sunshine and warmth, the next snow flurries and cold. I never quite trust, even in April and into early May, that winter has exited. We’ve experienced May snowstorms and certainly plenty in April. Snow shovels remain at the ready.

The greens of trees and of grass and plants seems particularly vivid in spring.

But for today, I believe in spring. I see it. Overhead in the greening of trees against the blue sky. Below in the push of plants through the cold soil. And in my spirit, I feel a renewed sense of optimism, a joyfulness that comes in this season of hanging laundry on the line with the sun beaming bright.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Of bugs, fiddleheads & anthills April 22, 2021

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Grandpa and grandchildren follow the pine-edged driveway last summer at a Minnesota lake cabin. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo July 2020.

HE BENT LOW, SQUATTING, trying to peer into the pinprick of a hole centering the mound of black dirt.

“Bug. Bug,” my 28-month-old grandson repeated. Three of us circled him—me, Grandpa (whom he calls Buddy) and Sister. In that moment, the anthill focused our attention. In that moment I realized, once again, how much I love being a grandma. How much I love seeing the world through the eyes of Isaac and his five-year-old sister, Isabelle.

This past weekend the pair stayed overnight with us, minus the parents. Randy and I love this special time with our grandchildren. Time to hug and cuddle and read and play. And explore nature.

With warm and sunny weather, we spent much of our weekend outdoors. Blowing bubbles. Playing Posy Pitch. Chalking cement. Climbing playground equipment and pushing swings and running after a little guy who moves incredibly fast.

We enjoyed nature in our yard and those anthills along the sidewalk. Isaac delighted in the ants and then did what seems innate—demolished the hills with his shoes. We never showed him.

The bugs that intrigued Isaac.

Bugs and worms enthralled him when Grandpa/Buddy flipped flat slabs of limestone to expose both. I can’t recall how many times Isaac asked to see those bugs.

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

He loved the tulips, too, two red and two yellow blooming on the south side of the house. “Match,” he said. He’s big in to matching, just like he’s big in to letters of the alphabet. And he loves the sun and moon, imagining both in our overhead dining room light. At least this visit Isaac didn’t awaken early enough to see the sun and the moon simultaneously as he did during his last overnight stay.

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

I showed Isaac and Izzy the bird nest I found lying in the grass a few weeks ago, small blue egg still cozied inside the circle of dried grass. They listened, too, to the shrill whistle of a cardinal and heard Grandpa whistle in reply.

Our granddaughter zooms along on her scooter last year at North Alexander Park in Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2020.

When you pause to think like a child, listen like a child, see like a child, the natural world opens wide to awe and new-ness and delight. And that’s worth remembering, especially today, Earth Day.

Fiddleheads in my backyard.

I showed the pair fiddleheads—tightly coiled fern fronds destined to unfurl in the warmth and sunshine of an April day.

Even a pine cone holds wonder in the hands of a two-year-old. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo July 2020.

While walking and playing at the Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf, we pocketed pine cones. And a smooth flat stone. Treasures.

Time with our grandchildren is treasured. Isaac loves watches and clocks. “Tick tock,” he says, when pointing to clocks in our house or carrying around the vintage alarm clocks I have in a small collection. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

But the true treasure is time. Time with Isabelle and Isaac. Time to love on them and teach them and learn from them. Time to grow our love for one another and strengthen that special bond between grandparent and grandchild. A bond unlike any other.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Able to breathe again April 21, 2021

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A message chalked in Bridge Square in Northfield carries a repeated phrase as young Black people continue to die at the hands of police. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo August 2020.

WHEN MY ELDEST DAUGHTER texted at 2:31 pm Tuesday that a verdict had been reached in the Derek Chauvin trial, I replied with one simple word. What?

That the jury could reach a verdict in such a short time—about 10 hours—following weeks of testimony likely meant that the former Minneapolis police officer would be found guilty of killing George Floyd on May 25, 2020, in Minneapolis by pressing his knee on Floyd’s neck for 9 minutes and 29 seconds.

I immediately switched on the TV to await reading of the verdict by Judge Peter Cahill. As I waited and watched news coverage, I felt a sense of hope. Hope that this would end in a conviction. Hope that, finally, there would be accountability in the death of a Black man at the hands of police.

I’d watched the Chauvin trial off-and-on. I heard the words of the bystanders who witnessed Floyd’s death, who pleaded with police officers to give him medical attention. Who asked Chauvin to remove his knee from Floyd’s neck. Who chose to pause and care and document and attempt to save another human being’s life. They felt hopeless, helpless, traumatized, according to their sworn testimony. I listened, too, to police officers testify against one of their own. And I heard Floyd’s loved ones and medical experts speak. Listening to testimony left me at times feeling exhausted and heart-broken.

So when the guilty of all three counts—second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter—came down yesterday, I felt relief. Finally.

I watched Chauvin as the verdict was read. His eyes darted from side-to-side. I wondered what he was thinking in that moment and the moments following—when his bail was revoked, he was handcuffed and led away to wait in a Minnesota prison for his sentencing in eight weeks.

Messages on a house in small town Dundas, Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo August 2020.

But mostly, I wondered how the Floyd family felt. Later they would speak at a news conference led by Civil Rights activist Al Sharpton and Civil Rights attorney Ben Crump. Said Sharpton: “This gives us the energy to fight on.” And Crump: “America, let’s frame this moment as a moment where we are finally getting close to living up to our Declaration of Independence…that all men are created equally…with certain unalienable rights like life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

My mind focused on this single word: life. George Floyd needlessly lost his life on May 25 at the corner of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue in south Minneapolis, a place now known as George Floyd Square.

In the 11 months since, his family has focused on attaining justice in the death of their brother/cousin/uncle/father and on effecting change. They have done that with grace, poise, eloquence, prayer and passion. George’s brother, Philonise Floyd, has stepped up as the family spokesman. At Tuesday’s news conference, these words, especially, resonated with me: “Today we are able to breathe again.” That comment by Philonise linked directly to George Floyd’s plea to police officers as he lay face down on the pavement dying. “I can’t breathe.”

A photo and comment posted at the “Selma to Montgomery: Marching Along the Voting Rights Trail” exhibit at St. Olaf College in Northfield in 2015. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2015.

Much work remains to be done. Tuesday’s verdict marks an important step in accountability and a move toward justice and equality. It’s easy to type that. It’s harder to live it. To speak up. To take action. To care. And we need to care, whether we live along a rural gravel road, in a small town, in the heart of a big city or anywhere in between.

FYI: I’d encourage you to read posts by two Minnesota bloggers whom I respect and follow and who share their thoughts on the Derek Chauvin verdict. Click here to read Margit Johnson’s post, “Endings and Beginnings,” and Kathleen Cassen Mickelson’s “Guilty. Guilty. Guilty.”

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Back at the Rice County Fairgrounds

Looking toward food stands and the Midway. To the right, is the outdoor entertainment center. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.

VACATED. That word best describes my assessment of the Rice County Fairgrounds in Faribault during a recent walk there.

Many local groups have food stands at the fair. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.
Picnic tables near the pork food stand. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.
The presence of 4-Hers at the fair is strong. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.

In the absence of people, the absence of animals, the absence of a carnival, the absence of exhibits, the place feels empty. No pulsating lights on the Midway. No smell of grilling burgers. No taste of sugary mini donuts. No shouts of kids. No feel of a prize stuffed animal clutched in arms.

The entertainment space to the left with the St. Luke’s food stand on the right. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.

If everything works out COVID-wise, this fairgrounds will teem with people come late July. Animals will fill barns. Ribbons will mark prize-winning 4-H entries. Greasy cheese curds will satisfy those who crave fair food. The sounds of music and clustered conversations and happy kids will create a steady buzz of noise. Little hands will grasp adult hands and teenage hands will lock in fair love. People will reconnect. Celebrate. Experience that which was lost last summer, during the height of the pandemic.

Love this signage. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.
The commercial exhibit building. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.
Garden decor stored until the fair. The garden is next to the conservation building. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.

This is the fair I imagine as I walk past shuttered buildings, as I pause to photograph buildings and signs and expanses of open space.

Just a snippet of the 32 barn swallow nests on Curtis Hall. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.

And then I pause outside the 4-H building, Curtis Hall, to photograph the row of barn swallow nests mudded under the eaves. So many. Thirty-two. Too many. If there’s one bird I dislike, it’s the barn swallow. We have a history. As a child, I endured barn swallows swooping over me as I did farm chores. The swallows built their nests on beams above the barn aisle, my direct work route. I felt threatened by them as I shoveled manure into gutters, pushed a wheelbarrow full of ground feed down the aisle. My feelings for the swallow have not changed. Even though they eat mosquitoes, I still don’t like this bird.

Just another view of those swallow nests. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.

That’s my sidebar from the fairgrounds, perhaps one you can relate to if you did farm chores like me.

The sheep arena is named after a Rice County deputy killed in the line of duty. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo 2021.
A view of the sheep barn. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.
Each of the livestock buildings is numbered. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.

Fairs are rooted in agriculture. Prize animals. Prize vegetables. A once-a-year opportunity to showcase the best of barns and of gardens. But today’s fair is much more. Entertainment. Creativity. And, above all, a place for communities to come together once a year in one place. To celebrate. To connect.

The Rice County Fair office with the grandstand in the background. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.

FYI: The Rice County Fair is tentatively set for July 21-25 in Faribault. Whether it happens depends on all of us. See my previous post.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

From Rice County: Fair or not? April 20, 2021

The Rice County Fair office, Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.

DECADES AGO, AS A YOUNG newspaper reporter, I covered county fairs. I’d grab my notebook and my camera and head to the fairgrounds. One particular summer, I was assigned to photograph 4-H kids and their animals at the Brown County Free Fair in New Ulm while working for The Sleepy Eye Herald-Dispatch. I spent days tracking down youth and photographing them with their prize livestock. Pigs. Cows. Sheep. Horses. Chickens. Try getting animals to cooperate for a photo shoot. Not easy. The experience left me so exhausted and fair-weary that I lost all interest in county fairs.

Among the many popular local food booths. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.
Rice County 4-H is an integral part of the fair. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.
Next to a livestock building sits this carnival ride, originating in Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.

Ever since, I’ve seldom attended a county fair. But I recognize most people love fairs, including the Rice County Fair here in Faribault. They enjoy the food, the carnival rides, the entertainment, the exhibits and, yes, even all those penned animals hauled to town by 4-H families.

Livestock buildings at the Rice County Fairgrounds. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.

Last summer, COVID-19 canceled our fair. And most other fairs, including The Minnesota State Fair, aka The Great Minnesota Get-Together. This summer, from small town Minnesota to the metro, officials hope to host fairs. In Rice County, the fair board tentatively plans for a July 21-25 fair. Whether that happens will depend on the pandemic and state restrictions on gatherings.

The open air BINGO shed at the Rice County Fairgrounds. Minnesota Prairie Root photo March 2021.
Just across the way from the BINGO shed sits the Beer Garden. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.
One of the newer fair buildings houses open class exhibits. Minnesota Prairie Roots file March 2021.

I’m all for putting health and safety first. This pandemic is far from over with cases of the virus surging. I recognize the weariness folks are feeling, but don’t accept that as an excuse for behavior that is increasing the spread. If people want to enjoy BINGO and beer, cheese curds and carnival rides, art and animals, and so much more at the fair, then they need to intentionally choose to help stop the spread of COVID. Mask up. Properly. Social distance. Stay home when feeling unwell. Get vaccinated.

An example of needed touch-ups. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.

On a recent afternoon, Randy and I walked the Rice County Fairgrounds, just to have a different place to explore away from people. The emptiness of the space, without distracting crowds, exposes much. I observed that many of the aging buildings need upkeep, especially paint.

The new public restrooms at the Rice County Fairgrounds. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.

I’m sure fair-goers will appreciate one new addition—the construction of public restrooms.

A view of the grandstand underside. This was rebuilt following an arson fire many years ago. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.

I often wonder why the fairgrounds aren’t used more, especially the grandstand. That said, the Cannon Valley Farmers’ Market sets up occasionally at the fairgrounds in Faribault. Car shows and food trucks have also used the grounds. In a year when spread of the virus remains an ongoing concern, this vast outdoor space offers options to indoor gatherings.

Photographed on the side of the Rice County Fair office in March. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.

Whether the Rice County Fair happens in July remains unknown. It’s really up to us to follow public health and safety mandates/guidelines and to choose vaccination. We’re not powerless. We have the ability to control our behavior, to think beyond ourselves to the public good. To make the fair happen in 2021.

FYI: Rice County is lagging in vaccinations. According to Rice County Public Health April 16 data, 41.7 percent of county residents ages 16 and above have received at least one dose of the COVID vaccine. That compares to 52 percent statewide. We can do better.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Please check back for more Rice County Fairgrounds photos.

 

In New Ulm: George’s Ballroom, when the music stops April 19, 2021

The boarded entrance to the long-closed George’s Ballroom in New Ulm. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo June 2020.

I CAN ALMOST HEAR the rhythmic oom-pah-pah of the polka, see the couples twirling across the scuffed wooden dance floor, smell the scent of whiskey poured from bottles hidden in brown paper bags.

George’s, on the corner of Center and German Streets, also housed a bar and, at one time, a bowling alley. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo June 2020.

Across Minnesota, ballrooms once centered Saturday evenings with wedding receptions, concerts and parties celebrating milestones. The Blue Moon Ballroom in Marshall. The Gibbon Ballroom, site of Polka Days, in Gibbon. The Pla-Mor Ballroom in Rochester. George’s Ballroom in New Ulm. And many others.

The historic marquee marks George’s Ballroom. What a beautiful piece of art. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo June 2020.

Now most of these entertainment venues are shuttered. Abandoned. Or gone. The places of memories shared in stories. The places of memories photographed. A bride tossing her bouquet. A couple wrapped in each other’s arms. A trio wildly whirling in The Chicken Dance. My parents met at a dance in a southwestern Minnesota ballroom in the early 1950s. So many Minnesotans hold ballroom memories.

The bar entrance is here, the ballroom entry to the right. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo June 2020.

Last summer while in New Ulm, I photographed the exterior of George’s Ballroom, an art deco style brick structure built in 1947 by George Neuwirth. The facility, which could hold up to 3,000 guests, once served as this community’s celebration and concert hub. Lawrence Welk, Glen Miller, The Six Fat Dutchmen and other big name bands played here.

George’s closed in 1991, reopened for awhile under new ownership and then shuttered again—permanently—in the early 2000s. Property taxes went unpaid. Options expired.

Now, nearly 20 years later, the former dance hall faces likely demolition, according to media reports. Cost to restore the ballroom is estimated at $5 million. Cost to demolish it, $1 million. That’s a lot of money. But when you’re dealing with mold from water damage, asbestos and other health and safety issues, costs climb quickly.

Here you can see some of the damage, underneath that BAR sign. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo June 2020.

All of this saddens me. I love historic buildings. They’re often well-built and hold important historic, community and personal importance. But I am also a realist who recognizes that not everything can be saved.

The marquee first caught my photographic interest. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo June 2020.

I do hope, though, that the George’s marquee and signage—which drew me to photograph the building in the heart of downtown New Ulm—will be saved. It sounds like that’s the plan. I hope the historic art can be incorporated into an outdoor public space rather than tucked inside, mostly unseen and under appreciated. People need easy access to George’s memorabilia. To photograph. To reminisce. To remember the Saturday nights of Big Bands and polkas and partying with family and friends. With a little creative thinking, George’s can continue to draw locals and others, adding another attraction to a community that excels as a destination city.

TELL ME: What would you do with George’s Ballroom and/or the marquee and signage? I’d love to hear your creative ideas and/or your memories of George’s or other ballrooms.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Hope, joy & kindness at the clinic April 16, 2021

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 5:00 AM
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Photographed along the bike trail in the Atwood neighborhood of Madison, Wisconsin. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2020.

AS I WAITED POST VACCINATION in the clinic waiting room for the mandatory 15-minute observation, I observed. I am a people-watcher. A listener. A person who notices her environment.

After texting family, I set my cellphone aside to watch. Nearly every other person was on their phone, one guy even answering two calls. But, with magazines absent from tables and time to pass, few options remained. I’d left my library book, Funeral for a Friend by Brian Freeman, at home.

I wondered about all these people, if they felt as happy and thankful as me to receive the Pfizer vaccine protecting us against COVID-19. I expect they did.

Occasionally the nurse overseeing the small cluster of vaccinated individuals circulated among us. Checking times. And us. We each had labels stuck to our clothing, noting our dismissal time. I moved mine from just above the denim on my right knee to the right of my Army green jacket, making the label more visible.

Patients filtered in and out of the clinic as I sat there. Watching. A young mother entered, baby balanced on her hip. I was surprised to see her little one, perhaps six months old, wearing a face mask. I felt gratitude toward that mother who understands the value of face masks in protecting others and in keeping her child safe. The baby wore the mask with ease.

Photographed at LARK Toys in Kellogg, MN. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Soon my eyes shifted to another mother and child waiting nearby, outside the vision clinic. I watched as the observation nurse walked over and asked if she needed help. Her kindness touched me. I expect this mother, a Muslim woman dressed in a black niqab with only her eyes showing through a rectangular slit, may struggle with English. But she understood enough to reply, although I didn’t hear her response. And then the nurse bent toward the child, perhaps nine months old, waving and talking and engaging her. The baby waved back, a broad smile spreading across her sweet face. In that moment I felt joy. Joy in seeing this very basic human interaction. Culture and dress and skin tone and religion mattering not. Just one human being interacting with another in the most loving way.

Photographed several years ago in the window of a downtown Faribault business. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Moments like this give me hope. Hope that we can accept one another. Connect. Express kindness to one another. Care about each other. And realize that, at the core, we are all simply human beings living on this earth. Individuals with wants and needs, no matter our skin tone, our beliefs, our culture, our language, our job status, our anything.

Love in three languages (Spanish, Somali and English), printed on a mirror along Faribault’s Virtue Trail. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo August 2018.

Understanding and acceptance start with each of us. Like the interaction I witnessed between nurse and mother and child at the clinic. When the observation nurse cleared me to leave at 3:38 pm, I thanked her. Beneath my face mask, I smiled. And although she couldn’t see that smile, I hope she heard the joy and gratitude in my words.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling