Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Mingling with the bison in Minnesota August 28, 2019

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With more than 300 acres to roam, the bison conveniently clustered around a watering hole next to the road through the prairie during our visit to Minneopa State Park.

 

OH, GIVE ME A HOME, where the buffalo roam…

 

This pair was so close to our van that I could almost have reached out and touched the calf.

 

Whenever I think of buffalo, those lyrics pop into my head. My classmates and I sang the words during informal music time at Vesta Elementary School some 50-plus years ago.

 

Interpretive signage about the bison is positioned overlooking the prairie.

 

An overview of the Minneopa prairie, home to a herd of bison.

 

A map shows native prairie remaining in Minnesota, land needed by bison for grazing.

 

Or, whenever I think of buffalo, I remember childhood visits to the small zoo at Alexander Ramsey Park in Redwood Falls. There a tall wire fence separated us from these massive animals I associate with Native American buffalo hunts on the prairie.

 

 

Or, more accurately, bison hunts. These powerful animals are technically bison, not buffalo.

 

 

Today you can see them in Minnesota at the Minnesota Zoo, Blue Mounds State Park near Luverne and now at Minneopa State Park outside Mankato.

 

A gravel road slicing through the Minneopa prairie allows visitors to get a close-up view of the bison herd.

 

 

 

On a recent weekday afternoon, we drove to Mankato into bison territory. Literally. Vehicles turn onto a gravel road that winds through the Minneopa prairie, home to about 20 bison. Having grown up on a dairy and beef farm (with several mean bulls), I respect animals that outsize me, especially those with horns.

 

 

 

Vehicles park to watch the bison and a passenger steps out to photograph the dangerous animals.

 

I didn’t even question the validity of signage warning visitors to stay inside their vehicles because bison are dangerous. I watched in disbelief as a woman stood outside a car taking photos with the bison herd within stone’s throw. What on earth was she thinking? Only moments earlier a sheriff’s car passed by and I wished the deputy had seen, and ticketed, her.

 

 

We had a bit of a scare ourselves when a bison walking nearby suddenly bolted toward our van, but veered away at the last second. I envisioned horns impaling the metal.

 

 

These animals command respect. They are massive, powerful and beautiful, a part of our state’s history.

 

 

To share space with them upon the prairie is not only an experience, but an honor.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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Through a SoMinn Lens August 27, 2019

 

 

AS A CREATIVE, I always appreciate the opportunity to get my work out to a broader audience. I want to share my images and words. Not because I possess some big ego. But rather I want others to view the world around them through an artful perspective. With joy. With appreciation. Through the creative lens of a writer and photographer who seeks to notice the details within the wider picture, to engage all the senses. I strive for that in my art.

My newest creative endeavor landed me at Southern Minn Scene, a Southern Minnesota arts, entertainment and lifestyle magazine. The publication’s coverage area stretches from just south of the Twin Cities metro to the Minnesota/Iowa border and from the Mississippi River on the east to Mankato on the west (although I aim to stretch that western boundary farther west toward my native prairie).

Each month I’ll craft a photo essay, accompanied by several paragraphs of text, in a column titled Through a SoMinn Lens. If you’ve followed this blog for awhile, you’ll see familiar images. And other photos I haven’t previously published here. All the copy, though, will be new with my column leaning toward poetic prose. As a published poet, I value that art form. Journalistic style writing is reserved for the occasional features I will also pen for Southern Minn Scene.

 

 

My column debuts in the just-published September issue, which you can read online by clicking here. I focus on Wabasha’s SeptOberfest, a two-month celebration of autumn. I love this Mississippi River town any time of year for its natural and historic beauty, but especially during this family-friendly event.

 

 

I also crafted a feature on the annual Germanfest at St. John’s United Church of Christ, Wheeling Township. That’s east of Faribault and near Nerstrand Big Woods State Park. I’ve posted about that ethnic celebration several times here. I love the people of St. John’s. They are friendly, kind, and incredible cooks and bakers. The story proved an ideal fit for this food-themed issue of Southern Minn Scene. Be sure to read other writers’ food-focused stories about tasty desserts in the region to new foods at the Minnesota State Fair.

Beyond that, thank you for valuing art, whether literary, visual or performing. Today, more than ever, we need the arts. They enhance our lives, bring joy, broaden our worlds, our perspectives.

Disclaimer: I am paid for my work published by Southern Minn Scene, but not for this post.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Celebrating family along Faribault’s Virtues Trail August 26, 2019

Waiting in line for face painting at the last Family Night. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo July 2019.

 

ANY TIME A COMMUNITY comes together to celebrate families through the arts rates as positive.

The Virtues Project Faribault does exactly that at monthly summer gatherings along the Virtues Trail in Heritage Bluff Park in the core of downtown. The final such seasonal event happens from 5:30 – 7:30 p.m. this Wednesday, August 28.

 

Face paintings by Laura O’Connor is wildly popular. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo July 2019.

 

After attending the previous Family Night at Virtues Trail in July, I’m sold on this activity-filled evening of storytelling, theater, crafts, games, music, face painting and more. To observe families enjoying each other, to see preschoolers engaged and happy, to watch elementary-aged kids creating art and much more simply delights me. We need more moments like this in our communities.

 

Hands-on art created at the July Family Night. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo July 2019.

 

Back to School themes this final Family Night just as kids are heading, or have already headed, back to school.

 

Love in three languages on a mirrored sign along the Virtues Trail. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo August 2018.

 

If my granddaughter lived locally, I’d take her to this event. Izzy would love every aspect of Family Night. If you live in or near Faribault, embrace this opportunity to celebrate families.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

From Sleepy Eye: When a small town clinic goes the extra mile August 23, 2019

Sleepy Eye Lake with the steeples of St. Mary’s Catholic Church visible in the distance across Minnesota State Highway 4.

 

ON A WEEKDAY AUGUST AFTERNOON as lovely as they come in Minnesota, I sat at a shelterhouse picnic table along the shores of Sleepy Eye Lake eating a salad. Sportsman’s Park proved a picturesque place to enjoy a picnic lunch with my husband and son before continuing west to visit my mom in a care center.

 

 

After lunch, we followed a paved trail to a public dock with a view of the lake and the town of Sleepy Eye to the south. I wasn’t at all surprised by the mucky green growth polluting the lake like most lakes in southern Minnesota.

 

 

A few kids hung out at a second dock angling for fish in the murky water. And two bikers zipped by in this park which also features 16 camping sites, two camper cabins, disc golf and a playground. Just a nice spot to picnic and enjoy the outdoors.

 

 

Sportsman’s Park seems pretty typical of most small town parks at first glance. But then I noticed something unique—a row of six white bicycles. Further investigation revealed a seasonal bike rental program offered through the Sleepy Eye Healthcare Foundation. Begun in the summer of 2017, Bike Share allows users to download an app and rent a bike. I never would have expected this in a community the size of Sleepy Eye with a population of some 3,400.

 

 

But given the 3.12-mile paved Sleepy Eye Bike Trail and the camp sites and cabins at this park, this seems an ideal fit.

 

 

The nonprofit foundation, part of Sleepy Eye Medical Center, aims “to provide excellent healthcare to our patients and to enhance the wellness and quality of life in the communities we serve.” Bike Share fulfills that mission. Maybe other healthcare teams offer the same in rural communities. But this is the first I’ve seen.

 

 

Additionally, the Sleepy Eye Healthcare Foundation sponsors an annual 5K Run/Walk for Health, a golf tournament and post-secondary scholarships for students entering the healthcare field. I’m not surprised really at the level of community support. I grew up in the county just to the west and understand the importance of local healthcare access. Without it, people sometimes drive hours to clinics and hospitals.

 

 

I’m getting sidetracked here. So I’ll circle back to those bikes, to my appreciation for these rural clinics and hospitals that show they care about the communities they serve through programs like Bike Share. The sign below the main Sportsman’s Park sign summarizes well the spirit of small towns like Sleepy Eye in the words “a cooperative project.” Working together to enhance wellness and the quality of life seems a noble goal no matter where you live, no matter the size of your community.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Inside Grizzly Canyon in downtown Sleepy Eye August 22, 2019

Grizzly Canyon Antiques & Collectibles in Sleepy Eye, Minnesota.

 

GRIZZLY CANYON. The name doesn’t really fit Sleepy Eye, a small farming community on the southwestern Minnesota prairie. There are no grizzly bears, or canyons, here. But the business name seems to fit Montana Mielke, the young man who owns Grizzly Canyon Antiques and Collectibles on Sleepy Eye’s main drag.

 

A local stops in to chat and play cards with Montana Mielke, left.

 

With a head of thick curly hair, a full beard and a stout build, his appearance suggests a rugged outdoorsman. This is all conjecture on my part. I never asked about his interests or the stories behind his personal and business names.

 

 

Not that either matters. He’s a personable guy, son of Brent Mielke who owns Zooman’s Wacky World of Fun across the street next to Sleepy Eye Stained Glass. His dad does his thing, he does his, Montana noted as we chatted.

 

 

As antique shops go, Grizzly Canyon is neat, orderly and not at all stuffed. I appreciate that. I often feel overwhelmed with too many antiques and collectibles cramming most antique stores.

 

 

While browsing and photographing some of the merchandise, with Montana’s OK, I noticed one particularly unusual piece—a Cape Canaveral U.S. Air Force Missile Test Center toy replica.

 

 

 

 

But I also spotted what I would expect to find in Sleepy Eye—items featuring Chief Sleepy Eye, the Dakota leader after whom this town is named.

 

 

 

 

Names. There’s that word again. Somehow Grizzy Canyon fits this narrow store with the Beware of Rattlesnakes poster and the wide-mouthed striking rattlesnake flashing its fangs inside a glass case.

 

 

FYI: Grizzly Canyon is open from 10:30 a.m. – 4 p.m. Monday-Friday and from 10:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. Saturday.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Coming soon to the former PIX Theater in Sleepy Eye: Coffee & Beer August 21, 2019

The PIX Theater marquee photographed in March 2018. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

WHEN I LAST PHOTOGRAPHED the marquee of the historic PIX Theater in downtown Sleepy Eye, I found the signage in need of repair. But I knew the future appeared bright for this once popular entertainment hub. Plans were underway by two local physicians to open a brewery and coffee shop in the old theater.

 

The coffee shop is expected to open first, later this summer, followed by the brewery.

 

Today that business, Sleepy Eye Brewing & Coffee Company, is nearer to opening. The evidence shows in the restored marquee. Peering through windows, I observed laborers working inside to create a space that will showcase the bones of this building.

 

This refurbished marquee at the PIX Theatre marks the site of a forthcoming brewery and coffee shop.

 

I look forward to stopping at the brewery in this small town just a short drive west of New Ulm along U.S. Highway 14. I expect this to become a popular stop, destination or local hang-out for those who appreciate craft beer. And for those who don’t, they can patronize the coffee shop—complete with soup, sandwiches, pastries and coffee during daytime hours.

 

Photographed last week before Sleepy Eye’s annual Corn Days celebration. The marquee serves as a community bulletin board for now.

 

Anytime a business opens in a rural community is reason to celebrate, but especially now with Del Monte’s announced closure of its Sleepy Eye food processing plant. The closure will affect 69 full-time employees and some 350 seasonal workers. This is a tremendous economic loss for this farming community. When I was in Sleepy Eye last week, Del Monte had not yet announced this devastating decision.

 

I’m reflected in the mirrored underside of the marquee.

 

As I photographed the theater marquee, I delighted in its restored beauty and what this means to the good folks of Sleepy Eye. This historic building holds so many memories…with new ones yet to come.

 

I need to see the marquee at night with the lights aglow.

 

THOUGHTS?

Click here to view a story on KEYC-TV in Mankato about the brewery and coffee shop.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Downtown Sleepy Eye: A glimpse of small town character August 20, 2019

Just east of Sleepy Eye on U.S. Highway 14. That’s Christensen Farms headquarters to the right.

 

SMALL TOWNS, like cities, possess character. Each is unique. No matter how many rural communities I visit or how often I tour the same town, I discover something new. It takes more than a precursory glance to truly appreciate a community. Too often people dismiss small towns as places to simply pass through when traveling from Point A to Point B. But these communities are much more. And to see that requires pulling off the highway, parking your vehicle and exploring.

 

Agriculture anchors the small towns of southwestern Minnesota.

 

On a recent drive to southwestern Minnesota, Randy and I stopped in Sleepy Eye, which is west of New Ulm which is west of Mankato. I am forever pointing out to folks that civilization exists west of Mankato. I am proud to have grown up on the southwestern Minnesota prairie in rural Redwood County. I once lived and worked for the newspaper in Sleepy Eye, located in Brown County next to my county of origin.

 

A snippet of downtown Sleepy Eye.

 

Sleepy Eye, like so many other small towns, has felt the impact of a more mobile society, of technology and more. Businesses I remember—a bakery, a department store—have long closed.

 

A wooden cut-out of Chief Sleepy Eye as photographed through an antique shop window. The town is named after this Dakota leader.

 

Photographed inside the entry of Sleepy Eye Stained Glass.

 

This refurbished marquee at the PIX Theatre marks the site of a forthcoming brewery and coffee shop.

 

But new businesses have opened in the decades since I left. Antique shops. Sleepy Eye Stained Glass, the reason for our stop. And the soon-to-open Sleepy Eye Brewing and Coffee Company.

 

Agriculture centers these small towns as evidenced in this storefront signage.

 

A display window at Zooman’s Wacky World of Fun drew my interest. I would like to explore this space open to the public (on weekends) for birthday and other parties. It was closed when I was in Sleepy Eye.

 

Another section of downtown Sleepy Eye.

 

While Randy searched for stained glass, I grabbed my camera and meandered through a short stretch of the business district along busy U.S. Highway 14. I found myself wishing the second stoplight had not been removed during recent road reconstruction. The downtown is much less pedestrian friendly now. It’s a difficult roadway to safely cross.

 

Posted on a door at the bottom of a stairway leading to upstairs apartments by Sleepy Eye Stained Glass. I love discovering signage like this.

 

That aside, I managed and took some photos that show the unique character of Sleepy Eye. Enjoy. And check back for more posts from this southwestern Minnesota community.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling