Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

A Minnesotan reflects on tornado terror during Severe Weather Awareness Week April 22, 2010

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I bought this tornado video for my brother Brian, who is fascinated by twisters, at a garage sale several years ago. I've never given it to him, nor have I watched the film.

I FIGURE THAT sometime tonight, when I wish I was peacefully sleeping, I’ll dream about tornadoes. I’ll likely awaken, terrified and shaken.

Tornadoes terrorize my sleep all too often. It takes only news about a tornado or viewing a photo or television footage of a tornado to trigger the night-time trauma.

Today, with warning sirens sounding state-wide during Severe Weather Awareness Week, the atmosphere in my bedroom is primed for stormy weather.

Now, you’re likely wondering why I’m so inclined to having nightmares about tornadoes. The answer is simple: the June 13, 1968, Tracy, Minnesota, tornado. The twister was an F5, the most powerful, with winds of 261- 318 mph.

I was 11 ½ years old when the destructive tornado struck the southwestern Minnesota prairie town, killing nine and injuring 150. If not for the fact that I lived within 25 miles of Tracy, the tornado likely would not have impacted me so much.

But, I remember because my dad, who claims he watched the twister from our barn, drove our family to view the devastation. I can’t recall much other than a twisted, mangled mess of debris, a tossed boxcar and snapped trees. And, somewhere, tucked in the recesses of my memory, I store this tidbit about a piece of straw driven through a board. True or not, I’m unsure.

The fact that nine people died in Tracy haunted me and remains with me to this day. As a child every strong wind storm and every tornado watch or warning sent fear shivering through my body.

Then in 1979 (or 1980, my mom and I can’t recall the exact year), fear became reality. The Redwood County farm where I grew up was struck by a tornado. I was grown and gone, living and working in Gaylord as a newspaper reporter, when I got the call from home. The storm had partially toppled a silo, tossed silage wagons about in the field, and wrenched a railing from the house, among other damage.

Fortunately for my family, my dad, who would have typically been in the barn at that early evening hour, had left to get my sister from nearby Wabasso. My mom, home alone, recalls seeing the top of a tree bend and touch the earth. She saw debris—probably that railing—fly past the window as she descended the basement stairs.

So, now you understand why I don’t take tornado warnings lightly. For years, I freaked out whenever tornado sirens sounded. Then I became a mom and realized that I needed to curb those fears for the sake of my children. I didn’t always accomplish that. But I tried.

Some of the 46 tornadoes featured in the video.

OUT OF CURIOSITY, I checked today on Minnesota tornado statistics, from 1950 – 2005, compiled by the National Weather Service Weather Forecast Office in the Twin Cities. Polk County in northwestern Minnesota has had the most tornadoes, 47, during those years. That follows with 42 in Otter Tail County, three counties to the south.

Counties with 30 or more twisters include Stearns and Kandiyohi (39); Freeborn (37); St. Louis (31); and Nobles (30).

In Redwood County, my home county, there have been 23 or 24, depending on which statistic page you view on the weather service Web site. Only one Redwood County tornado-related death was recorded in those 55 years, on August 4, 1958.

Rice County, my current county of residence, has had 17 – 21 twisters, again depending on which page you view.

But the one fact I find most interesting is this: Minnesota’s only two F5 tornadoes—the most powerful—occurred in adjoining southwestern Minnesota counties. On June 13, 1968, the F5 tornado struck Tracy in Lyon County killing nine. Twenty-four years and three days later, on June 16, 1992, an F5 twister struck just 30 miles away in Chandler in Murray County. One person died and 35 were injured.

Now after doing all this tornado thinking and research, I expect tonight that I will be chased by tornadoes.

What are your worries related to tornadoes? Have you experienced a twister? I would like to hear your concerns and stories. Please consider submitting a comment to Minnesota Prairie Roots.

And, when those test warning sirens sound this afternoon and again this evening, have a plan to keep yourself safe.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Tornado terror in Minneapolis August 22, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 3:42 PM

When tornadoes hit the metro area on Wednesday afternoon, I was concerned. My oldest daughter and other extended family members live in south Minneapolis.

I was pretty certain Amber was OK as she works in St. Paul. But I wasn’t sure about everyone else, including my mom, who was in Minneapolis visiting her brother.

Turns out everyone, and everything, was fine. Almost.

My niece Tara and her husband, Andy, who live in Plymouth, were driving to the Mall of America, inching along in stop-and-go traffic on Interstate 35 Wednesday afternoon, exactly when the tornadoes touched down.

As Tara tells the story, she first noticed a small branch or shrub blowing in the air while they were parked at a dead stop in the construction zone. By then the rain had mostly subsided.

Andy saw the foliage too, she says, but thought only that strong winds had blown something off a tree.

I’LL LET TARA PICK UP THE TALE: “He (Andy) continued to watch the cars around us as we crawled forward, and I continued to watch the debris. It wasn’t until I saw the tree branch/shrub swirling around again, this time accompanied by a head or foot board of a bed, that I started to freak out and realize it was a tornado.

“I opened my window to listen for sirens, but there was nothing. The sky wasn’t a funny color, there was no rumbling, and WCCO radio wasn’t saying a peep about bad weather.

“Areas of 35 were also starting to flood. There was an area on the other side where the water was up to the top of the vehicle tires. The water was rushing like a river as the person was getting out of their vehicle and the water was spilling through the cracks of the barrier into our lane so we had to maneuver the car quickly into the other lane. I’m not sure if our side completely flooded like the other side because we were trying to get out of there as quickly as possible.

“The one thing I fear the most was within 50 feet of me yesterday! It was quite a scary experience and I don’t care to EVER be that close to a tornado again.”

I understand my niece’s fear and respect for tornadoes. During my childhood, a deadly tornado hit the farming community of Tracy some 25 miles to the south and west of my home farm. Nine people died. The images of that devastation are forever imprinted upon my memory.

Then, some 30 years ago, a tornado hit the farm where I grew up, demolishing the silo, tossing farm wagons around the fields and causing other damage.

I am thankful that my niece and her husband escaped the August 19 Minneapolis tornado unscathed, on the day of their third wedding anniversary.

© Copyright 2009 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Part I: Minnesota disasters up close April 14, 2016

The panel to the right introduces the Minnesota Disasters exhibit with each panel featuring a different disaster in our state.

The panel to the right introduces the Minnesota Disasters exhibit with each panel featuring a different disaster in our state.

DISASTER. How do you define that word? In a Minnesota Historical Society Traveling Exhibit currently displayed at the Steele County History Center in Owatonna, disaster covers everything from tornadoes to the 35W bridge collapse to the grasshopper plague, drought, blizzards and more.

I personally remember many Minnesota disasters—such as the bridge collapse; the Halloween blizzard of 1991; the 1998 St. Peter-Comfrey tornadoes; the 1968 Tracy tornado which killed nine; the drought of 1976; and the devastating floods of September 2010.

During Severe Weather Awareness Week, we prepare for dangerous storms like tornadoes. One panel in the exhibit highlights some of Minnesota's deadliest and most devastating tornadoes. The Tracy tornado was not included.

During Severe Weather Awareness Week, we prepare for dangerous storms like tornadoes. One panel in the exhibit highlights some of Minnesota’s deadliest and most devastating tornadoes. The Tracy tornado was not included.

This week, Minnesota Severe Weather Awareness Week, seems an appropriate time to focus on the topic of disasters and to show you the MHS exhibit, Minnesota Disasters: Stories of Strength and Survival.

Eric Lantz, 16, of Walnut Grove, shot this award-winning photo of the Tracy tornado as it was leaving town. He often took photos for the Walnut Grove Tribune, owned by his uncle, Everett Lantz. This image by Eric was awarded third place in the 1968 National Newspaper Association contest for best news photo.

Eric Lantz, 16, of Walnut Grove, shot this award-winning photo of the Tracy tornado as it was leaving town. He often took photos for the Walnut Grove Tribune, owned by his uncle, Everett Lantz. This image by Eric was awarded third place in the 1968 National Newspaper Association contest for best news photo. This copyrighted photo is courtesy of Scott Thoma with the original copyright retainted by Lantz.

I expect many of you have been, at some point, personally impacted by a disaster. The deadly Tracy tornado forever put the fear of tornadoes in my heart. That southwestern Minnesota community lies only 25 miles from my hometown; I saw the devastation in Tracy. Decades later, a tornado damaged the farm where I grew up and high winds partially ripped the roof from my home church of St. John’s Lutheran in Vesta. I respect the powerful forces of nature, specifically of wind.

A debris pile on the edge of the church parking lot includes pieces of steel from the roof and brick from the bell tower. Photo taken in September 2011.

A debris pile on the edge of the St. John’s Lutheran Church parking lot includes pieces of steel from the roof (covered with a tarp here) and brick from the bell tower. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2011.

Elsewhere in Minnesota—in Belview, St. Peter and individual farm sites across Minnesota—I’ve seen the damage a tornado can cause.  I reported on and photographed tornado damage while working as a newspaper reporter. When a tornado warning siren blows, you won’t see me standing in the driveway looking for the twister. I’ll be sheltering in the basement.

I cannot imagine so many grasshoppers that they obliterated everything.

I cannot imagine grasshoppers so thick that they obliterated everything.

As I perused the MHS disaster exhibit and the accompanying stories of disasters in Steele County, I realized the depth of loss Minnesotans have endured. The Grasshopper Plague of 1873-1877 recounts how locusts devoured even the laundry hanging on clotheslines.

I knew nothing of the flooding at the Milford Mine until I read this panel.

I knew nothing of the flooding at the Milford Mine until I read this panel.

On February 5, 1924, forty-one miners drowned in the Milford Mine near Crosby in northern Minnesota. “For God’s sake, run!” one miner shouted to his co-workers. A warning like that floods the mind with fear. I’d never heard of the mine disaster until touring the MHS exhibit in Owatonna. Now I’ll never forget it.

Because I have extended family in the Hinckley area, I was fully aware of The Great Hinckley Fire of 1894 which claimed 418 lives. To read of feet baking inside shoes and stockings from the fire is horrifying.

The devastation of dust and drought are covered in this panel.

The devastation of dust and drought are covered in this panel.

As bad as those and many other natural disasters, Minnesotans voted the drought of the 1920s and 30s (the Dust Bowl era) as the “number-one state weather event of the 20th century,” according to information posted in the exhibit. I was born decades after that disaster. But, as a teen, I recall a Good Friday dust storm that blew into Redwood County. We were shopping in nearby Marshall and arrived home to find the house layered in dirt; we’d left the windows open. For hours we worked to wash away the grime.

This huge, hard-as-rock snowdrift blocked our farm driveway in this March 1965 photo. I think my uncle drove over from a neighboring farm to help open the drive so the milk truck to reach the milkhouse.

This huge, hard-as-rock snowdrift blocked our rural Vesta driveway in this March 1965 photo. My uncle drove over from a neighboring farm to help open the drive so the milk truck could reach the milkhouse. I’m standing here with my mom, older brother and three younger siblings.

Blizzards, especially, imprinted upon my memory. There is nothing like a prairie blizzard that drives snow across open farm fields, sculpting the snow into rock-hard drifts around buildings and trees. Those winter storms of the 1960s and mid-1970s created all kinds of problems with roads closed, the power out and cows to be milked. Snowstorms of today don’t compare. And, no, I didn’t walk two miles to school uphill in a blizzard. Rather, in one particularly snowy winter, I rode to town on my dad’s cab-less John Deere tractor so I could catch the bus at Don’s Cafe to ride the 20 miles to junior high school in Redwood Falls. The bus drove sometimes on a single lane cut through snowbanks higher than the bus.

More panels in the Minnesota Disasters exhibit.

More panels in the Minnesota Disasters exhibit.

Tell me, what’s your story of dealing with a natural disaster? If you don’t have one, be thankful.

FYI: Check back tomorrow for a look at disasters in Steele County, Minnesota. The disasters exhibit will be on display through March 2017 at the history center in Owatonna. Click here for more information.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Connecting & helping one another December 18, 2012

I HAVE, on numerous occasions, connected buyers to sellers here on Minnesota Prairie Roots.

Ron and Peggy's elephant slide

I connected a New Yorker to this elephant slide in Faribault.

Within the past year, for example, I facilitated the sale of a $700 vintage elephant slide. A New York resident came across a blog post I’d written several years ago about the elephant slide spotted at a garage sale. She wondered if it was still available for purchase. It was and so Valerie and her husband made a whirlwind trip to Faribault to buy the slide after I connected her to the seller, Peggy.

A snippet of the cross Bud Paschke crafted honoring veterans from all branches of the military.

A snippet of the cross Bud Paschke crafted honoring veterans from all branches of the military. An Arizona woman saw this photo on my blog and inquired about the cross.

Just last week I connected an Arizona woman to Bud, a local craftsman featured in a post about a holiday craft sale at the Faribo West Mall. Bud creates the most stunning fretwork pieces and Rachel wanted one of the military crosses he’s made. Rachel’s check is in the mail and the cross will soon be on its way from Faribault to Arizona.

The photo by Eric Lantz illustrates the cover of Scott Thoma's just-published book.

A photo of the Tracy, Minnesota, tornado by Eric Lantz illustrates the cover of Scott Thoma’s book.

A few days ago Scott Thoma, who authored Out of the Blue, a book about the 1968 deadly tornado in Tracy, Minnesota, inquired about a tornado video I once highlighted on this blog. He thought perhaps it contained footage from that devastating tornado; it doesn’t. Scott has been searching for that elusive video. If any of you possess a video from the Tracy tornado, submit a comment and I will connect you with Scott. He wants to show the footage as a lead-in at book signing events.

A print of Harvey Dunn's "The Prairie is my Garden."

A print of Harvey Dunn’s “The Prairie is my Garden.”

On Saturday I received a snail mail inquiry about a print of the painting, “The Prairie is my Garden” by Harvey Dunn. I bought the print several years ago at a yard sale, featured it here and now a woman from northwestern Minnesota wants to buy it. June tells me her mother purchased the painting for her grandmother’s 80th birthday in 1968. But the print was lost in a fire several years ago.

I wanted to help June, but I love the Harvey Dunn print too much to give it up. Perhaps you have this Dunn print to pass along to June.

That brings us to today and an article I read in last week’s The Gaylord Hub, republished from the Fairfax Standard-Gazette. The request is much greater, much more serious.

An 8-year-old Gibbon boy is in need of a kidney transplant. His kidneys are failing. Fast. The article by Publisher/Editor Daniel McGonigle does not detail the cause of the kidney failure, only that a transplant is needed soon and that Samuel Forst’s mother is no longer a qualified donor. The family is seeking a healthy donor (18-40 years old, in good physical shape, not overweight or with high blood pressure) with type O blood.

If you match these requirements and are interested in testing for a live kidney donation to young Samuel, contact Ann at 612-625-9658 at University/Fairview Hospital here in Minnesota. Or call 612-672-7270.

Here in blogland, I’ve grown to appreciate the power of social media in connecting people, in meeting needs, in helping others.

I know asking for a kidney is huge. But I must try, for Samuel’s sake.

© Copyright 2012 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.”


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


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


From Faribault: The storm, the aftermath, the stories of kindness September 22, 2018

A tree fell onto these vehicles in my neighborhood during storms Thursday evening.


TORNADOES TERRIFY ME. So when severe weather, with the possibility of tornadoes, was forecast for southern Minnesota Thursday afternoon into evening, I felt a bit on edge. Not overly worried. But with the underlying thought that storms could happen here.

They did.


On the side street by my home, crews strategize the day after the storm.


Multiple confirmed tornadoes touched down in southern Minnesota Thursday evening, including one near Faribault. My community of some 24,000 was also hard hit by strong winds of up to 110 mph which destroyed the airport and ravaged my Willow Street/Tower Place/First Avenue Southwest neighborhood and many other neighborhoods.


The front page of the Faribault Daily News, September 22, 2018.


Two Faribault men are recovering from injuries sustained when a tree fell on them during the storm, according to a report in the Faribault Daily News.

In nearby small towns, it’s a similar story with downed trees and power lines and damage to vehicles and homes. In Morristown, though, homes were leveled and others uninhabitable.

From Granada to Cannon Falls, tornadoes and severe thunderstorms swept a swath of destruction across the landscape—demolishing farm buildings, flattening crops, downing too many trees and power lines to count.

Those stories I’ve read online and in print. The stories I’m sharing today are mine from observations and conversations. These are the stories that touched my heart, that even made me cry. But first, I’ll start with the sirens sounding and then, the storm.


My next-door neighbor’s flag was ripped from the pole, landing in the top of an evergreen.



It’s around 6:15 p.m. Thursday and I’ve just finished the dinner dishes. Randy is deciding whether to replace the radiator in our car or head to the basement to work on a stained glass window project for our church. He chooses the window.

He has just stepped into the shower when emergency warning sirens begin blasting. I look outside to a sky that seems anything but threatening. I switch on the TV. A tornado warning for Rice County and many other Minnesota counties scrolls across the bottom of the screen. I turn on the radio. The announcer warns listeners to seek shelter immediately with precise times the storms are expected to hit each community. Target time in Faribault is 10 minutes. I storm into the bathroom. As is typical with Randy, he shows little hurry, little concern, about the storm warning.

I already feel my anxiety rising. He did not witness the aftermath of a killer tornado that claimed nine lives and injured 125 in Tracy, Minnesota, in June 1968. I did. A tornado also hit my family farm and my hometown years after that. I grew up with a respect for tornadoes. I hope I can convince him this is serious.

As Randy showers, I close windows, gather flashlights, scoop up my camera bag and external hard drive. Within that 10-minute time frame we are in the basement with our cellphones, the radio tuned to the local station, airing its usual 6:30 p.m. reciting of the Rosary. I want local up-to-date weather news.


This image shows the conduit and power line ripped from our house, the wire lying across the driveway. Randy backed the van across the neighbor’s lawn to get out.


It doesn’t matter. Not long after, a loud bang sounds and the power goes out.

Randy continues cutting stained glass while I worry and text our daughter traveling in California. We hear and see little in our basement with two glass block windows. It’s probably better that way. But when I hear a roar, I ask whether that is rolling thunder or the signature tornado sound of a train. Randy says thunder, but not with significant confidence. Sirens continue to wail off and on for nearly 40 minutes. I’ve never heard emergency warning sirens blare that often for that long. Ever. I understand this is serious.

Our phones blast emergency alerts: Tornado Warning in this area til 7:00 PM CDT. Take shelter now. Check local media.–NWS

To say I am terrified would be accurate. I continue to text family who are keeping us updated from media accounts. We are trying to conserve our cellphone batteries with no way to charge them.

Around 7:10 p.m., we emerge from the basement to survey the damage.


Energy crews are working long shifts, up to 16 hours one worker said, to restore power in Faribault and neighboring towns. We were without electricity for 26 hours. Power could be out for 4 – 5 days for some people.



We are fortunate. In the last remnants of daylight, we see that the power line and meter are ripped from our house, the line slicing diagonally across our driveway behind the van. Everywhere, across our arterial street and up side streets, trees block roadways. It’s a mess.

As rain falls, we walk a half-block in the dark, my concern mounting that we could encounter fallen power lines. I don’t feel safe. Traffic is metro rush hour heavy and I wonder why the heck all these people are out and about. A man directs traffic around a fallen tree blocking a lane of Willow Street.

There is nothing we can do. Damage assessment will come at daybreak.


Across the street along Willow Street early Friday morning.



We are up early after a restless night of little sleep. In the light of morning, we see trees down everywhere in our neighborhood. Passing by the remnants of a fallen tree, Randy points to three squirrels clinging to the trunk. They are shaking.


A half block from my home trees fell onto two vehicles along First Avenue Southwest.


Up the hill, just a half-block away, a tree lies across a car and a van in a driveway. We chat with the homeowner, who says both can be replaced. Life can’t. It’s a theme we hear repeated.


Across from our house along Willow Street.



Crews line Tower Place, the side street by my house, as they work all day Friday and also into Saturday.


A downed tree blocks First Avenue Southwest a short distance from our house at its intersection with Tower Place.


A young man pauses to talk to us. He’s checking on his brother. At one point during our conversation, I mention that we are conserving our cellphone power. He continues up the hill. Within 10 minutes, he approaches us as we chat with an elderly neighbor. “Here, I want you to have this,” Xavion says and hands me a cellphone charger. “God bless you.” I am crying at the kindness of this young father. He asks to pray with us. So there we are, the morning after the storm, standing in our neighbor’s front yard, the four of us circled, hands joined, Xavion praying. It will not be the first time of circled prayer. This marks a profoundly powerful moment for me, this giving of thanks by a kind stranger in the aftermath of the storm.


Three trees fell at my friend Lisa’s house, one against her house. This tree will be removed by professionals. Two others were removed by a friend and a crew of workers including Randy and me.



I expect many in my community could share similar stories of kindness. At Basilleos Pizza on Friday evening, Manager Connie tells us how, earlier in the day, staff baked 30 pizzas and then gave them to random people working on storm clean-up.

Saturday morning my friend Lisa’a neighbor drops off bottled water for the crew of 16 assisting with tree clean-up. Several others also bring water and another friend drops off scalloped potatoes, grapes and homemade cookies.


A city worker carries a chainsaw to clear a tree from a street in my neighborhood late Friday afternoon.


City crews clear away a tree blocking First Avenue Southwest.


The buzz of chainsaws is nearly constant throughout Faribault.


City crews continue tree clean-up.


An email went out the afternoon prior to show up at 9 a.m. at Lisa’s house. Three teens arrive with their dad and grandparents. A couple who live nearby also come; they’d stopped by on Friday with Klondike bars after losing power. Hours later when we’ve finished clean-up, we gather in a circle, all of us holding hands, the nearby neighbor—a pastor I would learn afterward—leading us in prayer.


Still working along Tower Place.


A shot through my dining room window of Xcel Energy crew members working on lines to reconnect to our house.


At the end of our driveway, workers prepare to string new power lines.


We have much to be thankful for. Each other. Protection. A beautiful Saturday of sunshine. Caring neighbors and co-workers and friends and strangers and professionals. It is said that difficult times bring out the best in people. I witnessed that firsthand in Faribault in the aftermath of this storm.


FYI: You won’t see photos of damage outside my neighborhood (except at my friend’s house) as local officials advise gawkers to stay out of storm-damaged areas.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Gathering photos & stories at a Faribault car show June 17, 2013

An idyllic car show setting in Faribault's TeePee Tonka Park.

An idyllic car show setting in Faribault’s TeePee Tonka Park.

SUNDAY MARKED A PERFECT summer-like day here in southeastern Minnesota, ideal for strolling the Faribault Heritage Days Car Show in TeePee Tonka Park.

I love the tree-lined setting along the banks of the Straight River where, on this afternoon, wisps of cottonwood tree seed fluff wafted through the air while I meandered among the vintage vehicles. Fifties music set a period mood.

The truck marking the show.

The truck marking the show.

Although my knowledge of cars is limited, my automotive machinist husband is like a walking encyclopedia of information. He approaches car shows from an automotive perspective. I view them from photographic and storytelling angles.

This ambulance transported patients to the  Tracy Hospital and to other hospitals, including in Sioux Falls, S.D.

This ambulance transported patients to the Tracy Hospital and to other hospitals, including in Sioux Falls, S.D.

For example, why would someone like Kurt Halverson of Owatonna own a 1977 ambulance used by the City of Tracy from 1981-1989 and prior to that, Fergus Falls?

The words that caught my attention on this 1977 ambulance.

The words that caught my attention on this 1977 ambulance. Kurt hopes to drive the ambulance in Tracy’s annual community celebration, Boxcar Days, in September. He recently received an old Tracy ambulance jacket from the Rev. Homer Dobson,pastor at his grandfather’s church.

I was drawn to this particular vehicle by the words “Tracy Ambulance” posted on side windows. (I wrote about Tracy, 25 miles from my hometown, last week on the 45th anniversary of a killer tornado there on June 13, 1968. Click here and then click here to read those posts.)

Kurt, a former EMT, always wanted to own an ambulance. When the Tracy emergency vehicle came up for sale, he jumped at the chance to purchase it. His grandpa lived in the Tracy area, so he knows this small town in southwestern Minnesota well. Owning Tracy’s ambulance is a sentimental connection, he says.

Besides that, this particular ambulance fits into a 7-foot standard garage.

A peek inside Kurt's ambulance. At one time the funeral home in Tracy, like those in many small towns, provided ambulance service.

A peek inside Kurt’s ambulance. At one time the funeral home in Tracy, like those in many small towns, provided ambulance service. Kurt belongs to The Professional Car Society, Northland Chapter.

His geographic familiarity with the Tracy area surprised me. I find few people around here who know towns west of Mankato. We instantly connected as we talked about Tracy and he praised Tracy native Scott Thoma’s book, Out of the Blue, about the killer F5 tornado.

Our connection, though, extended beyond Tracy. Turns out Kurt attended Waseca High School with my niece, Tara, and knows my sister, Lanae. Small world.

For me, these car shows are always more about the stories than about the cars…

BONUS PHOTOS (with more to come in a future post):

a 1930s Ford owned, if I remember correctly, by Kurt's father-in-law.

A 1930s Ford owned, if I remember correctly, by Kurt’s father-in-law.

Because I like to photograph details...

Because I like to photograph details…

On the front of a Road Runner car.

On the front of a Road Runner car.

Lots of trophies to be awarded.

Lots of trophies to be awarded.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


After a natural disaster…the fear, the loss and reaching out to help April 29, 2011

I COULD WHINE, moan and grumble all day about the recent weather here in Minnesota. Rain. Cold. Snow showers. More rain and more cold. The cycle never ends.

But then I pick up today’s newspaper, turn on the television, switch on the radio or go online and my mouth clams. I have nothing, nothing, about which to complain.

I have not lost my home, my possessions, my business, my community, family or friends to killer tornadoes like those in Alabama, Mississippi or Georgia. Wednesday’s storms have been termed “the deadliest outbreak of tornadoes in nearly 40 years.”

To view the devastation, to hear the survivors, to even think about the utter destruction brings me to tears. I cannot fathom, do not want to fathom, such total devastation, loss of life and injury.

Tornadoes scare the h double hockey sticks out of me. I can trace that fear back to the June 13, 1968, tornado in Tracy, about 25 miles from my childhood home. I was an impressionable 11 ½-year-old when the tornado raced through this southwestern Minnesota farming community, killing nine. My family drove to Tracy, saw the flattened homes, the pick-up stix jumbled trees, the boxcars tossed aside like dropped toys. You don’t forget memorable images like that.

Decades later a tornado struck my childhood farm, damaging a silo and silo room, tossing farm wagons effortlessly about in the field. Those images, too, remain forever imprinted upon my memory.

Last week I saw snapped trees and minor damage to buildings along Wisconsin Highway 21 near Arkdale, which was struck by an April 10 tornado.

A view of storm damage to trees while traveling along Wisconsin Highway 21 west of Arkdale.

A felled tree by an apparently untouched home in Arkdale, Wisconsin.

In the distance, trees were damaged by a tornado that cut a 17-mile path from Arkdale to near Coleman in Wisconsin on April 10.

Less than a year ago, on June 17, 2010, a tornado outbreak swept through Minnesota, killing one person in Mentor in Polk County, another in Almora in Otter Tail County and the third near Albert Lea in Freeborn County.

How many of us have already forgotten about those tornadoes as we move on to the next natural disaster news story?

Yet, for those personally affected, the story never really ends. The chapters continue with the rebuilding of homes and lives, the haunting nightmares, the emotional aftershocks. Lives have been forever rewritten.

Tornadoes. Hurricanes. Tsunamis. Earthquakes. Fires. Floods.

Survivors manage to pull their lives back together with the help of family, friends, neighbors and even strangers.

After a flash flood devastated Hammond in southeastern Minnesota last September, a group of Dakota County Technical College architectural technology students reached out.  They’ve worked with Hammond resident Judy Johnson in drafting remodeling plan options for her damaged home. You can read their story by clicking here. These students represent the good that emerges from the bad, the spirit of giving that makes me proud to be a Minnesotan.

I’ve followed the situation in Hammond since visiting that community shortly after the flood. I haven’t lifted a hammer to assist with recovery there. Rather, I’ve used the one tool that I possess—my words. I’ve crafted words into stories that I hope are making a difference. After reading my blog posts, two groups of volunteers have gone to help in Hammond.

That’s what it takes, each of us using our resources—whether that be words or money or skills or whatever—to help our neighbors in need.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling