Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Farewell to the Swany White Flour Mill of Freeport December 28, 2011

Freeport promotes itself as "The city with a smile!" That's the smiling water tower to the right and the Swany White Flour Mill to the left in front of the church steeple in this June 2011 image. Freeport is among the communities after which Garrison Keillor's fictional Lake Wobegon is fashioned.

CROSSING THE OVERPASS into Freeport last June, I snapped a quick landscape photo with the town’s charming water tower smiling at travelers along Interstate 94 in central Minnesota.

I should have focused, though, on the old-fashioned grain elevator-style flour mill to the left in my framed image.

Late Tuesday afternoon this historic icon, the Swany White Four Mill, built in 1897 and owned by the Thelen family since 1903, burned. Minnesota has lost an important part of her history, a still-functioning mill of yesteryear that specialized in producing commercial grade and organic flour and was known for its famous Swany White Buttercake Pancake and Waffle Mix.

That I never realized the importance of this towering, aged building on that June afternoon saddens me for I am typically drawn to small-town elevators. But when my husband and I swung into Freeport late on that Saturday afternoon 6 ½ months ago, we were more interested in finding Charlie’s Café, a popular dining spot in this town of 450. We were hungry. Charlie’s was packed, so we left town without eating there, but not until I snapped photos of the café and Sacred Heart Church and School.

Popular Charlie's Cafe is noted for its tasty homemade food including caramel rolls, meringue pies and hot beef commercials. To the right is the Pioneer Inn, after which Garrison Keillor modeled The Sidetrack Tap in his fictional Lake Wobegon. Keillor and his family lived near Freeport in the early 1970s.

Sacred Heart Church, Freeport, described by Garrison Keillor as "a fine tall yellow-brick edifice with a high steep roof."

Sacred Heart School in Freeport, a lovely old building that caught my eye.

I totally missed out on the Swany White Flour Mill, simply because I was unaware of its important existence.

Eleven years ago, though, the historic mill, Charlie’s and other central Minnesota scenes were photographed by National Geographic photographer Richard Olsenius, illustrating a story, “In Search of Lake Wobegon,” by Garrison Keillor, expanded in 2001 as a book. A sister-in-law gave me her copy of the December 2000 National Geographic recently, knowing how much I would appreciate Keillor’s writing and the black-and-white images by Olsenius. I do.

Keillor rented a farmhouse south of Freeport some 40 years ago. He and his family weren’t exactly embraced by the community during the three years they lived there. Keillor writes about his experiences in the magazine piece, where he reveals that his fictional Lake Wobegon is based on life in central Minnesota, including Freeport.

I wonder if Keillor is reflecting on those years in Freeport as news of the Swany White Flour Mill’s demise reaches him. A eulogy or a tribute to this historic mill would seem fitting for Keillor’s radio show, “A Prairie Home Companion,” broadcasting from Honolulu, Hawaii, on New Year’s Eve, far from Lake Wobegon “where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”

It hasn’t exactly been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon.

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I’ve never met Garrison Keillor, but… June 8, 2011

SO, HOW WOULD YOU feel if a photo you took was incorporated into a video/slide show narrated by Garrison Keillor?

Would you slip on your red shoes, lace up the laces and dance a polka?

Since I don’t own red shoes like Keillor and I don’t polka, I enthused to my husband repeatedly about my stroke of luck. I haven’t really boasted to anyone else. We don’t do that sort of thing here in Minnesota. But, I thought maybe I could tell a few of you. A photo I shot of winter on the Minnesota prairie is part of a video/slideshow narrated by our state’s most famous storyteller.

Now, how does this happen to a blogger like me who happily blogs along each day with words and photos from Minnesota, without a thought, not a single thought, that Keillor may someday come into my life. Well, I didn’t exactly meet him and I haven’t exactly spoken to him, but…

A MONTH AGO, Chris Jones, director of the Center for Educational Technologies at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts, commented on my January 7, 2010, blog post, “Wind and snow equal brutal conditions on the Minnesota prairie.” He was inquiring about using my photo of winter on the prairie in a video/slideshow for retiring President R. Judson Carlberg and his wife, Jan.

Typically I do not personally respond to comments via email. I am cautious that way, protective of my email address and of anybody out there who may not have my best interests in mind. So I didn’t, just like that, snap your fingers, fire off a response to Jones. First I sleuthed. Honestly, I had never heard of Gordon College and I sure can’t spell Massachusetts.

Here’s what I learned from the college’s website: “Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts, is among the top Christian colleges in the nation and the only nondenominational Christian college in New England. Gordon is committed to excellence in liberal arts education, spiritual development and academic freedom informed by a framework of faith.”

I am Lutheran and that all sounded conservative enough for me.

So I emailed Jones, with several questions. You really didn’t expect me to not have questions, did you? I asked Mr. Gordon College guy: “Could you explain to me the nature of this video, which photo you are interested in using and where this video will be shown?”

That’s when he dropped Garrison Keillor’s name as the video/slideshow narrator. Sure. Yeah. Use my photo. Wherever. Whenever. Fine with me. Credit me and Minnesota Prairie Roots, send me a link to the completed video and allow me to blog about this and we’ve got a deal.

And so we did. Have a deal. After I promised not to publicly share the video with you. Sorry, I wish I could because it’s an entertaining media presentation, but I gave my word.

I also gave my word that I would make it clear to you, dear readers, that Garrison Keillor doesn’t just go around every day narrating surprise media presentations for college presidents’ retirement parties.

He met Jud and Jan Carlberg on a cruise. They struck up a friendship and, later, when the college was planning the video/slideshow, a Gordon writer “thought boldly, imagining this as a wonderful surprise for the Carlbergs, and started making inquiries,” Paul Rogati, Gordon’s CET multimedia designer, shared in a follow-up email. “When Mr. Keillor agreed to record the narration, the script was written for his style of monologue, with a reference to the winters on the prairies of Minnesota. Your image was a perfect match.”

"The photograph," taken along Minnesota Highway 30 in southwestern Minnesota.

And that is how my photo taken in January 2010 along Minnesota Highway 30 in southwestern Minnesota became connected to Garrison Keillor.

My prairie picture is one of many, many, many images incorporated into this retirement tribute to a “tall Scandinavian scholar from Fall River, Massachusetts” who was inaugurated as Gordon’s seventh president “in a swirling March blizzard” in 1993.

Yes, the whole piece is pure “A Prairie Home Companion” style and it’s a pleasure listening to Keillor’s silken voice glide across the words penned by authors Jo Kadlecek and Martha Stout.

The monologue opens like Keillor’s radio show, but “on Coy Pond on the campus of Gordon College.” It is a pond which “sometimes freezes up solid enough to go ice fishing on,” Keillor professes. And “there are rumors of an ice fishing shack being built” by the retired president with more time on his hands.

Several other references are made to Minnesota in a presentation that mixes humor with factual information about the Carlbergs’ 35-year tenure at Gordon, a “college which includes Lutherans” and which offers students off-campus experiences in places like the Minnesota prairie.

Then, finally, at the end of the video, the Carlbergs are invited to “sometime come up to the prairies of Minnesota to see what winter is all about.” A snippet of my photo appears on the screen, slowly panning out to show the full winter prairie landscape frame.

I’m not sure which the Carlbergs will do first in their retirement—sneak past Gordon College security and park an ice fishing shack on Coy Pond or visit southwestern Minnesota in winter, where, no doubt, “all the women are strong, all the men are good looking and all the children are above average.”

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WHEN (not if) the Carlbergs travel to Minnesota in the winter, they will also see scenes like this on the southwestern Minnesota prairie:

An elevator along U.S. Highway 14 in southwestern Minnesota.

The sun begins to set on the Minnesota prairie.

Barns abound in the agricultural region of southwestern Minnesota, this one along U.S. Highway 14.

A picturesque farm site just north of Lamberton in Redwood County, Minnesota.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling