Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Why some of us appreciate abandoned buildings February 25, 2011


Harriet Traxler photographed this abandoned building along U.S. Highway 14 near Waseca several years ago. She's a hobbyist photographer specializing in nature and rural photography. This photo placed in a photo contest Harriet entered. "It is one of my favorites because of what it doesn't tell you," Harriet says.

SOMETIMES I’M SURPRISED by readers’ reactions to my posts. Usually, the stories and photos I least expect will interest readers, do.

Take my post on abandoned buildings. Last fall, I photographed a dilapidated building in the middle of nowhere along a gravel road near Kasota. I can’t give you the exact location because I don’t know quite where I was on that autumn day.

When I published that photo and wrote about my fascination with abandoned buildings in rural landscapes earlier this week, readers from Oregon, Arkansas and Minnesota responded. Seems I’m not alone in my appreciation of abandoned buildings and the history, memories and stories they hold.

Harriet Traxler, a hobbyist photographer from rural Belle Plaine and the publisher of a book series featuring photos of Sibley County, Minnesota, barns, emailed two photos of abandoned buildings. She is graciously allowing me to share her images and thoughts.

“I, too, am drawn to photographing old, abandoned buildings and then find myself staring at the pictures and trying to imagine who the people were that built and lived in these homes or worked in these barns that now stand empty,” Harriet says. “And the memories of the hard work, the laughter, the troubles; everything that went towards making it a home or farm are now gone forever.

Oftentimes when I would be out photographing the barns in Sibley County or even on a cross country trip, I would see a windmill or a silo or a small grove of trees standing alone in the middle of a field and wonder about the farm that stood there too.

What happened to the family that lived there once not too long ago? Were they happy? Were there children who played and worked alongside their family? Was there a tragedy that occurred that drove the family from the farm?

We often romanticize farm life, but that life was one of the hardest to live. If it was a dairy farm, like most were in rural Minnesota, then it was long days, seven days a week, and children after growing up on this type of farm, learning good work ethics, seldom wanted to spend the rest of their lives doing the work their parents had done for years and years. When they left the farms for those good ‘city jobs,’ that is when farm life began to disappear and those abandoned buildings really began to appear.”

I COULDN’T HAVE said it any better, Harriet. I am one of those kids who left the (dairy) farm.

Harriet, too, grew up on a farm, in Sibley County, on her uncle’s place, that looks nothing like the home of her youth.


The old granary on the farm where Harriet grew up.

“All that remains standing is this old granary that also always smelled of rats and dusty bins of oats,” Harriet says. “It had a lean-to attached to it that was used as a garage for my uncle’s car. I remember every inch of that farm because I loved to explore every inch of it.

I didn’t have to work nearly as hard on that farm as most children had to on the farms they grew up on so maybe that is why I loved it so much.

The freedom to be me was always there and I have often gone back to my ‘roots’ and those memories…the better memories seem to always remain pushing other memories that were not so much fun to the far corners of the mind.”

© Text copyright 2011 by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

© Photo copyright by Harriet Traxler


Poetry in abandoned buildings February 22, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 9:42 AM
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I photographed this abandoned building along a country road near Kasota last fall.

ABANDONED FARMHOUSES and rural buildings have always held a special fascination for me.

As odd as this seems, I see poetry in these buildings that lean against the landscape, that view the world through shattered lenses.

I often wonder: Who lived or worked here? Why was this farmhouse or barn or outbuilding or schoolhouse abandoned, left to decay in the elements? I feel a certain sense of sadness knowing that once this building stood strong and proud.

But, yet, I manage to see the beauty in the bones that remain—in weathered boards muted to soft shades of gray, in crooked doors clinging to rusty hinges, in roofs that sag under the weight of time.

In my mind, I have personified this abandoned building, given it new life, through my photos and my poetic thoughts.

HOW ABOUT YOU—do you see what I see in old buildings? Share your thoughts in a comment.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Sign, sign, everywhere a sign in Pemberton September 22, 2010

A welcome to Pemberton sign along State Highway 83.

PEM-BER-TON. The word rolls off my tongue in three syllables, a cadence of sound that names a southern Minnesota town.

I’d never been to this community southeast of Mankato on Minnesota Highway 83, only heard of it tacked onto the end of Janesville-Waldorf-Pemberton Public Schools.

But Saturday evening I was in Pemberton for a wedding reception and dance. I arrived early, wanting to explore this town of about 250 before heading over to the former school turned community center.

My quick tour revealed the usual run-down, boarded-up old buildings balanced by a well-groomed park and newer homes. Mostly, though, I was intrigued by the signs on downtown buildings.

Pemberton's main street was quiet on Saturday except for wedding guests driving through downtown.

When was the last time you saw a FALLOUT SHELTER sign? I found one tacked onto the front of a boarded brick building whose original purpose I wouldn’t even want to guess. The faint writing at the bottom of the sign warned: NOT TO BE REPRODUCED OR USED WITHOUT DEFENSE DEPARTMENT PERMISSION.

For those of you who grew up during the 1960s, during the Cold War, like me, a FALLOUT SHELTER sign brings back memories of teachers instructing students to duck under desks and protect their heads, as if that was going to do any good in the event of a nuclear attack.

My husband recalls the particular concern about Communist attacks given his central Minnesota school’s “close” proximity to North Dakota missile silos.

Thankfully those Cold War days of hysteria are behind us and many, many years have passed since I’ve seen a FALLOUT SHELTER sign.

A Fallout Shelter sign on a downtown brick building. Another sign, on the door, warns: Harley Parking Only: All Others Will be Crushed.

The brick building upon which the Fallout Shelter sign is posted.

Across the street, I spotted a weathered PIONEER SEEDS sign on an old garage and, as a boy pedaled past on his bicycle, considered how carefree small-town life can sometimes be. I never allowed my children, when they were elementary-aged, to ride their bikes solo in Faribault. But that’s the difference between small towns and mid-sized cities like mine.

An old Pioneer Seeds sign drew my eye to this building.

And you won’t see a sign like this in most towns: WANTED DEER HIDES—Trade For Gloves. Another sign identified a corner white wood frame building with gaudy blue paint trim as White Fox Fur & Feather Company, supplier of natural materials for the fly fishing industry, according to the company Web site.

Turn your deer hides in here, at White Fox Fur & Feather Company, in exchange for gloves.

I wondered if any of the other wedding reception attendees noticed the downtown signs that tell the story of Pemberton, past and present.

At Jamie’s Pemberton Pub, a pit stop for the wedding party, signs informed me of Mexican Night, Texas Hold ‘Em, Pitcher Night, All day Happy Hour, a Steak Fry and the small-town bar standby, karaoke. Obviously, this is “the place” in Pemberton.

Jamie's Pemberton Pub seems to be the happening place in Pemberton.

I wondered about WOOD N STUFF, about the wood stuff built inside the non-descript building with the overhead garage door. The building could use a bit of polishing, maybe some decorative wood work, to draw customers. Or maybe the place is closed.

What types of products are made at Wood N Stuff?

Closed. The Pemberton Café, likely once the local hot spot for coffee and cards, sits forlorn, windows shuttered, grass sneaking through the cracks in the sidewalk, in a scene all too common in rural Minnesota.

The abandoned Pemberton Cafe on the town's main street.

Yet, despite the abandoned buildings, the closed school, Pemberton survives, anchored like all farming communities by the grain elevator. This is home, a town with a busy convenience store, a post office, a beautiful community center, a park for the kids and a FALLOUT SHELTER.

Approaching Pemberton from the east, the grain elevator and bins mark the skyline.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling