Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

On the road in southwestern Minnesota January 16, 2020

Almost to Morgan last Saturday morning.

 

BY THE TIME we drive into Morgan on the eastern edge of Redwood County, I just want to reach our destination, Belview in southwestern Minnesota.

 

Farm sites abound along back county roads between New Ulm and Morgan.

 

It’s not that we’ve been on the road an interminably long time—around two hours. But the drive seems to lengthen between New Ulm and Morgan, and especially between Morgan and Redwood Falls.

 

A farm east of Morgan photographed in December 2019.

 

This is farm country. Mostly flat. Stretching as far as the eye can see, broken only by farm sites embraced by windbreaks. Or countless power poles fading into infinity.

 

Morgan is a farming community defined visually by its grain elevator complex.

 

Or by the grain elevators and water tower in Morgan.

 

Near Morgan and photographed on January 11.

 

Randy and I talk as we travel, commenting on snow cover in the winter, crops in the other seasons. Oftentimes we reminisce about our farm upbringings, prompted by the rural landscape enveloping us. We are still farm kids at heart, in memory, in the essence of our beings.

 

A not uncommon scene in rural Minnesota, this one in Morgan.

 

Conversation passes the time as does photography. I feel compelled to photograph this place that is so much a part of me. Familiar. Comforting. Forever home.

 

I find myself repeatedly photographing this beautiful barn and farm site west of New Ulm.

 

But my photography isn’t only about me and my connection to this land. It’s also about my desire to document and share this place with those unfamiliar with southwestern Minnesota. I recognize that not everyone appreciates the prairie. Its spacious skies and wide expanse of land can feel unsettling to those who have always only known metro areas. Or trees. I get it. Plop me inside a city and I feel boxed in by tall buildings and uncomfortable on too much concrete among too much traffic.

 

Main Street Morgan photographed in late December 2019.

 

Still, despite the differences between rural and urban dwellers, we all still see the same sun, the same moon. And we are all journeying somewhere on the same planet.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

What I’m drawn to photograph in rural Minnesota January 7, 2020

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One of my favorite Minnesota barns is this especially well-maintained one along a back county road west of New Ulm.

 

I FIND MYSELF, all too often in my on-the-road rural photography, focusing primarily on barns. My eyes gravitate toward these agricultural icons that I fear will vanish within the next 50 years, fallen to abandonment and/or replaced by nondescript cookie cutter metal polesheds. That saddens me. But it is the reality of the times, of the decline of the family farm.

 

Massive polesheds have replaced traditional barns on some farms, including this one along Interstate 90 in southeastern Minnesota.

 

I will continue to photograph these beloved landmarks, symbols of a bygone era of farming. Barns hold personal value to me as a farmer’s daughter. I grew up working in the barn—feeding cows, bedding straw, shoveling manure, lugging pails of still warm milk from cow to bulk tank and much more.

 

An abandoned farmhouse near Morristown, Minnesota.

 

A tiny, colorful house in Morristown, Minnesota.

 

Just blocks away in Morristown, newer homes cluster in a housing development. A tornado hit this area in 2018, destroying and heavily damaging houses.

 

While documenting these centers of farm life, I’ve mostly neglected to photograph the homes of rural Minnesota. They vary from abandoned houses with broken windows to modern-day structures.

 

In southwestern Minnesota, an aged farmhouse so familiar to me.

 

It is the decades-old farmhouses that appeal to me most, no matter their conditions. My childhood home until my early teens was a cramped three-bedroom 1 ½-story house without a bathroom. A hulking oil burning stove in the living room heated the structure. A trap door in the kitchen opened to stairs leading to a dark dirt-floored cellar where salamanders lurked. Mom stashed the bounty of her garden in fruit jars lining plank shelves.

 

A southwestern Minnesota farmhouse.

 

I am thankful to have grown up in a minimalist house, in a poor farm family. We may have been poor materialistically. But our family was rich in love. I never realized until I became an adult that I was raised in near poverty. Because of that background, I’ve never needed the most, the best, the newest.

 

In Kenyon, Minnesota, a brilliant turquoise makes this house stand out.

 

On recent road trips, I intentionally aimed my camera lens at houses. Both in small towns and in the countryside. These are not just houses. They are homes. Or memories of homes. Worthy of preserving with my camera as part of rural Minnesota history.

 

A home in the small town of Morristown, Minnesota.

 

THOUGHTS?

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

On the road in southwestern Minnesota, a photo essay November 25, 2019

Sometimes I photograph scenes in the passenger side mirror, here the grain elevator in Morgan.

 

IF I STOPPED TO PHOTOGRAPH everything that grabbed my interest while on the road, I would never get anywhere. So I’ve learned to shoot on the fly—from the passenger seat and out the windshield or the side window. I set my camera’s shutter speed in sports mode (a fast speed to catch action) and then scan for photo ops.

Photographing in this style calls for a watchful eye, an ability to compose/frame a scene at a moment’s notice and a lot of luck. Factor in dirty/tinted windows and reflections and the challenge is even greater.

 

I often think, this creamery in Courtland would make a lovely brewery. I’m unsure of its use, but I think it’s a residence/apartments.

 

Still, I manage to capture plenty of images that I wouldn’t otherwise get.

 

Courtlands’ Swany’s Pub, left, always draws my eye for the signage.

 

With that background, I take you on the road, westbound toward my native Redwood County. My photo tour begins about 1 ½ hours into this road trip, in Courtland, This small town is a pass-through point for busy US Highway 14. It’s also the home of my maternal forefathers. Not a lot changes in Courtland, although the Crow Bar burned down a few years ago and has since been rebuilt. It’s across the street from Swany’s Pub.

 

The curve of this tire shop draws my focus.

 

The Minnesota Music Hall of Fame in New Ulm, which I have yet to visit.

 

A billboard near New Ulm advertises Schell’s Brewery’s seasonal snowstorm beer.

 

Continuing west, New Ulm now requires driving through this long river town (due to a major road construction project on Highway 14). I love New Ulm, just not the time it takes to get through the city when you want to reach your destination quickly. The strong German heritage of this place, its natural beauty and a variety of attractions (including Schell’s Brewery) make me a fan of New Ulm.

 

Harvest was in full swing during my most recent trip to southwestern Minnesota a few weeks ago. This is near New Ulm.

 

Once outside the seat of Brown County, the rural landscape continues on the long stretch of roadways to Morgan.

 

Driving through Morgan, a small farming community.

 

Waiting at the elevator in Morgan.

 

I photograph this co-op elevator nearly every time we drive through Morgan.

 

Now I’m back in Redwood County and the familiarity of grain elevators and small town Main Streets.

 

Near Redwood Falls, a grain truck in a cornfield.

 

Photographing breaks the boredom of too many miles between Morgan and Redwood Falls.

 

Driving through part of the business district in downtown Redwood Falls, Minnesota.

 

Redwood always brings out mixed emotions in me. I attended junior high here, the worst two years of my youth due to bullying in school. From both teachers and classmates. Yes, teachers. But Redwood also evokes some wonderful memories of visiting my maternal grandfather, of hiking in beautiful Alexander Ramsey Park (known as The Little Yellowstone of Minnesota) and buying fabric in the basement of the J.C. Penney’s store. I sewed most of my clothes as a teen.

As I photograph these places, I am documenting my life. Not always directly, but indirectly. And if not my life, then the lives and places of those who call southwestern Minnesota home.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

“Back home” in rural southwestern Minnesota November 22, 2019

Along U.S. Highway 14 west of Mankato. I grew up some 80 miles west of here.

 

ALTHOUGH I’VE LIVED IN TOWN longer than in the country, I still feel most at home in the familiar surroundings of endless land and vast sky. Southwestern Minnesota. It is the place of my roots, the place of my heart, the place where I feel overwhelmingly comfortable.

 

Farms edge U.S. Highway 14 in this region of Minnesota.

 

I expect most people connect to a geographic location. Do you?

 

Another farm along Highway 14 west of Mankato.

 

Every time I’m back home, because, yes, I still call this rural region back home, I sweep my eyes across the landscape, noticing always how small I feel in this setting. The sky and land overtake every aspect of this place, dwarfing farm sites and farm machinery and people. Only grain elevators seem to hold any sort of visual power.

 

An old-style machine shed in southwestern Minnesota.

 

As I travel through this farming region, I study building sites, pleased by sturdy, maintained barns, dismayed by those with roofs caving. Too many barns are vacant of animals, an almost certain start of their demise.

 

Grain bins define a farm site near Delhi, Minnesota, in my native Redwood County.

 

Like the farmer’s daughter I am, I notice the status of crops from spring planting to harvest. It’s in my DNA, this natural instinct to focus on corn and soybean fields, to assess the growing season, to care about the weather.

 

A farm site west of New Ulm, Minnesota.

 

Although I’ve left this land of my youth, I remain grateful for the earth, the sky, the wind, the communities, the schools, the churches and peoples of southwestern Minnesota. All influenced and shaped me. And still do.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

New efforts to help Minnesota farmers in crisis November 19, 2019

Tilling at sunset, Redwood County, Minnesota.

 

I WITNESSED THE DESPAIR first-hand. The overwhelming concern that can settle in when bad weather affects crops, prices drop and the bills pile high.

 

A well-kept, stately barn west of New Ulm, Minnesota.

 

Too many years I observed the struggles my dad faced as a farmer. Even as a kid I understood. But now, as an adult reflecting on my past, I understand even more. I observed the stress Dad faced in 1976 when a drought left him without enough feed for the livestock and necessitated purchasing a boxcar full of hay from Montana. I recall, too, the time he dumped milk down the drain, part of a National Farmers Organization protest over low milk prices. And then, when a tornado hit our farm, he had to make agonizing decisions about whether to rebuild.

 

A farm site in my native Redwood County, Minnesota, where the land and sky stretch into forever.

 

Certainly, my years on a southwestern Minnesota crop and dairy farm in the 1960s and 1970s differ from today in many ways. Farms are bigger now, family farms fewer. Technology weaves into every aspect of farming. And many farmers (and their spouses) now hold off-the-farm jobs to make ends meet, to continue farming. Yet, the basics of unpredictable weather and prices and resulting stress remain unchanged.

 

About 10 days ago, farmers in southwestern Minnesota rushed to harvest crops.

 

This has been an especially difficult year for farmers in Minnesota. Too much rain. Dairy prices that have plummeted. I don’t know all the intricacies of what’s happening. But I understand enough to recognize that many farmers are in crisis. Financially. And mentally.

 

Harvesting with snow already on the ground near New Ulm, Minnesota, on a recent Saturday.

 

Unlike the era in which my dad farmed, people are doing something about these issues. The Minnesota Departments of Agriculture and Health are holding safeTALK training at locations around the state—including in my community of Faribault on Wednesday, November 20—to help people help farmers in crisis. The training is aimed specifically at suicide prevention and intervention.

 

The grain elevator in Morgan in southwestern Minnesota.

 

This latest focus on the mental health of the ag community is long overdue. Farmers have always been there for one another in times of need, when another farmer, for example, battled a disease like cancer. But when it came to mental health, not so much.

 

Still bringing in the corn in early November in southwestern Minnesota.

 

These latest efforts reflect a societal shift in mental health awareness. More and more of us are talking about it. And that is a good thing. Now we need more mental healthcare professionals in rural areas. Talk is only as valuable as the resources and action to back it up.

THOUGHTS?

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Thoughts after returning “home” to southwestern Minnesota November 14, 2019

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Just a few miles south of Belview, a John Deere tractor travels along a county road.

 

SOUTHWESTERN MINNESOTA. It is the place of my roots. The fields. The small towns. The people. The land. The sky. Even the wind.

 

A real estate and farm loan office in downtown Belview.

 

When I return here, I return with a sense of nostalgia. With memories. With a fondness for all this wide and spacious place represents to me. Yes, I admit to looking through a rose-colored lens, too often forgetting the challenges of living in rural Minnesota.

 

I love the colorful art on this antique shop in Belview, Minnesota.

 

But I prefer to focus on the comfort that going back home brings to me. A sense of calm. A sense of peace. A sense of quiet in a sometimes too chaotic life.

 

The local gas station/convenience store in Belview, next to the grain elevator. An important place since there’s no grocery store in town.

 

Small towns have their issues. Just like anywhere. But they also have the positives of a strong sense of community, of loyalty, of grit and determination. Agriculture weaves into every aspect of these small towns. Like Belview, rooted in agriculture. You see that influence in the businesses along Main Street.

 

Another Belview business.

 

There is comfort in seeing that, despite e-commerce and regional shopping centers, rural communities manage to hold onto local businesses. I often wonder how long. And that is a question only those who live in these communities can answer.

 

Working the land between Belview and Delhi.

 

THOUGHTS?

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A Minnesota roadside sweet corn stand August 13, 2019

 

Along Minnesota State Highway 3 just south of Dundas.

 

ACROSS SOUTHERN MINNESOTA, signs pop promoting sweet corn. Fresh. From the field. Tasting of summer.

 

 

Some farmers sell at local farmers’ markets or to grocery stores. Others vend from pick-up trucks, beds heaped with piles of sweet corn.

 

Randy selects corn from the Highway 3 stand.

 

Others park a wagon roadside,

 

 

secure a payment box thereon and trust customers to pay on the honor system.

 

 

Shove bills into box, bag your corn and go.

 

 

I love those stands—the unmanned ones that show people still believe in the goodness of other people. Trust. Honesty. Goodness. Virtues seemingly lost on too many these days. But still present in rural Minnesota.

 

 

And I love stories, like the one posted at a sweet corn stand along Minnesota State Highway 3 between Dundas and Faribault.

 

These entrepreneurs are growing pumpkins and squash, too, in the field next to the sweet corn stand.

Stories that make customers want to buy, and then return.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling