Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Oh, so excited to see an Oscar Mayer wiener on wheels September 9, 2020

Heading into Madison, Wisconsin. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo July 14, 2020.


SO…WE’RE DRIVING along the interstate, entering Madison, Wisconsin, on a mid-July afternoon. Traffic is getting heavier. Drivers are weaving their vehicles in and out of traffic lanes. Trip after trip to this capital city we’ve noticed the increases in speed and aggressive driving as we near Madison.

But this time something other than the traffic chaos diverts our attention. Up ahead I spot a bright yellow vehicle with what looks like a hot dog atop the roof. Could this be…yes, it is, the Wienermobile.

Oh, I wish I were an Oscar Mayer wiener…

Remember that jingle? I expect you do. The catchy words and tune proved memorable, an advertising success in promoting hot dogs.


Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo July 14, 2020.


On this summer day, one of six Wienermobiles circulating throughout the US is here, perhaps for a stop in Madison or on its way to Milwaukee or even Chicago to the east. I don’t know. But I smile at the sight of this American icon.


In Dane County, Wisconsin, location of the state capital, Madison. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo July 14, 2020.


The sighting led me to research the 27-foot-long Wienermobile, first created in 1936. That includes one crafted in Madison in 1969, recently restored and now under ownership of the Wisconsin Historical Society. Too big for the Society’s museum, the iconic “Old Number 7” Wienermobile will be displayed outside the downtown Madison museum during special events and also shown elsewhere in the state.


Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo July 14, 2020.


Up until the closure of the Oscar Mayer plant in Madison in June 2017, that Wienermobile stood outside company headquarters. When Oscar Mayer’s parent company, Kraft, merged with H.J. Heinz Co., corporate restructuring resulted in closure of the Madison facility. A local business staple for more than 100 years as a producer of hot dogs and lunch meat, this was a big loss to the city. The Madison plant at one time employed 4,000 people, but by 2013, only 1,300. Still, that’s a lot of jobs.

But, at least Madison kept its Wienermobile.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Restored Tilt-A-Whirl car unveiled in Faribault August 21, 2014

THANKS TO TWO FARIBAULT WOMEN, a group of enthusiastic supporters and a television show, one of America’s most iconic amusement rides, the Tilt-A-Whirl, will now be showcased in downtown Faribault.

Tami Schluter, left, and Peggy Keilen reveal the restored car to an appreciative audience Wednesday evening.

Tami Schluter, left, and Peggy Keilen reveal the restored car to an appreciative audience Wednesday evening.

A restored early 1950s era prototype Tilt-A-Whirl car was unveiled Wednesday evening in Faribault following the airing of “Boy Meets Whirl,” an episode of The History Channel’s American Restoration reality TV show.

The Tilt-A-Whirl car before restoration was rescued from a junkyard.

The Tilt-A-Whirl car, before restoration, was rescued from a junkyard. Photo courtesy of Tami Schluter.

Rick’s Restorations of Las Vegas worked its magic on the aged car after meeting with Faribault resident Tami Schluter. She, along with friend Peggy Keilen, spearheaded efforts to raise monies to restore the car built by Faribault’s Sellner Manufacturing Company. Backers raised $8,500 to refurbish the vintage carnival ride car rescued from, and donated by, Harley’s Auto Salvage.

A portion of the crowd watches "Boy Meets Whirl."

A portion of the crowd who supported the project with monetary and in-kind donations watches “Boy Meets Whirl.”

The Tilt-A-Whirl car, now on temporary display at Mill City Restaurant & Sports Bar—site of the celebration party—will find a permanent home a block away at the corner of (128) Central Avenue and Second Street by the third-generation family shoe store, Burkhartzmeyer Shoes.

Celebrating the restoration and reveal of the 1950s Tilt-A-Whirl car outside Mill City Restaurant.

Celebrating the restoration and reveal of the 1950s Tilt-A-Whirl car outside Mill City Restaurant.

Schluter and Keilen told the crowd of 75 or so gathered for the TV airing and car debut party that the restored Tilt-A-Whirl represents a much-needed icon for this Minnesota community’s historic downtown, a need revealed in a 2011 Faribault Main Street Market study. The two businesswomen—Schluter co-owns the Historic Hutchinson House Bed & Breakfast and Keilen, Faribo Air Conditioning & Heating—say the car will provide a place to sit back, relax and enjoy the beautiful downtown.

Tami Schluter, left, and Peggy Keilen embrace after unveiling the car.

Tami Schluter, left, and Peggy Keilen embrace after unveiling the car.

And the Tilt-A-Whirl car likely will provide plenty of photo ops as it did following Wednesday’s reveal. An enthusiastic Schluter and Keilen posed for numerous photos and expressed their love for Faribault and gratitude to the long list of supporters that include individuals, businesses and local organizations.

Tami Schluter on "Boy Meets Whirl."

Tami Schluter on “Boy Meets Whirl.” She suggested the three pretend to be watching a Minnesota Vikings game while sitting in the car.

Both were especially pleased to bring national attention to Faribault via the television show, one reason Schluter approached American Restoration about the project. Within 12 hours, she heard that the Tilt-A-Whirl proposal was a go.

Tami Schluter's quote reaction when she saw the car for the first time.

Tami Schluter’s quote, as aired on “Boy Meets Whirl,” when she saw the car for the first time.

The women aren’t done yet with Tilt-A-Whirls. They are already focusing on raising funds for restoration of a second 1940s car to be placed several blocks to the north by the State Bank of Faribault.

The 1950s era Tilt-A-Whirl car sits, covered, outside Mill City until after the 9:30 p.m. airing of "Boy Meets Whirl."

The 1950s era Tilt-A-Whirl car sits, covered, outside Mill City before the airing of “Boy Meets Whirl.”

That second restoration, Keilen says, will be done in the Tilt-A-Whirl’s hometown of Faribault.

Sellner Manufacturing, as noted on the car, invented the Tilt-A-Whirl.

Sellner Manufacturing, as noted on the car, invented the Tilt-A-Whirl.

FYI: Sellner Manufacturing, which invented and built the first Tilt-A-Whirl in 1926, was sold in 2011. Gold Star Manufacturing purchased the fiberglass and staging part of the business and, at the time of purchase, contracted with Texas-based buyer Larson International, Inc., to make the fiberglass car portion of the Tilt-A-Whirl.

The Mural Society of Faribault created and placed the Tilt-A-Whirl mural on the side of Jim's Auto & Tire this past fall.

The Mural Society of Faribault created and placed a Tilt-A-Whirl mural in downtown Faribault in 2010.

Faribault also promotes the Tilt-A-Whirl’s origins via a mural along Fourth Street just a block off Central Avenue. It was a 2010 project of The Mural Society of Faribault.

The back of the refurbished Tilt-A-Whirl.

The back of the refurbished Tilt-A-Whirl.

The Rice County Historical Society in Faribault features a permanent exhibit on Sellner Manufacturing Company.

Mill City's new signature Tilt-A-Whirl drink.

Mill City’s new signature Tilt-A-Whirl drink.

And, at Mill City Restaurant & Sports Bar, a Tilt-A-Whirl drink has been added to the bar offerings. It features brandy, Mount Gay Bermuda rum, sweet vermouth, sweet and sour mix, cherries and lemon slices served in a pint jar.


Every party needs a cake.

Every party needs a cake.


© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Discovering a drive-in movie theatre in Luverne & a nation-wide effort to save these icons August 15, 2013

A FEW WEEKS AGO, while traveling specifically to Luverne in the southwestern corner of Minnesota to tour the Brandenburg Gallery and Blue Mounds State Park, I discovered a vanishing icon of American culture.

That would be a drive-in movie theatre on the south edge of town just off Interstate 90.

Verne Drive-in entry sign

The Verne Drive-In Theater, built in the 1950s, is one of only a few drive-ins remaining in Minnesota. Others include the Long Drive-In in Long Prairie, the Starlite 5 Drive-In Theatre in Litchfield, the Vali-Hi Drive-In in Lake Elmo and Sky-Vu Drive In in Warren. I think I’ve covered them all.

Nearly a year ago, the Cottage View Drive-In in Cottage Grove, in a controversial move, was closed and the land sold for construction of a Walmart store. (Click here to see Minnesota Public Radio photos of a September 2012 event celebrating the Cottage View’s 46-year history.)

Although I didn’t see a show at the Verne Drive-In, my husband and I drove through the vacant theatre parking lot on a Saturday morning just to check out the place and reminisce. We went to a few outdoor movies together when our community of Faribault still had a drive-in theatre. We also each attended drive-in movies separately while growing up. Me in Redwood Falls and he once in the Little Falls area and then near Brainerd.

Verne Drive-in, screen w filmstrip

I expect most of you hold on to some drive-in movie memories whether its cramming into the trunk of a car, making out with a long forgotten boyfriend or girlfriend, waiting in line for a concession stand snack or burger, tuning in to a movie via those little boxes stationed throughout the gravel parking lot, piling the kids into the car in their jammies for a night out under the stars…

At the Verne Drive-In a young couple, who went on their first date at the drive-in four years ago, recently became engaged there.

Drive-in theatres, most assuredly, are a part of our history, our culture, our growing up years and our personal memories.

Verne Drive-In exit sign film strip

Once commonplace in communities across the country, drive-ins are vanishing with only 368 remaining in the U.S., according to Project Drive-In established by Honda Motor Company. Honda, via an online and texting voting process, is giving away digital movie projectors to five drive-in theatres. The goal is simple: to save as many drive-ins as possible.

The financial challenge for drive-ins today lies in the need to switch to digital projection by the end of 2013, an upgrade which costs an estimated $80,000.

For theatres like the one in Luverne, winning a free digital projector through the Project Drive-In giveaway would be huge. You can vote online and/or via texting for these two Minnesota drive-ins daily for the next 25 days: the Verne Drive-In or the Long Drive-In. Click here for more information.

Project Drive-In also includes opportunities to donate monies toward saving our nation’s drive-ins and to pledge to go to a drive-in movie theatre. Win. Win.

WHAT MEMORIES DO YOU have of drive-in movie theatres? Let’s hear.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling