Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Celebrating the Fourth of July for 125 years in North Morristown July 2, 2017

The popular bluegrass band, Monroe Crossing, performed twice at North Morristown in 2016. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2016.

 

IN RICE COUNTY, the Fourth of July and North Morristown are synonymous. For in this rural spot of corn, soybean and alfalfa fields, farm sites, and a country church and school, folks gather every Independence Day to celebrate. This July Fourth marks 125 years of patriotic and family togetherness.

 

Vehicles line county roads leading to the festival grounds and also filled parking areas in this Minnesota Prairie Roots photo from July 4, 2016.

 

You won’t find North Morristown by looking for a water tower or anything that resembles a town. Rather, head northwest of Morristown to 10500 215th St. West and the festival grounds across the road from Trinity Lutheran Church and School, North Morristown.

 

The vintage car ride for kids. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2013.

 

Although I did not grow up in this part of Minnesota, I’ve lived here 35 years now and have celebrated many July Fourths at this rural location. I love the folksy simplicity of an event which began 125 years ago as a picnic. Today the celebration includes a 5K run/walk, parade, patriotic program, medallion hunt, silent auction, BINGO, musical performances (including the popular Twin Cities based Monroe Crossing), kids’ carnival style rides, fireworks shot over farm fields and more.

 

The homemade pies are a popular food choice. Buy your pie early for the best selection. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

And then there are the food and beverages: homemade pies, fresh-squeezed lemonade, ice cream, pork sandwiches, burgers, beer and more. This food is basic country at its best, served by volunteers who work tirelessly to feed the masses.

 

The bingo callers in 2013. I entered this image in a photo contest and won first place. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2013.

 

Most who attend know each other. They either grew up here, married into a local family or have connections to the area. North Morristown on the Fourth of July is like a big family reunion. But even if you have zero connections to this place, you will feel comfortably welcome on the grassy, tree-filled festival grounds packed with friendly people.

 

By late afternoon last July 4, the crowd began thinning a bit. Festivities began at 9 a.m. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2016.

 

As much as I’d like to attend, I may not this year due to the crowds and uneven walking surfaces. A friend, who is one of the grand marshals of this year’s 10 a.m. parade, expressed disappointment upon learning of my shoulder fracture. He was apparently counting on me to photograph the day’s events as I have many times in the past. Sorry, Al.

 

The old-fashioned barrel train draws lots of riders. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2016.

 

Click here to view my previous coverage of North Morristown’s Fourth of July celebration. From my photographic perspective, you can see why this event has endured for 125 years. It doesn’t get much more grassroots basic Americana than North Morristown on the Fourth.

FYI: Click here to reach the North Morristown July Fourth Facebook page.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

NOTE: I am taking a break from further blogging this week. Please check back because I’ll be back.

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In Cannon City: A grassroots Americana commemoration of Memorial Day May 31, 2016

The entrance to the Cannon City Cemetery is decorated for Memorial Day.

The entrance to the Cannon City Cemetery is decorated for Memorial Day.

THERE’S A CERTAIN SENSE of comfort in tradition. For nearly 100 years, folks have gathered each Memorial Day at the Cannon City Cemetery to honor our veterans.

This shows a portion of those gathered for Monday's semi-formal program.

This shows a portion of those gathered for Monday’s semi-formal program.

In the shade of spruce and cedar trees and surrounded by gravestones, I listened to natives read The Gettysburg Address, Freedom, What Heroes Gave and more; recite In Flanders Fields; and recall the history of this celebration. A Civil War veteran initially asked students from the village school to put on a Memorial Day program. In those early years, pupils marched from the school to the cemetery bearing floral wreaths. Today the cemetery board organizes this annual observance.

Mel Sanborn, left, emceed the program.

Mel Sanborn, left, emceed the program.

Song sheets were distributed to those in attendance and then collected to save for next year.

Song sheets were distributed to those in attendance and then collected to save for next year.

Don, on the guitar, and Judy Chester lead the singing.

Don, on the guitar, and Judy Chester lead the singing.

We sang patriotic songs like The Star Spangled Banner, The Battle Hymn of the Republic, and America the Beautiful, some accompanied by a guitar, some not. Voices rose 40-plus strong above the shrill of a cardinal and the distant muffle of gunfire. Sun shone. Breeze rippled.

A bronze star marks a veteran's grave.

A bronze star marks a veteran’s grave.

The Cannon City Cemetery offers an ideal setting for a grassroots remembrance of those who have served our country. Therein lies its appeal to me.

Giving the history of and then reciting In Flanders Fields.

Giving the history of and then reciting In Flanders Fields.

I have no connection to this place where nearly 50 veterans are buried. But this ceremony reminds me of the Memorial Day programs of my youth. As an aging senior recited In Flanders Fields, I mouthed the words I recited so many years ago on the stage of the Vesta Community Hall.

Fields surround the cemetery.

Fields surround the cemetery where American flags marked veterans’ graves on Memorial Day.

In its peaceful location among farm fields, this cemetery reminds me of home. Of tradition.

Sam Wilson ends the program by playing taps.

Sam Wilson ends the program by playing taps.

And when taps sounded, I was reminded, too, of just how much some sacrificed so that I could stand here, in this cemetery, on Memorial Day, hand across heart reciting The Pledge of Allegiance.

Cannon City native Bob Lewis is a fixture at the annual Memorial Day program. Locals are already tapping his historical knowledge in preparation for the 150th anniversary celebration.

Cannon City native Bob Lewis is a fixture at the annual Memorial Day program. Locals are already tapping his historical knowledge in preparation for the 150th anniversary celebration in 2017.

FYI: Next year the Cannon City Cemetery turns 150 years old. Plans are already underway for a special celebration to mark the occasion. If you want to experience grassroots Americana on Memorial Day, this is the place to be.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Faribault’s Memorial Day parade, a photo essay May 30, 2016

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Parade, 11 Color Guard

 

IT’S A TIME-HONORED tradition in Faribault—the 10 a.m. Memorial Day parade.

 

Parade, 6 big dogs

 

First, parade watchers come bearing lawn chairs and blankets to claim curbside spots along Central Avenue.

 

Parade, 12 flag bearer

 

To the south, down by the library/community center, parade participants are lining up, law enforcement vehicles at the head followed by the Color Guard and then the honored veterans. Marching bands slot in next.

 

Parade, 34 little boy with flag

 

It’s all so predictable. Every year. The same line-up, although occasionally the faces of politicians change.

 

Parade, 28 Scout carrying flag

 

Parade, 32 Scout handing out flags

 

Parade, 29 Scout close-up

 

Parade, 38 Girl Scouts

 

Parade, 39 Girl Scouts with flags close-up

 

But I love it. The Scouts, girls and boys, handing out flags.

 

Parade, 45 old blue pick-up truck

 

Kids scrambling for tossed Tootsie Rolls. Kids dressed in patriotic attire. Kids here with grandparents, making this a multi-generational tradition.

 

Parade, 41 old green car

 

Old cars and trucks.

 

Parade, 51 horses

 

And finally, at the end, the horses.

 

Parade, 56 patriotic horses

 

In 15 minutes, the parade is complete. Short. Sweet. Americana lovely in the sort of way that makes me appreciate Faribault, this place I call home in the land of the free and the home of the brave.

FYI: Check back for more photos from Memorial Day in Faribault and at the Cannon City Cemetery.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

My winning Americana photo December 8, 2014

AS A PHOTOGRAPHER, you know when you’ve snapped a photo that tells a story, that freezes a moment, that captures an emotion. Light and composition and focus also factor into the equation of a memorable image.

The bingo callers. My first place winning photo.

The BINGO callers. My first place winning photo.

Such was my reaction to photographing John and Lavonne, BINGO callers at the 2013 July Fourth celebration in North Morristown. Many of my images from that day make me proud of my work as a photographer.

Through my photography, I strive to show the everyday and celebratory moments of life—the people, places and happenings that define my world in Southern Minnesota.

And North Morristown on the Fourth of July is about as rural and down-to-earth as you get in these parts. So when I saw this couple calling BINGO, I determined to photograph the scene. They appeared to not even notice me and my camera, so focused were they on their job.

That’s precisely how I like it, to go unnoticed, to click the shutter button and document.

Professional photographers John Hart and Amber Arnold from the Wisconsin State Journal saw, too, what I see in that “Fourth of July BINGO Callers” image. They selected it as the first place winner in the People category of the 2014 photo contest sponsored by National Mutual Benefit.

The judges commented:

This photo has a timeless quality and is a candid, natural moment. It’s a slice of Americana.

I couldn’t have said it better.

My trusty fifth eye, my Canon EOS 20D.

Me and my Canon EOS 20D. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

As a photographer, I am delighted to receive this professional validation of my work with a monetary prize and publication.

This is the second time I’ve won in the National Mutual Benefit Photo Contest. My last win came in 2003 when I photographed a butterfly on a daisy, garnering first place in the scenery division. That was back in the day when I was still shooting with film. I’ve only entered the competition a few times.

What do you think makes a winning or really good photo?

FYI: To view all of the winning photos and judges’ comments, click here. None of the contest images could be digitally altered.

© 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

 

In North Morristown: A photo essay of Minnesota’s oldest July 4th celebration July 4, 2013

The bluegrass band, Monroe Crossing, has performed at North Morristown the past seven years, presenting two concerts at the celebration.

The bluegrass band, Monroe Crossing, has performed at North Morristown the past seven years, presenting two concerts at the celebration this year.

NORTH MORRISTOWN, MINNESOTA, is about as rural Americana as you’ll find anywhere in these United States of America on the Fourth of July.

The event is held at the North Morristown picnic grounds in southwestern Rice County.

The event is held at the North Morristown picnic grounds in southwestern Rice County.

Trinity Lutheran Church and School sit across the road from the picnic grounds.

Trinity Lutheran Church and School sit across the road from the picnic grounds.

Here, on the picnic grounds of Trinity Lutheran Church and School, generations of families have gathered for 121 years to celebrate our nation’s birthday with family and friends at our state’s oldest Independence Day celebration, begun in 1892.

The vintage car ride for kids.

The vintage car ride for kids.

The day brings old-fashioned games and rides for the kids, bingo, music, a scavenger hunt, a parade, a patriotic program and more. Fireworks shot over farm fields cap the day’s festivities.

Enjoying a pork sandwich and a beer.

Enjoying a pork sandwich and a beer.

And the food, oh, the food. Homemade pies. Savory hot pork and beef sandwiches, burgers, thick onion rings, and more.

A large crowd enjoys a free afternoon concert by Monroe Crossing.

A large crowd enjoys a free afternoon concert by Monroe Crossing.

What a day. What a celebration.

One pole shed is dedicated to bingo.

One section of a pole shed is dedicated to bingo and a silent auction.

The bingo callers.

The bingo callers.

Fun for the kids in the games and rides building.

Fun for the kids in the games and rides building.

A ticket for the fish pond.

A ticket for the fish pond.

Filling the squirt gun in the duck pond.

Filling the squirt gun in the duck pond.

Riding the old-fashioned barrel train.

Riding the old-fashioned barrel train.

The day's proceeds benefit Trinity Lutheran School.

The day’s proceeds benefit Trinity Lutheran School.

Homemade pies and ice cream are served from the pie building.

Homemade pies and ice cream are served from the pie building.

Blueberry pie.

Blueberry pie.

Hot pork and beef sandwiches and cold beverages are served from this stand.

Hot pork and beef sandwiches and cold beverages are served from this stand.

Visitors stopping by the ice cream shop can drop donations for the entertainment into a drop box.

Visitors stopping by the ice cream shoppe can drop donations for the entertainment into a drop box.

A peek inside the ice cream shoppe.

A peek inside the ice cream shoppe.

Enjoying an ice cream cone.

Enjoying an ice cream cone.

An overview of the novelties shoppe and games and rides building.

An overview of the novelties shoppe and games and rides and bingo building.

Guess the number of corn kernels in the duct taped jar and win a prize.

Guess the number of corn kernels in the duct taped jar and win a prize.

A 75-year-old Harley rider arrives at the celebration late in the afternoon.

A 75-year-old biker arrives at the celebration late in the afternoon on his 1977 Harley.

One of several lists thanking supporters.

One of several lists thanking supporters.

Garbage pick up in a 1964 grain truck.

Garbage pick up by a 1964 grain truck.

North Morristown is set in the middle of farm fields.

North Morristown is set in the middle of farm fields.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Lunch at the Viking Cafe June 15, 2011

The Viking Cafe in Fergus Falls.

“We r eating at the viking café in fergus falls,” I texted.

“Oh boy,” she texted back.

Oh, boy, indeed.

Typically I don’t text while dining because I consider such phone usage rude. But my husband and I had arrived in this western Minnesota community within the hour and I wanted our three kids to know we’d gotten there safely. I figured the Viking message would amuse them.

Only the middle daughter, who lives in Wisconsin, texted back. The second daughter was busy with a wedding and the teenage son opted to ignore the message.

We didn’t explore any other noonish eating options in Fergus Falls. When we drove downtown, I hadn’t even mentioned the Viking to Randy. But my spouse spotted it and pulled into the one available parking space practically in front of the restaurant.

It was only then that I told him I had read about the Viking in Tasty Foods along Minnesota’s Highways. This was meant to be.

Kim Embretson confirmed our decision. I had never met Kim until that moment, when I stepped from the car, saw him strolling toward us and figured he looked like a local.

“Is that a good place to eat?” I inquired after approaching him and learning that he was, indeed, from Fergus Falls.

Kim praised the Norwegian-American restaurant, suggesting we try a daily special such as the meatloaf, hotdish or a pork or beef sandwich and the homemade soup. He got me right then and there. I’m a soup lover. The vegetable soup sometimes includes rutabagas, something typically not found in veggie soup, Kim said.

And when I asked about sites to see and things to do in Fergus, Kim pointed us to the wine and panini bar, The Spot, across the street; to the art fair around the corner; to the Kaddatz Galleries in the next block; to the river walk; and, because I asked, to the kitschy otter statue in Adams Park. He even gave us specific directions to the park and directed us to the metal goose sculpture at the Otter Tail County Historical Society.

Fergus Falls tourism people, Kim rates as a fine, fine spokesman for your community. He gave us more details than I’ve written here. Every town should have someone so enthused about where they live.

As a side note, he also cheered the Roadside Poetry Project, which was the specific reason we traveled to Fergus—to see my winning poem splashed across four billboards.

The well-marked Viking Cafe, established in 1967.

I was getting downright hungry, so we thanked Kim for his suggestions and walked toward the Viking Café, which has been around since 1967. Prior to that, another restaurant was housed in the building beginning in the 1930s or 1940s, depending on your information source.

Enter the Viking and you feel like you’ve stepped back in time.

The view, once you step into the Viking Cafe. The lunch counter is on the right. A viking ship is suspended from the ceiling. Swords and shields adorn the walls in a viking-themed decor.

Two rows of ramrod straight wooden booths define this long, narrow eatery anchored on one side by an old-fashioned lunch counter. The place even has a candy counter, for gosh sakes, and an oversized bubble gum machine tucked into a corner next to the coat/hat racks.

Napkin dispensers and salt and pepper shakers sidle up next to ketchup bottles on tables.

Stools line the lunch counter stretching nearly the length of the cafe.

A Norman Rockwell print hangs on the wall by the coat racks and bubble gum machine right inside the cafe entry.

An old-fashioned candy counter at the front of the viking-themed restaurant.

Primary restaurant seating is in these vintage wooden booths.

Waitresses hustle to booths at an almost frantic pace, taking orders and delivering our food in the short time it takes me to circle the room once snapping pictures. Randy has ordered the meatloaf with mashed potatoes and gravy and a side of peas with a mini strawberry shortcake for dessert. I’ve selected a bowl of vegetable soup and a roast beef sandwich on whole wheat bread slices.

I’m typically not a fan of meatloaf, but even I like the meatloaf sampled from Randy’s plate. We agree that his food and my soup, which includes a homemade dumpling, and my sandwich qualify as  simple, good comfort food at reasonable, reasonable prices—$6.40 and $6.95 for our respective plates.

Our food: meatloaf with mashed potatoes and vegetable soup with a beef sandwich.

But it’s the atmosphere, more than the food, which I appreciate about the Viking on this Saturday. From the wooden booths to the well-worn tile floors to the viking décor to the lunch counter, especially the lunch counter stools, this café evokes simpler days. You cannot help but feel better for having eaten here, having experienced this slice of Americana where a cell phone feels so much out of place.

Menus are stacked on a counter below a shelf of viking decor.

Another view of those lunch counter stools, looking from the back of the cafe toward the front.

Looking from the back of the cafe, which is semi dark (for photos), toward the front.

CAFE BONUS: If you need to use the facilities, you will have to walk downstairs to the basement. That’s where I discovered this little gem, at the bottom of the stairs. I think this piece of memorabilia should be moved upstairs, where the dining public can view, maybe even use, it.

A character reading machine which apparently reads your character based on your weight, or something like that.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling