Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Mistaken identity April 14, 2014

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One of the dogs spotted in a truck at the alpaca expo. Photo edited to make the dog more visible through the side passenger window.

EXITING OUR VAN at the Four Seasons Centre in Owatonna recently to attend the Minnesota Alpaca Expo, my husband and I did a double take.

An alpaca appeared to be seated in a Ford Excursion hitched to a livestock trailer.

But, no, that couldn’t possibly be.

And it wasn’t. Upon closer inspection, we discovered two shaggy dogs (sorry, I don’t know breeds) inside the SUV.


Eyes buried in fleece.

An alpaca.

From a distance, though, they look remarkably similar to alpacas.

Now lest you are concerned that these canines were in danger and we should have phoned animal control, not to worry. Windows were open and temps were in the low sixties.

They did not appear to be in any distress. Just confusing folks like us with their shaggy locks…

Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling







A sweet surprise: An old sorghum mill on a southern Minnesota elk farm & more August 10, 2012

HOW MANY TIMES HAS MY FAMILY driven Minnesota Highway 60 east of Elysian, unaware of Okaman Elk Farm to the south not far from the highway? Too many.

My husband Randy and I almost missed Okaman’s again last Sunday as we traveled along Waseca County Roads 3 and 5. If not for the colorful miniature train transporting kids and adults along the shoulder of the road, we likely would have passed right by.

Passing by the Okaman Elk Express in our car on a Sunday afternoon.

But that train stopped us in our tracks and caused us to turn around and drive back to the farm.

There we discovered much more than a plain old elk farm. We also found family-friendly activities, a farmers’ market, art, animals and history.

The historic Seha Sorghum Mill.

In 1991, Don and Joyce Kaplan bought this historic place to raise elk and then sell the meat. Their business sits on the site of Okaman, a town established in 1855 between Lake Elysian and Lily Lake. Here, according to a posted sign, several hotels, a theater, the Buckout Flour Mill, the Okaman School and the Seha Sorghum Mill were located.

Inside the sorghum mill.

It is that 1895 sorghum mill, which produced and sold sorghum syrup until 1953, that most interested me. Randy and I poked our way through and around the old mill trying to determine how the whole operation worked. I think he understood the process much better than me.

Apparently wagons of sorghum were unloaded atop the hill behind the mill where the canes were crushed and the juice then flowed into steam-heated cookers, or something like that.

The original steam boiler stands behind the sorghum mill.

According to the Waseca County Historical Society website, Cornelius L. Seha built the mill, today the only known historical sorghum mill remaining in Minnesota and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.

Because the mill today is basically an old building and steam boiler with weeds and brush growing around the holding tanks, equipment and structures, everything is left open to self-interpretation. Perhaps someday this historic site can be restored and specific educational information posted.

Cats roam the farm.

Then, perhaps, the younger farm visitors will be more interested in the historic buildings. They are, for now, focused on  the donkeys and alpacas, the goats and elk and dog, and especially, the cats and kittens. Or perhaps the playground equipment.

Visitors are free to wander the pasture with the alpacas, donkeys and goats.

Loved this sign at the petting zoo telling visitors that the animals are fed daily.

The farm is open seven days a week to the 3,000 – 4,000 visitors who stop by annually, says Joyce Kaplan. The Kaplans may not always be around, but guests are invited to peruse the place on their own. Just follow a few rules like:

You can enter the petting zoo pens or pastures at your own risk. Please don’t allow children to chase the animals and no dogs allowed. Close gates behind you.

Veggies from R & C Produce of Otisco.

Canned mixed veggies from Val’s Yard ‘N Gardens (Joe & Val Zimprich of Le Center).

Reusable price stickers in the back of the Zimprichs’ truck.

While the farm is always open, on Sundays from 1 p.m. – 4 p.m. during the summertime harvest and into October, farmers’ market vendors set up in the farmyard peddling their garden fresh produce and other products.

An art gallery is housed in an old barn.

That beautiful old barn, with an art gallery and studio in the haymow.

Antler art, including chandeliers, inside the art gallery with Paul Ristau’s art studio behind the windows pictured here.

Inside the gift shop and adjacent art gallery, you’ll find gifts anytime and the creations of artist and craftsman Paul Ristau, who renovates homes and businesses and is a mason specializing in stone fireplaces. He was doing some tile work for the Kaplans and ended up as their in-house artist focusing on the creation of antler art. He has a workshop in the haymow-turned-art-gallery where his elk antler chandeliers are a focal point.

A Native American influence on art hung in Paul Ristau’s studio.

A Native American influence is visible in Ristau’s art given his interaction with those living on the White Earth Indian Reservation where he once drove bus.

Of course, the farm also sells elk meat, inside the original 1893 homestead. The farm is now down to 23 elk, according to Joyce Kaplan who says she grew up on a farm and has been cleaning barns all her life and maybe it’s time soon to stop cleaning barns.

The final activity of the day, feeding apples to the elk.

On the Sunday I visited, her husband was handing out apples so the kids could feed the elk.

And the Okaman Elk Express was chugging along the shoulder of the roadway, thrilling the kids and, bonus, drawing in visitors like my husband and me.

You’ll find binoculars in the barn to view the elk in the pasture.

FYI: To find Okaman Elk Farm, take Minnesota Highway 60 east of Elysian 1 ½ miles and then turn south to the intersections of Waseca County roads 3 and 5. The farm is open year-round. Click here to reach the farm’s website.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Pets on parade in Faribault August 8, 2012

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Taco the dog, photographed earlier this summer on a Saturday morning at the Faribault Farmers’ Market in Central Park.

PETS AND KIDS equal cuteness, wouldn’t you agree?

Thursday evening the cuteness combination commands several city streets during my community’s Pet Parade—the 76th annual according to information published by the Faribault Parks & Recreation Department.

The kids and their animals will line up in categories like little dogs, big dogs, rabbits, kittens and cats, unusual pets, farm animals, and, at the tail end, horses, of course.

In between, there will be floats and kids in strollers and on bikes, trikes, scooters, skateboards and roller blades. There will be clowns and costumes and perhaps even chaos in this “It’s a Zoo Around Here!” themed event.

I haven’t been to the Pet Parade in many years, mostly because my kids are all grown up and they were the reason I attended.

We never participated in the parade. Our only pets were goldfish. And I probably never told my three they could walk in the parade without a pet. Sometimes parents are smart like that and don’t share details. Just let the kids think that because they don’t own a cat or dog or snake or some other animal, they must simply watch.

I expect I never told them either about the free freeze pops and music in Central Park after the parade. I don’t know if treats are still part of the parade. But the parade still ends in Central Park. This year’s entertainment features zoo animal dances by girls ages 5 – 9 who participated in a Spirit Team summer camp. More cuteness, for sure.

The Pet Parade mural installed on the Central Park band shell.

Central Park is also the site of an artistic tribute to Faribault’s long-running Pet Parade. In May the Mural Society of Faribault installed a Pet Parade mural on the park’s historic band shell, making it the seventh mural the group has placed in Faribault.

Lots of dogs on the left side of the mural…

The artwork definitely possesses that cuteness factor although I wish a few animals besides dogs were featured in the mural.

And what about that date, “since 1939?”

Lots of dogs and that 1939 date on the right side of the mural.

If that date is right, then the 2012 Pet Parade would not be the 76th, but the 73rd annual. Correct? I’m not really all that good at math. And, yes, my kids know that.

FYI: The Pet Parade begins at 7 p.m. on Thursday, August 9, at Ninth Street Northwest and Second Avenue Northwest, proceeds south on Second Avenue, turns west on Fifth Street and ends in Central Park.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Animal art March 20, 2012

Some of Julie Fakler's pet portraits displayed at the Paradise Center for the Arts in Faribault.

COLORS, VIBRANT AND BOLD, first draw you toward Julie Fakler’s art in a current exhibit. But move closer and it is the expressive eyes that connect you to the subjects of her portraits, adoptive animals from Prairie’s Edge Humane Society in Faribault.

“I paint domestic animals and I was trying to think of a way to help out local domestic animals,” says this Faribault artist. “That’s when I came up with the idea to paint portraits of the animals at the Prairie’s Edge Humane Society.” The local animal shelter will receive a portion of the sales from portraits sold during Julie’s current exhibit.

A snippet of a cat portrait by Julie.

Julie merges her skills as an artist and her passion for animals into acrylic hardboard portraits that practically pull the viewer in for a closer look.

Her work is showing locally in two galleries with “Prairie’s Edge Humane Society Portraits” at the Paradise Center for the Arts, 321 Central Avenue, Faribault, through April 17 and “New Work” at the Northfield Arts Guild, 304 Division Street, Northfield, through March 31.

Recently, I perused Julie’s PCA exhibit for the second time, this visit with camera in tow and with the artist’s permission to photograph her work.

Adoptable cats and dogs are the subject of her Paradise exhibit. A grant from the Southeastern Minnesota Arts Council and McKnight Foundation funded the body of her work and the gallery show.

I’m not a pet owner. But Julie’s engaging portraits will cause anyone to fall for these adoptable animals whose spirits shine in her creations. In her artist statement, this Minnesota College of Arts and Design graduate says: “The images of the animals represent their energy, personality and physical attributes.”

I agree. I remember the first time I saw Julie’s art, during a studio art tour in the autumn of 2010. Her use of bold, mostly primary, colors give her work a memorable, signature flair. I thought then, and still think, that her vibrant art would suit a children’s picture book. Or maybe t-shirts or handbags or…

The possibilities seem endless for Julie’s art.

The vibrant colors and sweet faces in Julie's art are irresistible.

FYI: Click here for more information about artist Julie Fakler.

Click here to learn about Prairie’s Edge Humane Society.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


This little piggy can go home July 20, 2011

THE RICE COUNTY FAIR in Faribault officially opened at 5 p.m.Tuesday.

But even before then, fair officials were telling 4-H kids and other livestock exhibitors that, because of the excessive heat and humidity, they could arrive late and take their critters home after judging, according to information I heard on local radio station KDHL.

Then Tuesday at 10 p.m., my 17-year-old received a text message and asked me to switch the TV to KARE 11 news. “Adam’s going to be on,” he said. And sure enough, 30 seconds later the camera focused on his friend Adam Donkers spraying a pig with water in the swine barn at the fair. Adam informed viewers that hogs can’t sweat so he was sweating for them by cooling them with water. His family farm lost 11 pigs overnight due to heat stress.

So that got me thinking about excessive heat warnings for livestock, none of which I’ve heard. That doesn’t mean, however, that such warnings haven’t been issued; I simply might not be tapping into the right media sources.

This morning I checked the Rice County Fair website, but didn’t find any information there. I do know that fair officials brought extra fans into the barns on Tuesday.

Then I googled “livestock heat warning,” only to find warnings (not all of them current) from places like Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska and Montana. Not Minnesota.

I googled the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, the Minnesota Pork Producers, the Linder Farm Network and the University of Minnesota Extension Service and, in quick scans of the websites, found nothing.

But then, I suppose, most farmers already understand the importance of keeping their swine, cattle, poultry and other animals cool with fans and water during extended periods of excessive heat and humidity like we’re experiencing in Minnesota. Yesterday the heat index reached 119 in Minnesota, the highest since July 11, 1966. The dew point soared to an all-time high of 82.

But back to those animals… Some may question why removing livestock from the fair would help because conditions are just as hot back on the farm. Consider the stress factor. Take an animal out of its familiar environment, load it into a trailer or truck, haul it to the fair, place it among strange animals and gawking people in unfamiliar surroundings, and stress multiplies. I mean, how would you feel?

IF YOU’RE A FARMER with cattle, swine, poultry or other animals, how are you keeping your animals comfortable and cool during this weather? How is the excessive heat affecting your animals? Have you lost any due to heat stress? How are your crops faring? Submit a comment and share.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Horse/Pferd crazy in Minnesota und Deutschland April 7, 2011

This isn't my stick horse; mine is long gone. But my parents made stick horses for my two daughters 20-plus years ago. This horse belongs to one of them.

GROWING UP ON A SOUTHWESTERN Minnesota farm, I wanted a horse. Bad. Really, really bad.

But Dad wasn’t buying my and my siblings’ pleas to “Please, please, pretty please, Dad, can we get a horse?”

He stood firm in his belief that horses were dangerous. And then he would give us the facts to back up his fear. Dad would regale us over and over again with the tale of the boy he’d seen lying in the Redwood Falls Hospital with a hoof print embedded in his forehead. Whether that story was entirely true or a bit of exaggeration, I’ll never know. I only knew, unequivocally, that Dad didn’t want any of his six kids kicked in the head by a horse.

I think he also had concerns about keeping an animal that wasn’t earning its keep on our dairy and crop farm. With tractors, he didn’t need horses that, in his opinion, would do nothing except consume corn and hay that he needed for the cattle.

And so my siblings and I improvised. Socks with eyes, mouths and ears and with yarn manes sewn on and then jammed onto sticks became our horses. Stick horses. I rode mine around the farmyard so much that I easily could have ridden to Montana and back.

These were the days, too, of television westerns like Gunsmoke, Bonanza, Rawhide. These were the days of shooting cap guns and, even though this is certainly not politically-correct today, of playing “cowboys and Indians.”

When my siblings and I weren’t riding our stick horses with guns blazing, we were riding our bicycles. Up and down the driveway. On the rock-hard dirt paths we’d carved through the grove. We pedaled furiously, escaping robbers and savages on our bikes turned horses.

On occasion, we also straddled empty barrels, slipping our feet into stirrups we’d fashioned from baler twine. We were, if anything, innovative, resourceful and imaginative.

Dad wasn’t giving us our horse, so we made do.

For my oldest brother, making do also meant attempting to ride a steer. I don’t recall that he was ever bucked off. But I also don’t remember that he succeeded in his mission.


My second daughter went through a phase, when she was about four years old, of being obsessed with horses. She drew horse pictures non-stop. I read every horse book to her available through the southeastern Minnesota library system. And I bought her toy horses, all of which are still in a plastic tote for her to someday claim.

All of which brings me to this story. Have you heard about the 15-year-old German girl who trained a cow that she can ride like a horse? Her parents, like my dad, told her she couldn’t have a horse. So she improvised.

Shortly after Luna was born on the family’s farm two years ago, Regina Mayer started working with the animal. Her persistence paid off as she can now saddle up and ride the cow like a horse. Luna even is trained to jump over hurdles.

I like the spunk of this teen. Knowing what I know about cattle, I realize just how determined Regina had to be to get her “horse.”

Apparently my brothers, sisters and I weren’t determined enough. So, instead, we settled for sticks, bikes and barrels. And, on occasion, we cajoled a relative into riding her horse from several miles away to our farm. She would allow us to climb into the saddle for a walk around the farmyard. It was then that I discovered I really didn’t feel all that comfortable riding a horse. But I never told my dad. Not once.


One of the many horses in my second daughter's collection.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


A moose in southwestern Minnesota November 6, 2010

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I SPOKE ON THE PHONE with my mom a few hours ago. As always, I ask her what’s new in Vesta, a community of some 330 in rural southwestern Minnesota.

It’s kind of an inside family joke to ask her this because she once replied to the “What’s new?” question with this answer: “Well, there’s a cardboard box blowing down the street.”

More recently, she’s told me about the corn husks blowing across the prairie from farm fields and onto her yard. Her yard has been raked twice and now it’s littered with corn debris again. She’s going to leave the mess until spring, she updated me today.

I have actually seen corn husks piled in drifts against a chain link fence right across the street from Mom’s house.

But back to that “What’s new?” question.

Today she was prepared with the most unusual of answers. “There’s a moose over by Seaforth,” she informed me. Seaforth is an even smaller town about five miles to the southeast of Vesta in Redwood County.

I was stunned. A moose?

According to information published in The Redwood Gazette, the area’s newspaper, a couple spotted and photographed the bull moose at the end of their driveway in rural Seaforth. The same moose was apparently seen several days earlier near the river by Springfield, which is even further south and east.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources figures the moose is seeking a mate or is suffering from a parasite in the brain, either of which could have caused it to wander so far south.

In any case, southwestern Minnesota deer hunters have been warned to look before they shoot.