Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

The art of Bean Hole Days July 27, 2021

Pottery from When Pigs Fly Studio, Nisswa, MN. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

FROM POTTERY TO DYED CLOTHING and much more, creative works filled tents and spaces lining a paved path through Trailside Park during Pequot Lake’s recent Bean Hole Days.

Lots and lots of arts and crafts, some with outdoor themes for cabin country. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

While beans, baked in massive kettles in an underground pit, highlight this festival, the Arts & Crafts Fair adds another appealing dimension. I always enjoy meandering among vendor booths, occasionally chatting it up with these creatives.

Featuring flags crafted from wood. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

A time existed when I, too, created with my hands. As a teen, I sewed nearly all my clothes. I also stitched dresses for my paternal grandmother. I loved sewing. But college, life as a working professional and then motherhood ended that. Perhaps some day I’ll return to sewing and embroidery, two favorite hands-on crafts. For now I keep my hands primarily on my keyboard and DSLR camera.

A Flying Pig by Alice Harris. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.
Artists’ statement. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.
A mug by Dale Goodhue. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

I admire the creative work of others, including those vending in Pequot Lakes. Like the pottery of Alice Harris and Dale Goodhue, Minnesota residents in the summer, Georgia residents in the winter. They create out of their When Pigs Fly Studio in Nisswa. Alice crafts the pigs while Dale creates more practical pottery pieces like mugs and plates. What a difference in approaches to pottery.

A Puzzle Box crafted by Ken Spurlin. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

Perhaps the most unusual art I discovered are the Puzzle Boxes crafted by Ken Spurlin of Nevis. He takes a chunk of wood and then saws it into a puzzle with a hidden space inside. It’s magical.

Crocheted art from Spun A Yarn. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

When I spotted crocheted panels in the Spun A Yarn booth, I engaged in conversation with the artist, who, as it turns out, is also a freelance fiction editor and writer. Miranda Darrow (her pen name) creates “crochet with character.” Her crocheted loon panel caught my eye given the northwoods location of the Arts & Craft Fair. Loons are common on area lakes.

Vending dyed goods and other art. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.
Used for natural dyes. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.
A sampling of the dyed clothing. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

A creative backdrop and vendors dressed in dyed clothing caused me to stop and peruse the art of Shea J Maze and Diaspora Textiles. Memories of tie dying in the 70s flashed back. But unlike the chemicals I used to dye tees, these items are dyed naturally. A jar of dried flowers sitting on the table proved that. Beautiful, soft hues define this natural dying method.

Kids play at the Wondertrek booth. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

Farther along the trail, the bold colors of mega blocks drew kids (and me) to the booth of Wondertrek Baxter Children’s Museum. The museum is an in-process undertaking.

Bean Hole Days included a small carnival. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

Across the park, inflatables splashed color into the landscape in temporary, interactive public art.

Loved this little guy’s colorful sweater. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

I can see art most anywhere, including in the striped sweater worn by a preschooler wandering the fest grounds. Handcrafted or not, I don’t know. But I found it visually appealing, albeit seemingly too warm for the hot and humid July day.

Oh, the sweetness of this little girl, providing entertainment as people waited in line for free baked beans. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

While I’ve only shown you a sampling of the arts and crafts featured in Pequot Lakes, I hope this entices you to attend Bean Hole Days next summer. Not only for the delicious baked beans but also for the art.


Please check back for one final post (of three) on Pequot Lakes Bean Hole Days.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Walking into yesteryear at the Oak Center General Store October 17, 2011

IF NOT FOR THE MINNESOTA Highway 60 detour onto U.S. Highway 63 north of Zumbro Falls, we never would have found Oak Center.

And had we not seen the writing on the window, “Stop on in and explore the store,” and the OPEN sign, we might have driven right by the Oak Center General Store.

That message on the front window that urged us inside.

The general store sits nearly on top of Highway 63, right, in Oak Center.

From the exterior, it’s that type of structure and setting—a visual hodgepodge which makes you question whether the place truly is open.

My husband and I wondered that when we pulled off the highway and parked next to the old building. Then we stepped inside and it was like we had walked into a general store of yesteryear, right down to the vintage push-button cash register.

The vintage cash register sits atop a counter labeled with strongly-worded messages.

For the longest time we meandered around the shelves, taking it all in—the worn wood-plank floor, the tin ceiling, the old wooden refrigerators, the vintage bottled pop machine, the bulk spices…

An eclectic mix of merchandise is crammed into the store.

Old-style refrigerators, still in use in the store.

Brooms for sale tucked into a basket on the floor.

Hacky sacks and handmade woolen mittens on display near a front window.

You can purchase pop in bottles from a vintage pop machine.

I couldn’t get enough of this historic general store, which hearkens back to 1913 in this unincorporated locale. I’m not sure exactly what I said to my husband when we were there, all alone, perusing the place. I think we were both too in awe to even talk much.

That’s a good thing, because, even though no one was minding the shop, the baby monitor was switched on, we later learned, and our conversation could be overheard.

A message on the cash register advises customers to leave their payment on the counter with a note if no one is around.

Rows of bulk spices line the shelves behind the counter.

Steven Schwen

About the time I stepped behind the counter to photograph the cash register, Strider Hammer strode into the room and, when I began asking questions, he fetched owner Steven Schwen.

Introducing himself as a “voluntary peasant,” Steven and I shook hands and he apologized for the damp hand. He’d been washing dishes.

Strider clamped my hand in a friendly vise grip handshake.

And so, properly introduced, Randy and I learned a thing or ten about the Oak Center General Store, which Steven purchased 35 years ago after the business closed and the building sat vacant for five years.

Today the Oak Center General Store is “dedicated to rebuilding a better world from the earth up.”

Although I didn’t ask for details about his life views, Steven’s comments and signage inside the store speak to an outspoken, yet gentle, man deeply-rooted in his independent, self-sufficient, non-materialistic, environmental, anti-war beliefs.

“Produce, don’t consume,” he says.

With that philosophy, Steven runs this general store which sells organic foods, kitchenware, candles, incense, local fair trade products, herbs and a lengthy list of other miscellaneous items.

He also operates Earthen Path Organic Farm, a 14-acre fruit, vegetable and herb farm based directly behind the general store, and works with son Joe and daughter-in-law Rebecca of Heartbeet Farm. They sell their products at the Rochester Farmers’ Market and to co-ops in Northfield and the metro area. The Community Supported Agriculture farm, Steven says, supports his family and the store. He also builds furniture and cabinets during the winter months.

Later, after touring the other facet of Oak Center General Store—the music scene—Strider would take us out back to see the farm.

But first things first. Steven disappeared and Strider led us through a dark middle room gathering place cozied with worn couches and a wood burning kitchen stove, past the corner media center (aka computer) to a back stairway nearly as steep as a ladder.

Those steps led us to the old Grange Hall, a former meeting place for farmers and now an entertainment center for local, national and international bluegrass, blues, folk, jazz and similar musical acts.

Earlier, Steven defined the 30-year run of October – April Folk Forum weekend concerts as “non-commercial entertainment connecting people to the land, music and each other.”

The former Grange Hall stage where musicians perform during the Folk Forums.

Rows of seating in the old Grange Hall.

I know nothing really about the music genres that entertain at Oak Center. But I recognized Monroe Crossing, the bluegrass group which will present a 2 p.m. Christmas Matinee on Sunday, December 4.

Other upcoming performers include Bingham and Thorne, Marty Marrone & Tangled Roots, Robby Vee, Galactic Cowboy Orchestra and many more slated in from now through December 23. (Click here to get the full line-up of musicians.)

Strider invited us to return for a concert with a recommended $5 – $15, but “pay what you’re able,” ticket price and what I expect would be a laid-back atmosphere.

He’s a personable guy, who, when I asked, said he’s a friend and extended family to Steven. You get the sense that anyone who steps inside Oak Center General Store is family.

Even the animals out back are the friendly sort; they nuzzle up to the fence when Strider beckons.

Strider Hammer calls animals to the fence at Earthen Path Organic Farm.

The friendly animals on the "Old McDonald" style farm. Steven's son Joe and his wife Rebecca farm with draft horses. Steven once used those horses to farm, but now, because he can no longer lift the harnesses, relies on tractors.

The mishmash of buildings behind the general store.

Back at the side door that leads to the former Grange Hall and back room gathering place, Strider climbed the few stairs onto the weathered deck and bid us farewell with a single and seemingly fitting word for the vibe of the Oak Center General Store:

“Peace,” he said and walked away.

A flower blooms next to the general store.

A side view of the store from Highway 63.

FYI: The store is open from 9 a.m. – 6 p.m. Monday – Saturday and some Sundays. In addition to music, Oak Center General Store hosts theater, round table discussions and workshops (ie., holistic medicine, organic gardening, batik) at its Folk Forums.

For more information about the Oak Center General Store, click here.

To learn about  Earthen Path Organic Farm, click here.

For info about  Heartbeet Farm, click here.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Plaid in Paradise August 13, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 10:29 AM
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I KNEW HE REALLY didn’t want to attend the show. I’ve been married to my husband long enough (28 years) to gauge his interest.

So when I asked Thursday evening at the supper table whether he wanted to go to Forever Plaid by The Merlin Players at the Paradise Center for the Arts, I didn’t expect (and didn’t get) an “Oh, yeah, I can’t wait to see the play,” jumping-up-and-down reaction. Randy isn’t that sort of emotional guy.

I purposely failed to mention one little fact to him. Forever Plaid is a musical. If I want Randy to attend a musical production with me, I won’t let the “m” word slip from my tongue. That’s almost a guarantee that he’ll balk at attending.

But apparently he’s caught on to my lack of full disclosure. As we settled into our seats, among the few remaining for Thursday evening’s nearly sold-out performance, I turned to him: “Oh, I didn’t tell you this is a musical.”

“I thought so,” he said.

The Paradise Center for the Arts theatre during last summer's production of South Pacific.

For the next 90-plus minutes we listened to Forever Plaid, a quartet of actors/singers, croon and belt out songs from the 1950s and 1960s in a high-energy show. From “Chain Gang” to “Love Is a Many Splendored Thing” to “She Loves You,” these guys could sing and dance and move in nearly perfect unison. What a show. They made me tired simply watching them perform, and sweat.

They also made me smile, non-stop. After awhile I realized that I had been smiling from the moment the quartet, and their back-up band, set foot on the Paradise stage. It’s that kind of musical.

I especially enjoyed their three-plus minute interpretation of The Ed Sullivan Show. The Plaid Boys zipped on and off the stage as jugglers, ventriloquists, a singing nun and more representative of the Sunday night television variety program. Wow, that brought back memories.

Mostly, though, Forever Plaid, the story of a male quartet killed in a tragic accident and come back to life for the performances of their lives, entertained me. And isn’t that what theater is, should be?

I just have one little confession. I dislike plaid—really, really, really dislike plaid.

Plaid, no favorite of mine, and the reason I couldn't print this photo in a larger size, although this plaid is more subdued and OK with me, as far as plaids.


The Merlin Players will present two more productions of Forever Plaid at 7:30 p.m. on August 13 and 14 at the historic Paradise Center for the Arts at 321 Central Avenue in historic downtown Faribault.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling