Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Along a river valley backroad near Mazeppa August 9, 2022

The first scene off the highway was this fenced farm site with that lovely aged barn. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

BACKROADS IN ESPECIALLY remote rural regions often yield an eclectic mix of discoveries. Like those spotted along a gravel road off Wabasha County Road 21 in the Zumbro River Valley between Mazeppa and Oronoco in southeastern Minnesota. A homemade roadside sign for Mac’s Park Place drew Randy and me to take a path into the unknown.

On the way to Mac’s, a 1950s restored Oliver tractor peeks out from a weathered shed. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

I photographed some of the sights along that short route from the highway back to Mac’s, a bar, restaurant and campground along the Zumbro River.

Mabe’s. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

What we saw remains somewhat of a mystery, especially Mabe’s Deer Camp. Was this once a public place for hunters and others to gather? Or was this (is this) a private hunting retreat for friends and family?

Skulls identify Mabe’s as a deer hunting camp. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

And who is Mabe?

Signage on a truck parked by Mabe’s. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

I expect locals could tell me lots of stories. Or I can spin my own backwoods river stories about Mabe’s, imagination running rampant.

A vintage gas pump sign outside Mabe’s. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

That’s the thing about backroads. You see oddities that leave you wondering. And sometimes it’s OK to wonder, to not have all the answers. To delight in the simply seeing. In-the-moment appreciation for that which unfolds before you, unexpectedly.

Also headed back to Mac’s Park Place, a converted school bus. Maybe a party bus. Maybe a camper. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

TELL ME: What oddities have you discovered along a back country road?

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

On the way to Mac’s Park Place, rural Mazeppa August 8, 2022

A quick snapshot I took of Mac’s Park Place roadside sign through the passenger side window of our van. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

BACK COUNTRY ROADS often lead to interesting discoveries. Places that reveal America at its grassroots basic. Such is the road leading to Mac’s Park Place. And such is Mac’s.

It was the homemade sign posted along Wabasha County Road 21, which winds through the Zumbro River Valley, that caught the attention of Randy during a day trip in southeastern Minnesota. I missed the sign sporting an angler and a fish along with a list of all Mac’s offers:

BEER

BURGERS

RV CAMPING

FISHING

PULL TABS

That roadside signage was enough to make Randy reverse course and aim down a gravel road to Mac’s Park Place along 406th Avenue, rural Mazeppa. The restaurant/bar/campground is located between Mazeppa and Oronoco along the Zumbro River.

This is an area lovely in natural beauty. Winding river. A bit of backwoods wild. The ideal setting for a place like Mac’s, perhaps not widely-known to those without connections to the area.

Check back to see what I saw along the route to Mac’s, and then at Mac’s. I wondered at some point if we should continue on, not quite knowing what we were driving into…

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

On the backroads of Sogn Valley November 9, 2021

Along a backroad in the Sogn Valley, an aged barn and silo hug a curve on a gravel road. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)

MINNESOTA’S DIVERSE LANDSCAPE inspires. From the vast prairie to the northwoods. From lakes to rivers. From hills to valleys. My home state, minus mountain ranges and ocean, is truly a beautiful place. We are so much more than cold and snow, as many non-residents equate with Minnesota.

The countryside near Nerstrand, on our way to Sogn Valley. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)

Autumn, especially, showcases Minnesota’s natural beauty. This fall, Randy and I took many rural drives to immerse ourselves in the countryside and the season. We chose road trips over staying home and doing chores on the weekends. Our priorities change as we age. The work can wait. We recognize, too, the approach of winter. We felt an urgency, a need, to hit the road before the snow flies.

We drove through Nerstrand, past the grain elevator, on our way to the Sogn Valley. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)

Often we choose a destination, this time Cannon Falls. But sometimes we simply head in a general direction, oversized Minnesota Atlas & Gazetteer available to guide us. We prefer paper maps to GPS. This trip, we aimed east toward Goodhue County, driving through the picturesque Sogn Valley.

The rolling countryside of the Sogn Valley provides a beautiful backdrop for farms. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)

I love this rural region defined by farms and fields and winding gravel roads. Hills and river valleys and prairie intermingle and it’s all like poetry writing upon the land.

I delight in finding cows grazing deep in Sogn Valley. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)

As a farmer’s daughter, I hold a fondness for aged barns, at one time the anchor of an agrarian life. I labored for years on my southwestern Minnesota childhood family dairy and crop farm, most of that time inside the barn. Or the silo.

Abandoned building, abandoned tractor in the Sogn Valley. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)

Now, when I pass by barns weathering in abandonment, I feel overcome by sadness. I recognize that a way of life is vanishing. I understand and appreciate advances in agriculture while simultaneously grieving the loss of farm life as I knew it.

I worry about all the barns we are losing. They hold history. Stories. Memories. And they are falling in heaps of rotted wood.

Eidsvold Norwegian Methodist Church, rural Goodhue County. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)

But, on this drive through the Sogn Valley, we happened upon a small country church that uplifted my spirits. Country churches and adjoining cemeteries rate as another draw for me deep into rural Minnesota. They are historically, poetically, spiritually and artistically relevant.

Along 70th Street in Goodhue County, on a small plot of land ringed by a row of trees and set among cornfields, Eidsvold Norwegian Methodist Church rises. The last service was held here in 1949. Yet, the aged clapboard structure remains. Important to someone. And on this Friday morning in mid-October, appreciated by me.

PLEASE CHECK BACK tomorrow as I take you on a tour around, but not inside (it was locked), Eidsvold church.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

On the backroads between Faribault and New Prague October 10, 2018

 

A MONTH AGO, before the grey of this too rainy autumn settled upon the southern Minnesota landscape, Randy and I followed the backroads from Faribault to New Prague en route to a brewery. We enjoy craft beers and wanted to check out Giesenbrau Bier Company, billed as a German style bier hall and garten.

I am directionally-challenged when roads are not prairie grid perfect. Randy knows this about me. It’s also a source of frustration when I am unable to read a map. Yes, we still rely on paper maps and atlases. But “just drive” seems more Randy’s philosophy. He’s always confident of eventually reaching our destination.

In no particular hurry to get there on this Sunday afternoon, we took some paved, some gravel, roads, occasionally stopping to observe and, for me, to take photos. At the time I jotted down locations, but have since misplaced my notes. We were somewhere northwest of Faribault, well off the interstate. I prefer this type of travel which allows for a close-up look at life.

 

 

 

 

From a town hall to a grasshopper,

 

 

 

 

 

from a lake to the detail of bordering cattails,

 

 

 

 

from a cornfield to a weathered corn crib to the cobs inside, I notice the overall picture and then the details.

 

 

Along the way we often come across small delights. Scenes that remind us of our rural roots. Scenes that remind us that life does not always need to speed, that afternoons like this are meant to be savored.

 

 

At one point, Randy parked the van along a gravel road so we could watch a couple baling hay. Not with a massive tractor and baler, but with a small tractor and an old-fashioned baler spitting out rectangular bales. Just like we remember from the farm. When the tractor reached the end of the field, the lean farmer leapt off the trailer and headed toward us.

 

 

“You looking for work?” he joked. We told him we’d pass, that we were former farm kids who understood the hard work of baling hay.

 

 

 

 

We continued on toward New Prague then, winding our way to the bier hall, then to a nearby park for a short walk before taking backroads home,

 

 

 

 

past another farmer baling hay and an aged barn with a new metal roof and a sturdy rock foundation.

 

 

I noted then that we should drive these roads again when autumn hues colored the hilly landscape somewhere between New Prague and Faribault. That would be now.

TELL ME: Do you drive backroads? If yes, where and what have you seen?

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling